In every sense save one, “No Star” is among the oldest songs we’ll be considering here. In that one exceptional sense, of course, it’s the very newest. Though written in 1975, it has existed in the Elvis Costello universe only since October of this year – a matter of months. It’s not impossible that people other than Costello himself have heard it exactly twice.
Mystery Dance (demo version).
TWO… CHORDS! (Two. Beats.)
The song has begun, announcing itself with a snarl and a boom! It’s powerful. It’s primal. It’s the roar of a lion, followed by its menacing footsteps; the bugle blasts of an oncoming army and the rumble of its tanks.
TWO… CHORDS! (Two. Beats.)
Hear that, friends? That’s a demand for surrender, in every conceivable sense: mean, tough, dominating, sexy – and Elvis hasn’t even started singing yet. But oh, when he does…
Radio Soul (1).
Radio Soul (2).
Radio Soul (live at iPhone 5s product announcement, 9/10/13).
It’s late. We should be asleep at this hour – and when I say “we,” I mean it figuratively. “You and me,” is I guess what I mean, though there is no you, because you’re not actually here. Nobody is. I’m by myself, as usual. There’s nobody but me. I’m always alone, especially in the middle of the night. I stay up late, here in my little kitchen, long after my neighbors, my parents, my wife and kid have all retired to bed, and I sit by myself in the eerie light of the dial – in another age, that same light will emit from a laptop screen – and I listen, intently for hour upon hour, to music. Songs play on the radio; I hum along with them:
Ridin’ along in my automobile
my baby beside me at the wheel
I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
my curiosity runnin’ wild…
I love these songs. Maybe someday my songs will be on the radio too. For now, all I can do is dream of it, and it’s not a bad dream to have. They may seem lonely, these nocturnes of mine spent with ear pressed to the radio speaker, but what can I say? At the moment, I have no particular place to go.* At least I’m not the only one doing this. I know – I’m absolutely certain – that there are others out there exactly like me, listening to their radios just as I listen to mine, and we are all of us united in our solitude by the shared experience of listening to these songs: songs that will “turn you to sin,” songs that “bring tears to your eyes.’”
I’m Not Angry.
Anger, is the obvious place to start.
Elvis Costello has been called an angry young man since he was a young man, which he no longer is. As an older man – we’ll refrain from saying he’s anything nowadays but far from young – he tells jokes about the other adjective in that well-worn appellation. Anyone who’s seen one of Costello’s recent solo dates has heard him serve up well-rehearsed comic spiels about his family, in which one of the better gags is a crack about his grandmother becoming embittered against Al Jolson, holding the popular 1920s actor personally responsible for putting her husband out of work when the advent of talkies ended the cornet player’s career as a silent-movie accompanist. Apparently Jolson was never forgiven: “People say I’m angry,” Costello jibes, “but that woman could really hold a grudge…” Stage personas in rock n’ roll have a way of clinging to you – ask Mick Jagger, forced in some sort of cosmic joke to remain a priapic lech well into his seventies – but how is it the man who went on to write “Almost Blue,” who put out King Of America and The Juliet Letters and North, whose biggest chart hit remains a lively little ditty co-written with Paul McCartney about a loveable but senile old woman, remains unshakably pegged as possessing this infinite reservoir of rage? And what does it mean to think of him so? How much was this reputation constructed, and how accurately does it reflect what we know of Costello himself through his music?