Cheap Reward


Cheap Reward.
Cheap Reward (live with Billie Joe Armstrong, 5/19/06).
Cheap Reward (sung by Stephen Colbert, 11/19/09).
Cheap Reward (live 2014).

Early last year, Chris Offutt published a lengthy essay in the New York Times about his father, Andrew Offutt. Offutt the elder died in 2013, after a nearly fifty-year career as perhaps the most prolific pornographer in the history of American letters.

Now, Offutt pere’s was a decidedly pre-internet brand of pornography, crafted in ornate prose and published in tatty paperbacks sold in the back rooms of sordid adult establishments: under seventeen different pseudonyms, among them John Cleve and J. X. Williams and Jeff Morehead and Turk Winter, he churned out something like three-hundred-and-seventy-five pornographic novels for at least three different presses. With his publishing royalties he put braces on his kids’ teeth; he earned enough that his wife’s tuition for her late-in-life return to college could be paid with porn money – she took a degree in philosophy; she earned an M.A. in English. Offutt’s masterpiece seems to have been a nineteen-novel saga, the Aubrey/Maturin of science-fiction porn, called Spaceways, featuring hermaphroditic aliens enlivening the existences of human astronauts of both genders on a vast and adventure-filled intergalactic voyage. He kept up avidly with his smut-scribing contemporaries, and “believed,” Offutt the younger explains, that “he’d influenced the industry to the point where his style was being consistently copied, the proof being that other authors had begun writing knowledgeably of the clitoris, which he believed he pioneered.” Though staggeringly prolific by any reckoning, he would fend off impatience from his publishers deftly: “It is most difficult for me,” he insisted in a letter quoted in the essay, “to write as if cranking the arm of a copy machine… Let us not bandy terms. I am an artist, whether these series books will be ‘art’ or not.’” Truer words were never penned: in his way, and though he wrote for a very specific audience, Andrew Offutt was a remarkable literary artist.

After his father’s death, Chris Offutt was put in charge of going through the messy office Andrew Offutt left behind, a tremendous organizational task. It seems to have taken a great deal of time, and to have been emotionally taxing as you might expect: glimpses aplenty, through a dim haze of hoarded clutter, were afforded into a lost parent’s complex mind and, not incidentally and indeed almost necessarily given the nature of his profession, into many of his darker eccentricities. Getting to know his father so intimately, despite the two men being separated by death, was the spark that fired the younger Offutt’s essay, as well as the book-length memoir from which it’s excerpted, due to be published this month. But the part of the story that fascinates me, and that seems perversely pertinent to today’s consideration of Declan MacManus’s early song “Cheap Reward,” is the window into the artist’s craft that the essay offers. You see, it seems a large part of the literary legacy Andrew Offutt left behind was composed of a rather scurrilous set of notebooks.


There were, we’re told, reams and reams of paper in that office that Andrew Offutt would draw upon when necessary. His goal seems to have been to produce one pornographic novel each month, which represents a monumental amount of prose that had to be churned out on an almost daily basis. Words had to be put on the page regardless of mood, of inclination, of inspiration:

To achieve that, he refined his methods… inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance – phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.

Eighty percent of the notebooks described sexual aspects of women. The longest section focused on their bosoms. Another binder listed descriptions of individual actions, separated by labeling tabs that included: Mouth. Tongue. Face. Legs. Kiss. The heading of Orgasm had subdivisions of Before, During, and After. The thickest notebook was designed strictly for B.D.S.M. novels with a list of 150 synonyms for “pain.” Sections included Spanking, Whipping, Degradation, Predegradation, Distress, Screams, Restraints, and Tortures…

The mind reels as it contemplates this databank, this vast storehouse of titillation and deviance and obscenity. Even more, it bows – or it should, anyway – at the thought of the effort and discipline that had to be invested in its production. In those voluminous notebooks we can imagine a sort of portrait of the pornographer at work: preliminary to forging yet another installment of Spaceways, say, in the smithy of his soul, Andrew Offutt had to devote himself, like a painter mixing hues on a palette or a carpenter inspecting various boards in search of the perfect grain, to churning out long, almost free-associative spews of stream-of-consciousness sex talk. One imagines him entering into a kind of fugue state, pen in hand, and scribbling down every last scrap of language that floated into the forefront of his mind as he concentrated, zenlike, on a woman’s legs, or on the sensations that follow upon sexual release, or on whatever the heck “predegradation” is. (If I have any readers familiar with that term – please, I’m begging you: don’t enlighten me. Let the mystery be preserved.) Notebook after notebook had to be filled with this probably-near-nonsensical sexual logorrhea before a single word could be set down in an actual chapter draft. Long days and toil-filled nights must have been devoted to cranking out this raw prose, until the blue language that excited his readers so surely began to feel lifeless and foul in Andrew Offutt’s mouth: “Okay, god help me,” we can imagine him thinking, with a kind of resignation as he returned wearily to the lists, “but tonight I have to stay up late free-writing as much material as I possibly can about the hermaphrodites…” It’s impossible to imagine the effort that went into this, or how thrilling it must have been when the words were coming along briskly, or how much of a drag it surely was on nights when he just couldn’t think of a single thing to scribble down on the subject of “Orgasm, During.” Yet this, to the artist, is living: once it was done, the material proved essential to producing the actual writing, the pornography itself, and in allowing the artistry of the grand endeavor of Andrew Offutt’s life to flow smoothly:

Dad, [Chris Offutt tells us], was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days.

There’s something exhilarating about imagining this part of the process, when everything clicks into place and moves – to use a perhaps-unfortunate simile – as if finely lubricated. Having done all the preliminary work, pouring so much into those notebooks, Andrew Offutt would reap the benefits. The typewriter clatters away, until suddenly he stops. “What’s next?” he thinks. “A hermaphroditic sex scene with a three-legged alien? Not a problem: where’s that Hermaphrodite-Sex notebook? And while I’m at it, better pull the Leg notebook for good measure – it’s gonna get a workout today!” The detail about magic-markering away any passages drawn upon is a beautiful, almost moving one. This was, after all, literary craftsmanship of a high order. Repeating oneself would be gauche.

The one part that bumps me in Chris Offutt’s account of his father’s work is the comparison to Ford’s famous assembly line. It’s not my place to question a man’s take on his own father, and I concede I’m unfamiliar with any of Andrew Offutt’s novels. (Really, I am. I swear.) But what’s being described here isn’t the rigid ironing-out of inconsistency, which Ford was attempting in his concoction of the greatest efficiency machine of the industrial age: a piece of prose, after all, pornographic or otherwise, is not a Model-T or a McDonald’s hamburger. Andrew Offutt was not, by his own admission, “cranking the arm of a copy machine.” The writer’s output is a work of art, and art – high-, low-, or middle-brow – is produced through a process, usually invisible to us but operating in every single case. The cave paintings at Lascaux and the temples at Angkor and the symphonies of Arnold Schoenberg and the pencil-drawings of Berthe Urasco were all produced according to some system, ambitious or messy or painstaking or haphazard, and either the dreariest or the most refined or the least un-speculative part of the intellectual appreciation of art is the consideration of that process, as well as the scholar’s attendant, and probably vain, attempts to recreate its workings in hopes a greater understanding of the work will follow. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s important intellectual labor: barring the unlikely discovery of squirreled-away copies of the “foul papers,” for instance, textual analysis of the quartos and the First Folio is the closest we’ll ever come to knowing Shakespeare’s process, while concordances of Chaucer or the King James Bible or The Tale Of Genji, grime-coated windows into their authors’ minds, are cornerstones to scholarly understanding of those texts, study of which is so crucial to our understanding of what it even means to be a human being. Similar undertakings in music can, at least, be much more fun – we can dig up demo recordings of the early takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which are enjoyable listens in themselves, or we can play each individual track that went into “Sloop John B,” marveling all the while at the palpability of a brilliant musical mind at work. We can even listen to every single run through “Like A Rolling Stone,” hearing rock and roll itself as we know it materialize before our ears. These spins of obscure works-in-progress enable us, if we choose to listen to them with an ear for it, to discern many of the nuts-and-bolts decisions that went into the songs we love.

Blackmail 1929 publicity still

“Cheap Reward,” of course, is a different beast. It’s neither rough nor preliminary, and not a thing about it is in-progress – it’s certainly not the songwriting equivalent of a stream-of-consciousness collection of indiscriminate synonyms for female body parts. As we’ll see, it’s very deliberate, almost fastidiously constructed. Nevertheless, it was unreleased for many years – written in 1975 or -76, it was available only on bootleg until 1993 – and despite its recent rediscovery, making it an irregular staple of Elvis Costello solo performances, it was regarded at least initially as a rough draft. Before it even rolled out of the shop it had been stripped for parts: its melody was slowed and reworked into “Stranger In The House”; its lyrics were scrounged up and incorporated into future songs. One, 1978’s “Lip Service,” was an entire pop number built around a “Cheap Reward” throwaway line – the song is so rich, even overburdened, with hooks that one of its minor melodic bits could be used to anchor a completely different hit. Its ability to stand on its own feet – in his memoir Costello says of its evolution into “Lip Service” that he’s come to realize “the earlier draft was a better, if less furious, song” – went unacknowledged for a long time, in part because it was a refugee from Costello’s notebooks, and listening to it today is perhaps as close as we’ll ever come to being able to peek into the MacManus equivalent of Offutt’s secret binders filled with erotolalia. “Cheap Reward” is the sound of an artist overblessed with ideas, assembling them for the sake of having them all in one place, but never marrying himself to their arrangement lest he need to pull one out, blacking it afterwards to prevent self-plagiarism, storing it all away in order to keep the songwriting flow going at some future, possibly less inspired moment. In particular: Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink contains a snapshot of Costello, pressed during early sessions with the Attractions for material more suited to his new band’s frenetic approach. At a loss, and feeling little in the way of original inspiration, he departs to “the end of the mess hall,” whatever that means, and “dismantl[es] a country shuffle called ‘Cheap Reward’ to reassemble some of the lines in order to give us one more fast song, which I now called ‘Lip Service.’” It’s easy to think of this solution to a crisis, an urgent challenge to produce new work fast met by returning to an older piece, as analogous to Andrew Offutt’s drawing upon what his son would call “a supply of raw material” that allowed him to “write a book in three days.” In both artists’ cases, the key to keeping everything going was the backlogged material stockpiled away in notebooks.

A digression of sorts: it’s a funny thing, but notebooks loom strangely large in the Costello story. Flip through Unfaithful Music, and you’ll find the word appears no less than thirty times. They have a personality, too – notebooks, for this man, are not passive accepters of ideas and impressions. Things accumulate in them, and become distorted, amassing meaning to an occasionally menacing degree. There’s a sinisterness to notebooks in Costello’s world: Nick Kent refers darkly to the “little black book” Costello would carry around, which he alleged was filled with names of enemies; the shimmering paranoia of a later song, “Green Shirt,” finds a woman eavesdropping on conversations and ominously jotting notes in what we presume is a book similarly black: “She’s taking down names,” Costello tells us, “I hope none of them are mine.”* Perhaps the closest thing to real drama in a memoir filled with detached, often arch recollections of obliquely-related assignations and drugged-out misadventures comes when Costello discovers he’s about to be flown away from the Netherlands but has forgotten a notebook filled with most of what was pegged to become Get Happy!! back at his Amsterdam hotel. (For reasons Costello doesn’t explain, it has a Confederate flag on the cover, which seems worth mentioning in the context of a contemplation of the creepiness of notebooks.) Tracing Costello’s references to notebooks through his autobiography, skipping from passage to passage like a flat rock hurled across a lake, affords us a glimpse into his creative process. Take, for instance, his explanation of where Kent’s impression of that “enemies list” came from – Costello, it turns out, concocted the idea himself, as an excuse for his notebooks’ ubiquity:

I used to copy draft after draft of my new songs from page to page of a small black notebook, in which I told people I wrote the names of those who had crossed me. It was just the kind of nonsense they were prepared to believe but a lot easier than explaining what I was really writing.

This, rewriting as an essential part of writing, had been Costello’s habit for many years. Bits of songs had been carried in one notebook or another since long before he was a professional recording artist:

I’d begun writing the Trust songs “New Lace Sleeves” and “Watch Your Step” when I was only twenty years old, maybe even younger, so much of what I had written then consisted of uneducated guesses and predictions of the future. I copied lines and whole verses from notebook to notebook for nearly five years until some images found their rightful home.

The notion that lyrics would come to him as orphans, before they had a “rightful home,” is extremely important as we seek to comprehend how Costello constructs a song. Rare, it seems, is the song that arrives fully-formed, as “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” famously did – rather, they come in drips and drabs. He refers to the raw materials of songwriting as “hoarded couplets,” and he mentions repeatedly, in telling the story of where a certain snippet of language came from, that pieces of lyric had to be stored on paper until he found a song that needed them – hence the value of notebooks. An “early image” was “copied into various notebooks and from there into several abandoned songs” before finding “its final resting place” in “Watch Your Step”; a line from “Motel Matches” “sat in my notebook for… three years”; a beachbound epiphany that “forever doesn’t mean forever anymore” was “kept… a long while until its moment came in the song ‘Riot Act.’” Notebooks are receptacles; songs are resting places. Bits of the latter can be scavenged like shells on the strand, and tucked away for later use. Your creative process is more than the moment when you pick up a guitar or sit at the piano and a song emerges from your fingers and your mind: it’s also the long, gestational preparatory stage, when it may well seem to the outside world that you’re doing nothing more productive than daydreaming, or at best brainstorming idly on the general subject of “women’s bosoms.” Hell, though Costello is cheekily modest about his extracurricular exploits in Unfaithful Music, it’s hard to say that bosoms weren’t as much a prime source of inspiration for him as they were for Offutt. Anyone who’s listened to “Busy Bodies” knows that Costello’s interest in the subject was profound indeed.

Sam Kinison for LaughTrack Magazine a few months before tragic death

So what do we make of “Cheap Reward,” then? Certainly, it’s a grab-bag of pieces, available and easy to raid when Costello needed it. But whereas it’s hard to imagine the publication of Offutt’s raw notebooks meeting with a warm reception from even his least discerning readers, “Cheap Reward” plays just fine on its own – as Charlie Gillett confirmed when he broadcast it during his Honky Tonk radio program on August 15, 1976.** It is, as noted, a fairly strong piece of writing. Narrated by a speaker rejected by his woman as he’s drinking himself into oblivion, the song turns on a clever use of the overwritten chorus to wind back the clock and explain how the rejection came about. When we meet this fellow, he’s blustering, half to the bartender and half to himself:

Well, I feel so loose tonight I might fall to pieces
So be prepared to sweep me out the door
And I might be horizontal by the time the music ceases
So I think I’ll get acquainted with the floor

Comically enough, he also talks a little to that ground beneath him, as he’s fulfilling his prediction and collapsing onto it, his loss of uprightness interrupting him mid-thought:

I was trying to get away from the things that I always do
Hello floorboards, once again – how are you?

This is all presented overtop a fleet-footed acoustic strum, the melody that would become familiar as “Stranger In The House” played faster and livelier, its sadness secreted away behind velocity. If the situation, with a country singer lamenting a loss to a friend of sorts who only listens because it’s his job to serve the whiskey, seems like a bit of a cliché, the verbosity of what’s being said more than makes up for it. Just get a load of the chorus:

Lip service – that’s all you’ll ever get from me
Well, how could you believe I’ll take you seriously?
With your cheap rewards, your blackmail, and your comical rage
Just remember you’ll only be the boss so long as you pay my wage…

It would be hard to pack more words into this musical space: the four lines comprise a cruel vow, a taunt, a near-harangue listing a partner’s emotional flaws, and a half-sneer suggesting that any sense of power the woman ever felt she had was rooted solely in the man’s willingness to accept something from her. (Incidentally, the last bit, probably the catchiest turn of phrase in the song, seems to cry out to be the title. One suspects MacManus settled on calling this “Cheap Reward” rather than “Pay My Wage” only because he already had a song called “Pay It Back.”) The woman being addressed here is absent; the man addressing her is supine, sloshed, and slipping away from consciousness. The tirade he’s just unleashed seems a little strange, actually, sharper somehow than you might expect from a spineless lush. The chorus almost feels like they can’t be his words – but perhaps we can read them as something he’s concocted in his head, over many nights of trying to drink away the memory of losing this woman and succeeding only in bringing her all the more to mind. This isn’t what he said: it’s what he wishes he’d said. Indeed, it’s probably something more like the opposite of what actually came out of his mouth – which, to lean on another musical cliché, was likely something more along the lines of “baby, please don’t go.” He’s nursing his shame at having mustered up only something so nakedly needy by pretending he actually said something much crueler – and we should probably take note of this little trick, a self-deceptive concealment of pain within nastiness, because Costello will draw upon it many, many times in future lyrics. For now, though, let’s look backwards instead of forwards: remembering the terse simplicities of MacManus’s Rusty-era songwriting from just a few years earlier, his paeans to the non-coldness of a “warm house” or his fumblingly nonspecific attempts to declare that “love is like everything,” it’s hard not to be impressed at how much growth he’s evincing here in “Cheap Reward.” He’s found a way to tell us, in song, not what his speaker said but what he didn’t say. It’s impressive.

Office Space boss

But then the speaker is unconscious, and lying there on the barroom floor he dreams of the breakup that brought him here. It was a fight, or anyway it feels like one. It’s not clear who said what – as memories of fights sometimes go, the phrases bandied about have come unloosed from their speakers, and drift about, hurting everybody and damaging everything. The couple even commits the error every relationship handbook begs you not to do, and goes to bed angry:

All the signposts on this road that point one way
Don’t act like you’re above me, just look at your shoes
I’ll turn the light out now ’cause there’s nothing more to say
And it’s all been lost before, so there’s nothing to lose

It’s hard to understand what they were fighting over, and maybe it doesn’t even matter. One or the other feels trapped, like they’re on a one-way road leading somewhere unpleasant; a jibe is issued using words that Costello clearly likes – the inscrutable-yet-unquestionably-mean “just look at your shoes” line, likely something he overheard on the street and scribbled down for later use, would be preserved in “Lip Service” – and then they give up, retiring for the night defeated. They lie in the dark; everything feels lost. And then something kind of lovely, and kind of sad happens: through the tense silence the speaker issues a soft plea, or maybe he just thinks about the plea he should make, before tumbling back into a second iteration of the precise, cutting word-soup of the chorus:

Oh, but you could say that you love me very painlessly
I would’ve done the same for you, but you said to me:
Lip service – that’s all you’ll ever get from me…

All she had to do, he thinks – pointedly, it had to come from her first – was tell him that she loved him. He would have said it back, and the fight would have ended, and they’d still be together. Maybe he even said this aloud, there in the lightless room, the two of them sleeping as far apart as possible in their bed: “You know, it would be easy enough, painless even, for you to say you love me.” It’s a plea, couched as a needling reproach – which, as men have a bad habit of never learning, is never a good sword to draw in an argument with your lover. He just wanted her to say she loved him, but instead she said something else – she issued what we now learn really isn’t what he said when they broke up. She, it turns out, was the one who issued that vow, that taunt, that harangue, that sneer. “Just remember,” she concluded viciously, “you’ll only be the boss so long as you pay my wage.” The powerless one, we now learn, was him – he was the one whose rewards were valueless and who made love like he was blackmailing her and whose very fury could never be anything more than risible. That articulate viciousness we were so surprised to find following the first verse, which we read at the time as him having crafted these words over time, turns out to have been hers all along, remembered now with an unspoken wish that he’d been able to harness that same effortless cruelty. These are not, after all, the words he wishes, in his hurt, he could have found to unleash at her as the relationship was reaching the point of irreparability – rather they’re the words she found all too easy to spit out when, at their lowest point, she finally pushed him away. They’re not what he’d like to have said then: they’re what he remembers her saying, the reproaches that have led him to this misery- and booze-soaked now. “Cheap Reward” is quite literally a country two-step – it’s a dance, where the person who seems to be leading turns midway through into the follower.

Young EC

As I’ve said, this is all quite intricately assembled. Perhaps there was some earlier version of “Cheap Reward,” in some earlier notebook in which its couplets tumbled around loose like change in the bottom of a purse, but by the time it was laid down on reel-to-reel and mailed off to Charlie Gillett it was in pretty polished shape. Yet it was tossed aside within the MacManus equivalent of Offutt’s cluttered office, and after its melody was utilized for “Stranger In The House” a marker was run over it; the same thing was done when the first line of its chorus and its tossed-off jeer about shoes were pried out roughly and slotted into “Lip Service.” Ultimately, it seems these pieces had not yet found their “rightful home,” even after being put together into a song as strong as “Cheap Reward.” Perhaps nothing is ever complete; perhaps someday Costello will raid “Lip Service” for spare parts he’ll use to assemble yet another song.*** It’s quite possible that everything is a notebook: if even lustful daydreams can be channeled into pornographic literature, and two-line epiphanies scrawled in margins can fall together into powerful music, and that music itself sourced for even more music, the distillation process continuing ad infinitum until, hopefully, everything achieves a kind of perfection, then our lives themselves are notebooks for our futures. The labored churning-out of raw material, those late nights when Andrew Offutt despaired of finding yet another synonym for something filthy, isn’t the opposite of art – it’s the crucial underpinning of it, and every notebook you fill with a list of synonyms for pain (which, really, is what both Offutt and MacManus were doing) brings you a step closer to executing the process that births your art into existence. The entire universe is a vast assembly line, not in the Fordian but in the Offuttly sense: everything we do today, assuming we approach life with the attention and discipline and drive of an Offutt or a MacManus, can be drawn upon tomorrow. We craft, we churn, we live – building upon that which came before, we make our thoughts into something greater than their sum, and then that in turn shapes everything that comes after us. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we influence the world enough that our pioneering attentions to the clitoris become the industry-standard. Regardless, entropy be damned, as long as we’re filling up those notebooks, recopying old notebooks into new notebooks, making the old into the new, the world improves with each successive draft. The world may have toilsome demands, but we’ll be its boss so long as we pay its wage.

Recorded: MacManus house, late 1975/early 1976. DM: vocals, guitar. Broadcast by Charlie Gillett on BBC Radio London, 8/15/76; released as a bonus track on the Ryko reissue of My Aim Is True, 1993. Salvaged for live performance, improbably enough, by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong for the “Decades Rock Live” tribute to EC on 5/19/06. (Their duet was sandwiched, jarringly enough, between Armstrong’s own “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).” It must have been a strange evening.) Thereafter, it’s popped up erratically in EC’s solo shows, often in the “second from the top” slot that “Stranger In The House” held for so many years. A curiosity: it was once sung by Stephen Colbert, with EC on guitar, during a Colbert Report Costello appearance where EC was stricken with laryngitis.

* Performing the song live in subsequent years, Costello would routinely alter this line: “She’s taking down names,” he would sing, a little coyly, “I hope all of them are mine…” This would invariably elicit whoops and cheers from the crowd. A digression within this digression, perhaps or perhaps not applicable to this and to future blog entries: I used to be bothered by this habit of Costello’s, switching out lyrics in performance sometimes just to be sure the audience is paying attention. It seemed wrong that a lyric, as well as its complete opposite, could both mean the same thing. What is the speaker of “Green Shirt” even saying, when he hopes both that “none” of the names and “all” of them are his? You can’t, I used to think somewhat naively, have it both ways. But then one day, very recently in fact, I was driving somewhere, and I was sitting at an intersection, poring over the GPS that was telling me how to get to the place I was going, which my map program assured me was only twelve minutes away. It indicated that from here, I should turn right. It also indicated, however, that I could turn left – in the exact opposite direction – and that this other route, seemingly heading away from the place I was going, would bring me to the same destination with a “similar ETA.” I turned right; coming back, though, I took the other route and found myself approaching that fateful intersection from the other direction – and sure enough, the journey back had taken roughly the same amount of time as the journey there. Right was twelve minutes; so was left. It seems life has a knack, I found myself thinking, for teaching you lessons at unexpected moments.

** This is, not for nothing, the first time MacManus’s voice was ever heard by the general public. It was also, for MacManus himself, that fabled moment every rock star seems to recall, when he first heard his music on the radio. Costello’s recollection of it is lovely, if a little less romanticized than, say, Bruce Springsteen’s story of hearing a car pass him on the street blaring “Spirit In The Night.”

I… got word that the tape was going to be broadcast.

When that moment came, I went into the kitchen and turned out all the lights. I didn’t want anyone to see me listening to my own voice coming out of the transistor radio. The only illumination came from a streetlamp outside the ground-floor window, which cast a vague glow along the linoleum. I was just one storey below where I’d sat as a child, listening to my Dad rehearse for his radio broadcasts.

My voice sounded lower and older than I’d imagined, but I was still finding a way to sing, and the performance was full of strange affectations, just not all of the strange affectations with which I eventually made my name.

Charlie was complimentary enough about the song, in his deadpan way, but then they went to the weather forecast and the spell was broken.

The world didn’t stop turning, the sky didn’t fall in, and I wondered if there was even more than a handful of listeners tuned in at that hour.

*** Indeed, the process does seem to be ongoing: though “Lip Service” wasn’t one of the songs culled, much of Wise Up Ghost, Costello’s 2013 collaboration with the Roots, was made up of songs built out of rearrangements of older material: “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” was laid overtop a scrambling of the chord progressions from “High Fidelity”; “Stick Out Your Tongue” recast lyrics from “Pills And Soap”; “Tripwire” rendered lilting the storming rhythms of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, & Understanding?” The latter song is particularly beautiful, and if the rewriting really does never end, one hopes Costello finds the time in a decade or two to refine it even further.

Top to bottom: A colorful cover for “The Manhuntress,” one of Andrew Offutt’s Spaceways books, 1982; the cheapest reward I can think of: the single dollar staked in John Landis’s Trading Places, 1983; a screengrab from Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, 1929; the late, great Sam Kinison, noted producer of comically rageful screeds, ca. 1992; Gary Cole as the internet’s favorite and most-memed boss in Office Space, 1999; EC ca. 1977, after he wrote “Cheap Reward” but before he plundered it for other songs.


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