March 25: EC & The Imposters at The Joint, Las Vegas, NV, in 2005.
(Click on the above and go to the bottom right for a link to download a recording of the show. An mp3 version is available here.)
Fifteen years ago today, Elvis Costello & The Imposters played a slick Vegas venue inside the Hard Rock Hotel. Those who listened to the 2014 EC & The Roots post from a few weeks back know how rowdy casino crowds can be — at one point Elvis has to tell the folks here to “shut the fuck up,” and as you might expect, he doesn’t do it jokingly. But for the most part, they behave themselves: this 2005 audience sounds more than ready to devour old favorites like “Radio Radio” and “Uncomplicated” and “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” — and rightly so, because the Imposters were tearing through those songs like lions at Circus Circus gnawing on meat.
March 15: EC & The Roots at Brooklyn Bowl, Las Vegas, NV in 2014.
(Click on the above and go to the bottom right for a link to download a recording of the show. An mp3 version is available here.)
On this day in 2014, Elvis Costello was at the midpoint of his spring tour promoting what turned out to be his best record of the decade, Wise Up Ghost. (In an alternate universe, of course, there’s a double-album of Imposters versions of Face In The Crowd songs that probably tops it, but that’s another story.)
Wait, hold up – I should say this first: I’m gonna pepper this post with links to various ways you can buy Wise Up Ghost. If you don’t have the album, please click on any one of them to purchase it. Click on a couple, even, and purchase it twice. The live versions in the bootleg linked to above do not in any way supplant the original recordings. Buy, listen, then listen again. Wise Up Ghost is an exceptionally rewarding record.
March 3: EC solo at the Rococo Theatre, Lincoln, NE, in 2015
(Click on the above and go to the bottom right for a link to download a recording of the show.)
The Rococo Theatre opened in June of 1929. It was called the Stuart back then, after the Stuart Investment Company and thus indirectly after Charles Stuart, the company’s president. Based on his picture, he was a dashing-looking fellow with big ears and thinning hair. Opening night festivities featured speeches by the mayor as well as local business leaders and notables; a symphony of twenty-five instruments played a piece entitled “Orpheus” as overture to a “talking-singing feature, packed with haunting melodies.” The master of ceremonies was Don Pedro, the “Surprise Troubador,” whatever that means – the spelling, along with all this information, is taken straight from a vintage write-up for the show, currently framed on the walls in the Rococo’s basement a few feet from the men’s room. A contemporary advertisement in the Lincoln State Journal, hung beside it, extols the building’s “Italian Romanesque” architecture, which “display[s] a slight Moorish influence in its lines,” and gushes breathlessly about the backstage area, “equipped with the most modern dressing-room facilities.” These last include “excellent lighting and ventilation.” The architecture has been preserved, to some extent, in the Rococo’s modern-day appearance; whether the dressing rooms are still so well ventilated, I can’t say.
As some of you may have noticed, this blog – its wildly ambitious concept stolen entire from Chris O’Leary’s masterful song-by-song David Bowie blog – never quite got off the ground.
Well, I seem incapable of devising blog ideas of my own: inspired by Ray Padgett’s fun on-this-day Bob Dylan blog, I thought I might reignite ecsongbysong with an occasional series of write-ups of past shows that you can revisit thanks to the magic of bootlegs.
I’ll try to stick to shows you can download from specific show pages on the EC wiki, and I encourage you to do so and listen along – but please do not think that in any way these recordings are substitutes for EC’s official catalogue.
Anything by Costello that you don’t have, please buy. Anything you used to have, but have subsequently lost because your college roommate borrowed it and never gave it back, please buy it again. Anything you’ve never heard of, buy it and give it a whirl – I bet you’ll like it. Costello has spent the past decade questioning whether or not it’s worth his time to produce records; let’s be sure to send him a signal that it very much is.
In the meantime, enjoy a little time-travel. For starters, we’ll go back five whole years, to 2015…
I. Death, and Life
It started to seem like every few days, somebody else had died.
This could make for a strange counterpoint to the celebration of a life that formed the core of the show. There was no new record, and hadn’t been for years – there may never be again, but more on that in a minute – so Elvis Costello’s “Detour,” if it was promoting anything, was promoting his autobiography: the merch table shilled vinyl reissues of Punch The Clock and This Year’s Model, along with the obligatory t-shirt and miscellaneous bric-a-brac, but most patrons plunked down forty or thirty bucks for a copy of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, signed or unsigned; meanwhile, many of the stories that made up the show itself, couched as introductions to songs beloved and obscure, were drawn from the book’s pages, with the jokes and more importantly the discursive narrative style preserved. The set mirrored the book – it was arguably more linear in shape – in that it was structured as a loose amble through Costello’s life: at the top of the night we would hear very early songs, often quieter numbers dating back to before My Aim Is True; as the set unspooled and things got a little rowdier, we would be introduced to Costello’s family members, his parents and grandparents as well as his wife and kids, or we’d learn about past collaborators and co-workers, get glimpses into a life in show business, and maybe even be allowed a peek into the workshop as we were treated to works–in–progress from a forthcoming musical called A Face In The Crowd. This, we had to conclude, was a life well-lived, still in the process of being lived well. And yet a certain cloud of mortality hung over the proceedings.
Secret Lemonade Drinker (1973 TV advertisement, version #1).
Secret Lemonade Drinker (1973 TV advertisement, unaired version #2).
“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” —Don Draper, Mad Men
In 1973 the British advertising firm of Allen, Brady, & Marsh was asked to devise a campaign for R. White’s Lemonade.
The men behind ABM were, to put it in Mad Men terms – more American, perhaps, but certainly ad-biz-apt – much more of the perpetually-amused Roger Sterling school than that of ever-tortured Don Draper: Peter Marsh was a onetime music-hall actor and television documentarian; Rod Allen was a former Signal Corps member with a literary bent – in the service he had a side business ghostwriting his bunkmates’ letters home in exchange for their performing his KP duty. Teamed with the straitlaced data-analysis expert Michael Brady – every ad agency needs its Pete Campbell too, no offense to Brady – the pair became a kind of comedy duo, their pitch sessions featuring Marsh in a white suit and a straw hat, warbling jingles as Allen played ramshackle piano in accompaniment. Allen, in particular, was a kind of musical genius, and I probably do him a disservice by prefacing that assertion with a softener: his great gift, bestowed by the gods, was for thirty-second songs that packed in as many repetitions of the product name as possible, and the ditties he penned are as memorable, in many cases as well-known, as any rock and roll song: Whitbread Big Head Trophy Bitter’s presentation as “the pint that thinks it’s a quart”; British Rail’s haunting paean to “The Age Of The Train”; the almost maddeningly catchy campaign for the Milk Board that declared milk has “gotta lotta bottle.” It’s doubtful Allen, Brady, & Marsh’s team had any sort of Draper-esque existential crisis over the R. White’s account – which is not to belittle the brilliance of what they came up with. The adverts were simplicity itself: this lemonade, they suggested, is so good it’s a guilty pleasure, something you consume in the shadows and sneak away from your wife to slurp down late at night, the way an alcoholic might nip from a stashed-away bottle when nobody’s looking. They inverted expectation, rendering the innocent jokingly illicit. They made you want to drink lemonade, because something already fun and sweet and fizzy had suddenly been shot through with a charge of naughtiness or even danger. Read More
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
You 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.
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.
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