Elvis Costello

The king of the unforgiving is the rock star who never was.

Published September 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In 1982, Elvis Costello was in something like a state of shock: He was exhausted by an unremunerative fame, wired on speed and slightly disgusted with his career. He'd entranced the rock world with his tautly assembled first few releases, each produced by the shambling Nick Lowe. But for a new album he enlisted an engineer named Geoff Emerick, who'd worked on both "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Sgt. Pepper," to help him conjure up a twisted pop extravaganza.

The record that resulted was called "Imperial Bedroom." In it, he outfitted his arch, peevish songs with every armament the studio could muster, from soaring synths, sharp as razors, to treated vocals, dark, discomfiting and vengeful. A famous song called "Man out of Time" is this deadly work's scariest musical concoction, a caustically inflamed track of shimmering pianos, cascading melody lines, overwhelming dynamics and unbridled vocals.

On his first few albums Costello had laid out sweeping, ever-more-paranoid romantic equations -- love as civil disturbance, as propaganda, as global warfare; in "Man out of Time," this area of lyrical inquiry climaxes in a portrait of the unfaithful lover as unmasked international spy. Costello delivers his most feeling vocal track. The singer is standing at some sort of "traitor's gate" with a cast of social parasites ("the biggest names in industry," "the minister of state"), all set against a tableau of bleak geographical sarcasm. ("Days of Dutch courage/ Just three French letters/ And a German sense of humor.") The portrait, sprawling and fractured, seems to be of an adulterous father and husband whose bourgeois self-satisfaction masks an internal degradation:

He's got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge
He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege

Funnily enough, "Man out of Time" is a love song. "To murder my love is a crime," wails our burgher, inexplicably and unforgettably. And over those words, Costello and Emerick craft a production coup; Costello's voice is echoed thickly, flattened electronically. The layered, slightly awry vocal tracks precisely limn the man's fracturing persona. "But will you still love/The man out of time?" Costello's singing here is definitive; I can't think of an instance of rock vocalizing so simultaneously lost and controlled. You'd think he was singing about himself.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

High Fidelity

The most salient fact about Elvis Costello, in many ways a traditional talent, was that he had the misfortune of coming of age in a most untraditional time. As the 1970s deepened, the most influential figures in white rock were throwbacks -- Dylan and Neil Young were from the '60s, and Bruce Springsteen might as well have been. Punk changed all that. Suddenly, it was a given that most of the stars from the 1960s were full of shit. The punks and new wavers adopted frequently harsh music, often deliberately unpleasant subjects and striking, virtually nihilistic attitudes, all with an irrational Jacobin vehemence.

Musically, Costello came out of a relatively genial strain of British pub rock, but by the time he got his record contract, in England at least it seemed as if a generation was aflame, and his natural, gripping sarcasm seemed a piece with it. His attitude toward rock history was encapsulated nicely in his withering choice of a stage name. While possessed of a certain brutal charisma, he looked pinched and dorky, in keeping with the perverse fashions of the time. Indeed, Costello soon became the avatar of the reed-thin, narrow-tied, short-haired new waver.

But it was a tough posture. While indubitably possessed of nearly everything one could want for significant and lucrative rock stardom -- head-snapping songwriting skills, a rabidly supportive critical corner, a clue to the pop moment, ambition of a heroic size and the necessary accompanying ruthlessness besides -- he was unlucky enough to be possessed of all that just as the pop audience balkanized and, with frayed nerves, stopped doing its part. For one, it suddenly refused to reward its most talented stars financially; Costello was a major figure from the start, but never sold records in any significant number. (Even Linda Ronstadt's cover of "Alison" was never a Top 40 single.) At the same time, driven by the contempt of the punks, the audience suddenly stopped giving artists a moral pass as well. In other words, Elvis Costello became a star just when the fun was taken out of it.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The Suit of Lights

He was born Declan Patrick MacManus, in 1955. His father, Ross, was a workaday musician, a singer in a silly dance-hall cover band called the Joe Loss Orchestra. He grew up in London but lived in Liverpool from 16 on. He developed a keen musical knowledge and an unhealthy contempt for almost everything on earth during this period, and also wrote songs. He left school and was a computer operator (not a programmer) and a wannabe folkie in his late teen years. He met Nick Lowe, then playing in Brinsley Schwartz, as early as 1972.

He spent the next few years working at boring computer jobs, getting married and trying to sell his songs. His tapes were rejected by most record companies. Finally, Lowe got him a contract with a new label called Stiff, which would become an amusing feature of the British music scene over the next few years. Besides the predictable double entrendres ("If it ain't Stiff it ain't worth a fuck"), the company's name allowed its PR department to supply record stores with signs saying "We got Stiffs in stock." Along with early work from Lowe, the Damned, Graham Parker, Ian Dury and Lene Lovitch, the label put out Costello's first astonishing singles ("Less Than Zero," "Alison," "Red Shoes" and "Watching the Detectives"). His full-length debut, "My Aim Is True," was released in England in July 1977; after (as the perhaps apocryphal story goes) he was arrested for busking outside a CBS Records convention, Columbia Records put it out in the United States some months later, beginning his 13-year association with the label.

From the start, his temperament distinguished him. The other major figure of this period, Johnny Rotten, of the Sex Pistols, hated the world with an innate zeal and used that emotion as a vehicle for an unusual and provocative social analysis. ("A rock band can tear down society.") This, depending on whom you talk to, was either societally dangerous (and a fantastic but portentous failure) or merely part of a centuries-spanning but relatively benign subversive order (and a complete, pointless success). Elvis Costello, by contrast, didn't hate, exactly. He was mostly irritated, and motivated by much different things. "That girl who won't go out with me" was the most important one, though "It took me too long to get a record contract" came a close second.

On "My Aim Is True," he introduced himself as a folk rocker cum sex killer who used a pleasant familiarity with folk, rockabilly, reggae and soul as a sardonic fagade for a somewhat narrow set of lyrical concerns. These typically leveraged themselves against his primary concerns of -- as he notoriously put it -- "revenge and guilt," the shame of the latter presumably fueling the ferocity of his desire for the former. In this peculiar recipe he found an outlet for a molten psyche that did indeed seem to equal that of Rotten's, which is saying something.

Sexual confusion, sexual frustration, sexual jealousy -- these are the key themes from that first album. Consider the malevolence of the singer in "Watching the Detectives," who is upset not that mass culture degrades humanity nor that cartoon violence deadens it, but rather that the woman on the couch next to him won't stop watching TV. The most recurring images are slightly disturbing ones, with various species of impotence -- voyeurism, submissiveness -- emerging again and again.

A year later, on "This Year's Model," aided by a violent trio known as the Attractions and a strange encoding of the mid-'60s work of the Rolling Stones, he delivered a rock masterwork that includes all the sexual dysfunctionality of his first record and adds a dollop or two of social criticism, detailing his displeasure with, among other things, advertising, censorship, models, record companies, the corporate ladder generally, radio and poseurdom. Yet arching over it all still is his utterly distracting obsession with girls. This sometimes made for amusing moments. His attitude toward oral sex, for example -- "If I'm gonna go down/You're gonna come with me" -- can be described as unhelpfully confrontational.

A year after that he produced "Armed Forces," a rabid pop exposition that found no little joy in the world of mercenaries and a lot to be fearful of in romance. It began with a winning admission of indecision ("Oh, I just don't know where to begin") and ended with a hugely unlikely song, a cover of Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding," sung with such indigestible sarcasm that to this day many fans think he was being sentimental.

His fourth album is a remarkable, soul-inflected work perversely called "Get Happy!!" It was the last record he would release that would even come close to the top 10. He and Nick Lowe shoehorned 20 songs onto one of those old-fashioned LP records, quite an achievement at the time, even if it did sound as if it had been recorded on a Walkman. Some of the songs Costello later admitted he'd written in a cab on the way back to the studio from lunch. (Good ones -- "Possession," for example.)

In America, around this time, he released a record called "Taking Liberties," a scintillating collection that included various non-album songs and B-sides; these tracks are now distributed across the respective albums in Rykodisc's elegant, essential reissues of his original Columbia albums. 1981's "Trust" has an amazing cover photograph. He has jowls and an innocent expression, and seems to want to please. The songs are gorgeous, if essentially meaningless. Dismayed that "Trust" didn't sell, Costello embarked on an odd excursion into country. "Almost Blue" confused fans and wasn't very good, either; today the C&W posturing seems tinny after more substantive country-inflected numbers like "Stranger in the House." The baroque "Imperial Bedroom" followed. Then came two utterly boring efforts, "Punch the Clock" and "Goodbye Cruel World." In the Ryko reissue of the latter, Costello's liner notes begin, "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Goon Squad

During this time Costello's personal life was wound up with nonstop touring, lots of speed and this and that variation of rock-star nogoodnickness. He seems not to have forgiven the world for not making him a star until he was 23; out of a sense of principle the source of which is unclear at this late date he was by his own account an asshole to most of those he came into contact with during this time. By 1979 fans were sometimes booing his short and unpleasant performances.

In this atmosphere of pointless aggression and self-indulgence, Costello began to distinguish himself. The first chance he got, he began dating models. One was Bebe Buell, that era's escort of choice of has-been rock stars. She had recently given birth to Steven Tyler's child. (The kid, incidentally, grew up to be Liv Tyler.) Their very public affair was doggedly covered by the British tabloids. Costello's wife must have enjoyed it. (They eventually divorced.) The Buell-Costello alliance lasted a few years, until Costello unceremoniously dumped her: She said he hung up on her one day and that she never heard from him again. In March 1979, Costello capped off this productive period in his extra-artistic life by getting himself into a scrap with Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fame) and Bonnie Bramlett (a minor singer from the '60s) in a hotel bar in Ohio. Again motivated by an unclear principle, he did his best to offend them, finally resorting to a burst of profanity and bigotry, capped with the assertion that Ray Charles was a "blind, ignorant nigger."

There's no evidence that Costello was a racist -- he'd been active in Rock Against Racism before it was fashionable and was too smart in any event to let it show if he was -- but he was being as stupid, reckless and out of control as any of the broken-down '60s stars his energy, brains and invective were supposed to be an antidote for. In any event, Bramlett industriously publicized the exchange and Costello tried to explain and apologize. He took his lumps in a months-long transatlantic brouhaha; to this day some serious critics hold him in contempt.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Brilliant Mistake

Costello's iconoclastic "Girls Girls Girls," a greatest-hits-style retrospective that came out a decade or so ago, is a thrilling, kaleidoscopic account of his career. The enigmatic programming -- song following song in dizzying, nonsensical fashion -- keeps you off guard. His "Almost Blue," a rueful romantic envoi, is followed by "Riot Act," a blisteringly self-destructive one. "Night Rally," a furious, unrelenting portrait of fascism, is followed by "American Without Tears," an oblique, metaphorical dissection of capitalism. What it all meant was dizzying, impenetrable. In his typically scintillating liner notes, Costello makes vague reference to stories he wished to tell in the sequencing, but this never becomes clear as, of course, it couldn't, or wouldn't.

Costello understands the Faustian bargain rock 'n' rollers make -- and seems to accept as well the even rougher demands of the even more unforgiving milieu in which his persona was hatched. But he's never liked it. He dutifully wrote a minor hit or two (most notably "Everyday I Write the Book"), but by the mid-'80s, it was plain that he was never going to sell a lot of records. He was losing his looks, putting on weight and his hair was thinning.

What to do? The smarter stars from the '60s rolled on, cannily playing their greatest hits for aging fans and jumping on this or that fad, like disco. To the punks the very words "Rod Stewart" were synonymous with pop degradation, but that didn't stop Stewart from selling ever-increasing numbers of records in the 1970s and 1980s. But that wasn't an option for Costello. The musical genre he cared the most for was classic country; unfortunately for him, it was the only genre the mass audience liked less than punk.

Crueller yet was the other avenue open to him -- that of artiste. In the '60s, with few exceptions, the greatest artists sold the most records -- it was a given. By the '80s, a wide gulf had opened up between talent and record sales. And for that matter, for all his reputation, Costello could scarcely comfort himself with the consolation that his was an unappreciated genius. "Punch the Clock" and "Goodbye Cruel World" were hardly evidence of that.

At a certain point it must have occurred to him that his moment had passed.

So in 1985 he tried to kill himself off. He jettisoned his stage name and resolved to record as Declan Patrick MacManus. He was quickly disabused of this notion by Columbia Records, which wasn't about to let him throw away his one salable commodity. So he sighed and produced what from this perspective must be seen as the key album of his oeuvre, more than those corrosive first albums, more than the magnificent "Imperial Bedroom."

This was 1986's "King of America," his haggard essay on the pointlessness of his career. (It ended up being credited to "The Costello Show," incidentally. It was a full, uh, six months before he put out another record under the name Elvis Costello.) To make his peace with the past, his key backing ensemble, which he collected with producer T-Bone Burnett, included some former players from that other Elvis' TCB band. The result is the most frustrating of Costello's unquestionably great efforts: Puffed up by his sidemen's risumis, he throws in too many tired boogie rave-ups ("Glitter Gulch," "Loveable"); and some forced genre posturing ("Eisenhower Blues"); and an annoying, mood-breaking cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."

But buried in the record as well is a suite of major songs, their intents extravagant and plain, that together are a shuddering portrait of his condition. Each is quiet and soft, and sung and enunciated with a deliberateness that suggests that their composer wants them to be understood. In "Jack of All Parades," he lurches feelingly between his love life and the pop life. ("I was everybody's boy/But soon that thrill just fades.") In the quivering "I'll Wear It Proudly," he offers a sarcastic deal to his audience: "I'll wear it proudly through the dives and the dancehalls/If you'll wear it proudly through the snakepits and catcalls." And the grand, ragged "Brilliant Mistake" is a hugely ambitious song that eviscerates, in vertiginous order, the American way of life, romance and then the singer's personality itself:

I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense ...
I was a fine idea at the time
Now I'm a brilliant mistake

The last song of this suite is "Suit of Lights," an intensely allusive affair with a musical panorama stretching from the journeyman musician to Nat King Cole to that other Elvis to Costello himself. Deep inside the song you can find a grinning crowd tarring and feathering an artist it doesn't like. Some of us may think that there's not enough of that these days, but to Costello it's an important image, a symbol of the crowd's fascistic leanings. His commentary on "Suit of Lights" on the "Girls Girls Girls" compilation is so central to understanding his career and work that they're worth taking a close look at. I quote them in their dense entirety with his idiosyncratic punctuation and slightly odd grammar, and advise that they bear careful reading.

There are small demands of respect. They are denied in this song, which I wrote for my father, Ross. He has greater professional resolve in the face of the tiny indignities that every working person shares, but is somehow overlooked and even resented when expressed by a performer. It is assumed that the risk of humiliation is the price paid for the privilege. I don't believe that is right and I am not talking about someone like myself, who has already been spoilt by your affection, coming to expect it to the extent that I sat down to write all of this but it's all 'Work.' The same pig-faced lout or drunken bore who is very large in the dark of the crowd would be horrified if you were to simply trip him up on the way to work. Here endeth the lesson. By the way, we forgive nothing.

I interpret those words this way: People think performers have it made, that if they don't like it they should get the hell off the stage. But musicians are working people. Show them some respect, you pig-faced louts who buy my records, and by the way I'm not making this plea on behalf of a star like myself, but rather on behalf of my sainted father, though I'm holding the grudge personally anyway.

I'm fascinated by the epigram that anchors his words: "The risk of humiliation is the price paid for the privilege." Costello disagrees. But here he's finessing a crucial distinction -- the difference between a journeyman and an artist. The journeyman, like Costello's father, makes no claim to art: He's just giving the crowd what it wants, trying to make a buck as he launches into the nine millionth cover of "Louie Louie."

But if that's the noble proletarian work you've chosen, the drunken louts are the ones you need to please. If they're talking, you're not doing your job. Humiliation and privilege don't enter into it.

The only people who are contemptuous of such labor are, of course, critics, who paradoxically love the son. A true artist like him -- and particularly one from the punk era -- has a responsibility to his audience that transcends entertainment. As he acknowledges, artists are spoiled, but that doesn't mean the audience is not, at the same time, a scary sight. Costello has always viewed it with horror. But really, what can you do? It's terrible to stand on a stage and try to sing a new song with a drunken lout screaming, "'Pump It Up'!" especially if you haven't written a song as good as "Pump It Up" in quite a while. You might say that the humiliation is the price paid for the privilege.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Man out of Time

Which brings us back to "Man out of Time."

For that song he drafted a line -- "He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege" -- that would find an unconscious but unnerving echo in the defensive words he wrote about his father for the "Girls Girls Girls" compilation five years later. For Costello, the man out of time is someone very much like a performer.

And suddenly the middle-class spy evaporates. In his place is a rock star -- a rock star who never was a star, really -- hooked on betrayal and on the run. "Man out of Time" is really about Costello and his career, practically from the first line to the last. With a nod to his namesake he describes himself wearing "dirty dead man's shoes." What is a star but someone who has "A tight grip on the short hairs/Of the public imagination" and who rather pathetically "listens for the footsteps that would follow him around"? The star on the run's affairs are splashed across the tabloids. ("For his private wife and kids sometimes/Real life becomes a rumor.") His minor celebrity and minor comforts are merely a reminder of the true stardom and riches denied him: "A tu'penny ha'penny millionaire/Looking for a fourpenny one."

That's the thing about Elvis Costello; he's been there before you. After "Imperial Bedroom" he recorded "King of America" and a solid Attractions follow-up, "Blood and Chocolate," and then slid quietly out of the artistic firmament. He moved to Warner Brothers; his albums there have been without interest, as have been his attempted collaborations with the likes of Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet and Burt Bacharach. His most loyal fans will doughtily make a case for "Spike," or "Mighty Like a Rose," or "Brutal Youth." That is what one's most loyal fans are for; a disinterested listener hears that in the last dozen or so years he's written barely a song or two that have the unforced drive, sparkle and complexity of his best work.

At the same time, Costello gave up any pretension of discriminating behavior. He did reunion tours with the Attractions and high-grossing, low-overhead outings with Nick Lowe or Steve Nieve, the Attractions keyboardist. He makes grinning appearances on TV shows and movies, and is happy to grab a paycheck at disgusting corporate rock events like the Guinness Fleadh and Woodstock. And when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has its annual dinners, Costello joins hacks like Billy Joel to grin and perform for the assembled industry parasites.

It's an old story and a common one; Costello's only novel approach was to see it coming before anyone else; when he did, he tried to vaporize his career and his future in a metaphorical auto-da-fi. No other major rocker has even considered such a thing, and you have to credit the punk era for even raising the question. Buried in all the noise, the aggression, the affected nihilism was a commitment to something like honesty. This is why '60s artists like John Lennon and Bob Dylan retain their psychic pop force: For all their missteps, their honesty never wavered.

To be honest to an audience, you have to care for it. The bravest can be humble before it, acknowledging its hunger, its capacity for horror and its unquestioning love for the performer, which Costello, as one of rock's greatest students of the music, must appreciate as well as anybody. In this context, what is worse than the feeling you're letting it down?

Whatever his ambivalent attitude toward the crowd (as the picture in "Suit of Lights" makes clear), Costello must have sensed the devotion a great part of it had for him. Those of us in the punk generation were taught to hate the heroes from the '60s who went soft and ridiculous in the '70s -- the Stewarts, the Claptons, the Jaggers. (Not to mention the Stillses and Bramletts!) Costello stood for something more than pop glee; he knew that rock's reason for being, if the music meant anything at all, was its ability to provide an outlet for rage like his, and that he had nothing to apologize for. But he was cursed to have been part of the first great rock moment that did not change the world, and was as a consequence born to hate itself. Someone with his capacity for fury could scarcely complain, but he must also have felt the waste, of both his talent and a generation's affection. To have murdered our love was a crime. We forgive nothing.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

MORE FROM Bill Wyman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------