David J Constable reflects on his affection for Costello’s music and its cross-generational appeal on the musician’s 60th birthday
You’ve got to have balls to change your name to Elvis. It’s a move more audacious than writing Gandhi or Jesus on the deed-poll. Elvis was a King, The King; leader of men; with followers, private jets and a hairstyle as black and iconic as Mickey Mouse’s ears. That hair. That smile. Damn you to Hell if you were gonna stop him, if anyone was: not you, not Ed Sullivan, not the network, not the mothers of teenage daughters.
That was Elvis. And then, there’s Elvis.
The other Elvis. Costello. Once Declan Patrick MacManus. The musician with the imperturbable assurance that he’d take-on the famed sobriquet and forge his own (legendary) status. He’d stick with music and lace the output of late-70s anti-establishment punk-rock with his own angry-young-man-rhetoric. He turned 60 this year (today). A few days short of my 30th birthday. A 30-year gap in which he plugged-away through an eclectic mix of genres, which I’m only truly appreciating now.
Released under Stiff Records in 1977, My Aim Is True introduced the world to a gangly kid in glasses with a Fender Telecaster (later a Jazzmaster) and spleen-rupturing intensity. He spilled-out with lyrics he had no right expressing at such a juvenile age, “Now fear is here to stay. Love is here for a visit” [‘Watching the Detectives’] and, “Our love got fractured in the echo and sway” [‘(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes’].
He was still only 22, gigging the pubs and clubs of an aggressive London with the look of an arrogant Buddy Holly impersonator, but with a Paddington-born, cross-Scouse tinge in his delivery. Doing the rounds with the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Jam was a whirlwind initiation into the world of live punk performance at a time when an album could make or break an act, and often did.
My introduction to Costello came on a car journey in 1994. It was the cassette tape of 1989’s Spike, his twelfth studio album and his first under Warner Bros. My mother would pop the cassette in and seemingly hum-along to lyrics and phrases that confused a 10-year-old not long out of nursery rhymes. Lyrics such as, “You’re nobody till everybody in this town, thinks you’re a bastard” [‘This Town’].
“You’re nobody till everybody in this town, thinks you’re a bastard”
Track seven, ‘Satellite’, had the most pleasing melody, yet is juxtaposed the lyrics, “In the hot unloving spotlight, with secrets it arouses/Now they both know what it’s like inside a pornographer’s trousers.” Was my mother aware of the sordid lyrics she was exposing her small boy to?
Some years later, rummaging through Mum’s now-CD collection (cassettes were always too plastic and fiddly), I discovered All This Useless Beauty (released in 1996 and reissued by Rhino in 2001) by Elvis and The Attractions. I remembered back to Spike and the historical tales and fiery laments, and put the CD on. The lyrics appeared more tender and the voice cracked with the pained emotion of experience. It all sounded familiar, that moment when you think a song was written about you, for you, or at least the author was thinking of you when they penned it. It was fitting for a young man still finding his place in the world.
Certain now that Elvis had something I needed; I sort his back-catalogue from an Our Price store in Maidstone and began assembly of my own collection.
Years ran away and I marked-off the troubadour poets that had shaped my being: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, James Taylor, Paul Weller and Ray Davies. Tom Waits still eludes me and so had Elvis. Then there was the announcement that he was to open Kew the Music, the summer-sway festival in the middle of the week in middle of the Royal Gardens for the middle-aged and middle-class. But I went anyway.
It was a tamer affair than the angry hedonist performances of the 70s and ’80s, but it was him alright; on stage, in his hat, with his guitar, in the distance. A performance in Kew was a return to his parish having grown up down the road in Twickenham, and he joked about the pastoral English feel to the evening, like a scene from a county calendar.
Favourites featured, the words reaching out and taking me back to those car journeys with Mum. Perhaps that’s where the perspicacity lies; the thing that reaches out to you and relates to the ear: the pure, stripped-back simplicity of being. Of remembering. Nothing else. Nothing more. No magic, cheats, shortcuts or wizardry. Albums recorded with the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussant and opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter, show the span of his interests and that it’s in these collaborations where his outlet for such creativity now flourishes.
There’s still so much material for me to cover. People talk of the melding styles on 1982’s Imperial Bedrooms, so I’ve bought a copy. I still haven’t caught up with last year’s Wise Up Ghost collaboration with The Roots. He’s relentless. Unyielding in his output, whether across music, film, television (he’s been in The Simpsons and Two and a Half Men), interviewing (he hosted Spectacle, a chat show series on Channel 4), writing; passing on what he has to the next generation. Like Elvis. The other Elvis.
David J Constable is a writer and travel journalist
“It all sounded familiar, that moment when you think a song was written about you, for you, or at least the author was thinking of you when they penned it”