A Face In The Crowd

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A Face In The Crowd.
Town Called Riddle.
Vitajex.
They Call Me Mrs. Lonesome.
Blood And Hot Sauce.
Burn The Paper Down To Ash.
American Mirror.*

Elvis Costello has never been stingy about treating live audiences to new work. Back in tape-trading days, when fandom involved a lot of cassette-duping and licking stamps, it was always a thrill to acquire a static-filled, heavily-generated recording of an early show where he unveiled songs we’ve since grown to love – straining my ears to hear through the noise, I could try to imagine what it must have been like to be in that faraway hall on that long-past day, experiencing for the first time songs like “Chemistry Class” (played solo, due to a delay in the arrival of the rest of his band, for a 1978 crowd in Portsmouth long before its official release) or “Temptation” (presented to unsuspecting showgoers in Harrisburg in 1979 in a later-discarded arrangement, under its original title “Idle Hands”). Best of all was when I stumbled onto a song that, for reasons I could only speculate upon, was later consigned to oblivion and thus became a special kind of treasure – something like “Baby Pictures,” which Londoners in 1982 heard Costello play on the piano, and then no one ever heard of it again.** There are plenty of examples of Costello doing something like this, gifting crowds with a spotlight shone into the darkness of his songwriting future, and yet still it’s happened with relative rarity. The odds of being present, actually being there as one of these rare birds swoops into the room and then alights for the heavens, remain once-in-a-blue-moon.

We’ve just finished, however, a full week of blue moons; we’ve been presented with an exaltation of birds exquisitely feathered. Wrapping the current American leg of his solo “Detour,” Costello debuted no fewer than seven new songs over the course of five shows. More exciting still, they’re all linked – part of what could be a song cycle but, given recent nonspecific statements in interviews about his current projects, is more likely a musical. It’s probably called A Face In The Crowd; it’s based on the Budd Schulberg screenplay for the 1957 Elia Kazan film – or, possibly, the original Schulberg short story “Your Arkansas Traveler” – and if it’s not earmarked for Broadway, it should be, because the material couldn’t be stronger or the subject matter more timely. Regular readers of the blog (all, like, fifteen of you at this point) know that I’m overdue to get back to my slow progress through the early work of Declan MacManus, but in the spirit of Costello’s ramble along highways connecting small towns in the Pacific Northwest, I thought I’d take a little detour to discuss what we know of the new project. Song-by-song entries on these numbers are many, many years off at the rate I’m going, but I look forward to getting to them: they’re all extremely worthy additions to the Elvis Costello canon.

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Our first hint of what was afoot came on 12 April, as Costello performed at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, a stately sort of place on a hill in the University of Utah campus. It had already been a night for shaking up the setlist: Costello was in superb voice, and a loosey-goosey sort of mood, and we’d heard tour debuts of “Stella Hurt” and “Clubland” and “Come The Meantimes” before the show was even an hour old. But then he sat down for the piano interlude that comes at roughly the one-third mark of the now well-established “Detour” format. He ran through the lovely cover of the Los Lobos song “Matter Of Time” that’s become a staple, and then those of us who’ve been following the setlists naturally expected “Shipbuilding” or “Almost Blue,” but that’s not what we heard. Instead Costello turned to the crowd, and posed a question: “Just imagine,” he said, “if somebody turned up now, and told you they had all the answers. How would you really work out, with so many lies in the world… How would you work out if somebody was for real, or was just a pitchman for the devil?” It was an intriguing thought, frankly phrased, and a provocative one. But the music that followed – “I’d like to play you this song,” Costello said simply, before launching in – didn’t seem, on first blush, to connect to it. The song was tender, a showtune vaguely in the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” tradition. It sounded fantastic played starkly on the piano, and Costello’s voice was rich and full. He wasn’t provoking us – he was cradling us:

If you’re down, and confused
And you think you’ve been used
And you’re only a face in the crowd

Well, I know how that feels
No one hears your appeals
And you’re lonely, for crying out loud…

When the title showed up in setlists posted on fan sites later that night, there was not-unreasonable speculation that “Face In The Crowd” might be a cover of the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers song – it wouldn’t be the first Petty cover Costello’s done. No one made the connection to the Kazan film about the media-driven rise of a 1950s demagogue, though perhaps we should have. After all, not only its introduction but also the song’s placement in the set was a giveaway of sorts: it was replacing Costello’s nightly jibe at the Donald Trump phenomenon. He’d been playing the Burt Bacharach song “Mexican Divorce,” elided with a verse from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2,” and in case the mockery of Trump went over people’s heads – which I can attest it did, having seen the first performance of this in San Diego and not even come close to grasping the Trump connection until later – he’d added a visual on the immense television-shaped screen at the rear of the stage, a cartoon caricature of Trump as an arrogant uniformed duck. “Mexican Divorce” was meant to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Trump’s signature wall-along-the-southern-border proposal; “Another Brick,” I can only assume, to sneer at the idiocy of supporting such nonsense: “We don’t need no education… All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall…” Playing this lovely new song here, where for tour-watchers the attention Costello has been paying to presidential politics lingered like the phantom of a stared-at image once you’ve turned away and blinked your eyes, was a strong hint as to what it meant. For the time being, though, that was far from obvious, and “A Face In The Crowd” seemed more a song of support and bucking-up and hope:

When they’ve broken you, forsaken you
Been taking you for granted
When your voice can’t be heard
And you can’t find the words
I will help you, but I won’t be bowed
You’re only a face in the crowd…

It wouldn’t be until we’d heard some more new songs, the next night in Jackson, that the picture would start to become clearer.

The Jackson Hole Center For The Arts is the tiniest room Costello played on this tour, a 500-seat theater in a smart wooden building at the foot of snowcapped mountains that are clearly a skier’s paradise. A light drizzle was rapidly turning into slushy flurries, and the weather was doing a number on Costello and his crew: I don’t think I’ve ever heard him in poorer vocal shape as he struggled, flu-stricken, with almost every song. (He later issued an apology, via Twitter, to the audience, though it was hardly necessary – bum notes here and there notwithstanding, the show was magnificent.) The night had a freewheeling feel, with standard numbers like “Church Underground” dropped on the fly and unexpected additions like “This Year’s Girl” necessary due to rejiggerings of the usual song order. “A Face In The Crowd” popped up again, the hoarser delivery making it sound trembling and desperate rather than loving and urgent. But then we reached the post-break set Costello does with Megan and Rebecca Lovell, the ladies from opening act Larkin Poe, their mandolin and slide and footstomping giving the night a welcome shot of energy. Midway through, a ukulele was brought out, and Costello announced that it was time for “a little word from our sponsors.” He proceeded to play another new tune, a strummy advertising jingle for a quack medicine, lively and old-timey and in the musical vein of “A Slow Drag With Josephine” perhaps. It was full of old-fashioned naughty jokes and intentionally-hackneyed rhymes – it seemed, initially, like a one-off wisecrack about the need for a cure-all to fight the illness wreaking havoc on Costello’s voice:

Vitajex, Vitajex
It’ll shrink your belly and improve your – uh-oh!
Make you get your woman really down to size
Make her smell of roses and uncross her eyes
If your sleep is broken and you’re climbing walls
And you feel just like a mule that is kicking the stalls
Pop a couple of these until your girlfriend calls out
Give me my Vitajex…

Rebecca Lovell’s whooping “uh-oh”s to cover the “censored” words were charming, and hearing Costello adopt the persona of a crass pitchman, smarmily promising that his panacea would slim you and reform you and make you stronger and more attractive to the fairer sex, was a joy. I think it’s safe to say nobody in the room recognized the word “Vitajex” – it seemed like the sort of nonsense moniker a mountebank devises for his snake-oil, perfectly-chosen but meaningless. It was only later that a Google-aided reacquaintance with the plot of A Face In The Crowd reminded us that this was the product Andy Griffith’s character is tasked with shilling at the start of his corrupting rise to media domination.

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I should probably admit, I might not have thought to Google that at all if Costello hadn’t asked me to. He came out for his last encore – his voice was much improved by this point; I honestly think playing new material was invigorating him – and he sat at the piano again for his loping, slightly-sinister rendition of the old standard “Side By Side”: “Don’t know what’s comin’ tomorrow/ maybe it’s trouble and sorrow/ but we travel the road, sharin’ our load/ side by side…” But then he gave us a long introduction to the next number – yet another new one, wonderfully enough. He referred back to his intro to “A Face In The Crowd,” which tonight had been more or less the same as in Salt Lake, and with piano rhythms punctuating his speech with intermittent and somewhat uncharacteristic stutters, he went through for us the entire plot of the movie:

Remember when I was telling you a little while ago about how if there was somebody who came and told you that they had the answer to everything, how would you know they wouldn’t be the pitchman for the devil? Well, you know, that’s the story of a man, written by Budd Schulberg. He created a character called Lonesome Rhodes. And it’s a guy who just went around saying just the first thing that popped into his head, and then he discovered that people liked it. And he was kind of a truth-teller – but really I think he had bad intentions. And little by little he went from being a radio star to being, like, a television star, and then he really started to think that, like, maybe he could be the pitchman of like, some pep pills – like Vitajex, or something like that. And then they thought, you know – this happened before with Hitler, you know, and other sorts of people, like Mussolini, and people like that… Somebody kind of said, “Well, maybe we can get this guy to be the mouthpiece for what we really want done…” So they got this Lonesome guy, and filled his head, and he started to kind of broadcast on the radio and on the television… And he needed, like, a catchphrase that was gonna resonate with the people… Eventually he became, like, a demagogue…

This is indeed the story of A Face In The Crowd, in outline – and I feel like I should pause here to make sure you’re all up to speed on the Kazan film. If you haven’t seen it, go Netflix it immediately, as it’s very good, and should be enjoyed without the spoilers that will necessarily accompany my discussing it. It opens with Marcia Jeffries, a young and naïve radio-station employee played marvelously by Patricia Neal, stumbling upon a drifter named Larry Rhodes, played by Griffith. She has a radio program called “A Face In The Crowd,” wherein average folks speak their mind and make up songs and tell it like they see it – from what we hear of the show, it’s a sort of tame 1950s version of The Howard Stern Show or a man-on-the-street slant on the reality genre we associate with, I dunno, The Real World perhaps, or Keeping Up With The Kardashians. She renames Larry “Lonesome” on the spot, and Lonesome’s gruff energy and folksy style – not to mention his improvised blues tune, a strident and exultant and moving ditty called “Free Man In The Morning” – resonate with listeners. Indeed, Lonesome is quickly hustled up the ladder from radio to TV commercials to having a show of his own, and this platform proves so powerful that before long politicians start using him to push their agendas and candidates. It all goes to his head. I hate to ruin the film – again, please watch it – but Marcia is eventually forced, despite being in love with Lonesome, to engineer his downfall because she knows he’s become a force for evil. This comes after she’s accepted his impulsive marriage proposal, only to discover he already has a wife, and only to be humiliated when, later, he gets a divorce only to marry somebody else instead. It also comes about in precisely the fashion predicted by the wry and worldly-wise writer Mel Miller, played by Walter Matthau – he’s been onto Lonesome’s substancelessness from the get-go, and serves as a kind of voice of reason, observing everything and shaking his head at its inevitability and tragedy. In the film, Lonesome doesn’t have a catchphrase – unless you count “Free Man” or his tendency to refer, in aw-shucks bits of folksy wisdom, to things that ostensibly happened in his hometown of Riddle, Arkansas – but Costello is writing a musical, and has correctly sensed the need to distill Lonesome’s radio appeal into a hooky number. What he’s come up with is the exclamation “Blood and hot sauce!” This, though it’s just my two cents, is pretty great: just say it to yourself a few times. It really is catchy, and it has a middle-of-last-century simplicity and homespunness to it. It means absolutely nothing, too, which is why you can imagine a “devil” being able to invest as much or as little into it as he cares to – in short it feels, in an Eisenhower-era sort of way, a lot like “Make America great again.” Costello’s song for Lonesome to sing was played solo on piano, but you can easily imagine it puffed up into a big production number, schmaltzy and featuring the company kicklining at the end:

Well, I’m gonna make my way
On that first unclouded day
Hooray for blood and hot sauce!

If you feel the urge to shout
And you just have to let it out
Don’t blaspheme – just say “Blood and hot sauce!”

The song is a wonderful earworm, vaguely martial in tempo though it’s a kind of ghost-march – you don’t realize you’re in step until you’ve already been singing along for a while. It does, for what it’s worth, more storytelling work than any of the other numbers – “A Face In The Crowd” and “Vitajex” are nice showpieces, but they capture a moment in time for the characters singing them, whereas “Blood And Hot Sauce” moves Lonesome along an arc, from your-friend-on-the-boob-tube to your-source-for-right-wing-political-ideas. He starts off suggesting that something’s not quite right with life nowadays, phrasing it in the most everyday terms imaginable:

You want somethin’ that’s nice
With your pancakes and your eggs
You prefer it to sacrifice
And you’re down to the dregs
If your temper starts to boil
Shucks, there’s a motto in your cereal bowl
Hooray for blood and hot sauce!

Before long, however, he’s grabbed that vague dissatisfaction and begun wrenching it into a formless, vaguely reactionary political agenda – which is, after all, what demagogues and devils do:

If you’re tired of the lies
Of politicians and of preachers
You can put your trust in me
Help me be your brother’s keeper
If you pay too many taxes,
Think salvation should be cheaper
Just say “Blood and hot sauce!”

Now, I’m not much of a political observer – I proved that with my hamfisted attempt to talk about campaigning in discussing “Jump Up” a few weeks back – so without getting bogged down in nuance I’ll just say there’s a clear analogue here to the rise of Trump: a complex problem has been presented as a simple matter, and the intricate, multipart, likely longterm solution necessary to tackle it boiled down to a pithy slogan equating to “vote for me.” The song’s chorus is the masses, responding to this with “we don’t need no education” vim:

Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray for blood and hot sauce!

But what’s that? Before the song is over, you say you want a little more of a nod to Trump, he of the ostensibly-undersized fingers and the protests-too-much absence of problems with his genitals? Costello happily provides it in the final verse, with an under-the-breath admission Lonesome probably hopes you’ll be too busy cheering to notice:

I was climbing up the ratings
They said I was a Satan
The ladies treat me kindly
’cause they know what’s on my mind
And I gave into temptation
I’m lousy with penetration
Hooray for blood and hot sauce!

This could conceivably be the show’s eleven-o’clock number – it winks and nods toward the gloating ickiness of, say, Miss Saigon’s “The American Dream” – but it seems likelier to come earlier in the show, covering the complex transition between the simpler and the more sinister eras in Lonesome’s career. Figure it for a top-of-Act-Two reset, the first act having only hinted at the bad things the second act will bring. It’s all capped with a few more “hip hip hooray”s: the tricky narrative move, blowing up this modest broadcaster into a media sensation, is handled with splash and showmanship in a single tune. It’s extremely skillful musical storytelling, and in the hands of a gifted director and a choreographer with the proper taste for the gaudy, it’ll make for an incredible number.

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So the pieces had begun falling into place. “A Face In The Crowd” is an opening number, an “I Want” song of sorts, sung by Marcia and explaining something the movie glosses over: what lies behind her initiating drive to find average joes for her radio program. It lets us know that she has noble aspirations, hoping to find people who’ve been forgotten and offer them a spotlight. She does exactly that for Lonesome Rhodes, and his success leads to his goofy job hawking “Vitajex,” in what will surely be a humorous interlude before the shadows start to fall with “Blood And Hot Sauce,” which takes us into the darker sections of the story where Lonesome has become a more malevolent cultural force. This leaves some obvious holes, a full musical being much more than three numbers, but two nights later on 15 April – thankfully for Costello’s voice, a recuperative day off had been built into the schedule after Jackson – we saw two of them filled in. Boise’s Egyptian Theatre is a gorgeous old room a stone’s throw from the picturesque state capital, with Tutankhamen masks decorating the walls and cartouches naming ancient kings and queens adorning the lobby ceiling. Costello’s performance there was pretty marvelous – though, from a setlist standpoint, an unnerving swerve into the dark corridors of “I Want You” was the only noteworthy change until late in the first set, when the usual first-half closer of “Watching The Detectives” ended without his relinquishing his bulky Gibson guitar. “Want to hear a new song?” Costello asked us then, and launched into “Town Called Riddle”:

It’s a fork in the road
Just a freckle of a place
As plain as the nose that they punch on your face
Where the people have spoken and they’re talking in tongues
And nobody gets older, they just get younger
Straight as the state line, crooked as the word
Cursing and praising and feeling the lord
With a kick and a quibble and a lick or a spittle
I’ll share all my wisdom from a town called Riddle…

The tune is nasty, the electric guitar runs that underlie it prickly and unsettling. This is Lonesome talking up his hometown – but here he isn’t focused on the plainspoken home truths he spews in the movie. Costello, instead, is letting his more vicious vision of Lonesome speak up – it’s worth remembering that whereas Schulberg seems on the fence as to whether the evil that emerges from Lonesome Rhodes is in him all the time or comes over him thanks to the insidious influence of the media, Costello has pitched his entire musical as answering the question of whether or not we would recognize the devil when we’re presented with him. Costello’s Lonesome, in other words, comes straight from Hell, and in this song at any rate he’s upfront about it:

The fish was made of silver and the band was made of brass
The girls had lips like cherries and beautiful – uh-oh!
But bells don’t rhyme and nothin’ much chimes
’cause there’s nothing worth doing but wasting my time
In a town called Riddle…

The repeat of the wink-wink elision of something off-color – another one of those yelping “uh-oh”s – signals that Costello has a vocabulary in mind for the show as a whole, a welcome sign of a strong and unifying conception he has for the thing overall. But that’s neither here nor there. What matters for us right now is the song, and though it’s impossible to say for sure – “Town Called Riddle” could conceivably come somewhere in Act Two, where Lonesome grapples with the truth behind the pablum he’s been selling – this feels likely to be Lonesome’s introduction to us, a sort of charm-song-in-reverse. We meet him in his raw state, compellingly articulate and full of honesty that comes out here without the refinement that’ll make him so winning in his “Blood and hot sauce!” era when he’s winning hearts and votes on the television. I realize I’m growing even more speculative in positing this, but perhaps it’s useful once again to think about where in the set this new song appeared: it came immediately after “Detectives,” which was itself back in 1977 a kind of introduction song, albeit one full of malignity. Elvis Costello was presenting the world with himself back then, and what he put on offer was articulateness and a sort of film-noir degeneracy: “…she’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.” Rhodes lays out his wares in similar fashion:

Now the streets are full of war
And the bins are full of sand
Mothers sell their daughters just to make their demands
Brothers’ twisted sons just a-takin’ in their doors
Girls start a-swoonin’ and a-droppin’ their drawers
Dead as a doornail, sinful as a fiddle
Tippin’ the scales in a town called Riddle…

If I’m right, in any way, in making this connection, it’s interesting to note that Costello has to be more sympathetic to Rhodes than he’s letting on in his “Lonesome is the devil” song introductions. Surely Costello, remembering an era when he wasn’t so garrulous and winning onstage – “We had forty-five minutes’ worth of material,” he sometimes recalls during “Detour”’s nostalgic interludes, of his youthful late-seventies shows with the Attractions, “which on a good night we could get down to thirty-five…” – can’t help but feel a certain kinship with a man whom he describes as being “a kind of a truth-teller – but really I think he had bad intentions…” Costello’s own intentions have never been bad, but he had his own swerves into the darker aspects of possessing a platform – the ugly us-against-them trappings of the “Armed Funk” tour come to mind. I’m not suggesting anything transitive – there’s certainly no line to be drawn between Costello and Trump – but a musical requires more complex characterization than a sketch of a cartoon duck. It’s encouraging that Costello seems aware of the degree to which he himself could once have been reduced to a cartoon – a nasty little nerd peering through keyholes at unobtainable girls. Thus Costello’s history, I would posit, makes him the perfect person to delve into the psychological complexity of a character like Lonesome Rhodes. We can, in other words, look forward to more acute psychology than this little seven-song précis of the musical gives us.

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But that wasn’t the only new number aired in Boise: later in the show, once again during the Larkin Poe set, we met with the gem of the bunch. The Lovell sisters flanking him, Costello introduced his latest new song with some telling plural pronouns:

We’ve got a little somethin’ we’d like to do for you now. We played you a couple of songs early on, that come from a story that we’re telling. This is another one. It’s the story of a young woman who finds herself in the middle of nowhere, confronted by the devil. And she sort of hates him, and is maybe a little attracted to him – that’s the way it goes with devils… And she pulls up a seat at the bar, and considers just about everything in her life that she promised herself she would do, and that she’s just about to betray…

In keeping with his apparent grouping of the Larkin Poe women into the storytelling collective, he proceeded to step aside and allow Rebecca Lovell to sing the gorgeous “Burn The Paper Down To Ash.” Clearly this is Marcia’s song. Costello’s introduction, definitively stating that Marcia is “in the middle of nowhere,” suggests it comes early in the show – but it feels more like the story’s midsection, which is where Neal’s bar scenes come in the film, or even its twilight. There’s little “middle of nowhere” in the film after Lonesome has become a star, but perhaps Costello is reworking the story – as we’ll see, other comments suggest as much. Anyway, the song is a tortured bit of introspection, a showstopping moment of recrimination from a woman who has allowed the devil, since we’ve agreed that’s what he is, to lead her to stray from the narrow path:

I made my way, I made a promise
To make my name, and not turn back
I wrote it all down, read it aloud, said it like praise, tried to be proud
So I signed it in black

Tear out the page
And light the taper
Smooth out the sheet
Tossed in the trash
That’s not enough
So burn the paper down to ash…

The melody is astonishing, sad and nimble – the song of a young girl, wrestling with heartbreak before she’s old enough to realize how quotidian being heartbroken is. Lovell sang it brilliantly – though her sister Megan’s muted slide lines shouldn’t be discounted, either, when measuring why the number was so effective. This was yet another song where placement in the set was a clue to interpreting it: “Burn The Paper Down To Ash” took the place of the trio’s usual performance of “That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving,” a National Ransom song from 2010 about the essential misunderstandings that lie at the root of all male/female communication: the two songs even share an image, in observations about the delicacy of the human heart – in the earlier song, Costello urges a lovelorn woman, of two minds about breaking things off with a man who’s bad for her, to remember that while “half of his heart is torn like paper/ [and] sweet as the syrup of the maple” still “that’s not the part of him you’re leaving…” “Burn The Paper Down To Ash,” though in the first person, is about a similar situation: yes, Costello is saying, Marcia loves this man, but the good parts of him she perceives, rightly or wrongly, aren’t the problem. It’s the bad parts that she needs to beware of. Neal’s film performance is incredible: content limitations in 1957 forced much of the sexual component of her relationship with Griffith to be nudged offscreen, but the burning and broken looks in her winsome eyes convey everything. Costello has packed all of that into a song, and given it to the most smoldering singer available to him. I don’t know how Rebecca Lovell’s acting chops are, but she ought to be considered for the role once A Face In The Crowd is on its feet: whoever winds up singing this song on Broadway will have a hard time topping her premiere performance of it.

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On to the next: all this has been heavy-duty stuff, but anyone who knows musical theater can tell you that you can’t give all your numbers to your leads. The secondary characters have to have a song or two, if only to permit your stars a moment’s break and to allow the audience to see the action from a different perspective. The sweltering McDonald Theatre in Eugene, a nice enough room desperately in need of service on its air-conditioning, saw Costello debuting a one-off song sung by the Kay Medford character from the movie – Griffith’s character’s first wife, who appears just after Marcia has accepted Lonesome’s marriage proposal. With cruel glee the character shatters Marcia’s moment of bliss by informing her that even this welcome pledge from the man she loves is an empty one. “You know by now that we’re telling the story of Lonesome Rhodes, right?” Costello asked us, and except for those of us who’d been following along the previous several nights, the answer wasn’t uniformly “yes.” Nevertheless, he pressed on, setting the scene for “They Call Me Mrs. Lonesome”:

…the woman that Rebecca was singing is that woman who falls under his spell, his producer who makes him a force for evil, so he becomes a demagogue. Just at an inconvenient moment, just when everything between them is going as they think it should – even though it’s a wayward way – into the room comes a bedraggled, rather cynical older woman. And I’m gonna take on that mantle now, for you…

It was humorous to think of Costello, who has so often given voice to poor schlubs misused by cruel women, taking on the role of a cast-aside wife instead – but as the song’s slow country shuffle began, that’s exactly what he did:

I fell for Mr. Lonesome, puppy dog inside a snake
He hadn’t shaved, he hadn’t eaten
He took a dive, he took a beatin’
I thought my stupid heart would break

They call me Mrs. Lonesome
And other names too cruel to say
They say half what I was needing:
That he was wild, and I was bleeding
Then he simply walked away…

The chorus couldn’t have been simpler, or sadder:

They call me Mrs. Lonesome
And there you go but for the grace of God
You think you’re different but you’re really not
So don’t think you’re Mrs. Lonesome
You’re not bad enough to be that good…

It’s a novelty song at heart, as this character won’t show up again during the musical – assuming, of course, that Costello is following Schulberg’s original structure. But it’s also a brutal knife to the heart, coming early in the story of Marcia’s disillusionment with Lonesome: it probably falls in the latter half of the musical’s Act One, which I imagine concluding with Lonesome’s dramatic return from his trip to Juarez, ostensibly to acquire, yes, a “Mexican divorce.” Marcia rushes to his plane, proudly claiming to security that she’s Lonesome’s fiancée – only to discover, as Lonesome steps out of the plane with a comely but empty-headed teenage girl on his arm, that he’s gone and married a blathering fan instead. Marcia’s humiliation, set up earlier by “They Call Me Mrs. Lonesome,” is thus the Act-One out. On to the next, indeed.

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Which brings us to the last of the new songs. In the capacious Mount Baker Theater in the far-northern town of Bellingham, on the final night of the tour on 17 April, Costello played a fairly standard set – “I Want You” returned, as did the jauntily-menacing rendition of “Clown Strike” he’s been doing with the Lovells, and of course the piano-set “A Face In The Crowd.” But late in the night, just before closing things out with a ruminative “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” and a storming “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, & Understanding?” he played one more new song, once again in the wake of “Side By Side.” But let’s step back first. The intro to “Face In The Crowd” had, by this point, expanded a bit from its original pointed pitch of the musical’s premise:

I was wondering how it would be if somebody turned up now and said they had all the answers. How would you know that they were the real thing, and not just a devil? And I don’t mean, like, kind of insignificant little devils, you know – the kind whose names rhyme with “Chump,” and “Lose.” Uh… I mean, I’m not talking about the little ticks on the backside of the last lonely buffalo on the range that’s already in the sights of the hunter… I’m talking about the real fucking devil – the one within us…

Costello, clearly, was upping his game. A Face In The Crowd has, perhaps as its inspiration or perhaps simply as a synchronous example of Schulberg’s story’s timelessness, its roots in the Trump phenomenon – but Costello, a good Catholic boy through-and-through, also has his eye on the dark thing that propels Trump, and that nags his supporters into launching him forth, and that might well turn any of us, under the right-or-should-I-say-wrong circumstances, into a vicious menace like Lonesome Rhodes. As evidenced here, he wasn’t thinking of a figurative devil – he was thinking of The Devil, capital-T-capital-D. Later in the Bellingham show, introducing “Burn The Paper Down To Ash,” Costello revealed even more of the plotline he’s clearly been fleshing out during long road trips between tour stops:

I was telling you the story of the devil – a major devil that might turn up sometime – and of course, that’s the story of Lonesome Rhodes. That’s a story written by a man named Budd Schulberg back in the 1950s. He sent up a flare; he sent up a warning, much like Charlie Chaplin did in The Great Dictator, about listening to demagogues… And in the story that we’re gonna tell you tonight, the devil turns up in a radio station in the guise of a hillbilly singer. And the radio station is in Fox, Wyoming – I’m not making that up. And there’s an educated, Eastern-educated woman there, who’s found her way into what we laughably call the media, and she’s managing the station – this was back in the 1950s when a woman doing that was rare, and she had to go all the way out to Wyoming to get a job… And who should walk in, but the devil. And she is a little bit attracted to him – that’s the way it is with devils – but she’s mostly repelled. And little by little, he goes from being a local radio sensation, to dealing in gossip and mischief, to a national television celebrity who says the unthinkable, and speaks the unspeakable. And it’s just at that moment that she starts to really fall under his spell. And she goes out to the local bar, and pulls a seat up at the bar, and she considers all the fine words that she ever read in all those big educated books, and how the appeal of this man has everybody under his spell – even her – and she thinks about everything she hates, and everything she’s just about to betray…

Let’s pause a moment to note just how much more developed the story is now, and where it’s deviated from the Kazan film. In this telling, Marcia doesn’t stumble across Lonesome – instead, he walks into her studio. He’s not a drifter and a jail inmate eager to be a “free man in the morning,” but a “hillbilly singer.” And the radio station isn’t in Arkansas but in “Fox, Wyoming” – which, as a location, is something Costello insists he’s “not making up,” though of course he is. As for the “walking in,” it’s hard not to think of young Declan MacManus himself striding into the Stiff Records offices in 1976 with a demo tape he handed to a woman with “a hennaed Mia Farrow haircut” who was helming the reception desk – a tape, not for nothing, full of rockabilly numbers like “Mystery Dance” and political warnings like “Less Than Zero.” The radio station, meanwhile, is in Wyoming – which happens to be a state Costello had just come from. Had he been writing this stuff this very week, shoehorning in things he was seeing out his tour-bus window the way he once added a verse to “Green Shirt” based on a sign he glimpsed riding through Wisconsin? Are these songs literally being written on the go? For a man who once wrote “Sunday’s Best” on a dare with Ian Dury, based on lines from a magazine advertisement, or who pulled together an entire album’s worth of songs for Wendy James in a weekend, or who concocted “The Last Year Of My Youth” during a cab ride on the way to a television appearance, this kind of song production seems far from impossible. Regardless, it’s probable that Costello is au courant with the American political scene, and given his off-the-beaten-path tour schedule he’s perhaps more in touch than most with the sorts of voters who support a presidential candidate he sees prefigured in Lonesome Rhodes – and it’s quite likely that, in the faces he sees in his audiences every night and in the landscapes he’s watching stream past him outside his bus everyday, he fancies he’s being presented with a mirror into America right now, one he wants to talk about in a theatrical musical, perhaps the most complex and ambitious mode of expression available to a songwriter. This is, one suspects, what informs the last of the new pieces we were treated to. At the show’s end that night in Bellingham, Costello prefaced the premiere of “American Mirror” with this:

I’m gonna sing you one more song that’s a brand new one. I told you a little bit about this devil that might be turning up anytime soon… He’ll probably come broadcasting through on the television radio. But you’re probably all strong enough to resist those appeals…

It was hard to read this last crack. Costello threw it away – it was spoken almost under his breath before he plunged into the magnificent piano ballad. It might have been sarcastic, but it also might have been a sign that the musical ends on a hopeful note. After all, the beam of light that shines in at the very end of Kazan’s film is a line spoken by Mel to Marcia, as she’s lamenting that she allowed Lonesome to grow so powerful, before finally having to ruin him. (Of course, she’s also lamenting that she had to ruin him at all, because she still loves him, at least a little. But that’s all subtext, and it’s up to Costello how much he wants to work with that in his version of the story. It’s impossible to tell, from what we have, where Costello’s Marcia winds up.) Mel, in that wonderfully gravelly voice of Matthau’s, reassures her: “You were taken in, just like we all were taken in. But we get wise to them. That’s our strength – we get wise to them…” This is Schulberg himself talking: if we stay alert, and pay attention to the “flare” he’s sent up in the form of this story, we’ll be able to see through charlatans like Lonesome Rhodes, and in turn like Donald Trump. Now, the musical voice Costello seems to have given to Mel is grander, showier – though that might be because this song is something in the neighborhood of an eleven o’clock show-closer, the climax of the entire evening:

There’s a smear
And there’s a crack
Words you cannot take back
And they’re all in this week’s American Mirror

There’s a gift, and there’s a deal
Much too lifelike to feel
And we’re all in…
We’re all in this thing together
Every working hand, every woman and man, every sister and brother
And we’re all in…
There’s more than enough of this wealth to share
And you couldn’t see it any clearer
In this American mirror
In this American mirror
In this American mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror…

Costello echoed this last word over and over, pulling his mouth away from the microphone to perform a theatrical effect: the singer’s voice would resound through the room, the music falling away, the word fading to silence, the impact of the title’s double meaning – the title of a 1950s newspaper, and also the idea of this story as a looking glass for the nation as a whole – caroming through the room. Demagogues rise and fall, at least in the comforting world of drama. Perhaps in real life they don’t fall quickly enough – Costello himself referred to the terrifying examples of Hitler and Mussolini, who went much farther than Lonesome Rhodes ever has a chance to. But, as Costello has Mel say in his musical’s closing moments, “we’re all in this thing together.” It’s clear Costello thinks of the show as Marcia’s, so it’s unlikely he’d give Mel the last word – there’s probably at least one more Marcia number after this, a coda to close out the night – but it’s hard to imagine a stronger sentiment to send a Broadway audience out into the theater-district streets with than the beautiful professions that conclude “American Mirror”:

There’s more than enough of this wealth to share
There’s more than enough of this blame to bear
There’s more than enough of this shame to share

And you couldn’t see it any clearer
In this American mirror…

Of course this song came in the wake of “Side By Side.” Its buoyant notes match the older song’s lyric: “Through all kinds of weather/ what if the sky should fall?/ Just so long as we’re together/ it just doesn’t matter at all…” But its darker shadings are of a piece with Costello’s downbeat rendition of the old standard, his galumphing tempo and his gloomy aspect as he sang those ostensibly carefree words leeching into the new number likewise:

There’s a scandal and there’s a scare
As you’re probably aware
And it’s all in this week’s American Mirror
There’s a couple who we’ve condemned
It makes us feel better than them
And we’re all in…
We’re all in this thing together…

Then again, looking back at the other new song that saw its premiere in this post-“Side By Side” spot in the set – “Blood And Hot Sauce” – that tune, too, was equal parts buoyant and dark, a goose-step march with a skip in its step. Perhaps, indeed, rather than attributing the genesis of Costello’s new musical to a contemplation of the rise of Donald Trump, we can think of it as having been stirring in Costello’s mind since at least last April, when “Side By Side” and its attendant ambivalence about modern society entered the “Detour” setlist.*** If anything, “American Mirror” is “Blood And Hot Sauce” in reverse, transitioning not from light into shadow but rather insisting that despite all the shadows, the “mirror” reflects enough light, and that’s what matters. The close of Act Two, in other words, undoes the damage done by Act Two’s opener, putting things to rights and reassuring the audience just as Mel does Marcia with those wise words. This was a beautiful note upon which to close “Detour,” and it’d make a fine close to A Face In The Crowd as well.

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Except: one of the more haunting moments in Kazan’s film comes in Griffith’s last seconds onscreen, after Mel has departed and while Marcia is gathering her strength to renounce Lonesome once and for all. Lonesome Rhodes has lost his mind, after losing his audience, after being exposed as a fraud through Marcia’s broadcasting the feed from an open microphone as Lonesome cruelly mocked his followers. Now he’s in his palatial penthouse, pretending to address mobs of people who love him, listening to prerecorded crowd sounds that roar encouragement as empty as the ideas he shouts out at them. Lonesome learns of Marcia’s betrayal, and lashes out like a cornered animal – and then he lashes out with the same winning, bluesy voice he sang with on her radio show at the start of all this nonsense. Griffith’s eyes are tear-filled, and his voice cracks as he shouts to the skies: his song isn’t “Free Man In The Morning,” but something even deeper and sadder – it’s the exposed beating heart of the blues, the truest thing Lonesome Rhodes has ever said in his truth-telling career. “Ten thousand miles away from hope,” he sings forlornly, “and I don’t even know my name…” He can come up with no more words for the song. He’s sung himself out. Marcia is drawn to this for a moment – that, as Costello has pointed out, is the way it goes with devils – but though she wavers finally she steels herself and leaves. She hops in a cab, and Lonesome’s bellowing resounds out through the penthouse window over an indifferent city as the credits roll. Thinking of this beautiful, ambiguous beat, I can’t help wondering if the final song in Costello’s musical version of A Face In The Crowd isn’t a reprise of Marcia’s title number. After all, like her – and just as, perhaps, Trump himself believes however self-deceptively – Lonesome has been looking to give a voice to the voiceless. He gazes out at his audience, and sees people who don’t know how to express the frustrations they’re struggling with, and in his facile analogies to the small-town simplicities of Riddle and in his feel-good exhortations to stow all your worries away in the easy exclamation of “blood and hot sauce,” he’s trying to channel their anger into something productive, something that will make them feel okay about their lives – into a feeling that they’re, well, more than that. These verses, which felt nice and encouraging and exhilarating coming from Marcia’s mouth at the show’s opening, would feel appropriately bleak emitting from the cast-aside demagogue Lonesome just before the show’s curtain falls:

You’ll be strong, restore your pride
Take my hand, I’ll take your side
If you will just decide
You’re more than a face
You’re more than a face
You’re more than a face in the crowd…

I can’t say for sure, of course. Heck, I could be misreading every word and every note of these songs – I could even be mishearing their lyrics, or mistranscribing them here, and they could certainly be wildly different by the time they reach you onstage or on record. Some of them could be cut – the process of developing a musical involves the casting aside of countless songs, even ones as strong as these – and others could take their place. Characters and scenes and facets of the story could come or go, and A Face In The Crowd could even wither away into obscurity: it wouldn’t be the first musical to follow “Baby Pictures” into the abyss of never-produced great works. But this is where Elvis Costello’s new musical, sort-of-but-not-quite about Donald Trump, stands now. It’s very great. Let’s hope we get to hear more of it before too long.

* Although it’s my custom to provide links at the head of each blog entry to the song or songs up for discussion, these seven songs remain uncirculated as of now. Several, at least, have been recorded, and I admit have heard them – but in refraining from posting bootleg links here I promise I don’t mean to be what the taping community would very pejoratively call a hoarder. Rather, I’m yielding to EC’s recent comments in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, where he excoriated the activities of what he called “the pirates” and said they discourage him from recording and, presumably, from airing material he considers in-progress. With that in mind and in hopes that Costello will continue to tease new songs when “Detour” moves to Europe next month, I have to confess I kind of hope this stuff stays under wraps for a while.

** Yes, I know there was a version of “Baby Pictures” released on a reissue of 1983’s Punch The Clock – but, like so many of EC’s songs from the Langer/Winstanley-era, it’s been production-bludgeoned beyond recognition. Suffice it to say, it is at best a pale shadow of this.

*** I have to credit Joyce Millman for her insights into EC’s rendition of “Side By Side,” which prior to reading her review of the 30 March San Francisco show I had been a little baffled by. Its odd mix of hope and gloom had thrown me, but Millman articulated rather superbly how the song is “the key to everything that makes [‘Detour’] tick,” insofar as it is “the perfect expression of how the bond between friends, between family members, between musician and audience, makes life worth living.” In other words, its message is that, for better and worse alike, “we’re all in… we’re all in this thing together.”

Top to bottom: Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes, with his own “devil,” played by Anthony Franciosa on the far right, in A Face In The Crowd, 1957; EC in San Francisco, 3/30/16, photo courtesy of Fred Walder; “Pop a couple of these until your girlfriend calls out, ‘Give me my Vitajex!’”; EC in SF again, once again thanks to Walder; EC and Rebecca Lovell performing “Burn The Paper Down To Ash” in Bellingham, photo courtesy of Jayson Bradley; Kay Medford, the original “Mrs. Lonesome”; Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau, driven to drink by Griffith; Lonesome Rhodes, exulting at being a “free man in the morning.”

11 comments

  1. ecsongbysong · May 15, 2016

    Addenda, based on a week’s worth of additional performances of these songs in the UK:

    1) EC has given us a few more bits of information on the musical. For starters, he’s writing it “with a couple of friends,” though he hasn’t yet told us who they are, or even their role in the writing process. They could be additional songwriters; they could be a book writer and a director. We do know that Burt Bacharach is not among them, as the Costello/Bacharach musicals (plural) seem to be very separate projects. (Costello played a song entitled “I’ll Make The World Pay” from one of these mysterious, still gestating shows on Friday night in London. It is excellent, and though it too can be read as commentary on The World According To Trump — the cartoon caricature, which Costello said was his own and is titled “Il Ducko,” was trotted out again for it — it is decidedly different in voice from any of the “Face” material.) Costello has also made it clear that he’s basing the show on the Schulberg short story, and not on the movie — though he’s repeatedly referred to the story as “A Face In The Crowd,” when in fact it’s called “Your Arkansas Traveler,” so who knows.

    2) Because the source material for the musical is not the Elia Kazan film, much of my speculation above as to the show’s plot kind of goes out the window. I’ll post a little more once I track down a copy of the story, and comment on how it diverges. But among the things drawn from story rather than screenplay seems to be the bit about Lonesome Rhodes being a “hillbilly singer” who walks into a radio station — I get the impression, again unsubstantiated, that Marcia’s introduction to Lonesome in the jailhouse is a cinematic elaboration on the story’s simpler structure. In addition, it appears the location of the radio station — Fox, Wyoming — comes straight from Schulberg’s prose. (I have no idea why the setting was relocated to Arkansas for the movie.) Costello’s joke about how he’s “not making that up” turns out to have been a slightly labored reference to Fox News, a good place for a demagogue to start out in today’s world. It’s an arcane connection; I don’t feel too bad about having failed to make it.

    3) “American Mirror,” in subsequent performances, has been fleshed out with lovely vocals from Megan and Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe. EC introduced the song in London by saying “this is the moment when the crowd rises up and silences the devil.” In other words, it’s clearly a show-closing company number — my identification of it as Mel’s was in error. For all I know, Mel is absent from the story and thus the show. Again, further research is forthcoming.

    4) I was pretty fulsome above in my praise of Rebecca Lovell’s singing on “Burn The Paper Down To Ash.” If anything, her readings of the song have only gotten stronger. What I neglected to point out was how perfect her sister Megan’s slide work is on the same number. It’s understated, but fleshes out the longing of the lyric as beautifully as Rebecca’s vocal does. It seems unlikely Costello would refer to the women he shares the stage with every night with oblique language, calling them merely “a couple of pals,” so Larkin Poe seem unlikely candidates to be his collaborators on the project. Still, we can only hope they’ll continue to be involved as it moves forward: they add a tremendous amount to these songs.

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  2. RobF · May 20, 2016

    A great piece of writing – I was surprised that you didn’t spot the phrase “a face in the crowd” was also in an early unused draft of the lyrics to Tramp The Dirt Down, as per the EC Autobiography

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    • ecsongbysong · May 22, 2016

      Thank you for reminding me of this! To be honest, I haven’t really looked yet — beyond the superficial stuff included in the essay — into how these songs link to some of EC’s older work. I appreciate your pointing out a good place to start, and hope you’ll continue to keep me on track as I move forward with the blog!

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  3. Chris Schulberg O'Sullivan · May 22, 2016

    The late great Tom Glazer wrote the songs for A Face in the Crowd. Cynical, erudite, leftist, in the folk tradition (anti-segregation, pro-union, Lincoln Brigade, etc.) He deserves some recognition here, too.

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    • ecsongbysong · May 23, 2016

      Well worth remembering, particularly as there was some initial confusion as to whether or not EC was including any of the songs from the film in his musical. He doesn’t appear to be planning on it, but you never know, and it sounds like Glazer is somebody whose work is worth knowing regardless. Can you recommend a place to start for someone who isn’t familiar with him?

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  4. Benn Schulberg · June 16, 2016

    I echo Chris on the Tom Glazer shout out. I was impressed by your investigative prowess. Now that news has broke on it, albeit, filled with incorrect information, I can say you were ahead of the ball on this. Look for an official press release soon regarding the show.

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    • ecsongbysong · June 16, 2016

      Well, this piece is full of incorrect info as well, alas — it was written before I knew the show would be based on your father’s original story rather than the film, so most of my speculations about the plot are off-base. But it makes me very happy if I’ve helped in any way to get the word out on a great project. The source material couldn’t be stronger, and the nine songs we’ve heard — the seven considered here, plus “The Last Word” and “Big Stars Have Tumbled,” premiered in subsequent concerts — are outstanding. Glad to hear the show is moving forward, and looking forward to learning more about it, and eventually seeing it, very soon!

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  6. Terry Lawson · October 4, 2016

    This may be speculation, but it’s erudite and extremely thoughtful (not to mention thorough) speculation, and I can’t wait to hear the new songs. “Face” is on my top ten list of the greatest movies ever made. Schulberg is on my list as one of the very best short story authors and screenwriters, and Elvis on my list of the all-time great songwriters, performers, and storytellers. Let’s hope some wealthy cynics put up the dough to realize this.

    ter-jack

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