As if he hadn't already proved it countless times with his surgically precise songwriting and the healing power of his gift for melody, Elvis Costello can now call himself a doctor of music. On Friday, the ever-restless musician was on hand in Boston to receive an honorary degree from the New England Conservatory, joining a small, illustrious group – Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and Quincy Jones – of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers who have been honored by the country's oldest independent school of music.
After accepting his diploma, Costello joked that it was appropriate coming from the New England Conservatory: the old England has tried to kick him out from time to time.
Relaxed and witty as ever, the singer sat onstage for a 90-minute retrospective of his career at the college's historic, acoustically pristine Jordan Hall, backdropped by the venue's huge pipe organ. Listening to a snippet of "God Give Me Strength," his elegant 1996 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, he told the audience that he recently wrote 12 new songs "on a little upright piano" with the 85-year-old pop composer.
He also told his interviewer, Boston Globe critic Sarah Rodman, that he expects to someday release all the demos from his periodic collaborations with Paul McCartney. Asked if he ever stopped to marvel at the fact that he was writing songs with a Beatle, Costello noted that he joined the Beatles' fan club when he was 11 and joked, "Yeah – what are you, crazy?"
The discussion ranged from his youthful nagging of mentor Nick Lowe to his work with the Brodsky Quartet (with whom he plans a performance to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1993 album The Juliet Letters) and his latest album, with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost. Reminded that his bittersweet lost-love song "Alison" is sometimes played at weddings, he said, "It does seem like an odd choice, doesn't it?" (One well-known actress once told him she thought of his deeply psychotic dirge "I Want You" as the most romantic song in the world, he said.)
Acknowledging McCartney's insatiable curiosity and his own, he said he believes that's the proper way to approach music: "Have all the experiences, not just one."
"Not everything you write is supposed to be on American Bandstand," said the singer, who wore a denim jacket, a vest and his trademark porkpie hat for the occasion. At one point, he held up an iPod and commented on the pros and cons of new technology. You can carry around the complete works of Ralph Vaughan Williams in your pocket, he noted; in the old days, "imagine how big your trousers had to be to do that."
Costello also spoke at length about being a third-generation musician. His father, Ross MacManus, was a singer for hire who sang the popular songs of the day. By the Sixties, Costello said, he'd gone "a little paisley around the edges."
What if Costello's father had been, say, a milkman rather than a musician? Rodman asked. "My mother would have some explaining to do," he joked in reply. He also revealed how he learned only recently that his mother, Lilian, was involved in "a minor smuggling ring." With recordings scarce in England after World War II, she arranged for merchant mariners to bring back jazz records from the U.S. for her clients.
After taking a few questions from the audience, Costello headed to the airport to fly to San Francisco, where he will appear with his wife, Diana Krall, this weekend at Neil Young's annual Bridge School concert. On Monday, Costello will be on The Tonight Show to help celebrate the release of longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve's new duets album, ToGetHer.
"The longer it goes on," he said about Nieve, "the more incredible it becomes to me the adventures we've had together."
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