The musician reflects on four decades of self-reinvention.
The New York Times Magazine: A.O. Scott: October 2015
In the back of Elvis Costello’s favorite Vancouver espresso bar, there are a few bins of carefully selected new and vintage vinyl LPs. On a recent afternoon, the stack Costello chose to take home included an album by the Texas Hill Country troubadour Townes van Zandt and one by Eric Dolphy, the avant-garde jazz saxophonist, flutist and bass-clarinet player. Eclecticism is a staple of 21st-century taste. It’s not unusual to meet a modern music lover with an iPod full of opera, country-and-western ballads, show tunes, punk-rock classics, hip-hop remixes, celebrity duets and sensitive singer-songwriter self-explorations.
A music lover, though, could achieve the same effect with an iPod stocked entirely with Elvis Costello albums. For some of us on the nearer and further edges of 50, he has been both idol and pedagogue. We first knew him as an awkward, angry, skinny guy with glasses and a Fender Jazzmaster guitar whose songs were articulate, aggressive, sarcastic and sometimes disarmingly beautiful.
Those songs also carried traces of musical history. We might have spent a lot of time trying to absorb the cryptic wisdom of the lyrics, but the melodies and harmonies issued their own occult signals. As Costello has advanced through pop hits and complex orchestral arrangements, covers and collaborations and a series of impeccable bands, he has drawn his fans simultaneously forward and backward. Erstwhile New Wave kids found themselves raiding their parents’ LP collections in search of George Jones and Burt Bacharach.
A sense of musical history, not nostalgia or irony or pastiche, was always at the core of Costello’s art. He came by it honestly: Music was his father’s trade and his grandfather’s before that. The family business included bebop in the ’40s and ’50s and the whole gamut of Anglo-American pop in the decades that followed. That was all before Costello, née Declan Patrick MacManus, chose a moniker that paid tribute to his great-grandmother and took the King’s name in vain, and released his first album, ‘‘My Aim Is True,’’ in 1977.
When I met Costello last month in Vancouver, where he lives with his wife, the jazz artist Diana Krall, and their twin sons, Dexter and Frank, he was in a retrospective mood. He was about to publish a memoir with Blue Rider Press called ‘‘Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.’’ The book is partly a compendium of family reminiscences and true tales of the road and the studio, and partly an encyclopedia of musical influences and associations. There’s no index, but if there were, it would include the names of just about everyone in Britain and the United States who cut a side or played a concert between the invention of recorded sound and the day before yesterday.
Costello, who is 61, is a prodigious talker, possessed of astonishing recall and a mind that moves like nimble fingers riffling through a box of old albums. He does not always wait for the question or directly answer the one that is asked. Nor does he supply footnotes. You have to keep up, fill in the blanks and get your education on the fly. If you’ve been listening for a while — a few decades, give or take — it all starts to make sense.
I want to ask you about your shifting identity as a musician, about the different genres and styles you’ve absorbed. I started listening to you, I’m old enough to say, right at the beginning, when it was about punk rock and its aftermath. That’s what it sounded like to you.
That’s what it sounded like to me and to other people my age. The big idea was that rock ’n’ roll had become bloated and artificial and that this was something that was going to strip all that away and restore authenticity. But very soon after I started listening to you, it was clear that the picture was much more complicated. I think it was your music that introduced me to country and western, for example, by way of ‘‘Stranger in the House’’ and your cover of Hank Williams’s ‘‘Why Don’t You Love Me.’’ Music is introduced sometime in early childhood. And the significance of that understanding of music, or even awareness, doesn’t arrive until you’re old enough and you’ve got the emotional need of it. I was aware of country music, I was aware that there was music where people wore cowboy outfits and sang. And some of it seemed very jokey. And suddenly, it all hit me — the emotional bit.
As to the identity aspect: My father, Ross MacManus, was a dance-band singer and sang on the radio. But he also made money on the side doing — I call them ‘‘ghost records’’ — cover records that were sold in the supermarket and at the petrol station. An Australian producer used to have him come in and record carbon copies of hits of the day, four titles in an hour. And they would put those four titles out on an EP. Sometimes my dad was all four voices on an EP but different identities. He’s Hal Prince on one thing. Then he’s Frank Bacon and the Baconeers doing ‘‘She Loves You.’’ Then he’s a member of the Foresters, on Peter, Paul and Mary’s arrangement of ‘‘Blowing in the Wind.’’
And so you can imagine, I didn’t have to give a second or third thought to the idea of changing my name, because my dad had been doing it in the ’60s. It just seemed second nature. The songs are malleable, the identities are malleable and in some cases, the music is malleable. What’s ‘‘Act Naturally?’’ It’s a Buck Owens song, but to most people in England, it’s Ringo’s novelty song on ‘‘Help.’’
Your dad, who died in 2011, had quite a musical career. He played ‘‘If I Had a Hammer’’ at the famous Royal Variety Performance in 1963 at which John Lennon told the aristocrats in the audience to ‘‘rattle your jewelry.’’ It's one of those odd things about that time: the coincidence of my dad being on a show with Paul McCartney and Bacharach. In England, because we had so little television and radio, there was only a few hours of recorded music a day, so that live musicians could work. They were either BBC orchestras or orchestras contracted by the BBC. They would have somebody playing light classics and then a dance band and then somebody playing the cinema organ and then a record-request show for half an hour. It made hearing your favorite record really stick out, but it also offered the opportunity to hear these bizarre renditions of the famous songs of the day. The band that my dad sang with was like a Glenn Miller-style band. But they were playing ‘‘Substitute’’ and ‘‘Like a Rolling Stone’’ ’cause that’s what was in the charts and that’s what my dad had to sing.
The structure of your book is unusual. Biography has never been my favorite genre, but I was captivated by how you find themes and pick them up, without worrying too much about the chronology. Why did you decide to write it? The book coincided with realizing that my father was not well. He had had good health his whole life, and then, just before he was 80, he got Parkinson’s. He’d been so full of stories his whole life, and certain things about my grandfather, I got totally from him. I realized I had a responsibility that was heightened by becoming a father again — putting the things that I’ve done in the context of how I was conditioned to listen to music from childhood. And then looking for just little events, private ones and some of the very public things like Live Aid. So there’s a lot of accounts of my apprenticeship in Liverpool and in London in the early ’70s.
What were your influences then? What were you trying to do? I was playing in public when I moved to Liverpool in 1970. In London, you would have traditional singers and contemporary singers in the same clubs. In Liverpool, you didn’t. The traditional clubs were very seriously about traditional music and Irish music. And if you tried to sing your own song, you were out; they didn’t want to know.
I quickly learned that there were only certain places I could play. I wasn’t like Richard Thompson — I never had this rich language of English or even Irish traditional music. I just had the knowledge of the few records my dad had, you know, a Clancy Brothers record and a Chieftains record. And I knew some songs. I knew some ‘‘rebel songs.’’ I just learned them all by osmosis. Later on I got really, really fascinated by Appalachian music. Of course, they are all the same songs, but somehow I heard them more clearly — Doc Watson and these people. From the ’70s through the mid-’80s, I absorbed all the American music, not just country music like Nashville country music or Bakersfield country music, but older, more traditional styles, even the Stanley Brothers and that stuff. Of course, they were all the same roots. Often you trace them back and they actually are Irish or Scottish songs.
Was country and western a big deal in England? I know that R & B was. R & B was much more. I think I’m right in saying there is an older generation of musicians and music fans who will be perfectly familiar with the Johnny Cash records. I’m not old enough to have more than registered ‘‘Ring of Fire.’’ I had heard ‘‘I Walk the Line,’’ but I hadn’t heard it in the context of all the other songs he did. So it was like, ‘‘Oh, he’s that guy with that unusual voice.’’ And then I was given ‘‘Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin’’ for Christmas. That’s a good Christmas present, a live record from prison.
And then I started to piece together what he was. We didn’t hear a lot of American roots music. Skiffle was a very big thing in England with Lonnie Donegan in the early ’60s. They were playing Lead Belly songs and Woody Guthrie, but they tended to be on the comic end.
So all that music just seemed light. And then I got dropped through the trapdoor by Gram Parsons. When you come across something when you’re ready for it in your life, it hits you with much more force. Like when I heard George Jones and Merle Haggard. It was like, ‘‘Oh, I get it now.’’
How old were you? Seventeen or 18. Maybe 18, 19. There was a rock ’n’ roll revival around 1970, where it brought people like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. I was too young to go to those gigs. I guess I wasn’t really, but I didn’t get myself there. And then I got a Sun compilation that had all these people mixed up, and I had Elvis records, I had all these other people, and then I started to piece it together with Charlie Rich and other people. I never really listened to Elvis. That’s a weird thing to say, I mean with the name and everything. ’Cause I was too young to have been hit full force. The first record of his I really loved was ‘‘Suspicious Minds,’’ which was made in ’69, like a full 15 years after he broke in.
If I had been a big fan, I couldn’t have done it. If they’d suggested I be Marvin Costello after Marvin Gaye, I would have said, ‘‘No way.’’ Or Lennon Costello. I wouldn’t have done it. And then Elvis died six weeks into my professional career. There was a moment of bravado from the record company: Of course, we’ll carry on. Then there was a moment of panic. They had put a lot of what little money they had into releasing my record, and I had formed a band, and we were going around the country. And there was me observing the conversation while my manager and the press officer went: ‘‘Do we have to change his name now? What do we change it to?’’ Half joking, but you could see the fear.
I forget which of the networks rang up about a week after Elvis died, wanting to get me on a segment. ‘‘Hey, we found this guy in England called Elvis, so let’s get him on.’’ It was so transparent. We told them no. We didn’t need to be on American TV that badly.
I’m also interested in what I guess we can call the Burt Bacharach side of your musical personality. Like the country-and-western side, that was there almost from the start. I heard an early bootleg where you were singing — ‘‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.’’ Yeah, it was always there. Bacharach became a friend as well as a collaborator. We’re still working together. What an amazing thing to think: It’s more than 20 years since we wrote our first song together. It’s a head-spinning thing: The distance between our first song and now is almost the same distance between ‘‘The Look of Love’’ and when we first started to write together.
I can’t say I understood what he was doing when I was 9 years old. I’d been aware of his melodies since I was even younger than that. ‘‘Magic Moments’’ was, like, 1958. And I love that song. I didn’t know it was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David; that was a song Perry Como sang on TV. I loved ‘‘Baby, It’s You.’’ I thought John Lennon wrote it, because that’s who was singing it.
In England, we heard so many of those songs twice, because of the delay in the release of records from America. It actually heightened the impact of certain types of music: Bacharach, Motown. Some of the soul things were cut by an English artist first. Then three months later, you’d hear the American version and go, ‘‘Ah, that’s what they’re trying to do.’’
I’m always amused by people saying that Bacharach’s music is easy. It’s really complicated. It’s poised and balanced, and everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be. And that tricks people into thinking that it’s not emotional because the kind of people that judge that music harshly only respond to music that makes a great show of its carnality or its emotion, sometimes to the point of parody and melodrama.
When you’re describing some of what Bacharach did, you could very much be describing yourself. You sometimes use that reserve and remove and sophistication as a way of letting the emotion come through. I don’t hear that myself. I’m a finger painter compared to him. I think the difference is that Burt is actually a link to that era of providing songs for singers to sing. In that sense, he is Richard Rodgers. ‘‘Girl’’ or ‘‘Just Like a Woman’’ or ‘‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’’ mark the decision to move beyond that point where the singer, whether deceptively or completely literally, is creating some sort of open-heart surgery in full view of the audience. That’s the form of songwriting that I first responded to when I was old enough to feel those things. When I heard ‘‘Anyone Who Had a Heart,’’ I had no idea what that life was. Five years later, I was living that life.
You’ve talked about the sources of the melodies and the sounds that you want to hear. There’s also the question of the lyrics. When I started out, what I did was write a lot of songs — a very intimate style of writing. It wasn’t best suited for holding people’s attention, even in the clubs I was playing. Before I made my start, I liked people who came from different forms of the singer-songwriter movement. I wasn’t that drawn to prog rock or glitter rock or all these different movements in the early ’70s. I was drawn to music which I later, like a lot of us, denied liking and made snarky remarks about. Of course, if I think about it, the people that we’ve mentioned, like Joni Mitchell — how could you begin to write like that? I was definitely trying to transpose things I’d learned from Randy Newman onto the guitar. And the scale of some John Prine songs and the whimsical nature of some Lowell George songs. Those were the ones that I loved. I didn’t really affect to write like Bob Dylan. Why would you try?
In the book, there is a passage that corresponds to something I remember very well. You were talking about in the late ’70s, in whatever that moment was, the punk-rock moment — Pop-star years. (Laughter) In England, yeah.
You said, ‘‘I think records started getting better again because everyone was dropping that tedious pose that there was no past.’’ Yeah, about 1978, no, maybe ’79, ’80, they sort of gave up that pose.
The pose that everything had to be brand new? Yeah, the ‘‘year zero’’ idea. It was mostly advocated by people who weren’t even musicians; they were the managers. That was a theory. ‘‘No wave.’’ ‘‘Post-punk.’’ They’re all just like: ‘‘O.K., there’s a rule book. Let’s tear it up and start again.’’ I don’t ever remember anybody of much consequence calling themselves any of the names that have been attributed to this music. When I came back to London in ’73, the only person that I knew in a band was Nick Lowe. And I didn’t know him very well, I’d met him in a pub once. So I would go and hang around his gigs and ask him questions. How do you do this? And he would be very patient. And then I met a bunch of guys, and we formed a group. I mean, we didn’t really recruit. You know, it was like literally standing in a basement, and I go, ‘‘What do you do?’’ ‘‘Well, I play a bit.’’ ‘‘And what do you do?’’ ‘‘I play bass. See that guy over there? He’s a drummer.’’ It wasn’t really fate, it was accidental. That was the period where all those groups were playing in pubs because they could take charge of their repertoire. I don’t remember anyone calling it pub rock at the time.
It’s interesting to hear about how you absorbed music when you were young. The way that happens with kids is so different now. For my daughter, who is 16, it’s all in the present. So she listens to the Beatles, she listens to stuff that I listened to when I was her age, which is to say you, the Smiths, the Clash, and it’s not ‘‘old’’ music. I remember when she first started listening to the Smiths, she was furious to discover that I knew all of their records. She thought it was hers.
Yeah, she thought, This is speaking to me, not to some weird old guy. Well, then, I guess it is. I’m not one of those ‘‘it was all better in the past’’ people. Theoretically, and I stress the ‘‘theoretically,’’ it all should be much better now because of the access. What I think is harder is to kind of get it into a diamond. When I worked with Jerry Dammers, with the Specials, there was no sampling, there was no way to do that.
So you had to make the horn charts. Well, he just sort of played, and he had other people playing on the other records. They played these quotations from Prince Buster records, and then he wrote songs over the top of them. Now you probably would just take the original Prince Buster record and sample it and then lay some other stuff on top of it.
I don’t really see sampling as any different from what he was doing or what we were doing on ‘‘Get Happy!’’ where we took a Booker T and the MG’s riff and I wrote another song over it. The principle is the same. What’s not the same is the wit. When it’s done in a bone-headed way, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a written song or a sampled, assembled song.
You can also revive these old forms and change them. I was listening to your version of ‘‘Scarlet Tide’’ recently, the song you and T Bone Burnett wrote for the movie ‘‘Cold Mountain,’’ and of course it’s not a song that could have been written in the Civil War. No, as befits a song written in the ballroom of the Bel Air Hotel.
But when I hear you and Emmylou Harris singing it, I’m haunted by those old songs and that older music. I really am not nostalgic. I’m not at all nostalgic. I just love so much music that it’s, ‘‘Which past are you talking about?’’ There’s so much to choose from. You want to go back five years, 20. When you’ve got people romanticizing: ‘‘Oh, remember the old school’’ — what do you mean? 2003?