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Elvis Costello Repents

The enigmatic artist talks about his musical roots, the frustrations of stardom, and the ugly incident that plagues his career

September 2, 1982
elvis costello 1982 rolling stone cover
Elvis Costello on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

In 1977, Elvis Costello emerged in London as one of the unquestioned originals of modern pop music. Just twenty-two when he released his first album, 'My Aim Is True,' he seemed master of every rock & roll move – on record and off. He combined the brains of Randy Newman and the implacability of Bob Dylan, the everyman pathos of Buddy Holly and the uniqueness of John Lennon. Everything was up for grabs in his music: love, money, status, hope, fear and, perhaps most of all, the very notion of control. No punk in terms of craft, he rode the punk wave because he communicated a more authentic bitterness than any punk; his demands on the world were more powerful and thus his rejection of the world when it failed to deliver was more convincing.

In 1982, Elvis Costello remains known almost solely through his music – and the scandalous "Ray Charles" incident, which made the papers across the country and across the water. Aside from a 1981 appearance on Tom Snyder's 'Tomorrow' show, Costello had not sat down for a comprehensive interview with an American journalist until this summer – and no interview has appeared in a U.K. publication since 1977.

With the release of his eighth album, 'Imperial Bedroom,' Costello and his band, the Attractions – Bruce Thomas, bass; Steve Nieve, keyboards; and Pete Thomas, drums – opened an American tour this July 14th at Santa Cruz, California, to a jabbering crowd of surfers and college students. There, he performed his songs, two hours' worth – plus Elvis Presley's 'Little Sister,' his first cover of his namesake. Three nights later, to a bigger, far more various and receptive crowd in Berkeley, Costello performed his view of the world – a show that ripped through the night.

The next day we met for a five-hour conversation. Wearing an unmistakable pair of bright red shoes, Costello was serious about the situation – his first real interview with a national publication – but also very much at ease. We talked about his aversion to journalists; Brecht and Weill; the presence of Hank Williams in 'The Last Picture Show'; the theological dispute between Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee Lewis that preceded the recording of "Great Balls of Fire"; Costello's course of study in high school English ("Second-half-of-the-twentieth-century working-class British literature – 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,' 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,' 'Billy Liar'"); Frank Sinatra's incandescent version of "I Can't Get Started (with You)," from the album 'No One Cares,' especially the unique spoken introduction ("'Each time I chanced to see Franklin D.,'" Costello reminded me,"'he always said, "Hi, buddy" to me'"); Sonny Boy Williamson's "Little Village"; Billie Holiday; Mel Tormé; Charlie Rich; Peter Guralnick's 'Lost Highway'; Kay Kendall; Isabelle Adjani; and –

And, we will need another interview, another time. As for what I have taken from that conversation – what seems, given how little Costello has spoken for print, most fundamental and necessary – I've compressed some passages, left myself out of the dialogue when I did no more than say, "And then . . .," and stitched the result together with narrative. Five years after, one must begin at the beginning.

Declan McManus was born in London in 1955 and grew up there, attending Catholic schools. For his last two years of secondary or high school he moved to Liverpool to live with his mother, by that time divorced from his father, Ross McManus, a big-band singer and solo cabaret performer.

I graduated from secondary school in 1973. It was the first year of 1 million unemployed in England in recent times – in Liverpool, anywhere up north,it was worse. I was very lucky to get a job. I had no ambition to go into further education; I just went out and got the first job I could get. I went along to be a chart corrector, tea boy, clerk – because I wasn't really qualified for anything. I got a job as a computer operator, which happened to be comparatively well paid: about twenty pounds a week. I'd just put tapes on the machines and feed cards in, line up printing machines – all the manual work the computer itself doesn't have arms to do.

Elvis Costello Rocks Amazing Spinning Songbook Set

I had something of an ambition to be a professional musician. I was already playing guitar in high school – playing in folk clubs on my own. I was writing my own songs – dreadful songs, performing them more or less religiously. I didn't think the songs were worth recording – but the only way you get better is to play what you write. Then you have the humiliation of being crushed – if they're obviously insubstantial. If you don't put them over you quickly learn from experience.

I stuck out the first computer job for about six months; at the same time, I got into a group in Liverpool, a sort of folk group – we'd do a few rock 'n' roll tunes, and songs of our own, but we weren't getting anywhere. The Cavern was still there – and that's where I met Nick Lowe, just before I came to London, in '74. He was still with Brinsley Schwarz; it was the autumn of their career. We'd do a few of their numbers in our set; we had a show at a little club, they were playing at the Cavern, and we went along and met in the bar and started chatting. He was in a real proper group that recorded records! That was the first time I'd ever spoken to anybody that was in a group – and his attitude even then has been reflected in the way he's been since. When we've worked together, it's been, "I can't see what's so difficult about it, it's just four chords" – and he'd bang them out. He always had that attitude – it was quite a revelation to me.

What was the beginning of your life as a fan?
My father was with Joe Loss – the English Glenn Miller, I suppose. He was with him from about 1953 to 1968, and then he went solo; his instrument is trumpet but he's a singer. After the years with Joe Loss he went out as a cabaret artist; he does social clubs and nightclubs and cabaret, drives around himself.

The first records I ever owned were "Please Please Me" – and "The Folksinger" by John Leyton. I was at a little bit of an advantage because my father was still with Joe Loss then – he used to get quite a lot of records because they would cover the hits of the day. He'd often have demonstration copies, even acetates; as late as 1966, Northern Songs would still send Beatles acetates out to the orchestras to garner covers for [live] radio play. I've got them at home. As my father was the most versatile of the three Joe Loss band singers, I was fortunate – he got the records and just passed them on to me.

I was just into singles, whatever was on the radio – the Kinks, the Who, Motown. It was exciting . . . I was in the Beatles fan club when I was eleven; I used to buy the magazines. The one kind of music that I didn't like was rock 'n' roll – as a distinct [classic] form. The girl next door loved the Shadows and Cliff Richard – I thought that was really old hat. Someone who lived across the road from my grandmother liked Buddy Holly – I thought that was terribly old-fashioned, I couldn't understand why anybody liked it. It never occurred to me that someone as archaic as Chuck Berry could have written "Roll Over Beethoven" – because I was quite convinced that George Harrison had written it.

The only time it changed, the only time it went a bit peculiar, where it maybe went a bit clandestine, was when I went to live in Liverpool. I was never very taken with pyschedelic music – but my dad went a bit psychedelic around the edges,about 1968. He grew his hair quite long; he used to give me Grateful Dead records, and Surrealistic Pillow. I'd keep them for a couple of weeks, and then sell them at the record exchange and buy Marvin Gaye records. When I went to live in Liverpool I discovered everyone was still into acid rock – and I used to hide my Otis Redding records when friends came around. I didn't want to be out of step. To the age of sixteen it's really crucial that you're in – and I tried hard to like the Grateful Dead or Spirit. I tried to find somebody of that sort that I could like that nobody else did – because everyone would adopt his group, and his group woud be it: someone weird like Captain Beefheart. It's no different now – people trying to outdo each other in extremes. There are people who like X, and there are people who say X are wimps; they like Black Flag.

I actually "saw the light" when I was already playing – coming back to London, seeing a lot of groups, Nick Lowe and the Brinsleys, pub-rock groups. I think you get very earnest when you're about sixteen to eighteen, and everyone at school was listening either to the psychedelic groups or singer/songwriters: it was all very earnest, pouring out your inner soul. In London I discovered that all the music I liked secretly, that I'd been hiding from my friends – that was what was great fun in a bar: Lee Dorsey songs! Suddenly it was all right to like it; that was when I saw the light. There was nothing wrong with it.

In England, now, there's a prejudice against that era, the prepunk era; the bands tend to get ridden down: "Oh, that's just pub rock." I'd much rather any day go and see NRBQ playing in a bar than I would the most illustrious of our punk groups in England, because I don't think they have anything to do with anything. They're horrible – and phony, and dishonest as well.

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