Mystery Dance: Stiff Records co-founder Jake Riviera once described Costello as 'Buddy Holly on acid.'
-->King of America
Elvis Costello and tales of brutal youth
All this Useless Beauty
Last time Elvis Costello played the LBC, I hung around the backstage door afterwards with about 30 other patient fans. Some had brought the latest CD for him to sign; others, old import 45s or even photographs. For the better part of an hour, it became a temporary Elvis Costello fan club meeting as total strangers compared stories and mementos.
He eventually emerged and strolled down the line of people under the breezeway, stopping to chat and sign autographs for every star-struck fan. I could have brought any number of records for him to sign. As it turned out, I decided on My Aim Is True because, well, there just isn't any good spot on the cover of Trust to sign one's name (unless, of course, you count the forehead, and I was not about to ask him to sign his own forehead). It was amazing. Meeting Elvis Costello was a heavy experience, the gravity of which was surely lost on him as he hopped in a car and rode away.
Considering that my preadolescent taste in music consisted entirely of the soundtrack to Flashdance, it's not too surprising that Elvis Costello didn't really enter my consciousness until he broke into commercial radio. His politics--champion of the working man, down with Thatcher!--never really registered. After all, music was for dancing, and Elvis Costello wasn't a maniac. Then, suddenly, I was 16 and Flashdance was a distant (yet still fond) memory, and moping was more important than dancing. It was 1989 and Spike stabbed me directly in my heart. Costello was suddenly dark and brooding, so much deeper than Tiffany or Debbie Gibson, and belting out truths like he was singing right to me. "Veronica" was ebullient and about aging and lost love--ideas that I could barely grasp, but it didn't matter; the video was in heavy rotation on MTV. And oh! His glasses were so sexy. And then I discovered the Beatles and Cat Stevens, and older men (some dead, some converted to Islam and talking about holy wars--but so deep!) became my musical gods.
And I blame Elvis Costello.
Imagination (Is a Powerful Deceiver)
It used to be that dorks didn't have a lot of role models. Sifting through stacks of vinyl as a youngster, my role model jumped out in an epileptic checkerboard pattern with his legs splayed. My Aim Is True was hard to look at, but with the horn-rimmed glasses and the bright red letters across the top, it held a strange appeal. The first listen upset my expectations--how can this dork sound so raw and angry? His voice was about as suave as a cement truck, and yet these were pop songs. The idea that this music was made at all was thrilling in a completely new way. You're allowed to sound like this? Even with the glasses? It seemed to be so, and this young nerd liked to think he felt the power.
This House Is Empty Now
It's 1980 and I'm in row eight of the Fillmore. Elvis Costello, the angry young man of the moment, is onstage, all slim black pants and pomade hair and Buddy Holly glasses and guitar swung over his back by its strap so that he can mouth right onto the microphone as the Attractions blaze behind him. I am so close that I can see the spit flying glamorously from his angry young lips. My friends and I are absolutely enslaved by his intelligent fury, the dry-hump frustration of his fast rhythms. We've used our after-school job money to pay for a San Francisco dinner, buy new vintage clothing and gas up Mark's 1970 Gremlin. This is a big night, a huge night, way beyond any corsage-faded prom. We're there for Elvis!
Elvis, who plays for 27 minutes and stomps off the stage in a private rage that surely has something to do with money and more likely to do with Americans. We're on the seats, all of us, thousands of us, shouting and rocking the chair springs. The lights go up, a harried Bill Graham rushes up from the audience and mops his brow as he apologizes. Go home, he says. Go home. We thousands stay for over an hour, shouting and pounding and rocking the springs. Elvis doesn't return.
It's 2001 and I'm up in the heavens at the Warfield. In order to be able to pay the babysitter, we've eaten simply at home. Elvis is alone on the stage with just pianist Steve Nieve as an accompanist. For two hours they play, restaging and arranging older songs, debuting new ones, Nieve so frenetic at one point that he literally breaks a key off his piano. It flies with a plink onto the stage floor. After 120 minutes, Elvis is ready to go. We thousands stand, shouting and pounding and rocking. He stays, singing four encores. Still we stand. Elvis puts down the microphone, nods to Nieve and steps to the stage lip. With no amplification, with no instrument, he sings the audience a lullaby. We are calmed, we are crying, we go home.
[ | Metroactive Central | ]
From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.