The last time I was in Dublin with Costello, we ended up drinking in some gaudy nightclub where the fluorescent throb and gash of neon lit us in garish hues and strobes flashed, epileptic and deranged. Bono arrived just after us. His appearance among the heathen throng was almost papal. First, the crowd parted in front of him, then gathered around him, reverent, adoring, as he advanced across the club. He settled at a table opposite us and looked around the room with the empty, dead stare of someone who'd long since lost the plot; a distant, cold glare that saw very little and understood even less. He could have been on another planet, and probably was. He was quickly surrounded by a sea of smothering supplicants, eager to pay their respects, kiss the hem of his coat, be touched by his presence, blessed by his righteousness.
"F***in' place," Costello muttered into his beer, "is it's turning into Lourdes,"
We were at a table on a corner of the dance floor, trying to make ourselves heard to each other above the infernal thud of the disco. Now that you're closer to us, you can hear that we're talking about Blood And Chocolate. Costello is telling me that he had been convinced that this was the record that people had been waiting for him to make since Get Happy!!!, a return to the classic Attractions' sound, the record that at a stroke would revive his faltering commercial ambitions, thoroughly thwarted for most of the decade, This was outrageous. Blood And Chocolate is the most extreme and brutal of all Costello's albums. It sounds like it's been ripped screaming from the clefts of bedlam. In the bland, conservative climate of late-eighties pop, it was a howl from an outer darkness. It stood no chance of being a hit, So when Costello tells me that he thought it would return him to the mainstream I don't believe a word. A year later, though, in Dublin again, Costello is sticking to the same story.
"I honestly wasn't being ingenuous," he says. "I knew in America, especially, they took a huge gasp of breath when we did Almost Blue, and although King Of America was one of those records that got me great reviews, Columbia just couldn't sell the f***in' thing... So I did have the notion when we came to do Blood And Chocolate that in the States at least, they'd throw their hats in the air and cheer. I really did think it was the album they'd been wanting me to deliver. Because there were elements of it that I thought were stereotypical. It was like an older, grumpier version of This Year's Model, which I was pretty sure they'd go for. As it turned out, they did to it what they'd done to the two or three records before it. They buried the f***in' thing.
"In retrospect, I think we underestimated how f***in' harsh it sounded. But that was the mood we were in. We wanted it live and we wanted it loud, and we achieved that at the expense of everything else. I mean, we tried to do a ballad on that record, a really pretty song called 'Forgive Her Anything', but we physically couldn't play it. It sounded like we were playing with boxing gloves on. It needed too delicate an arrangement for the sound we'd contrived. And we got to really fighting about it. Like, 'It's your f***in' fault, you're playing too f***in' loud.' 'No, I'm not. You're playing too f***in' fast.' It was like the f***in' Troggs. But there was nothing we could do with it. That sound we had, there was just too much barbed wire in it. It was just too f***n' ferocious."
Given the subsequent split with The Attractions was Blood And Chocolate meant to be a land of last hurrah?
"Not intentionally. The idea was just to get together again and make a record. Originally it was gonna be an EP, a one off thing, a bit of an undercover job, just to put the fun back into playing together. Because by then everything had got a bit askew. There was a lot of bad feeling that because of the way things turned out, The Attractions ended up playing on only one track on King Of America. And the internal politics surrounding that record weren't too pleasant. And I don't think l handled it very well. But neither did a couple of the group. It just got unnecessarily ugly you know. Like you were there that night at the Duke Of York's when I had that row with Steve. That's the sort of thing that was happening. People were being set up against each other. And I hate all that shit, and I didn't want everything to fall apart in acrimony, so the main thing was just to get back together instead of bickering. The thing was,l had no idea it was gonna turn out to be so extreme. But I love it. I think it's one of the two or three best records we made together.
Releasing two six-minute singles from it, "Tokyo Storm Warning" and "I Want You", didn't seem to be the most thoughtful commercial strategy. Were you being perverse?
"No... I really thought they were the best two songs on the record. There were maybe a couple of others that could've been singles. 'I Hope You're Happy Now' might've been a hit or 'Blue Chair'. But I couldn't see the wood for the trees over that one. You know, I sometimes tend to get too self -conscious about pop music. When I've got a good pop song, I have difficulty actually doing it properly. I some how want to f*** it up. And I think the idea sometimes of releasing the obvious poppy track from an album as a single is patronizing.
Doesn't "Veronica" fall into that category?
"No," Costello says firmly, prepared to defend this one to the hilt, whatever the damage. "That's unashamedly pop music. You know, with that, I've come back to the way I was thinking when we did things like 'Oliver's Army'. I'm loathe to say the word, because the minute you say something's subversive, it's not subversive anymore... But there is a trick to it, you know, where you can slip something out that takes people a while to figure out what it is you're actually singing about. With 'Veronica', if people had realized straight off that it was about an old woman, they might have thought it was too maudlin and just shut it off. Whereas the whole point of the song is that there is some hope and defiance in the character. So I think it's really good that it sounds like it's about a young girl, instead of it being a ponderous thing about an old woman, or something self-consciously dramatic like 'Eleanor Rigby'. Which is a great record, but you immediately know it's about this strange person. Whereas the idea with 'Veronica' isn't to patronise the character. It's said with love. So I like the idea that the music is really kind of bright and pretty. It's the prettiest record I've made in ages."
"Veronica" is one of two tracks on Spike written with Paul McCartney. Another of their collaborations, "My Brave Face", has just been released as the ex-Beatles' new single; more are to follow on McCartney's forthcoming LP, Flowers In The Dirt, We had talked the previous evening about the collaboration, and Costello, getting drunk, had worked himself into a rare old fit about the jaundiced view some people have of McCartney: he'd even been told that working with him had somehow devalued his own critical standing.
"That's true," Costello says the morning after, nursing a hangover, feeling fragile but feisty. "People have actually told me that. But f*** 'em. They're people who wouldn't know a good piece of music if it boned 'em up the arse."
So what was your immediate response when the call came from the McCartney Empire? Did you think you were on to an easy earner? Were you flattered? Suspicious?
"It might sound facile," Costello says, "but I didn't think about it in any of those terms. I just thought, 'Let's give it a go.' And it was all very unselfconscious, no big deal. We just got on with it. Occasionally, I'd look up and think, 'Oh, hell, it's him.' Because he really — don't laugh — he really does look frighteningly like him. The same was true of Orbison. He's one of those people who look exactly like you expect them to look. You know, I think of him like he's Buzz Aldrin or somebody. Somebody who's been to the moon and back. Nobody— none of us in whatever part of the business we're in — none of us can conceive what it must be like to have been through what he's experienced. It's a unique experience, probably, in the 20th century to be him. And that's not making too big a thing of it.
"And the fact that he's so easy going about it all just seems to rile people. I mean, he could be a mad person, he could have reacted to what he went through in any number of ways that would prevent him now from being as straightforward and normal as he apparently is. The very fact that this guy has sort of glided through life and been very well rewarded is the cause, I think, of a lot of the flak he gets. It's just f***in' envy, that's what it is, when you get right down to it..."
And he hasn't been shot, so he's not a legend. "Absolutely," Costello says, heaving forward. "And he's uncomfortably undramatic about this thing he's been through. But, you know, he has been through it all, through more things than you could probably imagine. So why does he have to live up to somebody else's fantasy of who he is? I think that's a completely unreasonable demand to make of anyone.
"It's like these people who criticise him for being too rich or too famous. What the f*** has it got to do with them? It's lust crap, you know. Why don't they just shut the f*** up and let him get on with his music. I also think that people who criticise him for being sentimental are talking a lot of shit as well. Because in any other line of work, if a man of 46 wasn't sentimental about his kids, they'd think he was a f***in' sociopath, you know. He's a married man, he has a nice life. What's the f***in' matter with that? F***in' hell, just because he's famous they want him to be at the barricades all the f***in' time. It's just stupid. He's just a really good musician, probably one of the best there has been in a long time... it's absolutely coming out of his fingers, you know... and if he doesn't want to use that musical talent to say world-changing things, that's his f***in' business."
Blood And Chocolate struck more than one commentator as a protracted musical identification with the troubled genius of John Lennon. When the invitation came to work with McCartney, was there maybe a feeling that you were being cast in the role that Lennon once played?
"No," Costello says quickly. "Lennon's obviously not around to be fallible or great or whatever — some bastard shot him — so in America, I think, they're sometimes obviously lining up a lot of people for the role. And I think it's a dangerous thing. In America, some really neurotic critics are trying to fit me in those shoes. And I think it's f***in' irresponsible. You know, COME ON. DRAW A F***IN' TARGET ON MY BACK..."
Costello has been through all this before, after the notorious Columbus incident he received nearly 200 death threats in a week.
"Don't remind me," he shudders. "Don't remind me."
The afternoon draws on. We are both feeling as parched as f***. Costello orders another round of drinks. We talk about some of his other recent collaborations, most notably with Roy Orbison, whose version of the radically re-written "The Comedians" was the undisputed high spot of Orbison's posthumous Mystery Girl LP. Before flying out to Dublin, I had belatedly caught up with the Roy Orbison And Friends: A Black And White Night video of the commemorative concert in Los Angeles, at which Orbison was backed by an all star cast including Elvis Presley's Taking Care Of Business band (The TCBs, featuring Glen D Hardin, Ron Tutt, Jerry Scheff and legendary guitarist James Burton, who appeared on King Of America. Also on the show were Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, KD Lang, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen.
So what was it like, Elvis, clocking in behind the Big O?
"Well, it was very hard to be in awe of him," Costello says. "He was just very gentle, a little removed, perhaps a bit bemused by all the attention, but quite moved by everyone's enthusiasm. Because basically it was a big pain in the arse doing the show. I mean, it looked a lot of fun when they cut it together, but I have to say the production people had very little consideration for the musicians, including Roy.
"Basically, they didn't have a f***in' clue. In the end, T-Bone took a lot of the heat and he ended up telling them what to do, otherwise they would've had the musicians leaving in droves. Because there was one point where there was nearly a rebellion. Even with all deference to Roy, I think there was a point where some of the musicians were ready to walk, because there were a lot of ugly political things going down that could've been avoided if they'd been a bit more bit more sensible. And what you see is this really good-natured show, so it really goes to show how much people dug him, because they all put that behind them. And a lot of the credit for that has to go to the TCBs, particularly, even though they were the ones most taken advantage of.
"Like, Rolling Stone came to take pictures and they didn't even ask James Burton to be in the shot. The guy from Rolling Stone didn't even recognise him. It was sort of, 'Right, we'll have Roy in the middle, and Bruce, you sit this side of Roy, and Elvis, you sit on the other side...' I said, 'What does this make me? The Holy Ghost or God the Son?' Because that's what it looked like... the f***in' Holy Trinity, with Roy as God the Father, you know...
The show brought you into immediate contact with some people like Springsteen, about whom you've often been less than flattering...
"Let's be frank," Costello laughs. "They were people I've often been downright f***in' rude about. In fact, I've usually slagged them off, which I think is fair enough. I have my opinions about them and they probably know what they think about me. They might get a little outraged sometimes, but I don't give a flying f***, you know."
So how did you hit it off with old Bruce?
"I thought Bruce wasn't too bad," Costello says, and I can only think the drinks are having an effect. "I mean, he didn't come until the day of the show. But he turned up, no entourage, no bodyguards, no manager, no roadie. Carrying his own guitar as far as I could see. And I assumed he knew the songs so well he could just busk it. But I have this nice little image of him... Where we did the show was at the Coconut Grove, in the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was shot. The Grove is in a kind of basement at the back, and the kitchen just behind the stage is where he got shot. Place was like something out of the f***in' Shining... Anyway, all the boys were crammed into one dressing room. And you couldn't move for all these baskets of fruit. It's Hollywood, you know, so every f***er on the show gets a basket of fruit with nuts and f***in' cheese... And, anyway, we're all packed in there, and it suddenly reminded me of when I was a kid and I used to go to the Joe Loss shows with my dad... all the guys in the band, standing around in their underwear, smoking... It was great. We were really like The Orchestra... And just before we were due on, I looked around and there's Springsteen. He's got a Walkman on, and he's got his electric guitar and he's got the chart of 'Only The Lonely', and he's looking really intense and worried. And suddenly he went, 'Oh, f*** — that's how it goes.'
"But I thought he played great on the show. He played his guitar solo, didn't he? That one guitar solo that he does. He plays with his eyebrows, have you noticed that? And there were a couple of songs where he has to trade off guitar parts with James Burton, and everybody thought he was really gonna be out of his depth. But he didn't try to outflash Burton. You can't, let's face it. So he played his one note solo and he played it very emphatically, like he really meant it. And James came back with this ridiculously fancy lick that he does and gave Springsteen this look, you know, 'Top that, boy.' And Bruce is going, 'Oooooh, shit... back to the one note solo...' I thought he was pretty cool."
Costello is by now in a pretty expansive anecdotal mood. I ask him about Van Morrison, who appeared with him the last time he played the Albert Hall.
"I think what l really admire about him," Costello says, "apart from the fact that he makes the most incredible f***in' records, is his singlemindedness. People go on about him being difficult, but he does it his way and if you can't accept that, then go somewhere else. I don't think he's gonna cry. He's tougher than that. He really is tougher than the rest. He's in a class of one, and if you don't like it then f*** off, you know. There are only like two or three people with his kind of singular identity in rock 'n' roll. Like, Lou Reed, Dylan..."
You met Dylan once, didn't you?
"I've met Dylan a few times, yeah," Costello says. 'We had a strange conversation once, I remember. I met all his kids once in a parking lot in Minneapolis. He came to this party with all his sons. Lined them up like they were on parade, and I had to shake hands with them. He said, 'This is Jesse, he knows all the words to "Pump It Up".' And I thought, 'Now there's something wrong with this statement, Bob. He knows all the words to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is what you probably mean.' Jesse was a punk fan. I don't know how old he is now, but then was into the Clash and people like that. I think he thought his dad was a bit old-fashioned. Maybe he's since realized that his dad was a bit more happening than Mick Jones, you know. I hope so. I mean, I love old Mick, he's great. But Bob's always been a bit more happening than Mick, let's face it."
What do you talk to someone like Dylan about? The weather?
"Actually," Costello says. "yeah. With somebody like Dylan or Van, they say they're unpredictable souls who can be rude to people. So I figure if they just accept you and you just talk in an ordinary conversation about the weather or something, it means they're giving you somehow more credit than they would to someone they don't really have time for. I mean, you hear all these horror stories about these people, but you've got to remember that there are plenty of people who want a piece of them and they make unreasonable demands on them. And there are a few people that have tried to make those demands of me, so I'm aware of the fact that if you start like getting in on them and it's like, 'C'mon, Bob, where ARE the Gates Of Eden?' you'd expect to be shown the door. I'm always mindful of what it's like when somebody gets on my case. Sometimes it's well-meaning, but you really just can't answer their questions, because you can't think like them. They've got their perspective on what you do and you just can't get into it."
The night before the interview, Costello had appeared at the Irish Music Awards. He and Christy Moore had done a version of "Dark End Of The Street", an old Costello favourite. It was a moment of sober beauty in an otherwise unremarkable pantomime. The front rows of the audience were full of wriggling Brosettes who glared at Costello with furious indignation. Turns out later that they are howling mad with him for being less than kind to Bros on a recent radio show. After the show, some of them cornered him in a local pub.
"It was as funny as hell," he says. "They all wanted my blood for slandering Luke by suggesting that he might be something less than a Titan. I just felt a bit sad for them. Because this, you know, is the extent of their musical excitement, this rather dull group. And they were going, 'Tell us you really don't hate them.' And I'm going, 'I don't hate them, I just don't like 'em. I'm not supposed to f***in' like 'em. You're supposed to like 'em...' It was all a bit pathetic, really, because they'll all be embarrassed in four years time that they were ever Brosettes. It's like, where do you meet Bay City Rollers' fans these days... And Bros will be forgotten in the long run, because they don't represent anything particularly worthwhile. It's like Michael Jackson. He'll be forgotten in 50 years. He'll be like this person who statistically was famous, like Al Jolson or Rudy Vallee, but nobody'll really remember him. He's just a facsimile of excitement. And because there's no substance to what he does, and because he's sold his soul to a corporate identity, which is actually bigger than he is, in the long run I think he'll be swallowed by it. It's like Whitney Houston, I think it's downright sad that somebody as good as her will take a billion dollars from Pepsi to sell herself down the river. She's just turned into this cabaret singer. You look at her and it's like the light's gone from her eyes. She's just another victim of the Pepsi Vampires."
So who are the strong, Elvis, who's to be trusted? Who's angry any more?
"I dunno," Costello says wearily, exhaustion creeping upon him like a slow tide. "It does seem at the moment that there's no real willingness to test anything. But it's not surprising really. All the mannerisms of rebellion in music seems to have been used up. You only have to look at Guns 'N Roses to realize that. Cait got their album, you know, and it's f***in' terrible. It's like an Outlaws record or something. 'I'm goin' down the road with my geetar and I'm a baad muthaf***er... — F*** off, you little twat. It's about as rock 'n' roll as f***in' David Nixon. The thing is, you can't keep leaping out of the cupboard going boo to people. It's not frightening anymore.
"And the funny thing is, the real wild men are still unacceptable. I'm not talking about someone like Johnny Rotten. He's completely acceptable. He's just like Quentin Crisp. He's an English eccentric. But Jerry Lee Lewis, man. I saw Jerry Lee, and he's still f***in' unacceptable to most people. T-Bone went for a meeting with him, because he's been working on the film they're doing about him. And they went to this really chi-chi Hollywood cafe, and this little waiter comes up and goes, 'Hi, my name ith Cwithtopher and I'll be your waiter for tonight. Is there something I can get you?'
"And Jerry Lee says 'Yeah. What about something blonde, 21 years old with big f***in' tits.' Just starts straight in, you know. Brilliant. And someone like that, they're always gonna be on the outside. He's definitely the real thing. And there's really no one else around who's that unique, that singular. I don't see anyone like that around anymore. I see a few interesting eccentrics. Morrissey. Michael Stipe. Johnny Lydon. Myself, maybe. But those heavy metal bands who think they're so f***in' outrageous. I just think, 'F*** off, pal. You don't even own the territory.'
"Because I look back at some of the things we've done, and it's no f***in' contest. I mean, we've had our f***in' moments, man. And they don't even come close."