GQ: Michael Hainey: October 15th 2015
It’s no surprise that Elvis Costello’s memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, is as wide and deep, as laced with references known and unknown, and vibrating with so many levels of language and metaphor and poetry, as his albums. It’s tender and gritty; soaring and melancholic; it runs across forty years of rock music and stands alongside the great rock autobiographies (see Dylan; see Richards).
I met up with him in a spare sound booth in New York, where he had just completed an interview for the radio (which is still a sound salvation, cleaning up the nation). He’s 61 now, on his third marriage (to singer Diana Krall), and on his second go-round as a father. (He has an adult son from his first marriage, and twin 8-year-old sons.)
Do you think you’ve achieved peace, in your music life?
I’m not wasting any more time on that argument, on where music is going. I know there are people stealing from you all the time. In life. In one way or another. Sometimes they think they are doing you a favor. They film you with a camera and put that up [on the Internet], and they think they’re evangelizing. Of course, they’re not. It’s just a bad picture of something that doesn’t sound very good. I’m not interested in the free stuff.
In the book, you share all the countless musical influences and sources that have shaped you and that you have reacted to. But it seems like one of the only places you have not gone musically is hip-hop.
I don’t know about that. I made a record with The Roots, who came out of hip-hop. I wasn’t saying, “I’m now going to make my hip-hop record,” but I don’t think the techniques of that record would have been familiar to me when I was recording in 1977. Because the gadgets we had to exchange our ideas were the gadgets of hip-hop and dub reggae. A loop. Something else layered over it. Then you cut it up and move it around. That type of recording is the more familiar language of hip-hop. Nothing to do with what I am doing. I mean, it would sound absurd for me to suddenly adopt that delivery. But there are songs on that record that are more declaimed songs.
But would it really sound that absurd?Is it absurd for a white kid in London in 1963 to be singing in the style of a Mississippi blues guy?
But somehow it sounded real when some people did it. When Peter Green sang a B.B. King song, it sounded great.
So it wouldn’t be right for you?
I think you can take cues from records and not be so literal-minded and make something original. I can hear the sources of certain kinds of records. My song “Pills and Soap” was directly influenced by hip-hop. I can remember hearing the first hip-hop records and saying, “I need to make a record that speaks for me, like this speaks for these people.”
What were those songs?
"The Message” (by Grandmaster Flash). I’ll always remember when I heard it. I was in a record shop when I heard it.
Do you have a song picked out for your memorial service?
Absolutely. Same piece I got married to—“Keeping Out of Mischief.” I want Louis Armstrong singing “Keeping Out of Mischief.” Because I will be.
Graham Parker has said, “I’ve had a career in reverse.” Does that thought ever strike you?
I don’t give a lot of thought to it. It’s all for the business page. I’m done with it all. I’m the age I am. There’s nothing more they can do to me. Now I’m writing songs for the theater. For musical productions. But they also have their obstacles. They are collaborative. There’s a lot of rewriting.
What are you working on now?
For several years, I’ve been working with Burt Bacharach on a musical, Painted from Memory. I was going to collaborate with T Bone Burnett and Sarah Ruhl about WHER, the all-female radio station in Memphis run by Becky Phillips, Sam Phillips’s wife. It was the world’s first easy-listening station. It’s a great story. We were trying to tell the tale. Fantastic story and subject matter. I started to sketch a few songs. Then we heard there was a Million Dollar Quartet musical and then the musical Memphis. Now, how many musicals about Memphis in the ’50s can there be on Broadway at one time? The answer is two, not three. So that’s just the breaks.
When you were younger, you were more political. You were involved with the Concert for Kampuchea. And recently you were involved with Katrina relief. Do you still see yourself in that sphere?
There is the delusion that you are effecting change with a song. But then there are some songs that have to be sung. I will say that “Free Nelson Mandela”—Jerry Dammers wrote and I produced—I really do think it did some good… And, you know, someone like Mighty Sparrow in Trinidad can still sway an election. But that’s not likely to happen here in America. We’re more likely to say to a candidate, “Don’t play my song as walk-on music.” I can think of a lot of songs of mine that I can recommend to them. For Donald Trump: “Hurry Down Doomsday (the Bugs are Taking Over).” Trump can play that any time he wants when he wants to walk onstage.
What about for Hillary?
I have no idea. But I have the spinning wheel. I could revive it. I think I should do that.
Did that happen? Is he running?
Not yet. But maybe he needs a song.?
It’s maybe the only thing holding him back. He could do Tammy Wynette’s “Almost Persuaded.”