Liner Notes: Songs Of Elvis Costello: Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous
WELCOME! If you're reading this, I'm assuming that you're more than a casual Costello fan. And as such, you've got something pretty special in your hands. As somebody whose admiration for the man is definitely more than casual, I was compelled to do this project for no other reason than to show off an underappreciated and at times unknown side to the work of my all-time favorite songwriter and performer. I went about collecting every performance of an Elvis Costello song that he had not recorded himself and/or had something more to offer than the fact that it was a cover of a previously released Costello/MacManus composition. It either had to be a great performance that gave the song new meaning, witness Tasmin Archer's emphatic take on "All Grown Up" or Nick Lowe's lamenting approach to "Indoor Fireworks," or one that was an almost complete rewrite or rearrangement, such as Roy Orbison's "The Comedians" and Christy Moore's "Deportees Club" reborn from their Goodbye Cruel World incarnations. Hearing all of this in raw form, I was hoping that, in the end, I would have something that amounted to more than just a bunch of songs. When I listened to the final version, I was struck by two things: 1) the depth and variety of Costello's writing included in this strange and beautiful mix of roots rock, '60s-style pop, lounge, jazz, traditional folk, and other genres too unusual to name and 2) how many great records might have escaped my ears (and yours) had Costello himself not had the sense of adventure, good taste, and musical passion to work with many of these (at times criminally neglected) artists.
-- Gary Stewart
Elvis Costello on
BESPOKE SONGS, LOST DOGS, DETOURS & RENDEZVOUS
In fact I hadn't really settled on the rhythm of the song, so when I first heard the record I was startled by the galloping drums. Mr. Edmunds has a ruthless way with a hook line, but favours a very deadpan delivery of the joke in the opening lines. He clearly knew what he was doing, as this version went on to become a Top 5 U.K. hit.
Ghostwritten for the main character, an imaginary Brill Building songwriter, in Allison Anders' motion picture Grace Of My Heart. It is 1963 and teenage pregnancy in a pop song is still taboo. For Real, who provide the voices in the film, give it a very fresh and innocent reading, which might have slipped by the censors.
It's no secret that Allison's main character was somewhat inspired by Carole King, so there is a tip of the hat to "It Might As Well Rain Until September" in the last verse of this song.
I first met Paul McCartney when we opened the show for Wings during the 1979 Concerts for Kampuchea series in London. He was very friendly and good at putting people at ease who might have been a little overwhelmed . . . him having been in The Beatles, like. He was also singing and playing tremendously. During the '80s we were often working in AIR studios at the same time, sometimes sharing the engineering skills of Geoff Emerick. Once or twice Paul and Linda came down the hallway for a chat, and on a few occasions we were obliged to retrieve a slightly over-enthusiastic Attraction from their studio.
Receiving the invitation to write with Paul was very exciting, but not without its anxieties. I had always tried to be ingenious when borrowing ideas from Lennon & McCartney, but sometimes it's a thin line between influence and larceny.
Our writing sessions could not have been more enjoyable or instructive. We set up in a room above Paul's studio with two acoustic guitars, an electric piano, and a big notebook and worked at great speed for about five hours a day. Sometimes we prepared music separately and then reworked it together. Sometimes we pulled things out of the air. Once we had finished writing, we would go downstairs and knock off a demo recording. Each of the three-day sessions produced at least as many songs.
I found that Paul was very exact in the setting of words. He did not like to vary or extend a repeated melodic line just to accommodate a lyrical trick, where as I would always want to steal notes to allow an extra syllable or two. In time we seemed to switch roles, Paul suggesting long bursts of lyric set on one or two notes, while I introduced some Merseys harmonies and cadences into the dialogue song "You Want Her Too," which provoked, what used to be called, an "old-fashioned look" from Mr. McCartney. Nevertheless, I think there was more to our collaboration than musical allusions. Paul was very sympathetic in his handling of my personal lyrical details in "Veronica" and "That Day Is Done." I think our work together is well illustrated by a series of "character" songs: "Mistress And Maid," "So Like Candy," the unreleased "Tommy's Coming Home," and "My Brave Face."
Four McCartney/MacManus compositions appeared on the Flowers In The Dirt album. Our other songs were shared out over our next few record releases. A few remain unrecorded. And there is always the chance that we might get together for another writing session.
I also worked on a few recording sessions with Paul and his group, but I think we're better as a songwriting team than as coproducers. I must have worked on this track a little bit, as I can be heard singing in the background now and again. Paul's pursuit of his production ideal was rewarded when this cut became a Top 40 U.S. single. If Paul ever gets round to an Anthology-style collection of his own recordings, I hope he will find space to let you hear one of our raw demos or some of our ragged-but-right combo recordings.
I came to meet Johnny Cash in an unusual way. My friend and producer Nick Lowe became his son-in-law when he married Carlene Carter. One of my more unexpected recollections from the late '70s is of visiting Nick and C.C.'s house in west London and finding Johnny Cash and June Carter taking tea in the front room. Later there were informal sessions in Nick's home studio and rumours that some patrons of nearby hard-drinking establishments had sworn to the path of temperance after hallucinating Johnny Cash walking down the Shepherd's Bush Road.
In the late '80s Johnny recorded a fine version of my song "The Big Light." One evening I went along to sing it with him at the Royal Albert Hall. Big John's introduction to "Peace In The Valley" that night proposed that a man may make a prison in his own head stronger than any physical cage. It put me in mind of a true story that I had just read in the newspaper about an unusual murder confession. A man, already in jail for another crime, had suddenly admitted pushing his childhood friend off a cliff because he had "looked at him in a funny way." He had lived with his secret for more than 30 years. Johnny reports this and much more exactly as I hoped and imagined he would.
I began this tune in Cincinnati, Ohio. The voice that I had in my imagination was Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys. Although I never made any attempt to send the song to him, his handling of some of his brother's songs of lost innocence was very influential on my thinking.
By the time I came to record it for the album Mighty Like A Rose I had developed the odd notion that all potentially beautiful melodies should be placed under severe strain, and therefore treated it to a very harsh vocal delivery.
Tasmin Archer's version was part of an EP that also featured "Shipbuilding," "New Amsterdam," and "Deep, Dark Truthful Mirror." She was much more generous with the music and also more compassionate with the lyrical subject. Then again, Tasmin didn't have the misfortune to know the persons concerned.
This song arose from a misunderstanding between Zucchero and myself. I had agreed to write an English lyric for him and received a tape containing his music, but further instructions must have got lost in translation. It later turned out that Zucchero had intended the song to be about a transvestite. Meanwhile, I wrote a story about a man who falls in love with the face in a painting of the Virgin Mary. At the time of writing, neither of us has been made a Papal count.
Zucchero graciously accepted my new lyric, and I went along to the recording session. After a couple of rehearsals Zucchero was singing:
- Angels announce you with trumpets, crown you with jewels and stars
- Hercules lives next door to Venus and Mars
- Beside your pretty blue shoulder something may trouble Jerome
- Now that you're up with your friends I know you'll never come home . . .
as if he had been doing it his entire life.
This song is a bit of a mystery to me. I know it was cowritten one afternoon with David Weiss, then one of the fiendish brains behind Was (Not Was). It speaks to me of time on my hands in a Hollywood hotel between sessions for the album King Of America. I think David and I wrote together as an experiment. What came out was a chilly tale of two strange fish. Their lives are filled with bathing beauties and barbecued ribs. I don't recall ever mentioning hockey in a song before . . . or since.
This song has a very odd history. What you hear is essentially the first draft of a tune entitled "I Wonder How She Knows." It was written for Charles Brown.
As you probably know Charles is a master of such urbane blues ballads as "Black Night" and "Merry Christmas Baby." I thought that I had written him the ideal song. It was easy to imagine Charles relishing these lines about a man who can never speak his heart:
- You find your tongue is tied
- Your words escape and hide
- But she's so patient and kind
- She's prepared to read your mind
- That's all very well 'til you find because of the wine you drank
- Your mind is just a blank . . . .
However, you probably know that old saying, "Thinking you are Cole Porter comes before a fall." When I heard Charles' recording, he had not only dispensed with most of my changes and turned the song into a blues, but he had also distilled those lines down to the essential: "I find it hard to think when I drink." Of course I was a little disappointed, but his take on the song had a lot of charm, so we agreed to publish both versions, with the first draft taking its title from the opening line.
The great Irish torch singer Mary Coughlan gets right in the mood on her live album Love For Sale, which also includes the O'Riordan/MacManus composition "Baby Plays Around." Currently, my only recording of the tune can be found on the concert video A Case For Song, where it is heard in Bill Frisell's chamber group arrangement.
As director of the 1995 Meltdown Festival at London's South Bank Centre I was able to seek out and collaborate with the Brodsky Quartet, Fretwork, the Jazz Passengers and Deborah Harry, Donal Lunny, Anúna, Composer's Ensemble, Marc Ribot, June Tabor, Steve Nieve, The Fairfield Four, Jeff Buckley, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller.
Guitar player and composer Bill Frisell and I also put together a short program of his transcriptions of some of my songs, together with tunes such as "Weird Nightmare" and "Gigi." We ended the set with some words that I had set to music that Bill had sent to me. The result was "Deep Dead Blue." Our first public appearance together was recorded and later issued under that title on a limited-edition CD by Nonesuch Records.
Michael McGlynn is a remarkable composer and leader of the choral group Anúna. He has also been a good friend and a fine teacher in helping me overcome my reluctance to master musical notation. This allowed me to work more freely on The Juliet Letters and subsequent "written" compositions.
Most of Michael's pieces draw on Irish early-Christian and pre-Christian texts as well as traditional airs and lyrical themes. These sources are recast in Michael's beautiful and startling music. It was therefore something of a departure for him to arrange "Deep Dead Blue" for the group. As Bill Frisell and I are yet to complete another composition, it is great to hear the transformation brought about by this choral rendition of our solitary song.
I had Roy Orbison in mind when I wrote this song, but I had no idea that I would ever meet him or that he would ever get to sing it. If you hear my version, it is hard to imagine him wanting to do so. Being in a strange, negative frame of mind during the recording of Goodbye Cruel World and aware that we had a surfeit of mournful ballads, I sacrificed the song to a quirky arrangement that lost almost all of the original drama.
A couple of years later T Bone Burnett enquired whether I had a tune for the sessions he was producing on Roy's Mystery Girl album. I knew that I had a rare opportunity to rescue a squandered song and have it sung by the voice for which it was really intended. It was easy enough to return the song to the bolero rhythm that I had borrowed from "Running Scared," but I also decided to remove much of the rather opaque lyric, replacing it with a romantic nightmare set on a Ferris wheel. I also added further modulations to create the kind of final chorus that you expect to hear on a Roy Orbison record.
There are actually two studio recordings of this song: the one included here and a version on which Roy's voice is accompanied only by a remarkable orchestral arrangement by Van Dyke Parks. I assume that one is still in a vault somewhere in Hollywood.
I didn't get a chance to play on this record, but when I finally met Roy, during the preparations for his Black And White Night Live concert film, he turned out to be a very gentle and modest man. Playing rhythm guitar at the Cocoanut Grove that evening, especially being responsible for the solo introduction of "Running Scared," was pretty intimidating. This should not be surprising given that the rest of the group was made up of former members of Elvis Presley's T.C.B. Band and the other guest musicians included Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, k.d. lang, and Jackson Browne. Roy's voice, which had seemed fragile during rehearsals, suddenly sounded sure and beautiful. In fact, it was powerful enough to totally distort my vocal monitor set at practice level. He let loose on crescendo after crescendo, including a fine rendition of "The Comedians," one of the few new songs in the show.
As I recall, we all got home from the filming pretty late, only to be shaken out of bed a few hours later by a major earthquake.
Patrick MacManus was a ship's musician on the ocean liners. His work took him to New York and back in the 1920s. It must have been a tough and uncommon experience for a young trumpet player. Many people of my grandfather's background only made that journey in one direction.
Over the years my thoughts about adventure and travel have got mixed up with family history in songs such as "New Amsterdam," "Kid About It," "American Without Tears," "Last Boat Leaving," and "Veronica." However, the idea of running away to sea had rather lost its romantic implication by the time I wrote this song. The words speak of an imaginary place where all the false promises that I had been inclined to swallow swilled together in the same poisonous glass. I suppose it is of little consequence that one of the real-life locations, the fibre-glass nightclub, was actually a fire-trap dive in Rome. It is transported by the trickery of song into a personal version of America.
Sometime in the spring of 1984 I ditched the ugly clutter of my recorded version of the song (which can also be found on the unhappy Goodbye Cruel World album) and reworked the tune as a ballad. Unburdened by some of these very personal aspects, the mighty Christy Moore was able to give the song a more universal feeling, which turns it into a sympathetic tale of the hapless exile.
This was written at Hal Willner's request when he was preparing the music for the Robert Altman motion picture Short Cuts. One of the stories running throughout the movie concerns the relationship between Tess, a steadily alcoholic nightclub singer, played by Annie Ross, and her emotionally disturbed daughter, a cellist, played by Lori Singer. In one brief scene at the club Tess is heard performing "Punishing Kiss".
The woman portrayed in this song sits in front of the TV drinking and fighting the idea that her life revolves around the drama of daytime soap operas. You might recognise that melodramatic moment when a leading man brutally contorts his lover's embouchure only to reward her with a "punishing kiss."
Annie Ross & The Low Note Quintet give the song a splendid, unsentimental reading, taking my written introduction and using it as an instrumental before the tag. Unfortunately, in the context of the film, Hal was unable to use the double-time bridge where our heroine really dishes the dirt about the leading lady in her favourite show. Instead the lyric, written with my wife, Cait O'Riordan, concludes:
- The flowers and pearls, the long lost relations . . .
- that lovesick tomboy comes in bloom . . .
- the pointless heartaches that seem to belong in my blue room . . .
- can't stand the suspense . . .
- the endless embraces . . .
- each episode lends a silly pretence . . .
- say 'I will turn away' when I will never miss . . .
- it starts with a joke and ends with a punishing kiss.
It is funny to think that this song should be inspired by a dog, particularly as it speaks of the very human failure to confide feelings and fears.
Rubén Blades had asked me to come to his home and collaborate on songs for his first English language record, Nothing But The Truth. Upon arrival we were greeted by the Blades' appropriately named companion, Milagro, a model of unconditional canine fidelity. He -- Rubén, not the dog -- told us that we would be "shamed into love" by the lovely beast, and the rest was easy.
I've been known to hold a grudge, and I suppose this song is the evidence. When I was swindled out of my last pound by a crooked landlord as a young married man, I think I did entertain thoughts of violence. Between 1974 and 1981 I had thankfully discovered the private and entirely legal consolation to be had in brutal thoughts. Then I wrote this song.
Having brooded about it for so long, I think I was trying to set my version of the story to the kind of music I associated with Ray Davies' English social satires, a style that had recently been brought back into fashion by Madness.
Billy Bremner takes a less polite view of the scene. Then again, he was the unsung hero of the group Rockpile, often stealing the show with his remarkable guitar playing. This track comes from one of the few sessions he did, recorded under his own name, as a solo vocalist.
Since moving to Dublin in 1989 I've made no special effort to be seen out in the Irish music scene, but the place is small enough that people know where I am if they need me or, for that matter, if I need them. In that time I've ended up working with Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Mary Coughlan, and The Chieftains.
Coming through Dublin airport one morning, I ran into Ronnie Drew, long one of the unique voices of The Dubliners. He told me he was starting work on a solo record and asked me if I had any songs for him. I rapidly came up with this address from an old fighter to the cronies who are always asking him to relive former glories. I thought this would probably come better from Ronnie's mouth than it would mine.
- Now I seem like a millionaire who brags of rags to jewels
- A snarling pup is wild enough
- But as his anger cools
- He's left to sharpen useless tools
- That tear and graze in fine affrays
- Though few are worth the name
- It's nothing but a dirty rotten shame.
Robert Wyatt is one of the great interpretative singers of my experience. You may have heard the wonderful recordings of his own compositions from the lovely "O Caroline" to his recent album Shleep. His albums contain renditions of songs from many sources; "Te Recuerdo Amanda," "Red Flag," and "At Last I Am Free" being among my personal favourites.
The fact that this lovely record was in some remote way a product of an ugly little war in the South Atlantic seems strange with the passing of time. The lyric predicted that unemployed men would get back their jobs in the shipyards so that they could build vessels to take their sons to the conflict. The fact that it didn't happen on this occasion doesn't mean that it may never happen. Nor does it make it any easier to forgive the political opportunism, the warmongering and human slaughter that was all a part of the Falklands/Malvinas disgrace. When singing the song in the present day, I prefer to concentrate on the lines that offer a glimmer of hope, "Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls."
I'm very glad that I was able to serve Clive Langer's inspiring melody, and I would be proud of my part in the production of this record, had it not consisted of simply being in the studio while Robert sang so beautifully.
Of all the titles in this collection, I think this is the song I would have least expected to be covered. That it should be sung by one of the most deeply rooted singers in English traditional music was an even greater surprise.
The original version can be found at the end of The Juliet Letters, a sequence of songs and musical pieces cowritten with the Brodsky Quartet. Although some of the songs have been performed in the theatrical piece "Letters" (devised by five members of the company and orchestra of the Gothenburg Opera for their workshop stage), this is the first attempt by anyone to perform one of the "Juliet" numbers using different instrumentation. I think I detect the hands of Norma's excellent supporting players, Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson, in making an arrangement that sometimes goes beyond strict transcription into reharmonisation.
This song came to me after one of those moments when you realise that the world can get along without you -- in this case, walking away from a car crash. In time it seemed the ideal song to end The Juliet Letters. Norma Waterson has sung her share of those folk ballads where lead is poured into sleeping lovers' mouths to seal up their kisses or similar dark fates, so she has no trouble dealing with the note of resignation in this song.
This is the second of two songs written at June Tabor's request. The first was "All This Useless Beauty," but I believe that this is both a superior song and a better record.
I wrote this at a time when I had been reading up about some of the lost singers of American folk music whose recording careers were curtailed by the Great Depression. It occurred to me that when people started arriving in "the backwoods" 30 years later, with their tape recorders and documentary film crews, there might have been one or two brave souls who did not want to be rescued from obscurity. This song can be understood as the testimony of such an unlikely creature. There are some kinds of music that need to be rare.
I thought that June Tabor would appreciate the thoughts that were the background to what is really a very personal song. It was a lot easier to accept the darker implication of the lyric when I heard it expressed by June's beautiful voice.
After a chance meeting in a London street, Aimee Mann and I began a correspondence of songwriting notions. This, our most successful effort, appeared on the 'Til Tuesday album Everything's Different Now. Although it now seems a little presumptuous, I tried to find the right words for someone going through a rather unhappy time. I also make a cameo appearance in the bridge of the recording, although I'm not sure that it doesn't distract from Aimee's excellent performance.
At one time our acquaintance promised to result in a number of songs, but it now seems unlikely that any of these tunes will see the light of day. However, I remain a great admirer of Aimee's songwriting and took the liberty of reworking this lyric so that I could sing her lovely melody and make it the first cut on the album All This Useless Beauty.
I met Nick Lowe in 1972 in a pub opposite the Cavern in Liverpool . . . so there isn't space here to tell you everything I know about him.
I could mention all the time I spent pinching his ideas when he was in a professional band and I was just getting started . . . that he might have had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding," but that the song worked out quite well for both of us . . . that he produced my first five albums . . . that he once recorded an LP called Jesus Of Cool . . . that he came back to produce Blood & Chocolate after a seven-year break . . . that he agreed to play bass on half of Brutal Youth . . . and that after all the great records that he has made and all the records he has produced for other folks, he is still ridiculously underrated.
I've loved Nick's songwriting since the days of "The Last Time I Was Fooled" and "The Ugly Things" through "Heart Of The City," "Cracking Up," "Rose Of England," and "All Men Are Liars" to "The Beast In Me," "Lover Don't Go," and the exquisite "Shelley, My Love." He wouldn't thank me for being too sentimental with my compliments, but he would probably be amused to find out how much I've taken from him.
Nick's rendition of "Indoor Fireworks" is more discreet than my own, with a very elegant vocal set against an unsettling arrangement. By the time each version was issued I think we both knew, only too well, what the song was really about.
It's strange how this song finally found its way to the singer for whom it was intended. I wrote it in 1981 after spending a lot of time with a couple of Chet Baker's vocal albums. I fell in love with the Brown/Henderson composition "The Thrill Is Gone" and resolved to write a song modeled on Chet's rendition of it. My version of "Almost Blue" was recorded for the album Imperial Bedroom.
It was an extraordinary piece of fortune that Chet Baker should make an unexpected appearance in London during the sessions for my next album, Punch The Clock. Steve Nieve had already played a piano solo on Robert Wyatt's recording of "Shipbuilding," so I had decided to have a trumpet interlude on our version. During the week of Chet's residency, I went to the club, introduced myself, and invited him to the studio. While Robert Wyatt's recording remains, in my opinion, unassailable, Chet's playing and the response it drew from The Attractions more than justified my decision to recut the tune.
At the end of the "Shipbuilding" session I gave Chet a copy of "Almost Blue," but I found it easy to imagine that he would mislay it before ever hearing the song. Over the next few years I always went to see Chet when he performed in London; we'd share a drink and a few words, and on one occasion we played a short set together for a concert video shot at Ronnie Scott's Club. However, the song I'd given to him was never mentioned.
A few months after Chet's death I was given a tape containing his very fragile version of my song. It turned out to be from a scene in Bruce Weber's Baker documentary, Let's Get Lost, where, not for the first time in his life, Chet was attempting to perform for an audience of drunken, self-satisfied idiots. It was pretty much as I had first encountered him and all the more heartbreaking being that I was not able to thank him for even attempting to play my tune.
One of the laziest and most banal critical generalisations is that Chet Baker was a man who entirely sacrificed his early musical promise to drugs. Whatever junk did to him or for him, it certainly wasn't pretty and it surely caused a lot of grief. However, to suggest that he made no worthwhile music in later years is absolute nonsense. Although he was inclined to cover the same repertoire on live recordings, he also made some beautiful studio recordings of new compositions, such as Richard Beirach's "Broken Wing." The album The Legacy, recorded only a year before his death, shows that he was not only playing wonderfully, but he could also rise to the unfamiliar challenge of playing with a big band lineup. I am therefore delighted that this collection should close with a less harrowing take on "Almost Blue." It comes from the album Chet Baker In Tokyo, recorded in 1987, and it finds Chet much more at ease with the tune. It is to my great delight that this arrangement also includes a trumpet solo and that the song finally sounds pretty much as I dreamed it would.