Waiting For The End Of The World


Waiting For The End Of The World.
Waiting For The End Of The World (Pathway demo).
Waiting For The End Of The World (live at the Nashville Rooms, 8/7/77).
Waiting For The End Of The World (Rockpalast, 6/15/78).


In 1971, David Bowie had a dream and he turned it into a song.

As he slept, the world ended.  It was a world inside his head, but it looked just like the one he moved through by day: men read the news on television; people of all vocations congregated in the village square; beautiful girls sat cross-legged on stools in ice cream parlors, their lips puckered around straws as if they were waiting to be discovered and cast as femmes fatales in black-and-white movies.  But this world had been given a death sentence: it would be gone in “Five Years.”  Society was crumbling, three-hundred-sixty-five-times-five days away from complete annihilation.  The nature of armageddon was unspecified, in the song at least – perhaps it was articulated in the dream, but Bowie spared us the pain of hearing the diagnosis: the “news guy” explained nothing through his tears save that “earth was really dying,” and you get the sense that for the masses the end was simply a looming shadow, a gathering darkness, creeping chaos that would fray and unshackle the innate bonds and hatreds of society until children were being attacked by adults, law-and-order types submitting to the uncertain faiths of religion, steadfast soldiers contemplating throwing themselves beneath lumbering vehicles to conclude it all before the true end could arrive.  Bowie himself, he tells us, meandered through this madness in a daze.  His head hurt; he felt an overpowering need to be with other people; he walked through the rain and felt like he was in a film, like none of this was real, and he thought about his mother.  He thought about a girl, about the color of her skin and the sound of her voice, about kissing her and reveling in the simple pleasures of watching her move.  He thought about those five years that lay ahead, and about how five years were all that was left, and presumably about how little time that was, and about how much, and about what he might do with it.  And then, we assume, he woke up. Read More

Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers

14940173_10154042059317957_634016468912020807_oYou know the show is over when you hear the children’s song playing on the PA. Elvis Costello and the Imposters have taken their bows and hustled offstage; the houselights have gone up; you’re encouraged to egress likewise by the sweet voice of Mandy Miller filling the room: it’s her 1956 novelty tune, produced by Beatles maestro George Martin, about a pachyderm ankling its big-top gig to rejoin the herd storming through the jungles of Hindustan. The chorus goes:

Nellie the elephant packed her trunk
And said goodbye to the circus
Off she rode with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump…

In the fall of 2016, in the possible twilight of American democracy, as the world may or may not be dancing on the lip of the abyss, all roads lead here: accidents will happen, to be sure, but Costello knows exactly what he’s doing when he links his customary show-closer, a storming plea for comity in the form of “peace, love, and understanding,” with a warbled valediction offering up the comic image of the symbol of the GOP galumphing into the distance, its clumsy steps conjured onomatopoetically with the last name of Donald Trump.

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Baseball Heroes


Baseball Heroes.

It’s either a very good or a very bad week to be an Indians fan. Tonight’s game will vindicate, even as it crushes, longtime and lifelong hopes; I confess I’m not a World Series watcher, or even someone who’s into sports, so I have no stake in whether the Cubs or the Indians wins the thing. I’ll be happy for people I know from Cleveland if Game Seven goes the Indians’ way, but I also know Chicagoans who are fanatics for the Cubs, and I’m happy to be happy for them too. Please don’t be offended that I can’t pretend it matters too much to me.

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Third Rate Romance


Third Rate Romance (Jesse Winchester, 1974).
Third Rate Romance (Amazing Rhythm Aces, 1975).
Third Rate Romance (Flip City).
Third Rate Romance (live with Flip City, 1975).

Jesse Winchester was just out of college when he received his draft notice. Perhaps it was an act of manly courage; it probably felt like callow cowardice – it might just have been good common sense, not to want to go to Vietnam – but he hightailed it to Canada and lived a decade in exile. Louisiana born and Tennessee raised, Winchester worked the folk clubs in Quebec and Montreal and wrote music that turned the American South he remembered into a magical place, always visible and never reachable. One of his most famous songs – thanks to a cover version by Jimmy Buffett, Winchester himself never attaining mainstream fame – sketches a distant view of a summer day on the Gulf Coast that shimmers like a painting:

Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are dancing in the sea
They all look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salty water
And the storms will blow from off toward New Orleans…

The tone of Winchester’s writing, not to mention the exquisiteness of detail in the lyrics, was surely part of what attracted Robbie Robertson, hard at work on his own project of romanticizing America. A stack of Winchester demos reached him somehow, and after recruiting fellow Band-mate Levon Helm to come along to the Great North and play on the record, he produced Winchester’s self-titled first LP in 1970. Perhaps the album’s signature song, “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” wraps longing and love and distance and despair up into a gorgeous, shy, penitent farewell:

Oh my, but you have a pretty face
You favor a girl that I knew
I imagine she’s still in Tennessee
And by God, I should be there too
I’ve a sadness too sad to be true

But I left Tennessee in a hurry, dear
The same way that I’m leaving you
Because love is mainly just memories
And everyone’s got them a few
So when I’m gone, I’ll be glad to love you…

Winchester later recalled that this was the first song he ever wrote. We should all kick off our careers half so promisingly. Read More

Poison Moon

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Poison Moon.
Poison Moon (live in Brescia, Italy, 2016).

Step into my time machine, friends! That’s right, I’ve invented a time machine. Why do you think it takes me so long between blog posts? It’s because I’m very busy tinkering in my lab. Anyway, strap yourselves in, because we’re going back exactly forty years from today – to August 15, 1976, the first day Elvis Costello’s voice would ever be heard on the radio. Half a world away, another Elvis is embarking on the final year of his life. Here in suburban London, a new Elvis begins the first of his.

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Pay It Back


Pay It Back (Flip City version).
Pay It Back (live with Flip City, 11/30/75).
Pay It Back (My Aim Is True version).

A comment on a recent post took me to task.

The point was made apropos of my essay on “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band,” and it’s hard to argue with it. I was using an almost-forgotten piece of juvenilia to consider Declan MacManus as a youth, as a member of a rock band fated to go nowhere, as an artist-in-embryo whose development was about to be altered forever by the adoption, the imposition even, of a persona with another, made-up name – one half drawn from his own family history and half from the revered mononym of a bloated rock n’ roll dinosaur moments from departing the world. I focused on dimly-remembered tales of the time: adolescent pranks; tiffs over women; enthusiasm for football teams and eccentric combinations of sandwich fixings. In Flip City’s snippy internal politics, in their late-night philosophical discussions, in their doomed efforts to turn the germs of brilliance provided by their frontman into a successful musical career, I admit I saw – or, perhaps I should say, tried to see – something familiar from my own teenage years. In this, as commenter Erey noted, I was doing my subject an injustice.

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Just Like A Jukebox


Just Like A Jukebox (live at the Great American Music Hall, 11/8/07).

The song was only ever performed once.

It was during the second set of a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott show at the Other End in Greenwich Village, on July 3, 1975. Bob Dylan happened to be present in the crowd, and Elliott called him up to play on “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “How Long Blues.” This was a nice, though not an unheard-of treat, but then something extraordinary happened: Dylan started strumming something nobody recognized, a brand-new song, whereupon Elliott had the good taste to withdraw from his own show and let Dylan have the stage as he premiered “Abandoned Love.” The number was recorded properly a few weeks later, briefly a candidate for inclusion on Desire, but for reasons known only to Bob – some have speculated that it was because the studio version failed to capture the unrepeatable power of that one live performance – it was shelved for a decade. It popped up, unheralded, on 1985’s Biograph, but over the course of those ten years it spent in oblivion, the song became legendary thanks to a bootlegger who, doing god’s work, had been running tape at the Elliott gig.*

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Exiles Road


Exiles Road (version 1).
Exiles Road (version 2).

Let’s begin at the end:

Elvis Costello has a song, from 2010, called “Jimmie Standing In The Rain.” It appeared on National Ransom, part of that record’s and indeed that era’s backwards glance at early-twentieth-century American songwriting tropes. This was just as Costello was moving toward lengthy spoken-word introductions to his songs in performance, and he used to preface “Jimmie” with a ramshackle story about the fictional title character, a 1930s Vaudevillian “who’s picked the wrong time to go into cowboy music – that’s if there was ever a right time to go into cowboy music…” Though Costello would nod to his less hardcore audience’s demands by dutifully running through “Peace, Love, & Understanding” after it, “Jimmie” was the show-closer. It was the end of every night. It was played a capella on a barely-miked acoustic guitar, and Costello would conclude it with a few lines from the Depression-era standard “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sung unamplified, his bellow filling the room just as his forerunners once had to sing, without electricity raising the volume of their voices, standing on similar stages in an era long before anyone had ever heard of rock and roll.

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A Face In The Crowd


A Face In The Crowd.
Town Called Riddle.
They Call Me Mrs. Lonesome.
Blood And Hot Sauce.
Burn The Paper Down To Ash.
American Mirror.*

Elvis Costello has never been stingy about treating live audiences to new work. Back in tape-trading days, when fandom involved a lot of cassette-duping and licking stamps, it was always a thrill to acquire a static-filled, heavily-generated recording of an early show where he unveiled songs we’ve since grown to love – straining my ears to hear through the noise, I could try to imagine what it must have been like to be in that faraway hall on that long-past day, experiencing for the first time songs like “Chemistry Class” (played solo, due to a delay in the arrival of the rest of his band, for a 1978 crowd in Portsmouth long before its official release) or “Temptation” (presented to unsuspecting showgoers in Harrisburg in 1979 in a later-discarded arrangement, under its original title “Idle Hands”). Best of all was when I stumbled onto a song that, for reasons I could only speculate upon, was later consigned to oblivion and thus became a special kind of treasure – something like “Baby Pictures,” which Londoners in 1982 heard Costello play on the piano, and then no one ever heard of it again.** There are plenty of examples of Costello doing something like this, gifting crowds with a spotlight shone into the darkness of his songwriting future, and yet still it’s happened with relative rarity. The odds of being present, actually being there as one of these rare birds swoops into the room and then alights for the heavens, remain once-in-a-blue-moon.

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