Let’s begin at the end:
Elvis Costello has a song, from 2010, called “Jimmie Standing In The Rain.” It appeared on National Ransom, part of that record’s and indeed that era’s backwards glance at early-twentieth-century American songwriting tropes. This was just as Costello was moving toward lengthy spoken-word introductions to his songs in performance, and he used to preface “Jimmie” with a ramshackle story about the fictional title character, a 1930s Vaudevillian “who’s picked the wrong time to go into cowboy music – that’s if there was ever a right time to go into cowboy music…” Though Costello would nod to his less hardcore audience’s demands by dutifully running through “Peace, Love, & Understanding” after it, “Jimmie” was the show-closer. It was the end of every night. It was played a capella on a barely-miked acoustic guitar, and Costello would conclude it with a few lines from the Depression-era standard “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sung unamplified, his bellow filling the room just as his forerunners once had to sing, without electricity raising the volume of their voices, standing on similar stages in an era long before anyone had ever heard of rock and roll.
The song remains a concert staple in 2016. Its introductory story has developed, however: the current “Detour” finds “Jimmie” still in its penultimate spot in the set, but in keeping with the night’s theme of an anecdote-filled flip through the Costello/MacManus family photo album, it has become a portrait of Costello’s grandfather, the first in a line of MacManus musicians. A black-and-white image of a very young Pat MacManus, in uniform and clutching a French horn, appears on the giant screen to the rear of the stage as Costello tells of the orphan boy’s enlistment in the army, where he was trained to play the flugelhorn and the bugle; of his being shot in France, “in the chest and in the stomach by a man who he never met, and who had no quarrel with him”; and his decision, after spending the rest of the Great War in a military hospital, to give up the soldiering life. More photos scroll past: we hear of Pat’s career as a musician-in-a-different-uniform on the White Star Line, crisscrossing the Atlantic, snapping illicit pictures of bathing beauties and smuggling fashionable items like a cloche hat and a fox-fur wrap back to Birkenhead for his wife Molly. We’re told, in words Costello has crafted perfectly over years of rattling off the tale, of the way the slump of the Thirties brought an end to this luxurious mode of travel and indeed to Pat’s seagoing years: “They cut the liners in half,” Costello cracks, his timing well-honed, “which was a really big surprise – because they were in mid-Atlantic at the time! And the half that contained the tycoons and the robber barons, and the dukes and the earls, and the Duke of Earl, sailed on to New York to continue their important work of swindling the working man out of every last penny. And the half that contained the musicians… Well, they could fuck off back to Liverpool.” The tonal disconnect between this fanciful image of a halved steamship drifting east and west with very different passenger manifests, which Costello has gotten laughs out of countless times, and the grisly antiwar sentiment at the story’s outset, which was added only recently, is indicative of the story’s ongoing evolution: one senses that Costello no longer sees the song as a vaguely comical tale of a “cowboy musician.” Indeed, the intro to “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” acquired an ominous conclusion at the kickoff to the current leg of the tour, with suggestions that an era of yuks is fast coming to an end. As Costello conceded grimly in telling it in Santa Barbara back in April, the story once felt like a joke, but it seems less funny now:
They sailed home, and Pat came ashore and went looking for the work that he used to do in the pit orchestra at the Argyle Music Hall, and in the Futurist Cinema that had a full orchestra to accompany the silent pictures. But the talking pictures had come in, and they didn’t need him no more… So my grandmother used to have a voodoo doll of Al Jolson, that she’d stick pins in – she held him personally responsible for putting my grandfather out of work… I’ve told that story for many years, and people think I’m just being funny. But it’s not that funny. All Pat ever did then was play his corner, on the street corner, for coppers. And so I wrote this here song about those times, imagining them. Because those times are coming back, I assure you…
This is an interesting note to conclude an evening on. For close to three hours, Costello has been in raconteur mode, jovially talking about early performing misadventures with his bandleader father and describing misunderstandings with boorish computer-operator co-workers and peccadilloes with comely Arizonan cabdrivers – but now, with nothing ahead save a fairly rote farewell storm through the Nick Lowe number he’s cursed to encore with for the rest of time, Costello has gone back to the very beginning of his story, to the primal source of his familial connection to music, and he’s presenting it as a somewhat dark tale. “Jimmie,” a “forgotten man” in an “indifferent nation,” tubercular and fading into obsolescence, is Pat, and the vicissitudes of taste that have relegated “cowboy music” to the dustbin of music history are as cruel as that German’s rifle shot to the chest. Costello’s memoir, which is really what his concerts are drumming up interest in now that he seems to have set LP-making aside, is entitled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. Grandfather Pat was the first MacManus to discover just how unfaithful music can be.
Now, back to the beginning:
One of the very earliest songs in the Costello canon is “Exiles Road,” recorded on two separate occasions with Flip City in 1974 and 1975. Biographer Graeme Thomson has suggested – without supporting evidence – that its lyric dates back to earlier still, which would make it perhaps the very oldest Declan MacManus song we have. Regardless of its provenance, it stands as probably the catchiest number in Flip City’s repertoire, and if it suffers from the same limitations as most of the band’s numbers – indifferent musicianship, particularly on the part of its guitarists, and a certain songwriting restraint that suggests MacManus was holding, as he always did, his best and most personal material back – still it’s enjoyable enough. It makes sense that it would have been considered of high enough quality to be revisited on a second trip to the recording studio, in search of that thing so elusive to Flip City: a releasable single. That they failed to nail it, even after getting a rare repeat chance to lay it down, pretty much sums up why Flip City was never anything more than an also-ran in the pub-rock scene.
But it should have worked. The song’s hook, though frankly obnoxious, is unforgettable – that idiotic guitar line, duh-duhduh-duhduhduh-DUH, stays with you for days, working its way insidiously through your mind. Maybe it never leaves you, like a swallowed bit of chewing gum lodged in your intestine. Pushed ever so slightly back in the song’s revised version by giving it to the bass instead, it affords the guitars a nice little dancefloor for show-offy moves, and anyway there’s a fine percussion shuffle underlying everything, augmented in the redo by a conga peeking out here and there the way a gopher might stick its head tauntingly through various holes in your yard. If the drums are a shade lead-footed, they’re still sturdy enough, one imagines, to prompt dancing among inebriated pubgoers, and in the midst of everything there’s a midsong guitar solo that, by Flip City standards anyway, is borderline great. Bassist Mich Kent, percussionist Malcolm Dennis or Ian Powell – whichever one was behind the kit – and even guitarist Steve Hazlehurst are at the top of their game, for what that’s worth. Best of all, the garrulous lyrics are fun, and smilingly defiant in a pre-punk sort of way, and they’re delivered – MacManus rarely fell short in this department – with fire and fluidity. All this is to say it’s a pretty fine Flip City song, particularly in its slightly-more-uptempo second go-round. If it wasn’t destined to be a single, blame producer Dave Robinson for its dull sound, or for losing his nerve about backing Flip City for a burgeoning record label he was thinking of putting together. (Or don’t blame him, and credit him instead: after all, Robinson pretty much founded the pub rock movement, and can’t be faulted when he was still learning the ropes as a producer, the song being laid down in the Hope & Anchor Studios he’d assembled more or less to teach himself how to record music. Moreover, his commercial instincts pretty much proved faultless, being well borne out when he co-founded Stiff Records a few years down the line. But more on that later.)
For our purposes, we’re interested in a few minor points in the lyric, and one major one. The song, once it’s declared itself with a few repetitions of that assaultive hook, opens with a charming little travelogue:
Back in the days of the forty-eight stars, when a man’s best friend was a horse and not a car
My best friend, he took a trip – he was playing for his money on a cruising ship
Sailed across the ocean in a big old liner, away down to Rio and across to China
Kissed his wife as he tipped the waiter, waved goodbye and said, “I’ll see you later…”
The song thus situates itself in an American context from the start, and a nostalgic one at that: there were forty-eight states rather than today’s fifty between 1912 and 1959, so the action of this first verse could take place as recently as fifteen years before the song’s composition, or more likely – given that, as Costello notes nightly nowadays when he describes those ships being cut in two, the “cruising ship” industry died with the Depression – it takes place back in the twenties and thirties. In other words, “Exiles Road,” like “Jimmie Standing In The Rain,” touches on America in the early part of the twentieth century. This fellow MacManus is speaking of – spoiler alert: I’m going to argue in a moment that it’s Pat – left his family, and traveled the world, and had all sorts of adventures thanks to his ability to play music. It’s a young musician’s fantasy of the escape from the familiar that his talents might bring him.
Indeed, the speaker goes on to articulate his envy of his friend’s having made that escape. He hasn’t made it himself, and there’s a hint that he fears he never will. Music itself, listening to it and dancing to it, affords a kind of getaway, but it’s a temporary one compared to the sailing-the-high-seas journeys of his “best friend”:
Wish I was leaving to take that flight, still we drank all day and we danced all night
Listen to that old sweet sound, we danced till we dropped and we drank till we drowned
Now I’m not scared of fire or water, still I held my breath till they had landed
I lost my heart to a city daughter, I lost all my money and it left me stranded…
The juxtapositions are nice, if slight: he can’t run away, so he loses himself in drinking and dancing; the music is sweet, but the dancing leads to exhaustion and the drinking to intoxication. Things get a little harder to read from there – I couldn’t tell you who’s “landing” in the third line, though the point is that the speaker claims to be unafraid of the dangers of travel but secretly has trepidations about it. Then he describes the entangling processes of maturity that threaten any hope for the sort of flight a young man, wandering the world on the strength of his talents, might be capable of making: you fall in love and you can’t leave; you start to need money so much you become aware, as you weren’t before, of how little of it you have; you’re “stranded,” because you’re tied down.
But that’s no life, MacManus declares. Working, and doing what you’re told, and toeing the line… (Duh-duhduh-duhduhduh-DUH.) All that stuff is desperation, perhaps even the quiet brand of it that Thoreau spoke of, and MacManus, for one, isn’t having it:
Somebody told me to stand in line, they gave me a number and they say that’s mine
Just about all I own these days, and a desperate man just fights that way
Now I’m not one for senseless grieving, dry your eyes and stop your crying
Pack my bags and I’ll be leaving, you gotta sell the saddle when the horse is dying…
The only thing he owns, the speaker declares, is the number that tells him his place in line – somewhere in here is a hint of a Springsteenian sentiment, of feeling that being stuck in your hometown “rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap,” or of being determined, as the son says to his father in “Independence Day,” that “they ain’t gonna do to me what I watched them do to you.” But MacManus’s song is cheerier in tone than those later tunes will be, and he’s speaking not to a girl he’s begging to come with him, or to his father for that matter, but, one supposes, to that “city daughter” he’s linked himself to, whom he seems determined to leave behind. She doesn’t understand the need to leave – she weeps, protests, pleads with him to stay. All he has to offer in reply, though, is a flippant farewell, a wordy and callously clever version of Pat’s shrugging flinging of money down on the table and promising that “I’ll see you later.” No point in beating a dead horse, goes the cliché – and the man who will be Elvis Costello, cliché’s most dedicated deconstructor, reworks that into “you gotta sell the saddle when the horse is dying.” That life with her is a “saddle” is surely no comfort to the weeping woman, but cruel as it is to say, doubtless MacManus means it: a stationary life is one he’s been saddled with; the life of the wandering musician is the one he’s meant for.
Which brings us to the chorus, sung only twice – after the second verse and after the last one – amid all the bludgeoning reiterations of that earworm hook. The Elvis Costello Wiki transcribes it thus:
You can’t cheat on Exiles Road, leaning out of this dead horse town
Molly and me don’t shift no load, it’s going down, it’s going down…
I don’t want to argue with so esteemed an online resource, but I hear the words a little differently. For starters, I think it’s possible MacManus says that “you can cheat on Exiles Road.” This is a quibbling difference, as the line means the same thing either way: out in the world, de-linked from ties to a single place, the traveling musician is freed from the standards of regular society – you can’t cheat, because there is no such thing as cheating, so in fact you can cheat all you want. Again, we’re being treated to a young man’s sentiment here – one looks ahead to the oblique, shamefaced admissions of infidelities on the road that pepper Costello’s memoir, written from the wistful perspective of age and experience, and that contrast strongly with this jovial little kiss-off. (“We are not old men,” Keith Richards once told a magistrate defiantly, “and we are not worried about petty morals.”) I also think, though it’s hardly crucial to interpreting the song, that he says Exiles Road is “leading” out of town, not “leaning.” The second line, meanwhile, could just be Flip City Irishing up The Band’s Bessie or Gram Parsons’s Annie Rich, or any of Bruce’s Marys for that matter, giving us a woman to map our own loves onto and conjuring a singalong line without it meaning much – unless, as I suspect, it does. “Molly and me” is, of course, the same phrasing we find in Walter Donaldson and George Whiting’s “My Blue Heaven,” a tune we know, from Costello’s discussion of it in his memoir, Pat loved deeply. Molly was, of course, the name of Pat’s wife: “Molly and me, and baby makes three/ we’re happy in my, in my blue heaven…” MacManus’s line is a shade garbled in both versions of “Exiles Road,” but I think it might actually be “Molly and me don’t share no load,” which would make this an attempt to offer an excuse for leaving – the speaker says he and his woman have nothing in common, and anyway there’s no stopping his departure: “It’s going down, it’s going down…” There’s no getting away from it: this thing is happening. Everybody sing together: “I’m leaving my woman, lighting out for the territory, starting life on ‘Exiles Road’!”
And so we arrive at what I think is the big thing to observe about this song: it’s almost impossible not to think, despite his having been tagged as MacManus’s “best friend” rather than his grandfather, that the subject of the first verse and thus the inspiration for the speaker’s escape, is Pat MacManus. Now, Costello didn’t know his grandfather, who died when he was very young, but he seems constantly aware of Pat’s having lit the fuse that resulted in his own music career. He discusses him lovingly in Unfaithful Music; he affords him pride of place in “Detour,” which works in a similarly time-twisting fashion as this essay, ending at the beginning by bringing Pat up only in the narrow twilight of a long night of music. Pat pops up periodically in Costello’s songbook: he’s referenced obliquely in “American Without Tears”; he seems like the protagonist of “Any King’s Shilling”; he’s both the comic and the tragic hero of “Jimmie.” Indeed, in Costello’s imagination Pat invariably teeters on the knife’s edge of the two performative masks – as we’ve seen, he can be the chilling focus of an antiwar screed and the hapless victim of a goofily surreal boat-dismembering within the space of the same story; a man whose career’s being torpedoed by technological advancement is both high hilarity and somber warning; he’s a voyeur and a light smuggler and a dashing romantic and a sad failure, all at once. He’s the rascal Declan MacManus became when he changed his name to Elvis, and he’s the good-natured Vaudevillian Elvis Costello mellowed into once he set aside the angry-young-man thing and started doing long, discursive solo shows. Clearly Declan, singing of his grandfather’s jaunt “away down to Rio and across to China,” saw him as a sort of inspiration, and clearly Elvis, recounting for twenty-first-century audiences some of the very adventures he shorthanded in those opening lines of “Exiles Road” four decades earlier, sees him as someone whose life was as informed and enriched and betrayed and enlivened by music as his own would be. Pat MacManus is the Rosetta Stone for Costello’s understanding of what a life in music could be, the good and the bad alike, and it’s fitting that one of his very earliest songs is more or less a tip of the hat Pat’s way. “Exiles Road” is the path forward. For forty years and more, Elvis Costello will be walking it.
But after all let’s end, as we should, at the end:
Unfaithful Music’s Chapter 18 includes a more detailed description of Pat MacManus’s final years than Costello gave us from the stage in Santa Barbara. The entire story proves to be much richer when it’s not being thumbnailed for a live “Detour” audience – we learn more about Pat’s war career, and his wanderings in America, and his dandyish fashion sense and his eyecatching wardrobe purchases from the best tailors in Manhattan, and his amateur photographic efforts and paparazzo-like impulses, as well as his complicated romantic life and probably-wandering eyes, before Costello gets to the point where those boats are cut in two. Intriguingly, it turns out there’s a real dimension to the fanciful image he’s been presenting for so long in concert: new, streamlined sailing vessels, we’re told, slowly took the place of the majestic ships Pat sailed on, and one such was the RMS Georgic, which was “talked up as a new class of ship, fit for a duke, but it was half the behemoth of a vessel that Harland and Wolff had intended to build before the economy saw the steel of the keel cut in half to yield two vessels…” Pat, Costello tells us, “might have seen the end of his working life on luxury liners approaching but it was never really clear whether he jumped ship or if he was pushed.” Returning home, indeed Pat did find that the “talking pictures” had put him out of a job :
What work came Patrick’s way was often unworthy of his talent and training but it helped keep what little food they had on the table. Pat gave some music lessons to more well-to-do children, but this was a very meager source of income. Pat even played on street corners for coppers until his pride would no longer allow him to do it.
My Dad never spoke of his father’s harder times with any self-pity or sentimentality, but my Nana had bitter memories about the stigma of the Means Test.
The family moved to a two-up, two-down rented terrace house on Cathcart Street with only a few pieces of finer furniture and some embroidered lace covers to remind them of better times.
Patrick’s best American suits remained hung in a wardrobe, wreathed in camphor, until his shrunken frame was no longer able to fill them.
Sad, chilling stuff. But in the weeks since that Santa Barbara show in April the “Jimmie” introduction has morphed further still: once again showing that like his analogue in song Pat is, for his grandson, not easily pigeonholed either as a figure of pathos or an object of derision, Costello has started capping the story of Pat playing for coppers with a last little curlicue of sentiment and sweetness. Earlier this week in London, for instance, he said this:
…and Pat MacManus never ever made any more money playing the trumpet, except with a few pals of his on the street corner, playing for coppers. And I make no apology if that sounds sentimental, ’cause I’m very lucky to do the job I do. And I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for him. So I thank you very much for giving me that job. And I wrote this here song in remembrance of those times – because you never really know when they’re coming back, do you?
Where does “Exiles Road” end? Where do you wind up once you’ve sold the saddle, packed up, left your woman, and headed out on the road? Who’s to say. Maybe it leads to a street corner where you can no longer practice the art that defined your life; maybe it leads to the grand stage of the London Palladium, playing to a packed house applauding your every word. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s the journey that’s important – and that, as we move forward through the Costello songbook, is probably the idea we need to hold dear.
Recorded (version 1): Maida Vale Studios, summer 1974. DM: vocals, guitar; Hazlehurst, guitar, backing vocals; Kent: bass, backing vocals; Dennis?, drums; Faulkner?, percussion. Producer/engineer: unknown. Recorded (version 2): Hope & Anchor Studios, spring 1975. DM: vocals, guitar; Hazlehurst: guitar, backing vocals; Kent: bass, backing vocals; Powell?: drums; Faulkner?: percussion. Engineer: Dave Robinson. Unreleased, save on bootleg. Presumably played live in Flip City shows, 1974-75, though it isn’t found on the sole live recording we have of the band. Never played since.
Top to bottom: Pat MacManus in his later years, from Unfaithful Music; Flip City, ca. 1974; Pat in Central Park in the 1920s, again from Unfaithful Music; EC, speaking of Pat in his introduction to “Jimmie” at the London Palladium, 5/10/16.