A kerfuffle ensued a few months ago when the website Politico reported on a Republican fundraiser that took place in Manhattan.
Ted Cruz, a Texas senator who is on record, in a clear appeal to heartland voters, as disdaining “New York values,” has been running for the U.S. presidency on the strength of his immaculate conservative credentials – which most certainly includes staunch opposition to gay marriage. Last year the Supreme Court handed down a decision allowing same-sex unions that, Cruz has said, was “the very definition of tyranny”; he considers the subsequent state of affairs, despite the matter being settled from a legal standpoint, as a “crisis.” (The oft-circulated Facebook meme in which Cruz is tagged as having said “there is no place for gays in my America,” however, is a hoax.) Nevertheless, Cruz understands that political success requires the backing not only of evangelicals, but also of more socially moderate money people like those he was addressing in the Empire State – attendance at the Madison-Avenue fundraiser started at a $1,000 lunch, going up from there, and the attendees while fiscally conservative were decidedly socially liberal. Case in point: a Republican gay-rights supporter in attendance posed a question: would Cruz consider the fight against gay marriage as a “top-three priority”? Cruz replied in the negative: “People of New York may well resolve the marriage question differently than the people of Florida or Texas or Ohio… That’s why we have fifty states – to allow a diversity of views.” This was hardly an about-face for Cruz, or even an inconsistency with his oft-stated political beliefs, but it was reported, in classic “gotcha” fashion, as a sign of vast hypocrisy. Rival campaigns leaped on it: “There’s an Iowa Ted,” Politico quoted one opposition adviser anonymously, “and a New York Ted.” The dark insinuation: Cruz is treacherous, untrustworthy, driven by ambition rather than principle.
Now, for the purposes of this blog I have no opinion on Ted Cruz.* I bring him up, or more properly I bring up the image he was tarred with, solely as a current-events example of a longstanding stereotype in politics: the campaigner, loose in his talk, ready to promise anything and tailoring those promises not to his core beliefs, or to what he really thinks he can or can’t accomplish, but to what his audience wants to hear. Plenty of other politicians, on both sides of the ideological spectrum, can be and have been accused of doing the same, and talking out of both sides of the mouth has been associated with politicians since time immemorial – such is the nature of politics, after all. You promise the moon; you deliver, well, less. Especially on the stump, you’re looking to entice, to mesmerize, to win friends and influence people – you probably even mean it, in the moment anyway, when you promise something you can’t do. You want to do it, you really do. You want to bring these people whose vote you’re courting what they need. Just because the people you were talking to yesterday needed something completely different, and you promised that too, doesn’t mean you’re lying when you promise this, or that you’ll be lying tomorrow when you promise something else to yet another crowd. Ted Cruz, in keeping with a longstanding tradition in American conservative thought, conceives of cultural and philosophical differences among various segments of the national constituency as being demarcated sharply along the lines between states, and yet his goal is to preside over all fifty of them – not just Texas but also New York, the states whose people agree with him and the ones who don’t alike. In asking to be elevated to the nation’s highest office, he’ll tell the people of one state one thing, and he’ll tell those of another another. Read this as two-facedness if you like, but this is simply how the process works.
So what’s a voter to do? What hope can there be for us ordinary people, when no one who seeks to govern us can be counted on to believe the things he’s said, or even to harbor any real intention of following through on the pledges he makes? The only thing to do, really, is to “hold on tight,” the way you might in a car careening down a windy cliffside highway, always in danger of tipping over the edge and plunging down into the abyss. As Declan MacManus put it in his song “Jump Up,” an early and somewhat oblique consideration of political matters:
Jump up – hold on tight
Can’t trust the promise or a guarantee
’Cause the man ’round the curve says that he’s never heard
of you or me…
This is what politics is: the guy who was here yesterday assured us he had our interests at heart, but now he’s moved on to the next town, and to today’s audiences he denies any knowledge of our situation. He blew through, dispensing vows as readily as he shook our hands or kissed our babies, but we’re never going to see him again – the most we can hope is that we might hear his voice someday, transmitted from some distant gathering of political animals, a debate or a convention perhaps. But there’s no point in demonizing this man, MacManus points out or perhaps begrudgingly allows: the candidate himself is, after all, as much a dupe of the system as we are. He doesn’t even realize that that gathering itself is a mockery of everything he claims to stand for. He speechifies from a podium emblazoned “Cheaters Jamboree,” as if the event’s own organizers can’t pretend anything other than that this is a caucus of crooks; he’s so overtly a dunce being manipulated by men in smoke-filled rooms, that we can conclude nothing other than that this “must be their latest fool.” He’s running for whatever he’s running for against some other guy, probably equally flaccid in his principles, certainly equally foolish, and both clumsily angle for support by switching positions with the wind, the substancelessness of their beliefs a limp bid for votes, their assurances as meaningless as commercial testimonials:
It’s a two-horse race, and he changed his bets
like it was just another brand of cigarettes…
But this isn’t all there is to MacManus’s dissection of the psyches of these would-be leaders. People conceited enough to yearn for higher office deem themselves to be the vessels of some higher power, he notes, all the while ignoring – or, more likely, simply remaining blissfully heedless of – the fact that almost any display of purported acumen about how a country should be administered is at best a stab in the dark. These people would, MacManus suggests, serve their constituents better by catching the next train out of town:
Some people judge and they just guess the rest
They can’t understand that don’t mean that you’re blessed
They ought to catch the Express-Next-Stop-Nowhere,
That way you can forget…
It’s worth noting that for a man who’ll one day write such excoriating screeds of political leaders, MacManus is curiously sympathetic to the ones depicted here. He notes their exhaustion as they canvass – “Everybody’s talking like they can’t sit down, and looking like they can’t stand up” – and he does, perhaps reluctantly, grant their breadth of experience, albeit within a social order utterly vicious and destructive – “They’ve seen a lot of things that you never see, back on the mile up to the hanging tree…” He even nods with a hint of pity at the short shelf life most politicians have, the mayfly-like evanescence of their time strutting and fretting on the stage: they’re “just clicking their heels to the beat of the scene, trying to keep clean till the first edition of last night’s obituaries…”** That last phrase, incidentally, will pop up again in 1981’s “Luxembourg.” In both cases it refers to a boozer’s waking up having blacked out the night before, not completely sure without checking the papers that yestereve’s partying didn’t conclude with his bedmate – or even he himself – expiring entirely. Here it seems a cheeky reference to the first half of that old political saw, usually attributed to the 1970s and ’80s Louisiana politico Edwin Edwards though it certainly dates back farther than that, that the only sure-fire recipe for a public servant’s downfall is “waking up next to a dead girl or a live boy.”
All this is to say, MacManus has packed his song full of allusions to the seedier side of political life. It’s hard not to read the lyric as an assurance or a concession that this sort of thing is inescapable, part and parcel of civilization in a society necessarily governed by elected leaders. The world’s Ted Cruzes, to put it anachronistically given that Cruz was five years old when “Jump Up” was written, will always be out there, promising this and lying about that – if “lying” is even the right word. And that question, of what exactly a lie is in a political context, lurks in the background of the song: what, MacManus prompts us to wonder, is the nature of your language when you speak differently to the people here than you will to the people “round the curve”? From a political point of view, this is less a reprehensible or misleading inconsistency than it is the shrewd building of an alliance – that there even was a “Republican gay-rights supporter” to query Cruz at that fundraiser, don’t forget, is evidence that there’s a segment of the electorate that holds Republican economic conservatism to be of higher importance than the party’s correlating conservatism, some might even say homophobia, when it comes to sexual identity. Every voter is tasked with determining which of his pet issues is primary to him, and with holding his nose as other issues are dealt with simultaneously. This is hardly the exclusive province of a single political organization: to swing to the other side of the American system, it’s worthwhile to remember that the Democratic Party was, originally, a coalition forged by Martin Van Buren in the 1820s and ’30s when he saw that Northern immigrants, Southern planters, and Western frontiersmen could be corralled into voting for a unified set of candidates despite having essentially different political concerns. It helped, to be sure, that he had a charismatic strongman as a figurehead – blustery, sclerotic, militant Andrew Jackson was seen as a man of the people, a self-made success and someone who spoke truths because he didn’t have to truck in politicianly massagings of them. This sort of personality was, and it seems like it remains, appealing to a broad swath of voters – one suspects that had it been available to him in his day, Jackson might himself have indulged in a spray-tan every now and then. Van Buren, for his pains, acquired a reputation as a political wizard, a “Little Magician” or an inveterate prevaricator depending on who you talked to – and was himself turned out of the White House in 1840 thanks to a Whig party that took a page from his own book and ran William Henry Harrison, a sort of carbon copy of Jackson, in a campaign that to its dubious credit featured few out-and-out lies to voters insofar as there was precious little discussion of issues whatsoever. I don’t mean to get bogged down in political history – and I recognize that my reference points here are on the wrong side of the Atlantic for a real discussion of what the-man-who-would-be-Elvis-Costello would have been thinking of as he wrote a song about politics in his London flat in 1975*** – but we do well to keep in mind that nothing being observed here is new. Maybe nothing ever is.
And all of this assumes, of course, that “Jump Up” really is at least in part a warning to people whose lives will be affected by elections. Costello himself gives us good reason to think so, in a short passage from his memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink:
“Jump Up” was about the campaign lies and promises from an election happening in an imaginary land. The whole song was full of real fears and, although they were dressed in stolen or borrowed clothes, ended up sounding both whimsical and terrified.
It seems safe to assume that the short excerpt of lyrics that follows this observation represents the part of the song Costello is proudest of. It’s certainly the most intriguing passage, and the one that seems most to demand our attention if we hope to read “Jump Up” with discernment:
No tombstone would ever surprise me
when I’m locked in a room about half the size of a matchbox
Got holes in my socks
They match the ones that I got in my feet
I put my feet in the holes in the street and somebody paved me over
I was a statue standing on the corner
Tell me, how else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats?
This is a bit of a musical thrill ride: it’s a meandering sort of bridge, full of sharps and seven chords, melodically malleable and tossing its rhymes in willy-nilly like a set of jacks scattered on the stoop before you bring out the rubber ball. It’s also one of the most extended metaphors you’ll ever see in a MacManus/Costello lyric: whereas our man’s usual modus operandi is to work with discrete, modular couplets assemblable like bricks in a Lego set, here he wanders through a seven-line set of images leading us from one concrete monument to another, a tombstone giving way to a marble statue. Is it some political dissident who’s been locked away in that tiny room? Are the holes in his feet from bullets, or perhaps from nails along the lines of the ones driven into Christ’s flesh? Are we to imagine, in macabre fashion, the regal statues of erstwhile leaders that line city streets as containing, beneath a thin layer of plaster or stone, the actual desiccated bodies of those men? This, MacManus is suggesting, is the process by which those who prompt change, rarely ever enjoying the fruits of their struggle because they’re usually dead before those goals are achieved, are incorporated into society, embraced and honored after being incarcerated and tortured and slaughtered. Or, perhaps – MacManus’s use of personal pronouns is obscure as always – the speaker in this section is one of those double-talking politicians: the matchbox-sized room is the uncomfortable space we box our electioneerers into; the holes in the socks the tattered truth hidden by brightly-polished wing-tip shoes; the holes in the feet the assumption, made by all men seeking political glory, that the entire process of campaigning is a rehearsal for immortality, which will inevitably come once fame has been garnered and the statues erected to celebrate and commemorate them for all time. “My feet are pre-made with holes,” he’s suggesting fame-seekers think, “and eventually all you’ll need to do is line me up on the spot where my statue will stand. I’m ready to be remembered forever!” Either way, of course, the ultimate goal is the same: men, MacManus asserts, go through this long rigmarole to acquire everlasting renown solely because being given a permanent spot on the street will allow them the best vantage point to scope out girls’ skirts. Tell yourself all you like that you’re serving the public, fighting for what’s right, struggling to better the world – really, what you want is to satisfy your own personal desires. Is Ted Cruz doing all this just to get laid? Probably not, but surely he has his own version of “pretty pleats,” whatever it may be – and there are certainly more than enough politicians in history whose preoccupations proved predominantly priapic. MacManus certainly has a point, even if his is a cynical way to look at the world – such a viewpoint is, indeed, both whimsical and terrifying at the same time. Not for nothing, but this song’s declaring that political pursuits are ultimately about personal gratification is, in kernel form, the same idea that will underlie the songs, blurring interpersonal skirmishes with geopolitical saber-rattling, that Costello will write for the 1979 album he’ll try, before retitling it Armed Forces, to call Emotional Fascism.
A word, before I conclude, on Costello’s assertion that the song is dressed up in “stolen or borrowed clothes”: he’s claimed elsewhere that “Jump Up,” like the other so-called “Honky Tonk demos” from 1975-76, are “blatant imitations of various American singers and songwriters.” In performing the song he has introduced it by naming one in particular – before its belated live premiere at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in 2007, Costello said of “Jump Up”:
I borrowed some people’s voices to sing these songs before I learned how to sing. I think I borrowed John Prine’s voice for this one.
One of my goals in making this blog has been to increase my understanding of the musical roots and inspirations of my favorite songwriter – and yet I must confess to being completely stymied in my search for some Prine-ian wellspring from which “Jump Up” sprang. Nothing about Prine’s wonderful songwriting voice seems perceptible in “Jump Up,” which is crisp and music-hallish where Prine’s songs are all slurry and honky-tonky. This is not to mention the sonics: Prine’s records are overwhelmingly boisterous while MacManus’s demos from this time, taped in whispers in his kitchen while his family was sleeping, are hushed and withdrawn. It’s true, to be sure, that the extension of the bridge’s metaphor feels vaguely closer to Prine’s discursive style than to typical MacManus/Costello rat-a-tat, and maybe there’s something hiding in “Jump Up” of the paranoia of Prine’s “Illegal Smile”:
Well, I sat down in my closet with my overalls
tryin’ to get away
from all the ears inside my walls
I dreamed the police heard
everything I thought…
Most of all, in the offhand and close-to-comic wording of the very serious idea that is “how else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats,” we might perhaps detect a hint of Prine’s gift for concealing epiphanies within tight and folksy phrases: of “Sam Stone,” a veteran with a crippling drug addiction returning home to a shattered family, Prine sighs that “sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.” But on the whole, I think Costello is very accurate, and probably a bit modest too, when he says of these early songs that he was “trying (and failing) to copy such artists as Randy Newman, Hoagy Carmichael, Lowell George, John Prine, and the Band.” But then I suppose the key to developing your own songwriting voice is trying and failing to copy other voices you love – with the emphasis decidedly upon the positive side of “failing.”
Which brings me to a final thought on politics, hopefully a bit more in tune with MacManus’s British context, though it won’t seem so at first: as I write this, in the United States it is “Super Tuesday,” a crucial step in the selection of presidential candidates that, in ways I won’t bother to go into, is of extreme significance for Ted Cruz and his ilk. (Indeed, it’s not impossible that by the time you read this, Cruz himself will no longer be a viable candidate for the office he’s seeking.) Much is at stake in this race, not least of which is the vacant Supreme Court seat that for complicated reasons may well wind up being filled by the next president rather than the sitting one. That selection will have ramifications upon countless issues – for an example, see the decision that came down just last year, referenced earlier, regarding gay marriage. It’s easy, of course, while the campaign process is in full swing, to lose track of the legislating and the governing that necessarily follows – one thinks of Robert Redford talking to Peter Boyle at the end of 1972’s The Candidate, the politician having just won his election and, terrified at the thought of what’s next, finding his urgent query of “What do we do now?” drowned out by the celebrations of his staff. It can feel, to be sure, like all of politics is turbulence we have to ride out, “holding on tight” the whole way. But we should never lose track of the fact that the end result is the slow nudging of our lives toward something better. The men who run for office, even if it’s only in quest of a good angle to peer voyeuristically at girls, are rarely granted upon their assuming positions of it the real power of change they yearned for. We can cringe at the thought of the election of candidates who seek to build giant walls, say, or if we’re of a different slant we can recoil to think of elevating politicians whose goals seem unaffordable or pie-in-the-sky, who want to send everyone to college for free perhaps – but what we’re casting our votes for is less the carrying-out of these plans, which we have all sorts of safeguards in the form of congressional votes and court oversight to check, than their imprimatur, their acceptance by us as acceptable or even desirable. Those same-sex unions that Cruz finds so objectionable were unthinkable a hundred years ago, by everyone everywhere – yet the slow process of the people voting for politicians who support them, or even of our doing something so seemingly-unpolitical as watching and supporting and lionizing television shows about gay couples, has pushed them towards and then into the mainstream. What politics is about, really, is what Martin Luther King called “the arc of the moral universe” – or, as the English novelist Anthony Trollope put it in Phineas Finn, “it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.” Perhaps this is similar to the process of learning to write songs. You try, as Declan MacManus did, to write in someone else’s voice, perhaps successfully or perhaps not, and you build upon the places where you’ve done it particularly well or where, in your inability to mimic or perhaps to suppress your individuality, you’ve come up with something distinctive. Slowly, surely, you develop a voice, your voice, and it is better than the voice you had before. What you say here is finer than what you said back “round the curve.” The world moves on, and by the grace of god it gets better everyday.
Recorded: MacManus house, late 1975/early 1976. DM: vocals, guitar. Released as a bonus track on the Ryko reissue of My Aim Is True, 1993. Played live a handful of times since its premiere in San Francisco in 2007.
* Outside of it, of course, I do: it will surprise no one to hear that a devoted admirer of Elvis Costello is decidedly to the political left of Cruz. Sure enough, I feel about him pretty much the way you might expect. In this context, though, that feeling is neither here nor there. I will say, at the risk of almost over-striving for objectivity, that I think this particular bit of criticism is unfair, as there’s no reason to read Cruz’s New York comments as insincere: while he hasn’t disabused any of his evangelical voters of their impression that an anti-gay-marriage stance is one he harbors deeply, I find it easy to believe that in terms of priorities, Cruz has what he regards as bigger fish to fry. There are lots of reasons to dislike Ted Cruz, but this, I dare say, isn’t one of them.
** For lack of an official lyric, I’ve taken the liberty of approximating this line. I’m pretty sure, though, that I don’t have it right: google “Jump Up,” and you’ll find every transcription reproduces the words as “trying to keep careen until the first edition of last night’s obituaries.” That inscrutable phrasing, “keep careen,” is unquestionably what MacManus says in the song’s demo, and it doesn’t seem to be an error or a slip of the tongue – the same odd set of syllables are also sung in the handful of live versions bootleggers have captured in the last few years, now that the song has made its very late entry into Elvis Costello live sets. Indeed, the line before it seems to have changed over time, Costello having rewritten it to “just clicking their teeth to amphetamines,” but there the tweaks stop: “keep careen” remains, even after four decades. I can do nothing save throw up my hands. Perhaps it’s a Britishism I don’t know, or some sort of accent Costello’s affecting. If anyone out there can illuminate, I’d be very grateful.
*** Significantly, he was almost certainly not thinking of Margaret Thatcher, who we’ll be talking about extensively in time as she’ll become the focus of Costello’s searing hatred of politicians. In 1975 Thatcher had only just become the leader of the Conservative Party, which was out of office until 1979, and it’s not unlikely that MacManus hadn’t given her much thought as yet. Moreover, even once she came to power, the many perceived sins of Thatcher would not, for Costello, include the untruths and empty promises being considered and condemned in “Jump Up”: say what you will about Thatcher, and I suspect Costello would concur – her overly rigid right-wing ideology and her probable indifference to the plight of society’s lower classes were her faults. You can hardly accuse her of lying, as she was forthright enough about following through on the promises she made in campaigning to carry out her party’s harsh social and economic measures.
Top to bottom: Ted Cruz, in contemplation, 2015; the risque cover of an early bootleg release of the “Honky Tonk Demos,” which included “Jump Up”; Martin Van Buren, the “Little Magician” and founder of the Democratic Party, ca. 1828; John Prine, perhaps at his most awesome, early seventies; Robert Redford, as Bill McKay, and some “pretty pleats” in The Candidate, 1972.