Elvis Costello In Conversation With Odile W. Husband Episode Three



Episode Three


OWH: “Five Small Words” and “The Spell That You Cast” are both terrific little beat combo records. One is mostly an Imposters track and the other the Sugarcanes. The two bands approach rock'n'roll differently. Could you have swapped the bands for those two songs?


EC: These cuts actually mix up the two bands. “The Spell That You Cast” has Dennis Crouch playing with Pete Thomas and I trade off in the solo with Mike Compton’s mandolin and Steve Nieve’s Vox Continental Organ.


OWH: Where you not concerned that people might see this as a battle of the bands? 


EC: I think that music and musicians are at their least attractive when set in competition and these are two terribly handsome bands.


To know that this is true, you need only look at the nightly entertainments that begin with the stage directions:


"First, fill your arena with water. Now release the crocodiles"


Humiliating people is so old hat.


And it’s a battered old top hat with no white tie, a sort of P.T. Barnum promotion without the wit or the alibis.


OWH: You wrote about him on your last record, didn’t you?


EC: Yes, I did.


You know, Barnum had a whale in his “American Museum”. So, releasing a crocodile is nothing.


OWH: But not a blue whale as you claimed in “Red Cotton"


EC: Okay, he wasn’t blue but he was despondent.


OWH: Speaking of those songs, will “The Secret Songs” ever be completed?


EC: Those crazy Danes are always up to something. Just this morning, I received a request to permit a Danish translation of “The Big Light” for a stage play about Johnny Cash. 


OWH: A stage play about Johnny Cash in Danish?


EC: It would appear so or this Danish translation of my song is going to seem a little out of place.


OWH: Is it faithful?


EC: My Danish is not what is was when I worked the longboats but I believe it is steadfast and true.


Did you know that there is a Polish version of “The Juliet Letters”?


OWH: I did not. How does that sound?


EC: Almost exactly as you would imagine. That interpretation contains very imaginative re-arrangements. It is my favourite rendition after the original recording. I like “´Swinia”, in particular.


OWH: And what of “The Secret Songs”? How do you look back? How do you move forward with them?


EC:  I’m grateful for that invitation from the Royal Danish Opera. I could not have known that, when I cracked the spine of my first Hans Christian Andersen biography, nine years ago, that it would lead to me singing “She Handed Me A Mirror” on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium and it feeling like some sort of mutant George Jones song.


Far from being motivated by hubris, as some cynics would have you believe, this kind of work allows you to write in a different, less harmonically predictable way. 


Lyrically, it offered a pretext for me to write about a number of subjects that I might not have arrived at. 


That little theatrical business in which Barnum dismissively reads an abolitionist’s pamphlet, gave me the chance to write something about Liverpool’s part in the slave trade.


It’s something that troubles you, when you see the grand maritime buildings, the Town Hall with engraved stone remembrances of men made into commodities, the cotton exchange, the banks like palaces and the grand mansions.


Then you think what fate handed the city as it withstood everything the 20th century could throw at it.


I needed to go through all that paraphernalia and persuasion, the misery and the guilt, to get to a closing expression of love for frail and faulty human beings.


People stood up at the end of that song, when it was first performed on stage. I was touched by that response. It is rare.


OWH: Nevertheless, there is a mounting pile of unfinished works; “The Secret Songs”, “The Delivery Man”, an album that contained an incomplete narrative and I read something about several abandoned works for Broadway. Are you concerned about not seeing things through?


EC: I suppose I have a different sense of where these endeavors have lead, rather than where they left off.


“Bedlam”, has been central to my recent solo shows and was also featured in an orchestral arrangement in concerts with the Dallas Symphony, earlier this year.


I wouldn’t have had that option, if I had held rigidly to my first structural notions about “The Delivery Man” and not allowed the world at large enter into the small society that the character songs were describing.


About three years ago, I spent a couple of afternoons with Barry Levinson, examining where songs might occur in a stage adaptation of one of his most renowned scripts. I even went so far as to write a song in the likeness of Screaming Jay Hawkins that was to be playing on a jukebox. 


Although we didn't manage to resolve the conundrums and contradictions that face collaborators in such a task, you couldn't possibly characterize such an experience as time wasted. Not all education concludes with a golden seal on a diploma.


OWH: Some people regard it as strange that you have never written for the musical theatre.


EC: These are clearly people who haven’t recently visited a Broadway theatre with very few certain noble exceptions.


OWH: So, there have been serious overtures. 


EC: Some of them have seemed endless.  


Between Broadway and the art music world, I’d say one or two approaches have been made every couple of years, over the last decade and a half.  Three or four have merited serious consideration but nothing has got past the stage of preliminary sketches. 


OWH: What about writing for film or television? Has that nothing new appealed to you or nothing been offered, beyond a co-write like “The Scarlet Tide” or your music for English television drama in the early 90s?


EC: Well, when ideas float into view, you are never really certain whether they come from the writers and directors or seventeenth under-assistant dogsbody to the producer. 


In any case, creative dialogue is often stifled by disputes over the ownership of such songs as appear in television and movie productions. My belief is that songs should always retain an independent life, as they frequently outlive their celluloid sources. 


For example, I have no idea whether the notion that I write all of the songs for one season of “Deadwood” was serious, as the alternative history of showbusiness is probably littered with such missed connections or you would have been hearing “The Crooked Line” over the end credits of “I Walk The Line” and there might have even been a musical production number featuring Sean Penn singing, “Sulphur To Sugarcane”. 


OWH: So perhaps you were relieved to write “National Ransom” without the framework of any theatrical conceit.


EC: It’s not the only way songwriting is provoked.  


A line can lie undisturbed in a notebook for ten years, only to prove key to completing a verse in a hit tune. Nothing is ever completely wasted. Melodies can be transformed from instrumental to vocal and themes are found common to free standing compositions and those sketched for a special occasion. 


Here’s an example. 


Four years ago, both T Bone and I were approached to work on a musical based on a wonderful radio documentary by the Kitchen Sisters – Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. It was about a radio station WHER, initially founded and funded by Sam Phillips in 1954. 


The odd thing about the station was that it played absolutely no rock and roll and was staffed and presented entirely by women WHER was directed by Sam’s wife, Becky, who programmed an early form of “Easy Listening”, before the term had really been defined.  


It was a wonderful story, rich in contradictions, not least in that it contradicted almost every cliché about life in the 1950s that you have received or perceived. 


Latterly, I entered into a fascinating correspondence with the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, who had been asked to write the book, that is the dramatic adaptation of this essentially factual record. 


Sarah wrote a couple of exquisite pages of dialogue, immediately establishing one of the key relationships in the story and I wrote a song that would have been playing in the background of another scene. 


Curiously enough, unbeknownst to all concerned, two other musicals set in the Memphis of the 1950s were about to go into production.  There is an old saying about London buses, “You wait for ages. Then three come along together”. 


Needless to say, in commercial terms, this rather poisoned the well.


OWH: So, were you left with a lot of unresolved and useless material?


EC: On the contrary, I’ve written songs based on chance remarks, overheard and even misunderstood, from apparently innocuous passages of newsprint, from footnotes in biographies, so to suddenly have a couple of orphaned themes was no inhibition at all. 


In a world of endless, useless, worthless choice, the idea of taboo is almost quaint, as is the notion of a faint signal reaching out across a land almost devoid of light. 


When I started to write for myself again, I found one or two of my scribbled notes to be quite valuable. 


One simply said, “a voice in the dark”, with no other clues. It might have been some kind of imagined stage direction but I took it to be an invitation, somewhere between a sales pitch and a prayer. 


For some time, I’ve carried around this notion of “Church Underground”, meaning an incongruous location for exaltation, like a dive. 


These Memphis women from WHER lead decorous lives by day, playing carefully programmed, genteel music but took to the nightlife with some enthusiasm. It’s hard now to imagine that I could have inserted a notion like that into their existing story, so I had to conceive my own narrative with which to present it.


I don’t suppose we’ll ever know whether these little cast aside fragments might have lit up the Great White Way but if they had they would have been entirely different songs employing with different words in a radically different story. 


Somewhere up in heaven, George M. Cohan is sticking pins in my likeness. 


OWH: Travel and exile is a repeated motif, especially in the songs that you’ve written and that have been produced by T Bone Burnett. I’m thinking about “American Without Tears” and “Last Boat Leaving”


EC: It’s the family business.


My father was onstage or on the road for 40 years or more. His father was an army bandsman who circled the globe in one uniform and then made several return passages across the Atlantic on the White Star Line, playing trumpet before ending up in a pit orchestra in his hometown.


You might say I’ve had it easy.


Travel songs like “Sulphur To Sugarcane” have taken me around the world. They even transported me to Australia, although they allowed me to leave again.


OWH: In the last years, you seem more and more drawn to arcane language and historical context. Do you spend much time on detailed research?


EC: One makes you forget the other.


OWH: In what sense?


EC: You must memorize and then destroy, just like a spy movie.


All of the words, arcane or otherwise, animate the characters and construct the worlds they walk in. But these little dramas and comedies are also works of imagination and you know how dreams can be distorted versions of waking life.


Only prigs and pedants hold songs up to the light, looking for clues, as if decoding them could carry you into an exact replica of the past, a facsimile of the truth. 


Those looking for absolute veracity seem to forget that history is not only written, as they say, by the victors but it is also printed in bad translation, via a false or faulty memory. 


We can only speculate as to how the air felt around your face, how the knife of a cruel word twisted in the heart.


OWH: So, historical accuracy is not of primary importance to you?


EC: It seems rather missing the point that we should fixate on the buttons on a coat. 


I look back because mistakes are there to be repeated. You think there is no slavery in the world anymore?


These “National Ransom” songs were written quite recently and are being heard in the present moment with reference to an elusive past. 


I can't explain the effect any better than in these lines from "You Hung The Moon":


"The lines of the fallen are viewed through the glass, you cannot touch them at all

Or hear their footfall just as they go past

The drunken ground is where they are bound"


OWH: Nevertheless, are you concerned that people will see these songs as less personal?


EC: Would they have a greater claim to power or beauty, if I could prove to you that everything happened just as I’ve written it? Is there any more personal place than the imagination?


OWH: People do seem to value songs that mirror their own experiences.


EC:  Then perhaps they’ll love this record. It seems we are all driving over the same cliff together, in slow motion.


Understanding that nothing takes exactly as much time as life itself, is central to abandoning the delusion that you are buying pieces of the singer’s soul for the price of a record.


Those diary records that you used to love, that spoke to your secret fears and desires. They are full of deceptions and evasions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they don’t sound great and you’ll always wish you’d had the courage to put on that eyeliner.


OWH: So, is there simply some strange satisfaction to be had in employing a word like “fingersmith”?


EC: Yeah, I’ve waited half my life to use it. It’s just another word for pickpocket. There are so many about that they each require a different title.


OWH: Surely, there is actually no such expression as “skedele-daddle-do”?


EC: Tell that to Fred Flintstone. I simply took a liberty with the verb “skedaddle”, meaning to run away in panic. 


OWH: These images financial and spiritual chaos seem to go back to “The Scarlet Tide”, another song you wrote with T Bone about “swindlers who act like kings and brokers who break everything”


EC: You never like to be right about these things but we do continue to elevate and lionize these brigands and pirates. They would be first to the scaffold in any sensible society. 


OWH: Okay, we are getting pretty far away from rock and roll


EC: How far away would you like to get?


OWH: Not that far.


What should the listener take out of the location and date of “The Spell That You Cast”, which is “The Castle Hotel, Richmond” 1965”?


EC:  That’s a little walk over the bridge.


I used to go to the pictures on a Friday and Saturday night. Well, I was eleven year old and too young to go to the cinema in the evening alone, so my mother would take me to see “A” pictures that she wanted to see.


Like any young English boy of that time, I favoured anything that involved killing Nazis. “The Heroes of Telemark”, “The Guns Of Navarone” but I also remember seeing, “The List Of Adrian Messenger”, “West Side Story” and “The Ipcress File”.


I saw Ursula Andres come out of the sea. And although I didn’t understand how rude "Honey Ryder” and “Pussy Galore” were as character names, I was never quite the same again.


Oddly, enough while I was having this preliminary introduction to adult themes, rock and roll was going on all around me but I was too young to attend.


OWH: How so?


EC: The Station Hotel, which housed the club where The Rolling Stones started out, was just up the road. Eel Pie Island in the bend of the Thames, hosted The Who and The Yardbirds. By the time I was old enough to go to those places, that scene was gone.


So, emptying out into the dark streets from whatever fantasy had dominated the previous two hours, you might walk home past some kerfuffle as the coppers were chasing lads down the towpath, who had been thrown out of a dance at the Castle Hotel.


I don’t know if the “The Spell That You Cast” is the song that was playing behind the green door, so to speak. It is just the product of a chance tuning of my Gibson Tenor guitar. It yielded that “spell” chord at the end of the refrain.


All my favourite rock and roll records sound like happy accidents. This one sees a beat group collide with a driving mandolin player who can beat the band like Johnny Johnson. It’s a new kind of music. Perhaps we’ll call it “Mod-Billy”.


All the kids will be doing it next week


OWH: That’s almost the only electric guitar that you play on the album, isn’t it?


EC: I play some electric bass on “National Ransom” but that’s my only electric guitar solo and I used just four strings. Perhaps my fingers were tired from being a hired gun?


OWH: You’re not going all Chuck Barris on me now, are you?


EC: I’m talking about my session work


OWH: Session work as guitar player?


EC: That’s right. People think that I’ve been pursuing another career in television but in the dead of night, I shin up drainpipes into studios and overdub my electric guitar.


Curiously enough, the guys tend not to call me but the girls understand.


OWH: What records are you taking about? Do you have an alias?


EC: A ‘Nom De Twang”?


OWH: Yes?


EC: It never occurred to me that I needed to cover my tracks.


My first assignment was playing on my friend, Wendy Bird’s album, “Natural Wonder”. I played the Gretsch guitar solo on a song called, “Deliver Me”.


Around that time, I lead the Imposters on a Jenny Lewis song called, “High And Lows”. I understand that Jenny and Johnny now regard it as that start of their brand new sound, which has paid off with the album, “I’m Having Fun Now”.


And I think I’m on four tracks of the next Lucinda Williams record.


OWH: You’re singing with her?


EC: No, playing lead and rhythm guitar.


OWH: You are making this up, aren’t you?


EC: I am most certainly not, Mrs. Husband.


I was asked to sing a harmony on a song that Lucinda contributed for this show about biting people but there was very little I could add to her performance, so I sang a very discreet line of harmony.


My consolation was Lucinda and her husband Tom invited me down to play on a session at Capitol Studios. We cut one song live with Lu in the booth and they must have liked what I did, because they kept putting up reels of tape.


By the end of the night, I think I must have played on half the record.   


OWH: Davey Faragher makes his sole appearance on “Five Small Words”. What does he bring to the party?


EC: He plays down low where the bass is supposed to go. He is an incredible musician, as anyone with ears will tell you. The Coward Brothers take care of the guitars and even the Farfisa Organ on that one. I think it was Howard’s work.


OWH: The Coward Brothers have always gone their own way with songs.


EC: I’m glad you noticed.


At our very first reunion appearances back in 1984, we were playing songs by Doc Watson, George Jones and Bobby Charles.


In fact, at that session for “Five Small Words”, we also cut a beautiful Bobby Charles song called “I Hope”, which was originally recorded by the great Tommy McClain.


Have you ever heard Tommy’s song about King Herod, “High Class Fool”?


OWH: I don’t believe I have.


EC: I think you would appreciate it.


I heard Tommy’s version of “Sweet Dreams” before I even had a record contract. That was much more of an influence of my own take on the song than even the Patsy Cline recording.


I finally got to meet Tommy just this year. We sang in two-part harmony on, “Before I Grow Too Old” at a salute to Bobby Charles in New Orleans, during JazzFest.


C.C. Adcock and the Lil’ Band Of Gold put together the kind of night that made you proud to be there. If I ever have the misfortune to die, I hope they can play the wake. 


"After the break, The epilogue in which the Lupe-O-Tone mystery is explained. More on Leon Russell, Tony Millionaire, Harry Lauder and that forthcoming gospel record."


Odile W. Husband (neé O’Súlleabháin) is the popular music correspondent of “The Inquisitor”  - an independent catholic journal on all matters cultural, satirical and spiritual.