Ian Penman, in a review of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink that ran in The Guardian last month, notes that:
Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (AKA Elvis Costello) says he wrote his memoir to give his sons an idea of who he used to be (“It was so much easier / when I was cruel…”), and how he came to be the man he is now.
I’m not sure where this assertion comes from – Costello’s statement of purpose might be somewhere in the text, and I do have a faint memory of having read it previously, but I can’t seem to find it now. Perhaps it’s just an assumption: why else would a father of three write down his life story? Anyway, the review goes on to complain – I’m paraphrasing here – that Costello became the man he is quite a while ago, and that the book’s account of what’s happened since isn’t all that interesting. Its back half is, Penman grouses, an “un-edgy portrait of the artist as mature craftsman.” There’s something to this: nobody’s grownuphood makes for stories as gripping as the process by which he came to be. Penman sums up the memoir’s material of more recent vintage with a sharpshooter’s precision: “I met [insert musician here, Allen Toussaint or Burt Bacharach or Paul McCartney], and he was just lovely and we worked together…” Penman prefers the earlier stuff, songwise and storywise alike, and it’s hard not to feel like the author of the book agrees: by far its liveliest prose, and for that matter the stuff that tends to be discussed most in interviews promoting it, is Costello’s era of development, the long road to stardom, his “apprenticeship,” as he calls it. No wonder, really. Costello’s kids know, after all, the man he is now. The guy that requires an introduction, an explanation, often an apology, is the one he “used to be.”
I might add to Penman’s quibble – and it really is a quibble, one that he focuses on largely to make the review stand out in the parade of just praise the memoir has been receiving from so many others – the unavoidable but still vexing fact that everything the book gives us of Costello’s youth is filtered through older, wiser eyes. He may repudiate his famous “revenge and guilt” quote nowadays as the product of contrariness and drink, but the young Costello really was a troublemaker, an “irritant,” and to explain his actions then with the level-headedness of now removes much of the genuine danger that charged those early songs and those early records and those early performances. Part of my project with this blog is to reclaim that danger, and I suspect there’ll be no end to the wrestling I’ll have to do, as I sail into the songbook, with Costello’s modern-day retractions or justifications or obfuscations of things he said or did back in the day. Much as I love Unfaithful Music, it’s the Disappearing Ink part that troubles me – by which I don’t mean the “second half,” as Penman puts it despite the book’s idiosyncratic chronology making it so difficult to divide it neatly, but rather the way in which words themselves, in this story and in the world in general, become unreliable over time, and the way Costello exerts the right he unquestionably has to look over his life and to judge for himself what is and isn’t important. A lot of ink has been spilled about this man, and some of it, Costello seems to argue, can be regarded the way you might a nasty smell on a streetcorner, which you dispel with a wave of your hand in front of your crinkled-up nose. As an ink-spiller myself, this perplexes me – but what can I do, right? All this is to say that there are going to be numerous occasions in this undertaking of mine when I’ll have to do battle with its subject’s own memoir, formidable and beautiful and authoritative and occasionally highly misleading, and so the somewhat confrontational attitude Penman, almost alone among critics, has taken towards it is one I should probably study and learn from. I’ll be forced to adopt something similar before long.
But in the end, this blog and Costello’s own survey of his work have a similar aim, one that Penman has succinctly stated: we’re tracing who Elvis Costello was, and how he came to be who he is now. In that sense, as I chart a course toward his most recent song, “The Last Year Of My Youth” – yes yes, by the time I get to that one, many years from now most likely, there will certainly be countless more beyond it, but you have to have a destination in mind when you set out lest you wind up driving straight into the drink – I suppose I owe an explanation of where exactly I’m starting from. Unfaithful Music opens with Costello as a young man in the Hammersmith Palais, peering out from the inky-sooted curtains of the balcony, eating crisps and drinking lemonade (secretly, perhaps we might say) while he watches his dad front an orchestra. He’s suggesting he began his musical journey from a position of privilege, and grew to love music because all of music’s charms, tactile and even gustatory as well as aural, were laid out for him by his family. Not that he was drawn to music at all, originally – he claims his initial exposure to his father’s workplace was, in a roundabout way, due to his mother’s being exhausted by his obsession with, and penchant for destructively imitating, his favorite wrestlers. It’s a lovely, oblique place to embark from:
I think it was my love of wrestling that first took me to the dance hall.
On the list of great autobiographical first lines, this comes somewhere between “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” and “For many years I slept, on average, twice a week – this means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes.” But as regards our present song-by-song endeavor, Costello’s life is of less interest than his work, and as such I won’t spend too much time on the crisp-eating and lemonade-sipping years, but have to start with his first composition. Which brings me to Declan MacManus’s “Warm House.”
It’s true that there were songs that preceded “Warm House.” Indeed, Costello has insisted for years that his very first song was written at age fourteen, was entitled “Winter,” and – here’s the gag – was “in the cheerful key of E Minor.” Though he’s made reference to this self-serious adolescent downer countless times, it has never to my knowledge been aired anywhere. (For a brief moment during the final Brooklyn stop of his book-promotion tour last year, Costello seemed on the verge of humming a bar or two of “Winter,” but dismissed the idea as likely to be of little interest to anyone in the room. To me, and probably to me alone, this seemed a tremendous shame.)* A few other titles from Costello’s very early years as a songwriter have survived – “Sunflower Lancers,” “Morning Changes,” the intriguing-sounding “Sleeper At The Wheel” – but no recordings are available, not even of “Sweet Convincer,” which one imagines based on title alone was likely the most Costello-esque of the bunch. All this is to say, though it would be nice to plumb the depths a little more thoroughly, we are obligated to begin with the earliest song we have, and that song is one that used to be performed by Declan MacManus and Allan Mayes in their short-lived early-seventies duo Rusty.
Now, to say they were a duo gives short shrift to the saga of Rusty, which I’ll rehearse here just so we have it on the record: it was Mayes’s band, originally a three-piece with a bassist named Alan Brown and a singer named Dave Jago; MacManus joined at Mayes’s invitation in 1972, rendering them briefly a four-piece, but Brown and Jago departed not long thereafter. The two remaining singer/guitarists played acoustic covers mixed liberally with originals, none of which were paid much attention by audiences at Liverpool-area poetry readings and folk clubs and schools and pubs. The setlists and ephemera that have been preserved from this era suggest the duo’s pay was small but their repertoire big, ranging fairly widely as they played Neil Young songs, ditties by Robbie Robertson and Loudon Wainwright III and the Turtles, and a healthy dollop of Nick Lowe-penned Brinsley Schwarz tunes. These were, as Mayes remembers it, “all the obvious cover versions of the time.” In a 1996 interview published in the Costello fanzine Beyond Belief, he recalled of his collaboration with the man-who-was-not-yet-Elvis:
We had a great affinity for harmonizing, although our vocal range is so similar. Somehow or other, unless my memory is hazy and I’m thinking it was better than it was, we somehow used to be able to do a song like Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Wooden Ships,” and sounded like four-part harmonies. Without any musical training, we used to both know what to sing, and without any planning got this magically-arranged four-part harmony!
I can’t speak for the duo’s skill at supernaturally multiplying two voices into four, but through the no-less-impressive magic of the internet I can let you sample it for yourself: it happens that within just the past few months, forty-some years after it was recorded, an early demo by Rusty has appeared online. It’s pretty primitive, but it’s all we have of this period in Costello’s career: indeed, it is the reason we can talk at all about the songs that form the starting point for our timeline, including “Warm House.” In an interview with Marc Maron recorded on October 21, 2015, Costello recalled the tape and conceded it wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of professionalism in terms of sound quality:
I didn’t know anything about recording. It was a tape recorder I’d got from my dad. I didn’t know you were supposed to clean the heads, so that even though the thing was recorded in 1971, it sounds like it was recorded in 1935. It’s like, all muffly.**
Nevertheless: asked by Maron if he could “hear himself” on the tape, Costello conceded that he could. “On certain notes,” he said. “And, kind of, phrases.”
To continue laying out our wares: the tape contains six songs. Two of them have been claimed by Mayes as his own – one of these, “Hemlock Tree,” probably predates MacManus’s joining the band, as it’s a co-write with departed bassist Brown. Another song, “Silver Minute,” sounds an awful lot like a MacManus number – we’ll discuss it in a future post – while Mayes specifically denotes two of the remainders as MacManus tunes. (The odd man out, “Are You Afraid Of Your Children,” opens the tape and features traded-off vocal lines, and thus seems a likely candidate to have been the one collaboration that Mayes, without naming the song, says they worked on. More on that, too, another time.) Of the two that we know for sure are Costello’s, “Warm House” is much the stronger piece of work. To summarize: until someone scrounges up and YouTubes another heretofore-unheard tape – some equally-muffly old recording of “Sunflower Lancers,” say, or a snore-filled bootleg of that first performance of “Winter” – “Warm House” will remain the place for us to start our voyage. And, not for nothing, the journey must emerge out of the predawn mists, so to speak, as “Warm House” is barely audible on what Costello has correctly assessed as a terribly-recorded tape. A lifelong musical fascination with the double meaning of the word “fidelity,” and an at-least-occasional interest in the unreliability of the recorded word, which is to say in the propensity ink has for disappearing, can be traced through a body of work four-hundred-plus-songs strong that begins with a tune that’s barely been preserved at all. It feels sometimes, indeed, like “Warm House” is moments from slipping the surly bonds of oxidation that keep it here with us. It’s even been patched together, a little haphazardly, the tape having apparently broken a couple of times midway through and glued back into place, leaving awkward skips in its runout. And yet for all the disappearing ink of its recording, “Warm House” is perhaps the most faithful piece of music Elvis Costello ever wrote, insofar as it has clung to its slim piece of audiotape for the longest.
I’m sorry to report, after all this preamble, that I don’t really have a lot to say about the song itself. It’s a fairly modest piece of work, impressive for a seventeen-year-old – hell, I’ve never written anything, in any medium, half so good in all my life – but it’s decidedly juvenile by the standards of the songwriter MacManus was to become. It’s built on a three-chord shuffle, easy to play and pleasant to harmonize around – indeed, its very slight refrain depends heavily on those “magically-arranged” harmonies that Mayes is right to have cited as the duo’s strength. Its lyric, such as it is, is spoken by a young man out on the town – he might start in a pub, though it’s likelier given what we know of Rusty’s haunts that he’s dead sober at a “poetry reading.” This isn’t where he wants to be, however. He wants to be back at home, ensconced before the hearth of the “warm house” of the title:
Get up and leaving, I went to the door
Hopefully cheering our brief light
I know it never glows
Still, as long as I walk outside
Turning the corner, I’m out of sight
If I were to be honest it’s really not that bad
Do I try to be sad?
Break all that I might smile tonight…***
Insubstantial as they are, these lyrics are, well… They’re good enough. They sound better than they read. Probably the most noteworthy bit is a charming line you’d never find in a mature Costello song: “If I were to be honest, it’s really not that bad.” Before too long, of course, you’ll rarely find a Costello speaker being honest, or even being honest about his dishonesty, and a concession that things are anything less than awful will be rarer still. Weirdly, the song loops around from here, and in a moment the speaker, having just taken his leave, is back in that public place again:
There’s a man on the floor
And he’s out of control
Well, I’m not really sure if he was just a drunken dreamer
(Drunken dreamer, I don’t know…)
Dreaming of the promised land that he doesn’t see below…
This feels for a moment like it might be the song’s high point – Mayes’s backing vocal on “drunken dreamer, I don’t know” is really quite beautiful – but the song has a lovely bridge up its sleeve yet. First, though, there’s an overwritten second verse that sounds, in retrospect, like an inept early stab at the word-salad showoffery of Get Happy!! or Imperial Bedroom:
Did you run from his side, in spite of the night
The basis of your confession?
Did he slip on the street in this shining light?
But my head kept my feet’s succession…
About this, I think, the less said the better. But now we’re at the bridge, which once again reads as almost nothing though it’s quite pretty on its feet, with Mayes on lead and MacManus backing him:
Is that your last word?
(No no, not really…)
Make your reply heard
And I’m running, running, running, running, running, running…
“Running” is repeated no fewer than twelve times: you get the impression MacManus and Mayes, in performance, were begging the crowd to sing along, and you wonder just how often the ploy worked. Then, after a solo that’s better than Costello gives it credit for – in his book he claims, probably tongue in cheek, that he was such a poor soloist he would play instrumental breaks “clutching a rabbit’s foot for luck” – we come to the chorus:
Blows cold out
As I step once more for home
So cold out
And it’s so rare to be alone…
For what it’s worth, that last line is striking. It’s distinctly teenaged in sentiment: only a kid, with a nosy mom and pop back in that “warm house,” would think of the walk back from the bar as a rare instance of solitude, compared especially with the loneliness facing him away from the comfort of being in public. Indeed, within a few years our hero will be on his own and then there’ll be a Mrs. MacManus and a baby MacManus, and Costello will be writing “Stranger In The House,” a much more highly-developed work, to suggest that there’s no place on earth lonelier than your own home. There’s no way to know, of course, but it feels a little like the original line might have been something like a Gram Parsons-ish “It’s so sad to be alone,” with even the young MacManus bumping on the blandness of the adjective and swapping it out with something similarly monosyllabic. Anyway, the song doesn’t conclude without one more stirring repetition of the bridge, its lyrics different this time – I’ll talk about that in a moment – but then, after a truncated reiteration of the chorus, it slows to a stop, and then it’s done. It was time to go home; things aren’t too bad; there was a guy who was drunk but whatever; I’m running-running-running; it’s cold outside but it’s warm at home. End of song. As I say, without meaning anything critical by it, there’s not a lot to “Warm House.”
Let’s not forget, though, that Costello admitted, without specifying this tune any more specifically than the five others, that he could hear himself “on certain notes and phrases” of the demo tape – by which he had to mean, aural glimpses and faint foreshadowings of his mature self. Let’s look for them, shall we? For starters, I’ve already suggested there’s a hint of a familiar Costello verbosity in the second verse, and before long we’ll be hearing him relish that same sibilant word “succession” in a less awkward and far sleazier context on “Less Than Zero (Dallas Version).” I would also draw a line between the twelve “running”s that punctuate “Warm House” and a penchant for repetition Costello will painstakingly strip out of his songwriting over the next couple of years: the demos for both “Miracle Man” and “Green Shirt,” to name two examples, feature never-used verses built around single words stuttered over and over and over. Also: we won’t hear much more of it from him for a while, but in his harmonizing skills we can hear traces of the beautiful duets he’ll eventually record with Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams and T-Bone Burnett and even Jenny Lewis. (“I met Emmylou and Lucinda and T-Bone and Jenny, and they were just lovely and we worked together…”) Finally, there’s an unquestionable though indefinable hint of the Declan MacManus “Honky Tonk Demos,” if not of the Elvis Costello songbook built upon them, in a well-crafted line like “Dreaming of the promised land that he doesn’t see below.”
Probably the most crucial thing to consider, though, if we’re looking at “the man Elvis Costello used to be” versus “the man he is now,” is the final bridge. Now, although I spent most of my time above talking about that “muffly” demo from 1972, there is a second source for this particular Rusty song, and it is of extremely recent vintage: on October 20, 2015, as part of his book-tour appearance at BookPeople in Austin – for what it’s worth, this was a matter of weeks before the demo surfaced online – Costello reunited Mayes and MacManus for a one-off Rusty revival. They played two songs: a crowdpleasing run through Van Morrison’s “Domino” and a crowdbaffling take on “Warm House.” (If there was any doubt, incidentally, that Costello himself would regard this song as the strongest of his Rusty-era material, this seems to settle it.) The two voices still sound great together, and the song is, just as it was, very pleasant. Costello digs into the “no no, not really” line with bite, and perhaps the highlight of the performance comes when he tries to demur on the solo, which throws Mayes for a loop, and the two recover gracefully. But there have been some minor tweaks to the lyric since the original version, and when exactly those were made is unclear. Sure, it’s likely the song underwent changes over the course of the year-plus Rusty performed it after the 1972 demo was laid down, but it’s just as imaginable that Costello, revisiting his teenage lyrics as a sixty-year-old man, stepped in to clean up or improve a few lines that he found sloppy or embarrassing. The alterations are minor, and with the exception of the newly-minted final bridge, not really worth dwelling upon at length. But that final bridge is interesting. In the original version, it goes like this:
I turn my eyes to sights like these
And the roads they change, as bright as me
And I’m running, running, running, running, running, running…
The imprecision here – “sights like these” points to antecedents undefined – as well as the oddly optimistic tone, identifying the speaker with brightness and dismissing the mutability of the roads beneath his feet as a positive thing, feels youthful. The words are unformed. They link to a series of images in the song – “our brief light,” “this shining light” – that doesn’t really cohere or build to anything. The lyric here is decidedly not Costello-esque, whatever we might mean by that. (Stay tuned, over the next several hundred essays, as we try to pin that made-up adjective down.) The revised version, however, is sharper, more wordplay-oriented and a shade darker, to a degree that might be discordant with the rest of the song if it weren’t being sung by older and more sophisticated singers:
I turn my eyes and I turn my cheek
And they call my name, but I don’t speak
And I’m running, running, running, running, running, running…
Just listen to Costello sing these lines in 2015: the hush that’s built into this second bridge is even more extreme now, affording the vocal line a chance to stand confidently in a way it couldn’t as sung by an adolescent forty-two years earlier. It’s actually a pretty strong Costello couplet, its ambiguity turning all the “bright lights” of “Warm House” on their head. This, it’s hard not to feel, is Elvis Costello as opposed to Declan MacManus: the songwriting bolts have been tightened; a vague sense of unease has been allowed in to permeate the atmosphere; the pleasant departure signified by all that “running” in the first bridge has turned, malevolently transformed, into desperate flight. We’ll flesh the line out as we make our way through the immense project of this blog, but here at the beginning of our journey we can draw a fairly straight connection between where we started and where we’ll end. It’s between “If I were to be honest, it’s really not that bad” and “They call my name, but I don’t speak.”
All this is to say, there’s always been a mislead in that song Penman quoted, impishly, in his review. “It was so much easier, when I was cruel…” Costello sang in 2002, much to the delight of all the folks glad to hear him at least copping to his nasty, brutal youth. But he was toying with us then: folks who’d long yearned for Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus to return to making the “angry young man” music they fell in love with in the seventies like thinking of that persona as the original Elvis – but it wasn’t. The “angry young man” pissed far too many people off ever to sing duets with other singers – a Nick Lowe track here and there notwithstanding, or a soused-on-gin shoutalong at the end of Live Stiffs! – but Declan MacManus started his career dueting with Allan Mayes, and “the artist as mature craftsman” collaborates with everyone from John Mellencamp to Questlove. It was actually so much easier before he was cruel, it turns out, and “Warm House” is a snapshot of that kicking-off point. The Declan MacManus who wrote this song wasn’t wearing the rolled-up pants or the skinny tie or the Buddy Holly glasses that Jake Riviera would dress him up in: he was hunched over a cheap acoustic guitar and sporting a stripey-sweater – “I look like a member of the Standells,” Costello joked of a Rusty-era photograph during the Maron interview. His lyrics are wispy, unconfrontational: there’s no jeering here, no disdain – even the drunkard, though “out of control,” is conceded to be a “dreamer,” which seems at least faintly complimentary – and nary a trace can be found of the signature Costello fury. Honestly, the song doesn’t make you feel much, but then it doesn’t demand that you do: if anything, it seems like it comes not from a place of overflowing emotion but from a carefully-crafted desire to concoct an easygoing folk tune that could go down easy with the sorts of audiences Rusty was drawing. This is a song written by a kid – one with a strong ear for melody, yes, and a restless ambition when it comes to stringing words together, but one who bears no marks of imminently becoming a New Wave troublemaker, or staking out a place for himself as an “irritant.” If anything, this man seems much more like, well, the easygoing modern-day Elvis Costello Penman dismisses as overly friendly, overly eager-to-please, decidedly “un-edgy.” For all Penman’s grumbling about how preferable the early Costello is to the later one, the fact of the matter is this: the man Costello is today is, somewhat surprisingly, not as different as we might think from the one he was forty-some years ago – the stripey-sweatered MacManus playing folk tunes at sedate gatherings. The journey we have ahead of us, whether the Penmans of the world like it or not, isn’t so much about a stark difference between who this man was and who he became, as it is about the circuitous and complex journey between the two undistant points.
Recorded: MacManus house, November 27, 1972. Declan MacManus: vocals, guitar; Allan Mayes: vocals, guitar. Never released. Played live from 1972-1973, then once in 2015.
* Perhaps, until the original MacManus lyrics surface, we can imagine them in spirit, if not in form or diction, as not-dissimilar to another, identically-titled first-ever composition by a budding writer, Ronnie Mund of The Howard Stern Show. Mund’s “Winter” begins:
Winter is when there are no leaves on the trees
Winter is when we say goodbye to the birds and the bees
Winter is when we get an extra hour of Zs…
The song the young MacManus wrote was perhaps a shade more precious, but also certainly more soporific: it famously put the folk singer Ewan McColl to sleep during MacManus’s first-ever public performance at the age of fifteen.
** For some reason, Costello here and elsewhere refers, repeatedly, to his having been a member of Rusty in 1971. I’m having trouble locking down the exact dates, but I think he’s in error, as I believe he met Allan Mayes on New Year’s Eve as 1971 gave way to 1972, and then joined the band, as Mayes puts it, “a few days later.”
*** There seems to be no official lyric for the song, and even the usually-reliable Elvis Costello Wiki leaves the entry for “Warm House” blank. I’ve transcribed as best I can from the original demo. For what it’s worth, I quote the lyrics so extensively here largely because it seems as though this essay is destined to be, for now anyway, the sole online resource on this song. I hope I’m doing it justice.
Top to bottom: The Fortress Of Solitude, the least “warm house” I can think of; “Scores Man,” author of an alternate “Winter”; Rusty, 1972; Rusty, 2015.