Examiner.com: Jim Bessman: October 2015
As the New York Public Library's director of public programming Paul Holdengräber said before introducing his latest LIVE from the NYPL guest Elvis Costello Friday night at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, his goal, as ever, was “to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and when successful, to make it levitate.” If Costello didn’t make the venerable building levitate, it certainly danced, its lions roaring along with one of the heaviest talents in rock ’n’ roll history and one of the loudest lions of modern music itself.
Costello’s appearance capped a big week of TV and media promotion for his hefty just-published memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. He came out to a vintage video of “Watching the Detectives,” the classic cut from his 1977 debut album My Aim Is True, and when the standing ovation subsided, observed of himself, now nearly 40 years later, “What an unpleasant young man!”
After Holdengräber recited Costello’s submission of the seven-word bio he traditionally asks of his subjects—“Sinful, smoldering, scintillating, spritely—really awful liar”—Costello enthralled the audience over the next two hours with readings from the book and ruminations on its contents, accompanied by photos and audio and video clips, the video at times prompting him to playfully interact with his younger self.
Holdengräber’s agenda was to trace Costello’s enthusiasm for music by invoking the musicians who were his influences and associates, the first being his father Ross MacManus.
MacManus played trumpet and sang in the Joe Loss Orchestra, one of England’s most successful big band jazz acts. Not surprisingly, he looked quite a bit like his bespectacled son, though one publicity still showed him minus the specs.
“They tried to make him handsome by stealing his glasses,” said Costello. “They tried it with me in 1984, and it didn't work then, either!”
Costello explained how the bands in his father’s day played contemporary hits at a time when radio airplay of music spanning all genres was limited to five hours of recordings per day. He was lucky, then, in that his father brought home a stack of singles every week that had been sent by music publishers who were plugging their songs to singers in hopes of getting greater exposure.
“People who were already entering into middle age were interpreting the hits of the day,” said Costello, who screened a delightful 1964 clip of his dad performing Trini Lopez’s hit version of “If I Had a Hammer” with what appeared to be a dozen or so Latin percussionists—and while doing a jerky little dance worthy of his son’s famous later stage stance and moves. MacManus also played a prestigious Royal Command Performance when The Beatles were listed seventh on the bill, also in which Marlena Dietrich sang with her then accompanist Burt Bacharach—as Costello noted, later one of his own collaborators.
But MacManus also played working-class “miners’ clubs” and at venues where budding rock bands like The Hollies drove all night to sing a few of their songs on the same program as the Loss Orchestra. In the late ‘60s he went through “a hippie period,” his son recalled, and wanted to sing about “peace and love and tolerance”—much as Costello would later sing about “peace love and understanding”—while letting his hair grow to look the part. In moving testimony, Costello recounted how his “funny and a bit eccentric” father was “erased before our eyes” by Parkinson’s Disease.
Costello insisted that music be played continually in MacManus’s nursing home, as it had been his father’s livelihood--even if his only recordings were inexpensively produced covers of pop hits released under different names and sold at local stores.
“My father didn’t have a ‘hit parade’ career, but he had adventures and a fantastic and full life—with a lot of mistakes,” Costello said, adding that he himself would likewise “put [his] trust in music over gunrunners and robber barons any day.”
And so like father, like son. The latter noted how he could sing in the high range of another future collaborator, Paul McCartney, until his voice broke at age 11. He also joked how he “imitated” music he loved from when he started playing guitar seriously in his early teens up until “last week.” But in trying to “copy something exactly,” he added, he “accidentally came up with my own sound while getting [everything else] completely wrong.”
He played clips from early school bands owing much to The Band and sounding like Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (he appears, incidentally, on last year’s Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes album of tracks based on unused Dylan lyrics) and remembered cutting class to drive 40 miles from his hometown of Birkenhead (across the Mersey from Liverpool) to Manchester just to buy a ticket for a Joni Mitchell Blue-era concert. “That I might be involved in a life that generated that kind of feeling was beyond my imagination," he said.
He and his band mates played “everywhere we could,” and at the end of 1972, believing in himself and his initial songwriting attempts, he left for London “to see the Queen.” There he found work in a bank (“I’m not that trustworthy!”) and more notably, as a computer operator “with little knowledge of numbers” at Elizabeth Arden, which he immortalized as the “vanity factory” in “I’m Not Angry” from My Aim is True—also penning Brit hit “(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea” there while doing invoices. Remarkably, a mural was later erected outside the building commemorating “I’m Not Angy”’s inception, “as close as I’ll ever get to a knighthood!” Costello said—perhaps prematurely.
Born Declan MacManus, Costello, after signing in London with management, “learned to speak for myself when I put on these glasses” after assuming his new name and identity as Elvis Costello. Long since having become one of rock’s most prolific, successful and beloved songwriters, he now spoke insightfully of how songs eventually “belong to other people,” often having little to do with the writer’s original intent.
Here Holdengräber brought up two words lifted from one of Costello's first interviews, which have been attached to him as central song themes and motivations throughout his career—revenge and guilt.
“When I first started out, I thought I had two seconds to get people’s attention and be remembered,” Costello explained. “I said things that were edgy and found that [music journalists] liked it--and thought they’d leave me alone to write songs.”
For argument’s sake, Holdengräber asked about his song “Tramp the Dirt Down” (from his 1989 album Spike) and its lyric expressing his hope to outlive Margaret Thatcher and stand on her grave.
While not denying his outrage over Thatcher’s policies and their impact on England, Costello said that all his songs that have been deemed political offer “two or three arguments, sometimes with myself.” Punk, new wave, angry or political are “convenient labels,” he suggested, “but each song [represents] a different occasion for me, with diffent motives and meanings and inflections on different days.”
“I can’t forgive what she did to the country,” he continued, “but I live in a democracy and I have the same right as anyone to express an opinion.” He further pointed to his signature version of Nick Lowe’s “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” which Lowe had written with irony, but Costello always performs with intense commitment.
The final part of the in-depth conversation centered on the broader aspects of Costello’s expansive music output. Holdengräber played Chet Baker’s version of “Almost Blue” along with Costello’s, and Costello noted how at the time he wrote it (it appeared on his 1982 album with his longtime band The Attractions Imperial Bedroom) he was experimenting with different kinds of songs and “didn't exist in just one world of music.”
In fact, in the two years prior, he listened solely to artists like Baker, Milkes Davis and Billie Holiday, “and no rock ‘n’ roll records.”
He later realized that “playing with the same band is not good” and took a break from The Attractions altogether, and recorded with legendary musicians including, on 1986 album King of America, drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist James Burton and bassists Ray Brown and Jerry Scheff; he later recorded acclaimed albums with other luminaries including English string ensemble the Brodsky Quaertet, New Orleans great Allen Toussaint, and The Roots.
Costello, who recorded the country album Almost Blue in 1981 and also recorded with George Jones and Emmylou Harris, revealed that he has written a song with Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash and her husband/guitarist John Leventhal. He then played a bit of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” and lauded his “economical” writing before turning to classical music.
“I needed to stop being so tricksy with words and get to the heart of the matter,” he said, noting that he “took pause from my adventures or misadventures in [pop] music” and stopped playing entirely while mastering musical notation in order to “communicate ideas to people who only played with music [charts] in front of them.”
The Brodsky Quartet, he said, brought him into contact with “young people my age playing this music.” More significantly, he was struck by their performance of music that took place “at that particular moment" in time.
Costello was then inspired to listen to every recording of his favorite classical pieces. “Do you want to know why the record business crashed?” he asked. “Because I stopped buying CDs!”
The bulk purchases had to do with his fascination by the “magic” of music performances, and an effort to determine “why some performances move you in an incredible way.”
Using Beethoven as an example, he noted that live recordings of “people playing in a room” prior to the use of tape recorders in the 1930s provide “an audio picture of people reaching agreements on instruments on which they’ve trained to express themselves, reaching back more than 100 years to a man who couldn’t hear what he’d written on the page—reaching back and bringing it into the [present] moment.”
It was “as vivid” a listening experience, he added, as hearing on record the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” the Sex Pistols’ “Anarachy in the U.K.,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” or anything by jazz saxophonist Lester Young.
“All are reaching to the experience,” he said, returning to Hank Wiliams. “There are hundereds of records that sound a little like Hank Williams, but none do what his record does—and that’s the one that’s really extraordinary. Yet it’s a melody we all could sing.”
It had become a discourse in musicology by one of the generation’s foremost musicologists.
As he had stated, “I’ve been lucky to have been able to work every day since I was 17.”
On Tuesday 10th November Elvis Costello joins Rosanne Cash to discuss his new memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink at BAM - Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, NY - Click here for more information.