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.
The song was unknown, even to the fiercest of fans, prior to the publication of Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Nothing about it, not even a reference to its title, can be found in the archive: somehow it slipped the grasp of the bootleggers, despite their being a very industriously graspy bunch. The first anyone heard of it came when it was mentioned, in passing, in the memoir’s Chapter 13 as Costello went over some of his earliest songwriting efforts, composed late at night in a little maisonette in East Twickenham after his wife and kid were in bed. The other tunes produced around this time have reached us in the form of nearly-whispered solo tape recordings, the so-called “Honky Tonk Demos” eventually aired on Charlie Gillett’s radio show: “Poison Moon,” “Cheap Reward,” “Jump Up.” They are, as Costello concedes, deeply in debt to John Prine and Randy Newman, and they are also, as their occasional appearance in setlists even today makes clear, regarded fondly by their author. We’ll be looking at and picking apart the others before long; for now, perhaps we can sum them up best by offering Costello’s lovely description of their sound:
The mood of these songs was hushed, as befitted songs written when a child was sleeping… [They were] written to be sung, in Joni Mitchell’s memorable phrase, “to the sound hole and your knee.”
In conversation at promotional appearances for the memoir, Costello has repeated Mitchell’s phrase – he obviously likes it – and illustrated by pantomiming clutching an acoustic guitar, his left hand hanging upon an invisible neck and his right elbow crooked round an invisible body, bending his face down to stare into his own lap. The posture has rich meaning to him: it was, after all, how he sat while he learned to do the thing he devoted his life to doing. Countless hours, a floor below his father’s new family and next door to eccentric and combative neighbors who would pop up in lyrics for years to come, were spent addressing that sound hole, talking to that knee, coming up with odd chord progressions and pop-goes-the-weasel verbal constructions that loop-de-looped around until they stumbled into half-resolutions or exploded into unexpectedly sharp choruses. Without meaning anything critical by it, it seems apt to say these songs are the sorts of things an extremely talented man writes when nobody is listening. One example, presented as a sort of coda to the discussion, comes up almost like an afterthought:
The last in this group of songs was a more ambitious piece called “No Star,” about the absence of any lucky, guiding light in the sky. The title was a play on words, employing the Welsh “Good night” – Nos da – with which my mother sometimes bade me to sleep as a child, having learned it from our landlady in Olympia. It concluded:
If there’s one thing that’s worse than being lost
It’s knowing you’re so close to being found
It’s typical of Costello’s dreamlike, discursive memoir for it to touch upon a song nobody’s ever heard before. Perhaps it’s typical of Costello himself that, in talking about it, all he gives us is a tantalizing lyrical fragment, as if these two short lines encapsulate everything the song was. For those of us who’ve undertaken, god help us, to look at every single piece of music the man ever wrote, it’s maddening to think that despite his having been exhaustingly generous over the years with demos and outtakes, there’s still more tucked away in the drawers and closets. And it’s intriguing to think that, unlike the other tunes Costello cites in this section of his book, this one never had a life beyond that dark little room – it didn’t even pop up on the memoir’s accompanying “soundtrack CD.” Perhaps, in keeping with the associative compositional style of Unfaithful Music, Costello simply found himself recalling those late nights, and remembered feeling like he really ought to get to bed, which reminded him of his mother tucking him in as a boy, which circled him back round to the Nos da/”No Star” pun. Regardless, here we have it: a “new” Elvis Costello song, or the suggestion of one anyway, presented to us four decades after its composition.
Now, I might shy away from essaying a prose contemplation of “No Star” if that couplet were all we had. But in the month after Unfaithful Music’s publication Costello dusted off the actual tape of “No Star” and played it at two, perhaps more, of the public appearances he made in conversation with various music figures to promote the book, which is how we have access to the song in its wispy, wonderful entirety.* These appearances were lovely, chatty and revealing and occasionally somewhat grim – part of the impetus for writing his life story was Costello’s father’s passing, discussion of which event has a way of darkening the mood. But there was also a hush to these evenings, a quietness and attentiveness rare in the company of a rock star but appropriate to an event where a dapperly-dressed Costello occasionally stood up, leafed through a marked-up and post-it-festooned copy of his book, and read aloud a passage of his own composition. It was, in fact, the perfect environment for the presentation of something like “No Star” – insofar as the room, listening intently to that underamplified demo recording, was probably almost as silent as the MacManuses’ maisonette was that night in 1975 when the thing was put on tape. It was originally performed with Costello addressing only the sound hole and his knee; it was greedily snatched up all those years later by audiences bent forward in an identical posture, listening rather than singing, following uneasily and as best they could the song’s vertiginous swoops and murmured theatrics.
Because it is a theatrical sort of song. The first verse lifts the curtain on a lonely scene, and lets its speaker demonstrate his isolation by suggesting, pointedly considering this is the work of a songwriter sitting in similar solitude, that he finds even the words being sung elusive:
So cold down by the dockside
Lost all my money, won’t you lock up and hide me?
So lonely, so scary
Try to sing, but I can barely
Remember the song
Somebody better come along
No star tonight to guide me…
“Dockside” is as evocative a word here as it will be in “New Amsterdam” five years down the road, suggesting in our theatrical context an almost-empty stage, with the soft sound of chill winds sweeping in off the sea; “so lonely, so scary,” by contrast, is clumsy and weirdly direct given Costello’s fondness, then and later, for talking around something rather than placing it unadorned into his lyrics. The barely-accompanied vocal melody bobs in watery fashion, perhaps mirroring the waves licking at the posts beneath the speaker’s feet – “scary” and “barely” rise and fall like whiteheaded crests breaking on the shore and then falling back. (There’s a hint of John Lennon here too: Costello seems to have appropriated the up-and-down shape of “lift my head, I’m still yawning…” from “I’m Only Sleeping.”) The tune peaks similarly on “remember the song,” with the following line reading flatly, like an aside, imploring rather than narrating: “Somebody better come along…” Our penniless and drifting speaker doesn’t like being alone, or more properly he dreads what might happen if he remains unaccompanied, particularly given that he has no guiding light to direct his steps. The second verse is harder to make out – Costello’s diction wasn’t so crisp in ’75 – but as best I can discern, it’s this:
I don’t sing a maze on the highway
’Cause it’s chilly in the gully and it’s windy in the alley
And there’s less to lose with friends around
Well, you were falling and I would try to
Look out behind
Bad news in somebody’s mind
No star tonight to guide me…
This is more or less the same in sentiment as the first verse – perhaps it was the redundancies of the lyric that led Costello to banish the song into obscurity for so long. Your guess is as good as mine as to what “a maze on the highway” is, but the rest of the verse is more coldness, more loneliness. It’s interesting that the speaker tries to find the positive in his estrangement from society – “there’s less to lose with friends around” suggests he might be richer for his friendlessness – even as he acknowledges, obiter dicta, that he hasn’t been alone forever, there having once been a “you” who may well have been the only friend he ever had. There’s a somber implication that the speaker failed in his efforts to help this person – he tried to “look out behind,” and presumably lost the friendship or perhaps the friend him- or herself when he didn’t try hard enough, leading him or her to “fall,” whatever that might mean. Meanwhile, “bad news in somebody’s mind” sits in that same set-apart spot as “somebody better come along,” privileged likewise and thus a glimpse into the speaker’s thinking – but its precise meaning is fuzzy. What exactly is the “bad news”? Whatever it was the speaker was looking out for? The lack of a polestar to navigate by? Does the fact that the news is “in somebody’s mind” suggest that it isn’t really bad, but is only perceived to be so? Doesn’t everything seem like bad news when you’re all alone, wallet empty, on a dreary dockside on a night when it’s so frigid even the gullies and the alleys afford no shelter from the wind? Perhaps it’s appropriate that, in a song about directionlessness, the phrases themselves lack the orientation necessary for us to interpret them. Next we have a chorus, after which we’re given one last verse:
Sidestall hawkers hold up the curtain with
Eyes that shame and songs of hurtin’
Friends leavin’, not returnin’
Left to chance and never certain
You can’t win ’em all
What gun are you bound for?
No star tonight to guide me…
The world opens up, actors or extras emerging from the wings, and we find we’re in a location you only ever seem to see in a theater: a circus midway, full of wares and delights and freakish sights unavailable and inaccessible to any save those hunched, concealed, behind thick curtains. The people in charge, who might allow our speaker to pass through, only judge him, and never positively – he feels shame even being regarded by their eyes, though he reads their “songs” of judgment as pained: perhaps he’s projecting his own bereftness onto them, or perhaps in a place like this there’s nothing anybody can be save “hurtin’.” His, or maybe their, companions depart, never to reappear; if this is a sinister carnival, then there’s a pun on the games of chance its patrons are urged to play despite their being rigged in every case. As so often, the phrase “You can’t win ’em all” is really a euphemism for the certitude that you can’t win at all, ever. (I’m forced to skip reading the next line: I have pondered at length what’s being sung in what I’ve transcribed, almost certainly incorrectly, as “what gun are you bound for,” but I’ve come up empty every time. I guess you really can’t win ’em all.) And then, for the second and final time in this very short song, we wind back around to the chorus. It’s a tercet, in fact, encompassing those two lines Costello cited in his book but adding one more thought before trailing off:
And if there’s one thing that’s worse than being lost
It’s knowing you’re so close to being found
And never setting foot on that good ground…
The speaker, in case you hadn’t noticed, is lost. Maybe, he concedes, he’s close to escaping the fate of being lost – but that closeness is immediately denied as an ameliorative. Close, after all, is no cigar. Whatever “that good ground” might be, the promised land or a warm bed or just firm footing after a long and unsteady amble by the waterside, it’s a mirage, a pipe-dream, nothing the speaker will ever experience firsthand. And then, as quick as it began, “No Star” is over. Its conclusion, if we can even call it that, is irresolute, dramatic. After playing the demo in Brooklyn, Costello waited for the applause to die down then commented half-jokingly of the song’s overt melodrama:
I think I was imagining Judy Garland, or Liza Minnelli, or even Rufus Wainwright… in a pin-spot, and then on the last line… Pfft! Blackout.
His held-up hand opened and closed, to convey the onstage singer being dwarfed by instant darkness. “No Star” was, he went on to add, “a showbiz farewell song.”**
Leaving aside the oddness of a man who’d yet to make anything like a splash in showbiz writing a farewell to it – to be fair, Costello was doing a lot of uncharacteristic-for-a-twenty-year-old contemplation of mortality around this time, culminating in an identically-strange ode to a compact offered by seraphim wherein he would be granted immortality in exchange for footwear – it is worth considering, before we set aside this admittedly minor tune, a few of its more interesting aspects. The first is that while Costello is quite right in describing “No Star” as “more ambitious” than its contemporaries, he misleads us, or at least understates the case, when he insists it’s “about the absence of any lucky, guiding light in the sky.” The song is about that, yes, but it’s also about the exact opposite: sure, the speaker has “no star tonight to guide him,” but the double meaning of the title has the felicitous effect of eliminating the negative. “Nos da tonight to guide me” replaces an absence with a presence – the lack of a guiding light vanishes, replaced with the soft sound of Costello’s mother’s voice, sweetly and lovingly sending him off to a slumber filled with pleasant dreams. One can’t help thinking of the “words of wisdom” Paul McCartney claimed to hear his own mum speaking during “times of trouble” – what is it with Liverpudlian mothers and their disembodied voices? “No Star,” this is to say, may be a song about loneliness, but secretly it’s also about having someone who loves you keeping watch over your wanderings, and given Costello’s comparative tight-lippedness about his mother, it’s nice to see Lillian poke her head out of hiding, however furtively, here in this song.***
The next point to consider is that for all my efforts to be careful not to identify the speaker in this or any song with Costello himself, still we should be aware of where exactly Costello was, professionally and personally, when he penned “No Star.” This was a wildly ambitious man, confident – perhaps even overweeningly so – in his talent, thanklessly operating a computer in a makeup factory in a London suburb to support a family whom he loved but whom, as his later behavior makes evident, he would have been perfectly happy to toss aside if ever he should be presented the opportunity by stardom. (Yet another pun in the title, unmentioned in Unfaithful Music and perhaps cruel to bring up here, is that at the time Costello wrote “No Star,” he was decidedly “no star” himself.) Elsewhere in his memoir, speaking of this same set of pre-fame musical efforts, Costello notes that
Back then, I could say things in song that were simultaneously playacting and utterly true… I knew that I could become estranged from all that I held dear: vows I’d made, homes that had and would soon be broken, trust that I could betray, in hotel rooms in which I merely lodged, rehearsing lies to say.
He’s talking about another song here – “Stranger In The House,” which we’ll examine another time – but he could just as easily be discussing “No Star.” Its isolation and hopelessness, even its dramatic pfft-blackout conclusion, could be a stage version of the life the Attractions would be leading on the road just a few years hence. Stories of Costello’s time touring This Year’s Model or Armed Forces pepper Unfaithful Music, usually julienned into impressionistic scraps that bleed together the way the drinking- and pill-popping-filled days must have: the sleepless, busbound nights they spent crisscrossing the featureless Midwest listening to the second side of Low over and over again could poetically be described as “a maze on the highway,” while “there’s less to lose with friends around” captures the feeling of liberation, even recklessness, that comes from being half a world away from your wife, surrounded by the carousing bandmates you try to call your friends, nightly pushing aside any worry that your indiscretions with the girls who seem perpetually available at every gig might have repercussions in your home life. What home life, right? A rock star doesn’t have one! It’s like Costello is singing to himself, albeit fudging the verb tenses and speaking as if of the past as he shouts a caution to his own future: “you were falling and I would try to look out behind…” He sees/saw a dire fate that his future self won’t/didn’t. (This is, after all, a “new” Elvis Costello song forty years after its composition: why shouldn’t we see it as capable of bending time?) Maybe he’s even acknowledging, in that line of the verse marked as the singer at his most honest, the way his wife is going to feel about things: absolutely everything happening in the career Costello was dreaming for himself – it was, as yet, all in his mind, mind you – would turn out to be “bad news” for her and for him. As he wrote the song, Costello was anchored in this tiny house and this tiny life that decidedly wasn’t what he wanted – being rootless, or at least unrooted, under a broad, blank sky and having “no star to guide him” was a fantasy, albeit one he was perceptive enough to see would have its own crushing, isolating side effects.
But then there’s the third and perhaps most crucial thing to consider, which is that this song was not written by Elvis Costello. That voice we hear on the demo whisper-sang those lyrics in 1975; there was no Elvis Costello in 1975. The coinage of the name was two years away; the firming-up of the loutish, angry, confrontational character it would connote, which Costello was to grow perhaps overly comfortable playing, even farther off. “No Star” was written by Declan MacManus, who wasn’t a rock star and wasn’t ridding the world of alcohol by drinking it: he wasn’t screwing groupies in hotel rooms and he wasn’t all alone, constantly half-fearing and half-anticipating one of those boozy nights with the white or the blue pills ending in a pathetic final oblivion. This was not the guy who antagonized his audiences and who claimed, cheekily or otherwise, to be incapable of understanding anything save “revenge and guilt.” This was an underappreciated guy with dreams of stardom. When Costello in 2015 refers to “No Star” as “a showbiz farewell song,” what he means is a dramatic onstage exit: a compelling song crooned by an actor you love – Judy Garland, for heaven’s sake! – whose vanishing, at the swift and pitiless snuffing out of the spotlight, you lament. The song’s speaker is describing how much no one will miss him when he’s gone, but the song’s author yearns to be someone the crowds will clamor for once he departs the stage before the encore. (Nevermind that Costello, once he became famous, famously refused far more encores than he gave.) This is Declan MacManus, humble computer operator, dreaming of fame and conscious, or half-conscious, that the creation of a character was what was called for to achieve it. Those dreams of adulating crowds had to seem far off, sitting alone there in his kitchen with only a hole and a knee for an audience – but at the same time, given his ambitions and his talent and his drive and his ruthlessness, they also seemed close, able-to-taste-it close, so close he surely could feel their imminence, even in his solitude. And that had to be the hardest thing of all. No wonder the part of “No Star” Costello remembered most clearly, writing about it all those years later, was the two-line paradox built into its chorus. Lost as he felt, there was something worse than that: being “so close to being found.” Hang in there, Declan. Who knows how you’ll feel about the ground you’ll be treading – whether it’s “good ground” or not remains to be seen. There will be times you’ll find it an utter hell. But you’ll get there. Two more years is all you have to wait.
Recorded: MacManus house, 1975. DM: vocals, guitar. Never released. Never played live.
* I myself heard it at the final stop on the promotional tour, when Costello sat down with Roseanne Cash at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on 11/10/15. That it was played at least one other time is evidenced by the song’s having been appended, not entirely appropriately, to the leaked tape of the “Rusty demos,” another set of never-before-heard material from Costello’s apprentice years that happened to surface, for the first time, on YouTube on 11/3/15. The recording there sounds as though it was bootlegged from another of Costello’s conversational appearances – hence my contention that it was played “at least twice.” I have not determined where, assuming I’m correct, the other playing of the demo occurred. For the record, only one other full recording of the book-promotion stops, from the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles on 10/21/15, has made the rounds, and it does not include “No Star.”
** In response to Cash’s compliments on the song’s sophistication, Costello dismissed it – unconvincingly, given that if he really thought it was unworthy of attention, he wouldn’t have played it for us – as “a lot of stolen chords.” Cash wouldn’t let him get off so easy and pressed her point, until in the end Costello conceded of “No Star” that “it’s all the right notes – just not necessarily in the right order.”
*** I certainly don’t mean to assert anything like a lack of feeling in Costello for his mother, just that he’s devoted far more ink to his pops. Yes, Lillian seems to have been a less colorful figure than her husband, but that’s not at all to her shame – few, it sometimes seems, have been the figures in music history more colorful than Ross MacManus. For what it’s worth, Costello has assured us that his mother is alive and well, and apparently expends a great deal of energy nowadays polishing up her criticisms of management decisions by her favorite soccer teams.
Top to bottom: Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, 1954; EC, performing to the sound hole and his knee (and a packed house) in Brooklyn, 11/10/15; a spotlight, and a “showbiz farewell”; someone who decidedly did have a star, one that he encouraged his fans to “look out their windows and see,” up in the sky, in 1972.