Elvis Costello Repents

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When we were playing, the frustration of that just ate me up. And with my lack of personal control of my life, and my supposed emotions, and drinking too much, and being on the road too much –

I'm not saying I wasn't responsible for my actions; that sounds like I'm trying to excuse myself. But I was not very responsible. There's a distinct difference. I was completely irresponsible, in fact. And far from carefree – careless with everything. With everything that I really care about. And I think that, inasmuch as it was said that we fed ourselves to the lions, you could say that whatever the incident was, it was symptomatic of the condition I was in, and that I deserved what happened regardless of the intentions of the remarks.

But it was only quite recently that I realized that it's not only the man on the street, as it were, who's never heard of me otherwise, who's only read People – that it's not only people like that who know only this about me. When we were recording Imperial Bedroom, Bruce Thomas was in the next studio while I was doing a vocal. Paul McCartney was there, and Michael Jackson came in to do a vocal – everything was very nice Everyone was getting along fine until somebody introduced Bruce as my bass player. And suddenly – there was a freeze-out. Michael Jackson was – "Oh, God, I don't dig that guy . . . I don't dig that guy."

He had heard about it third hand, from Quincy Jones. Two guys I have a tremendous amount of admiration for. It depressed me that I wouldn't be able to go up to him – I wouldn't be able to go up and shake his hand, because he wouldn't want to shake my hand. Or James Brown, for that matter. But what could I say? What could I say? How could you explain such a thing? But there is nothing I'd like more.

Costello and the Attractions returned to England, wondering if they could ever return to America, and made 'Get Happy!!': "Our version of a Motown album," Costello says. "I had the feeling people were reading my mind – but what could I do, hold up a sign that read, I REALLY LIKE BLACK PEOPLE? Like Tom Robinson or Joan Baez? Turn myself into Steve Marriott: 'My skin is white but my soul is black'?"

The band almost broke up; Steve Nieve quit, Costello finished up a European tour with Martin Belmont of the Rumour, and then Costello quit – briefly.

The band put itself back together, and produced 'Trust,' a singers showcase, and 'Almost Blue,' a less-than-convincing country music tribute recorded in Nashville and produced by Billy Sherrill. One sweltering night in 1981 in Los Angeles, Costello – with two of the Attractions and Nick Lowe – took part in the taping of a George Jones Home Box Office special; puffed up with the mumps and swaddled in heavy clothes, he proved himself more of a professional and more of an artist than the country superstars who clowned and fussed their way through their numbers. On record, he has again found all of his voice: 'Imperial Bedroom' is his most adventurous and successful recording since 'Armed Forces' – or 'This Year's Model.' Costello's thoughts on quitting the game, his state of mind after 'Get Happy!!,' remain worth considering.

I didn't want to do anymore. I didn't see any point. It was a question of deciding whether we were going to be a cult act.

We were operating on such a low level. I was aware of the fact that there was no way that Get Happy!! was going to be a Number One record – or in a different sense, any record at all. That record was called another "Angry Young Man" record! We were a little, pigeoned cult – "Oh, yeah, they're the Angry Young Man act. We've got them numbered."

We weren't actually achieving any change if we weren't selling more records than REO Speed-wagon. So long as we were only as commercially effective as Randy Newman –

Randy Newman doesn't really play for the people who should hear his songs. He plays to polite, amused – I sat sickened through the best concert I think he's done in London, at Drury Lane just after Good Old Boys came out; people were guffawing through "Davy, the Fat Boy." I couldn't watch him for the audience.

That was the way I felt: that we were comfortably contained within the business, instead of having some dramatic effect on the structure of the business. You'd just be another pawn. The people that formed United Artists – they had control over their own artistic destiny by forming the company. Barring being able to do that, you can actually change the structure of the scene that you're working within by being the biggest thing in it.

There's also the possibility of affecting the way people actually respond to the world.
Well, that's the initial intention of writing the songs to begin with, isn't it.

That's the view that you put into that one song – whether it be about something extremely large, or not at all. I wrote a song called "Hoover Factory" – about a lovely deco building that was going to be torn down. I said, "It's not a matter of life or death – but what is?"

There is a song on Imperial Bedroom, "The Loved Ones," that is the hardest song to get over. Considering it's got such a light pop tune, it's like saying, "Fuck posterity; it's better to live." It's the opposite of Rust Never Sleeps. It's about, Fuck being a junkie and dying in some phony romantic way like Brendan Behan or Dylan Thomas. Somebody in your family's got to bury you, you know?

That's a complicated idea to put in a pop song. I didn't want to write a story around it – I wanted to just throw all of those ideas into a song. Around a good pop hook.

And that, in a nice, simple statement, is a philosophy of pop: from a man whose work and career have shown that the pursuit of such a philosophy is anything but simple – and also worth the candle.

This story is from the September 2nd, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.  

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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