Radio Soul

Radio Cuba Gooding

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.’”

Is the image troubling? Does a lonely man, isolated from the world and “tuning in the shine on the light-night dial,” strike you as something sinister, ominous perhaps? In another context, and delivered in a different tone of voice, I suppose it could be. But right now I’m young, and idealistic, and mine is not a devotion to the radio as some sort of cutting-myself-off from society. For me, the radio – the wireless, to be precise, because this is the early seventies, and beyond that I’m engaging in a kind of nostalgia for a decade ago – is the same thing as society: it’s a shimmering connection to the world, a source of amelioration for the troubles of life and an avenue for forging bonds with other people. It’s an elevation, a relaxation, a celebration – it is, in short, a “sound salvation.” I love the radio. I adore the radio. I sing the radio electric. Will I always feel this way about it? It certainly seems that way right now, but check back with me later on in the decade, and we’ll see…

Declan MacManus wrote “Radio Soul” in 1974. There was no Elvis Costello at this point – that guy wasn’t even a vicious twinkle in Jake Riviera’s eye. MacManus, by contrast with the persona he would later assume, was no agitator, no “irritant.” He wasn’t out to cause trouble. He was an overall-wearing post-hippie, as lacking in fashion sense as he was in critical and commercial attention; there was no such thing as punk or new wave yet, and it would be a long, long time before MacManus’s “picture was in the paper,” being admired rhythmically or otherwise. His band, Flip City, burbled along in the lower ranks of the pub-rock scene, playing gigs at the Hope & Anchor or the Kensington Tavern or the Howff, sprinkling MacManus originals in among its country-rock covers the way you hide a veterinary pill in peanut butter before serving it up to your dog. Based on the one and only live recording we have, from the Red Cow in November 1975, they seem to have been a decent or even better-than-decent bar band, but it’s hard to imagine, had their lead singer not gone on to bigger things, that they’d merit much more than a footnote in a history of the era. “Radio Soul” was almost certainly the best of Flip City’s numbers, for what it’s worth. “Imagination” might have been a stronger piece of work, but it wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser, and though their cover of “Third Rate Romance” seemed likeliest to get the band airplay, it went nowhere just as all their songs did – according to anecdotal evidence, at least “Radio Soul” would garner a few appreciative whistles and claps from the desultory crowds who showed up in ’74 or ’75 to witness what no one had any idea would prove to be the anonymous apprenticeship of one of the finest songwriters of all time. And aside from a few lines that do sound like Costello, solely because they would be reappropriated and repurposed, cruelly bent into meaning things completely at odds with their original intent for a later Attractions hit, “Radio Soul” bears almost no marks of the signature attitude that we associate with the artist MacManus was to become: if anything, “Radio Soul” is where Declan MacManus ends and Elvis Costello begins.

Flip City

Chuck Berry’s twenty-year-old hits notwithstanding, the songs you were really hearing on the radio in early-seventies England were the efforts of artists struggling to bring the warhorse sounds of sixties rock into the new decade. The best were Van Morrison’s – so much so that, to Costello’s later vexation, the kneejerk way rock critics back then would praise up-and-comers was to say, regardless of the accuracy of the assessment, that they sounded like Morrison. The great hope by 1975 came when Bruce Springsteen showed up, playing that incredible show at the Hammersmith Odeon that seems to have inspired countless British rockers in their early days – he himself, by the bye, had experienced the Stateside version of lazy critical pigeonholing when, at least through the release of Born To Run, he couldn’t seem to shake those “new Bob Dylan” comparisons. Now, if you wanted your song to fit in with all of this – if you wanted, as MacManus so desperately wanted, for your music to be on the radio – it needed to sound shuffling and jaunty and mellow, to be “laid-back, good-time, west-coast,” as Graham Thomason put it in his Costello bio Complicated Shadows. “Radio Soul,” either savvily or because Flip City’s musical and imaginative abilities were limited, fits in perfectly with this vibe: it’s easygoing, held together with acoustic guitar rather than pummeling drums and bass, and its lyrics ramble along with garrulous charm, talking a lot but saying very little.** Vitriol is nowhere to be found; even the nasal intonation that characterizes all of Costello’s vocals, and that he would play up to its maximum just a few years later, has been racheted back. MacManus is singing from the rear of the throat, his tone a little lower than elsewhere, and his intentions as a performer are correspondingly less lofty than they’ll one day be: “One thing we got too much of,” he declares, “is trouble, guess you know that’s true/ what we need is a little music, so we’re here to entertain you…” It’s almost amusing to think of this same man in 1978, spewing provocative nastiness at crowds – “We’ve come here from England,” he would announce at Toronto’s El Mocambo, “to ask for the country back!” – aspiring to anything so slight as the mere entertainment he aimed for in his former outfit. But that’s hardly the only surprise to anyone expecting to find traces of familiar Costello tropes in this quintessence of MacManus-ness: the song is full of characters, less shadowy than Dylan’s yet less artfully drawn than Springsteen’s, and the most remarkable thing, for those of us familiar with Costello’s songwriting m.o., is that he seems to hate absolutely none of them. There’s a young girl, “so pretty in her dancing shoes and her fancy skirt,” along with “bag boys” clocking out and eager to party the night away, as well as a newscaster pleasantly bemused by the lack of upbeatness in the stories he’s reporting – even the people who prefer not to participate in the song’s revelry, “overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed,” don’t seem to be the subject of the speaker’s criticism, as they will be in another incarnation of that same line. They’re just tired and want to get some sleep – no judgment. All of these people, perhaps even including the newsman and the early-retirers, find their lives bettered by music: it entertains, and it revivifies a “head and heart” battered by overwork, and “when they play them sad old songs it really really hurts,” which MacManus clearly means in a positive sense. The speaker himself finds that music frees him from the workaday world, which we know Costello will come to revile before too long as the antithesis of freedom and creativity: “For myself I don’t work too much, least not since I been told/ I could sail away to the songs that play upon that radio soul…”

Johnny Fever

But what is this thing he’s calling the “radio soul”? The line would be straightforward enough, if metrically suspect, without the last word in the phrase – but the difference between the radio, and the “radio soul,” is sort of the key point here. Sure, it’s interesting to ponder, even to belabor, the distinction between Costello’s juvenilia and his more mature work, and it’s fun to contemplate what a more fun-lovin’, good-timin’ version of Elvis Costello might have been had he decided to apply his considerable lyrical and melodic gifts to music intended not to aggravate and rile but, in the brightest sense, to “ride on the airwaves, clean ’cross the nation.” But the part of “Radio Soul” that’s important to consider at the outset of an examination of Costello’s work is the kernel of naïve faith expressed here at its simplest and sweetest, which lives on almost like a palimpsest throughout the songbook. It’s the opposite pole from that motivating anger that gets all the press: yes, Costello may have claimed to Nick Kent that “the only two things that matter to me… are revenge and guilt,” but there was also this other, third thing lurking behind those ugly motivators that led him to churn out song after song. He describes it almost forthrightly here, talking wistfully of a moment “about four in the morning” when the songs playing on the radio are unbearably moving. A line that doesn’t make a ton of sense in the rewritten version of the lyric is far clearer in this setting, as an expression of a desire to push the painful emotions of that music away, and as a declaration of how music may require the radio as a medium of broadcast, but in the end exists apart from it, coming from someplace within us all:

I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver,
when the switch broke ’cause it’s old
Then a voice inside said, “Are you a believer?”
and this is your radio soul…

The speaker might want to push the set away, but he realizes that won’t stop the music; the outdated machine he’s listening to can even fall apart in his hands, but that won’t put a halt to things either – these songs are coming from inside of him. They play “all day, all night, all right,” and as for whether or not he’s “a believer,” well… The chorus ends not as it one day will, with a menacing admonition to listen to “anything the radio advises,” or else – but with an ardent declaration of faith: “I believe in the radio soul.” He’s not talking about the radio proper, that battered old machine that glows in the darkness but crumbles as you try to switch stations. He’s talking about something more metaphysical. He’s talking about the primal source of music itself.

Which is what, exactly? Where does one first hear music? From what wellspring does it emerge? The question’s been debated, often pointlessly but prettily, for centuries, and if I were so inclined, I could offer hoity-toity, philosophical answers. I could draw from the annals of classical Japanese verse, for instance – the great tenth-century poet Ki no Tsurayuki famously claimed that song was born at the same time as the heavens and the earth, and stems from the sweet warbles of the thrush among the blossoms or the low croaks of frogs living in stagnant ponds.*** But perhaps a more useful, more immediate answer, especially as concerns Declan MacManus, would be to say that it comes to us from our parents: MacManus was, as a child, buffeted by music on all sides, with a mother who managed a record shop and a father who fronted an orchestra. To this day, Costello’s live shows feature strolls down memory lane that include photographs of Lillian MacManus intently working a turntable, and stories of how as a baby he took a screwdriver to the back of his family’s television set because he thought Ross MacManus, ubiquitously crooning away on BBC music broadcasts, must live in there. Music, for him, came directly from these people – it was his birthright. Often, as Costello recalled in his 2004 liner notes for a reissue of Kojak Variety, it would even arrive in his father’s own voice:

During my dad’s time singing with The Joe Loss Orchestra, he used to bring home all kinds of “A” label advance copies and even acetates of songs he was to learn for that week’s radio broadcast. The process of securing “live” or radio covers was still crucial to both record companies and music publishers. As late as the release of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, when they hardly needed a helping hand, their publishers, Northern Songs, were still sending out acetates of non-single tracks such as “Girl” and “Michelle” so that the songs were covered by the radio dancebands.

Even the Beatles, in other words, came to young Declan filtered through his father. Yes, he would eventually be given those precious acetates – “I had far more singles,” Costello goes on to remember, with still-palpable pride that any record collector will recognize, “than pocket money would have bought” – but John Lennon’s and Ross MacManus’s voices must have been overlaid in these songs, since both, in the MacManus household anyway, were heard in equal measure over the wireless. Other tracks Costello has mentioned over the years as first hearing sung by his dad, rather than the bands’ original vocalists, include the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” the Who’s “Substitute,” and Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” – the very best music of his youth, all this is to say, was material he would hear on the radio, being sung by his own father. Young people since the dawn of rock music have developed outsized affections for the radio as a lifeline to the rest of the music-loving world – how could any young man fail to be even more stirred by it when it was also a line straight to his dad? It seems clear that MacManus’s idea that the radio was something one could “believe” in, as one might a higher power, is a pretty natural outgrowth of a childhood spent nurtured by it, fed through its receiver a constant diet of wonderful, inspiring songs, many in the voice of the man who gave him life and whose career footsteps he seemed to want to follow from the very first.

Guglielmo_Marconi_1901_wireless_signal

And that’s where we get to the “soul” part. Costello has never been wildly articulate about this, perhaps because the idea is a bit of a relic of his youth, but it’s clear he had – or, perhaps, has? – an idea that an analogy can be drawn between that machine on your shelf that plays songs and keeps you company when you’re alone late at night, and some mystical thing within you that’s similarly comforting and transporting and emits a parallel stream of beautiful music. Before playing the version of “Radio Soul” he’s reintroduced into his sets in the last couple of years, he often refers somewhat stabbingly to “the radio that’s within you, the one that’s broadcasting out of all of us.”**** In a way this is a precursor to a more troubling Costello motif, an obsession with the body as a machine – on This Year’s Model we’ll hear him equate women with telephone receivers and slot machines and fire hydrants, while looking way ahead to Brutal Youth or even Momofuku we’re going to find Costello comparing himself to a typewriter whose ribbon strikes nothing on the page save invisible ink, and finally, more sweetly, to a motor that, at the sight of a beautiful woman, “flutters and wows.” But the crucial thing to realize, here at the crossroads where Declan MacManus is about to turn down the lane that will render him the rechristened focus of our study, is that for all the negativity that Elvis Costello will eventually disgorge into the world, all the self-loathing and maybe-misogyny and venomous anti-music-industry bile, he’ll continue to harbor in his heart a rather lovely faith in music – nevermind the industry – as a thing of purity and unquestionable value and undiminishable import. This was handed down to him from his parents, breathed into his nostrils so to speak to render him a living soul. It is, to borrow a phrase from another great songwriter of Costello’s era and a literary stylist on a par with the crafters of the King James Bible, a light that never goes out – the switch may break, ’cause it’s old, but still the music is there.

But as we move forward let’s not forget that somewhere in here there’s also, to employ a similar image, a spigot Costello turns on and off throughout his career. Having found all of his Flip City efforts completely rejected by everybody who mattered, he set this part of himself aside – not just his birth name, and the “laid-back, good-time, west-coast” sound his old band had struggled mightily and only moderately successfully to craft, but also the “I believe in the radio soul” sweetness. The fruits of this sacrifice were his first and probably headiest successes – and given that he found people liked the surly version of himself he offered in place of what he’d discarded, the gleeful nastiness he would proceed to echo-chamber back at them from the stage and in the press makes a lot more sense. But he could, and would, swivel back in the other direction as well. Indeed, in later years the diminishment of Costello’s commercial fortunes would come just as more discursive, less mean-spirited, more “Radio Soul”-ish MacManusness returned in challenging, occasionally overwritten but often much more ardent material on reflective records like King Of America or Mighty Like A Rose; it is furthermore an unfortunate misreading of many critics that the key to Costello’s “returning to form” is so often seen as making records that feel angry and malicious – Blood & Chocolate and When I Was Cruel would both be deeply misread simply because they sounded more like EC and less like DPM. But his “form,” whatever that might mean, should perhaps more rightly be considered the thing Elvis was before he was Elvis, before he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, before he managed to work that screwdriver and climbed into the radio where his father lived only to find, to his radio-soul-shaking disappointment, that it wasn’t as welcoming a place as he’d thought.

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Indeed, ask Costello himself, and he might well tell you that his ultimate “return to form” came the first time in his entire career where he turned that spigot on full-blast, standing blissfully for a moment under its cleansing flow, as he dusted off “Radio Soul” for a 9/10/13 performance at, of all things, an Apple product announcement for the iPhone 5s. You can watch it on YouTube. It’s quite the thing. He stumbles over a bunch of the lyrics, and stylistically he seems so used to singing the lines that became so familiar over a lifetime of spitting out “Radio Radio” that sometimes he accidentally cuisinarts sincerity and snottiness, mixing warm-hearted allegiance to what the radio used to represent with steely-eyed loathing of what it eventually came to mean. What the Apple marketers thought, after presumably paying him quite well and finding themselves rewarded with three songs, two of which they’d never heard before – well, one and a half, if you think of “Radio Soul” as at least intermittently familiar – we’ll probably never know. It’s fitting, really, that a lifetime after angering NBC executives with an impromptu switch into “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live, he once again “bit the hand that feeds” by baiting-and-switching Apple execs with a proffer of Elvis Costello, only to serve them up Declan MacManus. From that moment forward he could be, at any given moment, either of the two, just as his wireless at home in his youth could blare out a Beatles song sung by Paul McCartney or by Ross MacManus, and one was as lovely to him as the other.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who claimed that cognitive dissonance – “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time” – was the paramount sign of first-rate intelligence. If he was right, it’s hard not to see Costello’s musical virtuosity as possessed of a similarly rare fineness: even as he built a career hating everything around music, he managed to maintain an abiding love for everything essential about it. He seems to have reached the point, forty years after writing “Radio Soul,” where he can pivot effortlessly between these two inherent aspects of himself. Our question, looking back at his career, is how much the one is perceptible throughout the years he gave free rein to the other.

It’s early. It’s so damn early – eleven in the morning, they want me to go on, which seems crazy even for a guy whose shows start and end at comfortable hours, on by eight and off by ten-thirty, for my no-longer-youthful audience. Oh, the gig’ll be fine, of course. I’m a professional, and when they tell me to play, I play. I suppose it’s important the live broadcast from Cupertino be seen in time for the afternoon news reports on the east coast. These computer guys invest a lot of importance in timing – heaven knows, I learned all about that, punching the clock every day at Elizabeth Arden forty years ago. How funny, to think that this is yet another job working for a computer company! And to think I said, when Jake promised to match my salary and I went in there and quit, that I’d never go back… Still – what rock song on earth sounds good before you’ve even had lunch? “Peace, Love, & Understanding,” I guess. That one sounds great always, everywhere, and everybody loves it, every goddamn time I do it – hell, that’s probably the song they most want me to do anyway. So I’ll open with that, the tired old bastard. Otherwise, it barely matters what I play – all eyes will be on the little gold and silver phones they’re hyping up, or distracted by the unearthly white glow of that Apple logo hung over my head, and half the people will be busy thinking how disappointed they are I’m not Miley Cyrus or the Foo Fighters, and won’t even be listening. I could play anything. Maybe I’ll encore with one of the new songs I’ve been writing with the Roots. I could close with “Tripwire” – that one’s pretty. They’ll like that one, and if they don’t, well, it’s their loss.

But what to do in the middle? Tim Cook asked for three songs, so I need one more. Do you know, somebody actually suggested I do “Radio Radio”? I guess one of the things they’re working on is something called “Apple Radio,” whatever that is – it’s probably, knowing how this stuff works, some new way to exploit music made by suckers like me and not pay us all that much for it – and this guy, whoever he was, some marketing VP I think, who clearly hasn’t paid any attention to the lyrics, thought “Radio Radio” would make a good hook for the announcement. Maybe I’ll actually do it. I could pretend it didn’t occur to me it might be offensive: “You guys asked for this,” I could insist. The check will clear either way, so it’s funny to imagine their faces as I snarl my way through those lines that, in context, would be nothing more than a stinging series of reproaches, thrown in their teeth: “The radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin’ to anaesthetize the way that you feel…” I do love spitting out those words, every time I do it, to this day… God, there was a time, when I was younger, when I’d have pulled something like that in a heartbeat. It seems like so long ago, now. I’m not so contrary anymore, at least not most of the time. That’s no longer who I am. But maybe I could be myself, only turned inside out: if only I could do “Radio Radio,” but have it be about how great the radio is, instead of how much I hate it. I suppose one way to do that would be to restore some of the original lyrics, the ones I wrote in my kitchen, for Flip City, after everybody was asleep, when I would sit in the dark, in the glow from the wireless, and I loved it so much. This was back when I dreamed of hearing my own voice coming out of the radio – not that I’d even made a record yet. This was when the radio was, to me… What was it? An “elevation, a relaxation, a celebration…” Were those really the words? God, was I ever an indisciplined writer back then! There’s even, if I remember right, a whole verse that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the song:

It was a broken jukebox, crooked, lukewarm night
when I went following that shuffling sound
And the wind don’t chill, it sort of creep up and bite you
when you least of all want it around…

“Radio Soul” – even the title feels like something silly you’d find in a childhood diary. The song as a whole, now I think about it, doesn’t even have an argument to it. It’s a statement of purpose, a pledge of allegiance maybe, and then a whole lotta rigmarole that can all be summed up neatly with me saying I believe in something I… Well, I was gonna say, in something I don’t believe in anymore. But I do, don’t I? I mean, whatever “that shuffling sound” was, it was something I did follow, and continue to follow, and will follow until the day I die. And whatever “the wind” was, I suppose it was the bitterness that eventually rewrote the song, and turned it into something I can’t play for a bunch of computer nerds in 2015, and sure enough, now that I have a job to do – at eleven in the morning, for crissakes! – I sure enough “don’t want it around.” What the hell – maybe I’ll just do it. No one can stop me. I’ll sing “Radio Soul,” for the first time since 1975, and maybe I’ll keep singing it. Maybe I’ll sing it at every show I ever do from now on. Maybe it’ll replace “Radio Radio” as a crowd favorite. Maybe it’ll be good for me. These Apple folks might love it, and they might hate it, but I’ll enjoy singing it no matter what, even if I forget half the words, and why did I sign up for this crazy life as a musician if it wasn’t to have a good time and to say things that I feel and to express myself – to broadcast to the world the songs inside my heart, playing from my radio soul? It’ll be interesting to see how it goes over, for the folks in the audience and for me myself. Maybe I’ll be a different person when this gig is over. Maybe everything will have changed. Check back with me around eleven-fifteen, and we’ll see…

Recorded (version 1): Maida Vale Studios, summer 1974. Declan MacManus: vocals, guitar; Steve Hazlehurst: guitar, backing vocals; Mich Kent: bass; Malcolm Dennis: drums; Dickie Faulkner: percussion. Producer and Engineer unknown. Recorded (version 2): Hope & Anchor Studios, early 1975. DM: vocals, guitar; Hazlehurst: guitar, backing vocals; Kent: bass; Ian Powell?: percussion. Producer/Engineer: Dave Robinson? Unreleased, save on bootleg. Played live in EC solo shows beginning in 2013.

* The most recent U.S. live performance of “Radio Soul” as of this essay’s writing, at the Broward County Performing Arts Center in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, on 3/18/15, found Costello citing this Chuck Berry song as an illustration of the prelapsarian innocence of the rock music he first heard on the radio, before he became disillusioned through firsthand experience with the music industry. Not for nothing, but while “No Particular Place To Go” may seem innocent, it’s also what we might call decidedly Costello-esque insofar as it’s ultimately a song about sexual frustration: Berry’s speaker takes his girl out for a drive, parks in a secluded spot, and tries to make a move, only to be stymied when he can’t get her “safety belt” undone. In the end, he returns home unsatisfied, “cruisin’ and playin’ the radio, with no particular place to go…” Music thus provides a salve or at least a substitute for foiled sexual release – we’ll find plenty of echoes of that idea in Costello’s music.

** For the record, there are two different polished recordings of “Radio Soul” drifting around in bootleg-ville. Neither was officially released, and given the tapes’ shady provenance it’s hard to know which would have been considered definitive. One, usually labeled “Radio Soul (1)” though who knows where this denotation derives from, is looser but at the same time arranged in a busier manner – it’s almost laughably overreliant on the scratchy sound of Dickie Faulkner’s guiro to give it a rum-soaked calypso feel. The other, from the 1975 seven-track Hope & Anchor demos, finds original Flip City drummer Malcolm Dennis replaced by Ian Powell, which mellows the percussion a bit, but the trade-off is that either MacManus or second guitarist Steve Hazlehurst has been messily unleashed: “Radio Soul (2)” opens with an exuberant burst of guitar, clearly borrowed from the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and caps its choruses with showoffy fretwork very much in debt to Hugh McCracken’s late-sixties work with Van Morrison – “Brown-Eyed Girl” in particular. There’s also some CSN-style harmonies, and MacManus hams it up with plenty of Vannish “sha la la”s, which might have sounded better if the band hadn’t audibly tired themselves out struggling to record too many songs in a single session. The effect of the latter arrangement – which is also what we hear in more muscular rendition on the Red Cow boot, our only glimpse into Flip City’s live show – is a curious one, perhaps appropriate to the song, where it feels like we’re spinning the classic-rock radio dial, tuning in one hit and then hearing it fade into another, then another, then another. The laurels in both recordings go to Mich Kent, whose bass work is tasteful yet jaunty, and makes you thirsty for beer – which, when it comes down to it, is all you really want pub-rock to do.

*** This is loosely translated from Tsurayuki’s preface to the verse anthology the Kokinshu, completed sometime in the 910s. I mention it solely because the subject is one I happen to know a thing or two about, and not incidentally because its cherished opening lines seem removed only by a millennium’s worth of technological advances, and not at all in sentiment, from Costello’s concept of a radio that plays music in your soul: “The seeds of song,” Tsurayuki declaimed, “lie within the human heart, and after taking root they grow into a profusion of ten thousand leaves, each of them a word, such that everything that happens to us, all that we think and feel, is expressed in descriptions of things we see and hear…”

**** This is from the intro to “Radio Soul” Costello gave at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, PA, on 11/10/13, just two months after dusting the song off for the first time in almost forty years. Unlike much of the pre-song patter he delivers on tour nowadays, his explanatory material for “Radio Soul” has yet, even now, to coalesce into a carefully-crafted routine, though it tends to hit on similar themes each time out. The Philadelphia intro, a bit more discursive than some, is worth quoting in full:

When I was a kid, my dad sang on the radio, and I thought that was really cool. And I thought maybe one day I’ll sing on the radio too, and then they wouldn’t let me: “You sing too loud, you sing too low… Your songs are all weird…” But when I was a teenager – a young man, twenty-one years old – I heard a gentleman called Bruce Springsteen, and he was singing all this fantastic stuff about how America was a place where they had Roy Orbison all the time, on the radio, and that sounded pretty good to me. ‘Cause that was good music, I thought. [On the radio] in England, we still had somebody in a dinner jacket who would come on, and say, “Next, boys and girls, on the BBC light programme, we’ve got fifteen minutes of jolly, rocking tunes! Please do not become too excited…” So I wrote this here song. And it was only later I found out what a bunch of lousy swines they all were… But this – I wrote this because I thought that the radio that was within you, the one that was broadcasting out of all of us, was what it was all about…

Top to bottom: Cuba Gooding Jr., in one of his less-beloved roles from 2003; Flip City ca. 1975, with Declan MacManus at the far left; Howard Hesseman, ca. 1978, as the great Dr. Johnny Fever, hard-working voice of an obscure midwestern broadcasting outlet; Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio and thus the instigator of all this nonsense; EC, the radio’s greatest reviler but also its most eloquent bard, playing a corporate gig in 2013.

6 comments

  1. erey · June 8, 2016

    It seems to me there is a blindingly obvious antecedent to this song hiding in plain site, one we know for sure EC had not only heard at this point but likely listened to over and over and over: Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me on, I’m a Radio”.

    The central conceit of the lyric is certainly similar. There aren’t really that many songs out there about personified broadcasting equipment, after all. It seems to me that EC’s gently rollicking melody owes something to Joni’s, too.

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