Elvis Costello In Conversation With Odile W. Husband The Epilogue

 

OWH: “My Lovely Jezebel” sounds like it was fun to make.  Had you seen Leon Russell perform before and what was it like to work with him?

 

EC: I saw Leon Russell headlining at the Liverpool Empire. It must have been in 1971 or 1972. Freddie King opened the show. Then as now, Leon made everything happen when he took the stage. For heavens sake, his rock and roll credits could fill up a big inscribed monolith, if they still made such things. 

 

We had met just once before the evening on which T Bone, Leon and I wrote “My Lovely Jezebel”. 

 

That was in the wings at Willie Nelson’s 70th Birthday Show. Leon was standing there quietly, while all sorts of singers and tap-dancers came and went. Then he went out on stage and played his part in the absolute highlight of the show; a trio version of his composition, “Song For You” with Willie and Ray Charles. It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever witnessed.

 

OWH: When Sir Elton John was the guest on your television show, “Spectacle”, he spent a good portion of the interview talking about Leon Russell’s music. Did this have anything to do with their recent collaboration?

 

EC: Well, that isn’t for me to say but it wouldn’t have required a Pauline conversion. Leon’s music clearly means the world to him.

 

In fact, when they were recording, “The Union” together, I went down to the studio to visit and T Bone introduced me to Leon properly.

 

Elton had to cut out early that evening, so T Bone suggested the three of us write a song.

 

First off, we sat around with three guitars but Leon said, he just liked to play the blues on that thing, so we retired to the piano booth, which was what I really had in mind all along.

 

Moments later, Leon had come up with the music for “My Lovely Jezebel”. I improvised a few lines of the lyric and T Bone later sent me a note with a few more lyrics. I carried a rough tape of this off with me to my next engagement in St. Paul.

 

It was about 11.30, on the next evening when a very polite Minnesotan voice called my room and asked me to keep the noise down.

 

I’d apparently been singing along with the demo tape wearing headphones and hadn’t realized that I was serenading the entire floor of the hotel.

 

I must have sounded like a madman, trying one line of the chorus and then half a verse, then the refrain again.

 

I’m glad to say that once Leon got into the studio in Nashville and started leading the band, the song sounded a lot less berserk than it did to the desk clerk.

 

OWH: It’s great to hear Leon take that closing piano solo

 

EC: Yes, I think that’s what Hoagy Carmichael would have sounded like if he’d played rock and roll.

OWH: I mentioned “Spectacle” a while back. Are you excited about the prospect of “Season Three”?

 

EC: The entire adventure has been filled with unbeatable, unrepeatable moments but when I went out to speak with the audience before we started this incredible four-hour taping the episodes with Bruce Springsteen, I told them I was determined to enjoy myself as if it were my last show as host.

Doing any show as if it is your last or even your first, is not a bad frame of mind to be in and for now it seems we are putting up the test-card until all of the necessary pieces fall into place again. 

 

OWH: So, the show might return at later date. 

 

EC: Well, it is essential we add something of worth to the twenty all ready completed.  

When I am home in Canada, minding my own business in the grocery store or the tobacconist, barely a day goes by without someone mentioning the show and artists they may have enjoyed or even discovered. That’s quite remarkable. 

Finding a way to present people like Jesse Winchester to the broader audience he so richly deserves and sharing a stage with Ray Lamontagne, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, well, all of the guests really, has been a privilege. 

OWH: Do you have a favourite episode?

 

EC: There are moments I like in all of them and others where I’m clearly finding my way but I’m thankful because those people gave me a chance. 

The show with Smokey Robinson from Season One was pretty thrilling to do and the show with Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe and Levon Helm seemed to sum up what we were about in Season Two.

I really appreciated Levon going for the “Mister Ed” routine, as he was under doctor’s orders not to speak. 

OWH: The “Mister Ed” routine?

 

EC: “Mister Ed” used to communicate by beating his hooves in the dust, when not actually talking. 

When it transpired on the day that Levon was forbidden to speak as well as sing, due to vocal strain, it did temporarily throw the structure of four-part show into chaos. 

He was a good sport to go along with idea of giving me a drum fill in response to the names of drummers who I imagined he admired:

“Earl Palmer” – Rat-Tat-Sssht-Tata-Tat-Te-Ta-Tat-Tat-Tat-Crash!!!

“Jimmy Lee Keltner” as he calls him – Diggity-Boom-Dack-Dack-A-Dum!!!

“Spider Kilpatrick”…

Well, you get the idea…

 

OWH: And your favourite musical numbers from each season?

 

EC: Oh, that’s nearly impossible. 

Okay, of my own performances from Season One perhaps, “Ballad Of A Well Known Gun” from the very first show with Elton and “Baby Let’s Play House” from the President Clinton show just because of the James Burton guitar solos, 

My favourite moments from the guests have to be Kris doing, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and oddly enough, Smokey doing a cover of “Don’t Know Why” and absolutely killing it. 

In Season Two, everyone’s favourite performance seemed to be Jesse Winchester’s “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” but “The Weight” was pretty terrific. 

I loved the way Allen Toussaint took the “Go Down Miss Moses” verse. The “Pops” verse as my wife calls it, because she loves the way Pops Staples sings it in “The Last Waltz”. 

Then I have to throw my hat in the air for the way the Imposters stepped up behind Bono and Edge and again with Bruce at either end of the season. I think all concerned enjoyed playing together. 

 

OWH: The new album cover, like the previous one, is an illustration by Tony Millionaire.  The drawing for “National Ransom” reflects the music by being more aggressive and filled with small details, symbols and signs.  How much information did you give Tony to get that drawing?

 

EC: I sent Tony the music and I suppose he drew what he heard. The first notion was to take the black bird from the cover of “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane” and portray him rampant, heraldically speaking.

 

That wouldn’t have quite done the job. Then we hit on the wolf.

 

We discussed Tony's early sketches and he took it from there; the use of symbols found on currency, objects paid for with blood or money in ever-inflating denominations.

 

I couldn’t imagine anything that could be better suited. 

 

OWH: Tony Millionaire’s illustration would look good on an L.P. jacket

 

EC: It will.

 

You can never be certain about these things going in but I always thought that "National Ransom" was composed as a double album, so you might say that the vinyl edition is the real record.

 

We are living through a "duck and cover" era in the commerce of music, so you don't want to say these things up ahead or people will never come out from under their desks again.

 

Which is why we were fortunate to locate an outfit like Lupe-O-Tone.

 

OWH:  I read a slightly cryptic announcement that something called "Lupe-O-Tone" was issuing a very limited edition of 78-rpm pressings of songs included on "National Ransom". I took this to be a hoax.

 

EC: It most certainly is not. The wax is cooling as we speak. The needle is ready to drop.

 

OWH: So, is “Lupe-O-Tone” a sound process as much as a record label?

 

EC: They still offer “Full Lycanthropic Sound”. You probably remember when the record companies tried to pass people off with “Enhanced Lycanthropic Sound” in the late ‘40s. It was like that fake stereo in the early 60s, just one velour paw in the left-hand channel.

 

OWH: You don’t hear of many people pressing 78rpm records these days.

 

EC: We had to engage a kind of private investigator to locate someone who still understood the beautiful mysteries of manufacturing such records.

 

Our first enquires led to a man mixing chemicals in his garage. He told us that he knew how to do it but that is was impossible to get the necessary insects, these days

 

Then we contacted this fellow, Mr. Mancini.

 

He claimed to be a distant relative of Henry, so I thought he might be the man for the job. It was one of those "call the phone booth on a Wednesday at 11am, let it ring three times and they might call you back" scenarios, right out of motion pictures.

 

Eventually, this led us to a small company that had been doing this since 1913. When the market for 78s became limited, they went into the fine art business. They won't press more than fifty records at a time.

 

We spilt the difference and decided to cut two double-sided, ten-inch discs. Four songs in all, "Jimmie Standing In The Rain" b/w "A Voice In The Dark" and "A Slow Drag With Josephine" b/w "You Hung The Moon".

 

There will we be a signed and numbered edition of twenty-five of each title.

 

OWH: Who do you imagine will buy them?

 

EC: Anyone who still loves beautiful objects and good music.

 

OWH: But will they actually play?

 

EC: They most certainly will, on the right gramophone. Of course, they'll sound like hell on your mp3 player but you must be used to that by now.

 

OWH: One of those songs, “You Hung The Moon” sounds like something remembered from a dream and scrawled onto a bedside pad. Are songs sometimes mysteries even to the writer?

 

EC: Actually, “You Hung The Moon” was written on the same railway journey as yielded “(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes” – the London to Liverpool line. I think I may have started a station or two earlier with this composition.

 

The song itself is set in 1919, when it is well documented that bereaved families turned to clairvoyants and all manner of bogus spiritualists to deal with the enormity of their losses.

 

Now that they have stopped shamefully hiding the return of fallen soldiers, I suppose it was likely that a song of this kind might come to mind.   

 

OWH: Your vocals sound somehow more comfortable on this record.  Even on the songs with tricky melodies, there seems to be a calmness, authority and ease. Did you approach the vocals any differently for these songs?

 

EC: The approach to recording taken by T Bone Burnett and Mike Piersante places the singer at the centre of the ensemble.

 

There were no big screens or isolation booth between my vocal microphone and the players. You have to sing, you want to sing and you can see and feel everything to give you every encouragement.

 

OWH: On “You Hung The Moon” is sung in a low croon very much like Bing Crosby.  You don’t do it in a campy way – you really go for it.  Is singing that way a privilege you would not have allowed yourself when you were younger?

 

EC: In the absence of Bing, I think that mine is the natural voice for the song. I’m merely singing very quietly in my speaking register.

 

OWH: From the thirties until well into the sixties, that was the principle style of mainstream male pop singing. Now no one sings that way.  Even the few remaining old school pop singers, Tony Bennett first among them, have craggier voices.  Did Jim Morrison finish off crooning forever?

 

EC: The only song by The Doors that I like is “Break On Through To The Other Side” and I don’t think that involves any crooning. But the opening of Iggy Pop’s “Turn Blue” is a fine a croon as one could hope to hear. I based "Little Triggers" on that for "This Year's Model".

 

OWH: Have you sent “That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving” to George Jones yet?

 

EC: No, but I have sent it to Solomon Burke.

 

OWH: Other singers’ vocal harmonies play a crucial role in this record. How did you arrive at these different combinations?

 

EC: Hearing those great harmony vocals from Mike Compton on “A Slow Drag With Josephine” and “Five Small Words” was something else.

 

Jim Lauderdale makes a vital contribution to both “That’s Not The Part Of Him” and “All These Strangers” and we’ve already spoken about Vince Gill singing on “Dr. Watson, I Presume” but I should mention that Buddy Miller also lends his voice to the title track.

 

In all the other cases, I felt that I didn’t want to shy away from dubbing vocal harmonies myself, something that I’ve done to good effect since my first record.

 

OWH: What about live performances?

 

EC: Well, concerts are another matter.

 

Davey Faragher and I harmonize on Imposters shows and nearly all of Sugarcanes can vocalize.

 

On one of our last summer dates, Stuart Duncan actually took a lead vocal on “I Am A Pilgrim” and Mike Compton, Jim Lauderdale, Jerry Douglas, Jeff Taylor and myself made up the vocal group on the spot.

 

Maybe we’ll cut that one for our gospel record.

 

OWH: No, I meant what are your plans for live performance?

 

EC: Right now, I feel I have the greatest freedom in a solo concert, as least with regard to repertoire but any occasion to convene either the Imposters or the Sugarcanes or any combination of the two would be very welcome. 

 

OWH: I saw you perform this summer and the songs from, “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane”, had changed quite bit but you were also playing arrangements of older songs from “Red Shoes” to “I Want You”.

 

EC: Music is continuous. Singing “Red Cotton” on the stage of the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool – a town were much of most shameful action took place – alongside the Sugarcanes first ever rendition of a hopeful song like “Shipbuilding” is something that I will never forget. 

 

OWH: So what happened to “Condemned Man” and “Poor Borrowed Dress”, who songs featured in the show I saw but are absent from “National Ransom”?

 

EC: We recorded them. Their time will come.

 

OWH: There is obviously a genuine interest in song structures from the past but I never get the feeling that it is born of nostalgia.  What is your relationship with the musical past?

 

EC: Well, I see it more and more as a source of strength. These songs are not curios or exercises in form or an actual longing for yesteryear

 

It helps to have musicians around you that have similar curiosity and even more knowledge of the riches of the past.

 

If people were to hear some of the shorthand that is used in the studio they might think we’d taken leave of our senses. But if I say to Jeff Taylor, sitting at the piano, “Think Harry Lauder” just before counting off “Jimmie Standing In The Rain”, he knows what I’m talking about.

 

Whatever is played as a result, it puts you in a certain frame of mind.

 

These songs are happening now but things we share with the records of the past is the sonic clarity in which we were performing, together with a willingness to listen on the part of the musicians.

 

Small details in the performances continue to surprise me. In “Dr. Watson, I Presume”, I describe a guardian angel in the form of a clipped crow as, “hung upside down and cawing”. It wasn’t until a number of playbacks that I noticed that Stuart Duncan had imitated the bird in the moment after I sang that line and yet this was a first take.  

OWH: Some people would be surprised that you necessarily believe you have a guardian angel

 

EC: I didn’t say I did and I didn’t say didn’t, although I was taught to believe they were smiling down on everyone, except Protestants, who dwell in eternal darkness…

I am joking, you realize.

OWH: Your immortal soul is no laughing matter.

 

EC: That’s what they all say. I mean no disrespect. I just have an insolent face.

OWH: What then are the craziest perceptions or greatest misconceptions people might hold about you?

 

EC: If you are on the stage for while, all you can hope is that these lie somewhere between the falsehood of slanders and the implausibility of compliments. 

We are all assembled from experience and circumstance and seen through the eyes of our loved ones and enemies alike. 

For all we know. Mrs. Husband, you too are the work of a committee, just a series of curiosities and enquiries, prompted with the whispers of lovers, the jealousy of rivals, the echo of your own loathing and dread or whatever else you pull out of that Hessian postal bag of yours.

OWH: Humour me then, how about the label, “Ironic”?

 

EC: Never understood that one. Even if a lot of songs contain paradoxes, I mean what I say. 

OWH: “Cynical”?

 

EC: Skeptical, perhaps. 

OWH: “Intellectual”?

 

EC: Oh, come on now.  

These are just songs. Being regarded as the slightly clever pupil in a class of uncouth dullards is hardly reason to change your hat size. Nobody is splitting the atom here. 

OWH: Well, “Literate” then.

 

EC: Barely. But if you mean that pose of donning the clever glasses and appearing sensitive to talk impressionable young woman into bed, then several bad poets and not a few songwriters are guilty as charged. I can’t say I’ve ever been in their number.

OWH: Then how about trying, “Misogynistic” on for size?

 

EC: Steady now. It’s a family show. 

I do think that was in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps there was a tiny, unpleasant but persuasive chorus who identified themselves with those early songs and actually had such vile feelings towards the very people I was trying to seduce.  

OWH: Would you say you are “Spiritual”?

 

EC: That’s a terrible cross to bear. It’s a little like flashing those tags; “Dangerous” or “Subversive”, once you say you are, you probably aren’t.  

 

OWH: So, do you have “Faith”?

 

EC: Yes, I do and “Hope” and “Charity” but not always at the same time and I suppose that it the idea really.

OWH: Then what of your original calling card, “Mr. Anger”?

 

EC: “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend”. 

Dismay at the ways of the world, disappointment at the failure of a romantic ideal, loss of belief or the trust, the betrayal of grand promises. 

It depends on what kind of “anger” you are talking about and who or what it is directed towards. 

Any impatience or frustration I’ve ever expressed at it being taken for the major part my persona was soon drowned out by laughter and there isn’t a harsh word that I haven’t said ten times over and hundred times more bitterly to myself.  

 

OWH: But with “National Ransom”, you must hear that there is a real sadness and, if I may say, moments of holy anger, grim resignation and even anguish in some of these songs.  

 

Yet you choose to end it with a song of optimism and emotional support.  Is that a fair description of you nowadays - aware of the horrors but unwilling to give in to the despair?

 

EC: Well, that last song, “A Voice In the Dark”, alludes to “Pennies From Heaven”, one of the finest of songs of perseverance that I know.

 

I suppose my proposition is, no matter what fancies and dreams we have and whatever terrors we face, we had best not do it alone and it is easier with song or a fond word secreted somewhere about your person; in your heart, your elusive and eternal soul or hidden in your shoe.

Right now, I’d say it’s all about love.  

OWH: Okay, before we conclude, what, exactly, is a “radio hat”?

 

EC: It’s a very early clue to the new direction but you should never wear it out in the rain.

 

OWH: And who is this Josephine who shows up in “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” and “A Slow Drag…”?

 

EC: Those are different “Josephines”.   

 

OWH: So, where is the “Josephine” from “A Slow Drag” today?

 

EC: I don’t know exactly but wherever she is, but I believe she is still dancing.

 

OWH: Was there a real “Alison”?

 

EC: Yes, he played with Buddy Holly.

 

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.