Elvis Costello Wins Friends and Influences People

Last Friday afternoon, the avenger had some explaining to do.

April 9, 1979
Elvis Costello

Photo: Chuck Pulin

UNLIKE THE FIRST ELVIS, this one swivels from the knees. Clever, this move: with the moniker and the spiteful little persona, it seems intended to give a rough approximation of the distance we’ve traveled, (some of us, anyway) since Presley pushed the pelvis button back in 1956. From desire to frustration, Costello is saying, from lust unbounded to tearful rage; from sexual revolution to civil war. This is the man who said in one of his rare interviews that the only two things that matter to him are “revenge and guilt.” (“Love? I don’t know what it means, really, and it doesn’t exist in my songs.”) According to reports, he even keeps a little black book for all his enemies in the music business – right down to the poor schmucks who’ve gotten free tickets to his concerts and then failed to show. Weird stuff — although none of it would matter if he weren’t so inspired.
It’s interesting that one of the most exciting rock heroes to emerge in years is also the most unlikely looking. Physical resemblances to Woody Allen and Buddy Holly have already been noted: he reminds me more of a new wave Mehachem Begin, especially as regards the embattled set of the jaw. Yet he makes music that’s clever, concise, bouncy, explosive, dangerous, unforgettable, and so precisely structured as to have an almost architectural presence. At his best, Costello gives the impression of advancing knock-kneed on the world at the head of a pulsing phalanx of sound. I think he has a vision of himself as the Avenging Dork.
Last Friday afternoon, however, the avenger had some explaining to do. It was the beginning of Elvis Costello Weekend, a three-day sequence of concerts and club dates in New York and New Jersey, and Costello felt compelled to explain the bizarrely racist and xenophobic outburst reported in that week’s Voice. According to Bonnie Bramlett, one of three sources for the story, Costello had started a barroom brawl by lashing out in shocking and ugly terms at black people in general and James Brown and Ray Charles in particular. So he took the hot seat in a small conference room crowded with newspaper, radio, and magazine reporters whose attitudes ranged from frivolously amused to quietly outraged. “How do you spell ‘petard’?” someone asked, just before Elvis stepped into the room.

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Costello’s major gesture of contrition appeared to be the pale green DESIRE ME button on the lapel of his ill-fitting black-and-white polka-dot sport jacket. “It seems that it is necessary for me to come here today to make just one statement ” he began, “which is that I am not a racist.” He added that he had been “misquoted out of context,” the context being an increasingly heated discussion between his party and Stephen Stills’s in the bar of the Holiday Inn in downtown Columbus Ohio. “In the course of this argument,” he said, “it became necessary for me to outrage these people with about the most obnoxious and offensive remarks that I could muster to bring the argument to a swift conclusion and rid myself of their presence. It worked pretty good.” He’s called the press conference, he concluded, because he was worried that people would read the words attributed to him and think they reflected his actual opinion. He wanted — that is to say, he expected — everyone to understand that they did not.
Naturally, there were some questions. “Couldn’t you have gotten up and left?” someone inquired. “I suppose you can always get up and leave,” he responded, “but they didn’t leave.” Oh. Then someone asked about an interview in which he’d admitted that he’s not a balanced or mature person. “Nobody said that to make records you have to have a certificate that says you’re a nice and wonderful person,” he replied. “Couldn’t you have found something nasty to say about a white artist?” another reporter wanted to know. Costello said he’d made numerous insulting remarks about white musicians that had not gotten reported. “They don’t print the things I said about Crosby, Stills & Nash — and they didn’t print the things that Bonnie said about how all the Limeys are lousy fucks and couldn’t get it up anymore.” He got a good laugh with that one.
In general, however, it was not one of his better performances. He did eventually get around to apologizing to Ray Charles and James Brown, but basically his attitude was consistent with his image. “Don’t ask me to apologize,” one of his songs begins; “I won’t ask you to forgive me.” Costello made no attempt to benefit from his record as a participant in England’s anti-racist youth movement, which has been battling the neo-Nazi National Front for several years. This may have been admirable in a perverse way but it was also unfortunate, since no one present seemed aware that he’d headlined at London’s second major anti-Nazi gathering six months earlier or written two songs that are particularly eloquent expressions of political outrage: “Night Rally,” an anti-National Front anthem that was only released as a B-side in the States, and “Less Than Zero,” a bitter (but to American ears hopelessly obscure) denunciation of a BBC attempt to rehabilitate National Front leader and former Hitlerite Oswald Mosley. Still, Costello’s bald statement that he was not a racist completely ignored the subtleties of racism; I’d have found it more honest and less presumptuous if he’d said he didn’t mean to be racist. Next time he would be well advised to follow John Lennon’s example and confine his remarks to Jesus.
In a way, however, it makes sense that Costello should get himself in trouble on race right now. His new album, Armed Forces (touted in Columbia Records’ current ad campaign as “World Elvis Costello Album III”), is clearly the product of a mind that’s become obsessed with fascism, neo- and otherwise. It includes one song called ‘Two Little Hitlers”, another that includes the phrase “final solution,” and one called “Goon Squad” that warns, “You’re never going to make a lampshade out of me.” For the first time, Costello’s major frustrations appear to be political rather than sexual. Yet there’s a confusion here, because while his identification with the victim points him leftward politically, his constricted sexuality sends him reeling to the right — he’s attracted to liberty and authority at the same time. I suspect Costello’s real conflict with fascism is an interior dialogue.
At any rate, he was on good behavior Saturday night with a performance at the Palladium that, while not exactly thrilling, was at least thoroughly professional. That’s a major gesture for a guy who’s become noted for 40-minute sets, gratuitous stabs at the audience, and serious temper tantrums onstage. He opened with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” the final cut on World Album III, and introduced his new single, “Accidents Will Happen,” by remarking on the appropriateness of its title.
Other than that, and a between-sets tape that consisted entirely of contemporary American black music, he made no comment on the Columbus affair — nor was he called upon to do so. There were no pickets out front, no pickets of any sort — despite vague assertions at the press conference that the Voice article had sparked threats that were putting the remainder of the tour in jeopardy. The crowd, clean-cut and young, was polite but not particularly enthusiastic — except in response to “Allison,” the song in which Costello flashes the knife-edge between romantic and murderous obsession with such deftness that listeners often squeal to relieve the chill. That’s what they did Saturday night, just before they gave him a standing ovation.
The following evening was April Fool’s, providing the pretext for the carefully calculated grand gesture that would climax Elvis Costello Weekend. Costello would play first the Lone Star, then the Bottom Line, and finally Gildersleeves for the lucky few who had won tickets via radio lottery. The Lone Star appearance was clearly a warm-up, interesting chiefly for the cultural juxtaposition; the environment made El and his Attractions look like sicko Britishers out for a taste of Texas boot. The Bottom Line was different – partly because Mick Jagger was in the audience, partly because a couple of hundred fans had been waiting in line for four, five hours, hoping for standing room. Scuffles broke out repeatedly; then an hour before show time, they were told that fewer than 60 would get in. A small contingent of demonstrators showed up to brandish signs saying “Kick Him Again, Bon” and “Send Elvis Back To Computer School.” El and the Attractions pulled up in a limousine and dashed inside, swinging at photographers along the way. By 11 they were onstage and a hundred of the faithful were pressed against the door, straining for a glimpse and angry. A blond kid in the front urged everyone to surge past the bouncers while Elvis sang “Green Shirt” from World Album III: “You tease, you flirt / You shine all the buttons on your green shirt / You please yourself but somebody’s gonna get hurt.” He sounded like a man who’d put himself in touch with the tingle of stardom, the delicate frisson of control.
“I saw his face!” yelled a kid who had climbed onto a spiked iron fence and pressed his face against a small window that looked in above the bar. The window was painted black, but there was a tiny scratch in the paint about two-thirds of the way up, and if you cocked your head just so you could actually see inside. “We could charge for this little window!” joked a girl by the fence. “Who’s next?” said a boy. “Only a buck!” A kid with a beer bottle climbed down with a sheepish grin. “He’s not even that charismatic. I don’t know why I’m doing this.”
The wind began to pick up. The crowd was dwindling. Two limousines idled at curbside. Jagger and entourage sauntered out the rear door; their driver hustled them away while cameras popped all around. The rest of the audience followed several minutes later, each person clutching a limited-edition single that was being given away at all three clubs. A fight broke out when one guy accused another of trying to steal his single. Eventually a battered four-door maroon-and-white sedan with two men in front pulled up to the rear entrance. One of the men jumped out to open the car door just in time for Elvis to dive for the back seat. The headlights flashed on as the car jerked away from the curb and roared into the night. It was wonderful escape; pity there were only a dozen or so people left to witness it.
Armed forces. Watching Elvis’s fatigue-clad roadies prepare for his arrival at Gildersleeves, I found myself thinking about how peculiar it is to love what you hate, want to be what you despise. The uniformed roadies reminded me of the official Elvis Costello T-shirt booth at the Palladium. Staffed by two crewcut young women in haute punk attire, it was surrounded by so many army recruitment posters that the entire corner of the lobby seemed to bristle provocatively. The T-shirt booth reminded me of the lighting at the concert – not the frontstage lights that had turned Costello Frankenstein-green or radiation mutant-red when that was the effect he desired, but the other lights, the shafts arrayed in columns and Vs that owed their inspiration to Albert Speer. Isn’t it remarkable that a former working-class computer operator named Declan Patrick McManus could create a spectacle that grand? And isn’t it daring of him to combat fascism with all these fascist images – daring and perhaps just a tiny bit dangerous? But then, Elvis is fond of danger, and a social misfit with conflicted bully-boy tendencies could certainly find more threatening ways of getting off if he wanted to. I’m sure Elvis is already aware of that. ◼︎

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