Elvis Costello Repents

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Riviera was right, perhaps because he knew Declan McManus could live up to his new name. With 'My Aim Is True,' recorded with the American country-rock band Clover and produced by Nick Lowe, Costello stepped out as a major figure in British new music; the American release of the LP on CBS later in the year, a brilliant appearance on 'Saturday Night Live' and his first tour with the newly recruited Attractions, brought, if anything, an even more fierce response in the U.S. Along with Lowe and Riviera, Costello left Stiff for the now-defunct Radar label (Costello now records for F-Beat in the U.K.), and he and the Attractions followed a remarkable first year with 'This Year's Model' ("A ghost version of 'Aftermath,' " Costello told me, noting that, having never been much of a Rolling Stones fan, he'd never heard the record until a few months before making 'Model.' He responded to my comments about the strength of the LP with the information that Nick Lowe's contribution was to "sweeten it" – that furious album was sweetened?) and a tour far more confident and hard-edged than the one that had preceded it.

In 1979 Costello offered perhaps his most ambitious record, 'Armed Forces' – originally and more appropriately titled 'Emotional Fascism.' It was a tricky, allusive set of words, voices and shifting instrumental textures, primarily influenced, Costello says, by the music he and the Attractions had been able to agree on as listening material while touring the U.S. in a station wagon; David Bowie's 'Low' and 'Heroes,' Iggy Pop's 'Lust for Life' and 'The Idiot,' Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn,' and most of all, Abba's 'Arrival.' ("'Oliver's Army' was most successful," Costello says of the LP's U.K. hit, a bright, poppy cut that would have been released as a single in the U.S. had Costello been willing to take out the line characterizing army recruits as "white niggers" – the whole point of the tune. "That was the aim," he says. "A grim heart in the middle of an Abba record.") As Jim Miller has written, on 'Armed Forces' "personal relations are perceived as a metaphor for relations in society at large . . . [Costello's] stance may begin with private refusals, but it ends with public references."

In a bizarre manner, that truth was acted out, on its head, during Costello's 1979 tour of the U.S., when one night in a bar in Columbus, Ohio, at odds with Bonnie Bramlett and other members of the Stephen Stills Band, Costello suddenly denounced Ray Charles as "a blind, ignorant nigger," said much the same about James Brown, and attacked the stupidity of American black music in particular and America in general. Bramlett decked him; the incident quickly made the papers, then 'People' magazine, and the resulting scandal forced a New York press conference – Costello's first real face-to-face encounter with journalists since the fall of 1977 – where be tried to explain himself, and, according to both Costello and those who questioned him, failed. This, from a man who had produced the first album by the Specials, the U.K.'s pioneers of interracial music? Who at some risk had taken on the National Front with "Night Rally," and appeared at Rock Against Racism concerts – and who, again to quote Jim Miller, was plainly "obsessed with the reality of domination wherever it occurs"? A man who had ended 'Armed Forces' with a blazing cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" – a song that, as Costello performed it, was, yes, ironic, especially given such nightmares as "Goon Squad," which preceded it, but was nevertheless not a joke? What happened?

It's become a terrible thing, hanging over my head – it's horrible to work hard for a long time and find that what you're best known for is something as idiotic as . . . this.

Do you really think that this incident is what you're best known for?
Yes. The first thing that a lot of people heard about me was that incident. I think it outweighs my entire career – which is a pretty depressing prospect. I'm absolutely convinced.

Fred Schruers wrote a piece about it – a sort of "tenor of the tour." About the fact that we went around with Camp Lejeune on the front of our bus – Camp Lejeune, where they train the marines. He said it was like an exercise in paranoia. To an extent, it was. The antijournalist thing we were doing, the antiphotographer thing, had reached an almost excessive level by that point. Schruers said that the press were looking for something to crucify me with, and I fed myself to the lions. There were words to that effect. I remember them distinctly. And I couldn't help but agree, to a certain extent, looking – aside from the incident itself – dispassionately at the effect of what happened.

What actually happened was this: we were in the bar – Bruce Thomas and I were in the bar after the show in Columbus, Ohio. And we were very drunk. Well, we weren't drunk to begin with – we were reasonably drunk. And we started into what you'd probably call joshing. Gentle gibes between the two camps of the Stills Band and us. It developed as it got drunker and drunker into a nastier and nastier argument. And I suppose that in the drunkenness, my contempt for them was probably exaggerated beyond my real contempt for them. I don't think I had a real opinion. But they just seemed in some way to typify a lot of things that I thought were wrong with American music. And that's probably quite unfair. But at the exact moment – they did.

Things such as what?
Insincerity, dishonesty – musical dishonesty.

How so?
I just think they're . . . This is difficult, because this is getting right off the point. Because now I'm getting into mudslinging.

But now we're trying to talk about what it was really about.
What it was about was that I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say to them – that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them more than anything else.That's why I don't want to get into why I felt so affronted by them, because that's not important. It's not important because ... they don't mean anything to me. They don't even mean anything now – I don't feel any malice in the way I feel that they probably exploited the incident to get some free publicity.

My initial reaction – I can tell you now – to seeing Bonnie Bramlett get free publicity out of my name was that, "Well, she rode to fame on the back of one E.C., she's not gonna do it on the back of another." But that was before the consquences of what had happened had sunk in – that was a flip way of dismissing it.

Did you have any idea of how dangerous, or how exploitable, or how plainly offensive, what you said would be in a public context?
No, because it was never intended – if I hadn't been drunk I would never have said those things. If it had been a considered argument, I probably would have either not pursued the argument to such extreme length, or I would have thought of something a little bit more coherent, another form of attack, rather than just outrage. Outrage is fairly easy. Not in terms of dealing with the consequences, but in terms of employing it as a tactic in an argument.

With the press conference in New York a few days later, the situation reminded me of nothing so much as the "We're more popular than Jesus" blowup with the Beatles.
It had approximately the same effect on our career. The minute the story was published nationally, records were taken off playlists. About 120 death threats – or threats of violence of some kind. I had armed bodyguards for the last part of that tour.

And not since?
For one tour since. Not armed, but . . . .

But not now?
We take more care with security than we did before.

Were records taken out of stores?
I don't know – there may have been. Just like people won't sell South African goods. I mean – quite rightly so! Until there was an explanation.

The press conference was unsuccessful because I was fried on that tour. This is aside from the incident; now I'm talking from a personal point of view.

It was at that point that everything – whether it be my self-perpetrated venom – was about to engulf me. I was, I think, rapidly becoming not a very nice person. I was losing track of what I was doing, why I was doing it, and my own control.

In your first interview, in 1977 with Nick Kent of 'NME,' you made a famous statement: words to the effect that all you knew of human emotions were revenge and guilt. Those words have been endlessly quoted – I've quoted them, they're irresistible. Now you're describing that as venom – as if your artistic venom, what you put into your music, had engulfed your own life.
I think it did. I think it started to take over. You see, I think that after a while – apart from anything else, looking from a purely artistic point of view – it started to become a problem for me to incorporate the wider, more compassionate point of view that I felt; I was trying to put that forward in some of the songs, and it was so much at odds with the preconception of the image.

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