Step into my time machine, friends! That’s right, I’ve invented a time machine. Why do you think it takes me so long between blog posts? It’s because I’m very busy tinkering in my lab. Anyway, strap yourselves in, because we’re going back exactly forty years from today – to August 15, 1976, the first day Elvis Costello’s voice would ever be heard on the radio. Half a world away, another Elvis is embarking on the final year of his life. Here in suburban London, a new Elvis begins the first of his.
We’re headed into the kitchen, so right this way, please. Yes, everyone – I know it’s very tight quarters, and I’m aware it’s kind of cluttered: the apartment’s too small for two people, and there’s a baby now as well, and when has a kitchen ever not been cluttered, no matter how tidy the housekeeping? But nevermind the dishes in the sink, or the dinner leavings on the table – the lights are gonna be out anyway. Despite that, you know what? You’d better put on these invisibility clothes, just in case. Don’t look surprised. Yes, I’ve made those too. I’m a very talented inventor. Thing is, we don’t want to risk being seen while we’re here. The guy we’ve come to observe is having a private moment, and we’d hate to disturb him. Absolutely, sir – that is why I’m whispering.
Hey, here he is! You’re quite right, ma’am – he does look very young: kind of scrawny, harried from a long day at the makeup factory, probably wearing a slightly guilty expression because he knows, strictly speaking, he should be with his wife and kid right now – or at least letting them share in this moment. But he wants to be alone. He’s shutting the door, switching out the light so the only glow comes from the wireless, and he’s tilting his head – “like Nipper the Dog,” he’ll one day recall – towards a small radio speaker. He’s cloistered himself. Word has come – from whom, I wonder? A friend? A friend of a friend? Does he actually know Charlie Gillett? – that tonight’s the night. They’re playing his song, and not in the sense of the old phrase. Our man’s voice is coming from the radio, Declan MacManus’s voice from Declan MacManus’s radio, and it’s singing “Poison Moon.”
Which, I guess, we should take note of: we’ve always wondered if it was really “Poison Moon.” The story’s been told countless times, and the actual song Gillett played when he first broadcast a demo tape of MacManus’s on his “Honky Tonk” radio program – crediting it to “D.P. Costello,” of course – has never been agreed upon. It might have been “Cheap Reward,” or it might have been “Wave A White Flag”; there’s a faint chance it was “Jump Up”; and it might even have been “Mystery Dance” or “Blame It On Cain.” You hear the story told at various times, even by Costello himself, with reference to various tunes, which suggests the truth has been lost in the haze of memory.* Well, now we know, because we’re listening to it along with Elvis: it was indeed “Poison Moon.” Maybe that’s as it should be. “Poison Moon” is, in its way, exactly the song that should serve as Elvis Costello’s announcement to the world that he’s arrived.
It starts out in slumber: the dreams might be good and they might be ill, but either way they bode poorly, “casting off” or “cutting loose.” It continues when the speaker wakes, at home though it’s hardly a home – it’s not even a particular home, as the song is suffused in a general sense of placelessness: it’s wherever he’s hung his hat, and like that hat it’s “coming apart at the seams.” The horseshoe hung over the door has slumped down on its bottom nail, spilling its luck all over the floorboards. Our man is welcome to gird himself, but bills are coming due and he’s plumb out of cash – and sure, it’s nice to think he could live on love, as they say, but without money “love slips right out of sight.” But that’s the song’s speaker; its author is different. He’s not really nowhere. He’s here in the kitchen. His family’s in the next room. His fans – because one day, as we know, he’ll have lots of those – hover like invisible ghosts around him. How can we be sure he can’t detect us, you ask? I suspect he can, though he mistakes our whispering for judgment: it’s right there in the song, after all, full of solitude and ominous dread:
And these bones don’t look too good to me
Jokers talk and they all disagree…
What “bones” are these? Is this gamblers’ lingo for a roll of the dice, or an arcane reference to scapulimancy? Perhaps they’re the “skin and bones” the speaker has been reduced to, by want and by unappreciation. Who are the “jokers”? Is this another gambling reference, linked to the nod to dice-throwing, jokers being the classic wild card in poker? Or are these just wags, know-it-alls looking upon the speaker, shaking their heads or perhaps blowing smoke, as they consider his prospects? This is his song, and even he can’t be sure. The hope, of course, is that this very event – the first time this music has been played on the radio – will change everything. That’s been the hope all along:
One day soon, I will laugh right in the face of the poison moon…
When that day comes, when all these ill omens prove to be false, he won’t be sitting by himself. He’ll play for crowds; he’ll call people together to listen to his music in groups, in ballrooms and arenas and opera houses and small-town theaters and philharmonic halls. And we’ll come. For now, though, how could he have done this any other way? He had to sneak in here, all by himself; he had to close the door; he had to put out the light. He had to listen alone. It would have been mortifying to have anyone else watch as he listened to himself. If he knew we were here with him, even we would be given the boot.
But let’s leave him to it, shall we? We’ve seen all we need to see. Hop back into the machine, and we’ll flash forward almost the full forty years to today: now we’re in Italy, on May 31, 2016, and we’re sneaking into another underlit room. This one’s much larger, and there are plenty of empty seats, so you can dispense with the invisibility – just grab a spot in back, everyone, on one of those plush red chairs that have been arrayed before the stage, and listen close as Elvis Costello tells the story, one he’s told many times before, of when he first heard himself on the radio. Yes, you’re quite correct, ma’am, when you note he looks different from when we last saw him – though due respect, it doesn’t seem like all that profound an observation. He’s four decades older. He’s a little heavier, a little grayer, a little balder, much more nattily dressed; at the same time, he’s still sneaking away from his wife and kids, now back in Vancouver instead of on the other side of the kitchen wall, to cloister himself in darkened rooms to revel in his own music. Tonight he’s playing a solo show in an old aircraft hangar in the northern Italian industrial town of Brescia – raindrops pattering irregularly on the roof remind artist and audience alike that they’re sitting in a metal bucket repurposed for live performance. Most of the crowd speaks English, or maybe some of the crowd speaks English – well, if we’re being honest probably only some of the crowd speaks even some English, and most speak none at all. Thus it is that the verbose stories that pepper his solo outings fall on eager but deaf ears – and still, the audience is hushed, hoping to catch as much of Costello’s wit and wisdom as they can: we tilt our heads toward him as he once tilted his own toward a speaker. The raindrops are so audible because the room is so quiet. It’s somehow darker than usual, perhaps because the room has to be lit low in order to conceal the fact that it’s big enough to house a giant plane and, on a Tuesday night in a sleepy city an hour-plus from Milan, it’s nowhere near full. Maybe the darkness, maybe the quiet, maybe even the lazy rain has Costello feeling nostalgic. Early in the show he tells the small crowd he’s going to play a song he doesn’t play too often, and he prefaces it with the story:
When I first started to write, I didn’t really scream and shout. I was in my bedroom, trying not to wake up my young son, and I was singing the view from where I was living on the edge of town. And I turned some of those songs into records that maybe some of you have heard. But you know, when I first sent away my tape to the record companies, they were very helpful – they sent it straight back to me! I mean, I guess they thought that maybe I’d sent it to the wrong address…
This earns a chuckle from somewhere in the crowd. It ripples through the room: others have processed the buffer in their minds, rendering the light English humor into Italian, or maybe they’ve just registered that other people are laughing, so they laugh too. Costello seems encouraged, and goes on:
Eventually I sent it to the BBC local radio, in London, and a fellow called Charlie Gillett played my tape – it wasn’t a record or anything, it was just a reel-to-reel tape that I’d recorded on an old Grundig tape recorder in my bedroom. And I was singing in a hush, and when they announced that they were gonna play my music on the radio, I went into the kitchen, and I turned on the set – click! – then I turned off all the lights so nobody could see me listening to myself on the radio. There was a weather report, and then he announced the song, and it played, and I thought a great big finger would come down from the sky, like fate, and say, “This is the moment.” And then they just went to the weather report again, and nothing changed. So I’d like to sing this song, from where I was standing, right there…
And with a strum, in that quiet and dark room full mostly of silence such that he might as well be alone, the music sounding pretty but decidedly spare, Costello launches into the tune under consideration today:
Cut loose in a nightmare, cast off in my dreams
If home is anywhere that I can hang my hat
Then it’s coming apart at the seams…
But we’ve been through this already: the luck, the holding on, the “money rolling out of town,” love’s vexing propensity to “slip right out of sight.” At the same time, this would be familiar to us even if we hadn’t just been standing invisibly alongside the younger version of the older man singing to us now – because the song, itself, is a time machine: “I’d like to sing this song, from where I was standing, right there,” says Elvis, and sure enough his singing it has taken him and us back to “where he was standing,” where we were standing, crouched invisibly, listening to him listen in his kitchen in 1976.
But the point of his story in Brescia isn’t the listening to “Poison Moon” when it aired on Gillett’s show. It’s the time before, and the time after, and the way they were identical – it’s the weather report, and then the next weather report. This is not some pie-in-the-sky rock-mythology story, where a song plays on the radio and suddenly everything is different. Instead this is a story about how yes, a song can be a time machine, but the only time it can transport you to is one two minutes after the song started. Remarkably, “Poison Moon” seems to be aware of that too:
You look in the mirror – I’m sorry, but it can’t be replaced
You’re thrown straight out in that cruel parade
Buttoned-down and laced…
The story of Elvis Costello, between that night in his kitchen and that night in Brescia, is one where he looks into the mirror repeatedly, and despite his manful and self-loathing efforts in the late-seventies to render his reflection something other than his own face – he changed his name; he wore a perpetual sneer; he earned mild reproofs from his father, who noted of his live shows, “This is not a nice relationship – there’s spitefulness out there” – in the end he had no choice but to be himself, Declan Patrick MacManus. He toyed with other personae, from the ugly one who spoke evil things of Ray Charles to Bonnie Bramlett in that hotel bar to the goofy one who hosted a grotesque game show involving a spinning wheel and went on to lend his name to an oft-quoted movie about teenagers and ligers. But when it came down to it he had to be this guy, the same guy he was on August 15, 1976: a family man whose crucial moments, even those when he’s performing for others, are spent in solitude, a little embarrassed to have others know he hides himself away sometimes to listen to his own voice on the radio. What, we have to ask, is the draw of that voice, or of the image the speaker of this song yearns to see in a replacement mirror? It’s a false lure, but it’s also as real in the mind as any fantasy – as “Poison Moon” notes in a snippet of language that will later be repurposed, meaning something else entirely, in another song:
Starts like fascination, ends up like a trance
You gotta use your imagination on some of that magazine romance…
This is another of those obscure Costello lines, hard to parse and impossible to nail down: what is the unspoken “it” that’s the subject of “starts” and “ends up”? The looking in the unreplaceable mirror? The being thrown out into that parade? The resolve to one day bellow heartily despite the eerie cast of a white circle hung in the sky like death? The fact that the line, recycled in 1979’s “Party Girl,” will eventually make something like “love” or more likely “obsession” be the antecedent of “it” illuminates nothing here. In this case the speaker is talking, with lovely imprecision, of some transformative process that lies before him – one that he expects little of, but that simultaneously he hopes “imagination” might effect. Is it success that he hopes for – that “great big finger coming down from the sky like fate”? Is it fame? Is it simple financial security, or does “magazine romance” fudge a quotidian thing like security into something rosier and dreamier and arguably more unrealistic? In his memoir, Costello will make an oblique suggestion that he’s talking about emotions, and domesticity – in a single graph, inserted after a short quote from the lyrics of “Poison Moon,” he’ll note:
I believed with all my heart that love would endure these small deprivations and the tension of close quarters.
It seems strange – not hard to believe, but a little poignant in its irony – to imagine MacManus shutting his family out of the room so he can listen intently to his own voice singing what he might be quite right in calling a paean to domestic solidarity in the face of seemingly-insurmountable obstacles. And then the chorus returns, and it’s all the two-verse, two-chorus, bridgeless song is, a tiny little loop leading back to:
And these bones don’t look too good to me
Jokers talk and they all disagree…
Once again, we’ve heard this before – it’s a flat circle, bringing the dice back and the jokers, whoever they are, and the laughing and the poison:
One day soon, I will laugh right in the face of the poison moon…
The speaker himself, in the second verse, has contemplated the impossibility of changing himself or his circumstances, yet he’s allowed himself to fantasize about a change nevertheless, and the song itself moves him through time, back to the place of faith of the first verse, back to when he “believed with all his heart,” back when he “tried to hold on tight.” The song is indeed a time machine, on a miniscule scale, and even when he first sang it, just as when he most recently sang it that night in Italy, it took him “back to where he was standing, right there” – just as it takes us, if we listen to it right.
But let’s leave him to the rest of his show, and sneak out into the rain. It’ll be a good one, and it’s a shame to miss it – he’ll play a magnificent reading of “Riot Act,” and premiere another brand-new tune from A Face In The Crowd – but with a time machine, you know, we can always go back and hear the entire concert later. Instead let’s take one last little spin through the ages, before we part ways: shake off your umbrellas and take your seats, friends, and I’m going to program in one final date – now, Costello has never told us exactly what day it was, but a little consultation of late-seventies tour travel schedules makes it easy enough to guess. It could conceivably be as late as October 23, 1983; it’s likelier December 27, 1978.** Belated holiday wishes, everybody, and hopes that the upcoming final year of the seventies treats you well. Anyway, we’re gonna hop off here in Brighton, where Costello and the Attractions are relaxing in a café opposite the venue where they’ll be playing this evening. They’re exhausted. Costello will one day refer to this event as having taken place “near the end of over two years of non-stop FUNEXCITEMENTANDTRAVEL,” with a final deranged push to shill his then-new record Armed Forces. They’ve ordered some food; it isn’t particularly appetizing; on what I imagine is a tinny speaker mounted in the upper corner of the room, a familiar voice begins to sing:
Oh, I just don’t know where to begin…
They hear these words, sung in that same voice, every single night: the man who sings them is sitting right here. Here’s what Costello recalled, speaking in present-tense like he too time-traveled to tell it, in the liner notes to the 1989 greatest-hits comp Girls Girls Girls of the day when he and his band happened to overhear, on the radio, a broadcast of “Accidents Will Happen”:
…everything in the café opposite the Brighton Top Rank seems very bright; the lights dancing in the greasy coffee, the day-glo yellow eggs, even the congealed bit on the stalks of the “sauce: tomatoes.” I only paint this disgusting picture, as it is the only time that I recall the Attractions and I being in the same mundane location while a record of ours was being played on the radio.
And here we have it: the polar opposite of that alone-in-the-kitchen moment we witnessed both not long ago – a few paragraphs; two little hops through time; three-and-a-half years – and way back in 1976. Declan MacManus has been stuffed in a closet somewhere, and replaced by Elvis Costello; he’s no longer standing all by himself but sitting with three people, at least one of whom he hates; he’s not in a darkened room but one so blindingly and garishly overbright that his eggs look unnatural. Is this the finger of fate coming down and saying “This is the moment”? If so, it’s no more the thing MacManus was hoping for/expecting/dreaming of that night in his kitchen, listening to Gillett’s radio show, than the nothing-but-the-weather-report he was served up instead of the release he craved. The months ahead, as the tour to push Armed Forces continues, will be no less overblown and day-glo and icky, like lights reflected on the thin sheen that coats cheap coffee: the Attractions will play almost continuously, on multiple continents, from now until mid-April, including one derangement-inducing April Fool’s Day in New York City when they’ll perform five gigs in forty-eight hours at four different venues. Some things, however fascinating they start out, really do end up like a trance.
And now we’re back to today – please leave your invisibility clothes in the hamper near the exit. In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Costello spoke briefly of “Poison Moon.” He declared a lasting affection for this very early work:
It was the last in a group of songs where I was singing very quietly in my room, before I adopted the musical language that became My Aim Is True. I was playing these quiet songs in clubs, wondering why people weren’t hanging on my every word! What I hadn’t worked out was that people I admired, like John Prine and Randy Newman, had audiences who were aware of them, who fell to a hush to listen. But it’s amusing to hear the musical jump that I made from this style to the first album. And now I play this song a lot, because people come to listen to me.
In short, “Poison Moon,” to Costello, depends on that silence, even that solitude, in which it was recorded and in which he first heard it courtesy of Gillett. He’s overstating the case when he says he plays it “a lot” – the Brescia airing was a relative rarity in recent years, and aside from a brief heyday in 2014 when it popped up with regularity, it’s not exactly a staple of his setlists. It’s traveled through to today, or maybe it flits in and out of time just as we’ve been doing, showing up at an EC show and then returning whence it came. It’s a song unmoored from chronology. Indeed, the most astute thing that’s ever been said about the song comes from a precursor of this blog – the David Gorman/Gary Stewart “Elvis Costello Song Of The Week” feature that ran on Trunkworthy a couple years ago, and that’s been continued admirably in a blog by Kevin David and Jorge Farah. Davis noted sharply that “Poison Moon” is “…reminiscent of Randy Newman, early Tom Waits, and other music that didn’t need fixing when the corrective of punk came around. ‘Poison Moon’ is quiet, intimate, intense, and even playful in its short running time.” This is nice enough, a perfect summary of a wonderful little piece of music. Stewart, however, hits the nail even more precisely on the head when he discusses the lo-fi recording MacManus got off that Grundig reel-to-reel of his back in 1976: “‘Poison Moon’ sounds like it was recorded in a closet. Or maybe a prison cell. Possibly a hotel room, just like the one Robert Johnson made his records in. With its barely-there guitar and the pensive vocal (combined with the shoddy quality of the bootleg LP I first heard it on), ‘Poison Moon’ feels like something unearthed from a past that never existed.” Exactly: “Poison Moon” comes from nowhere, long ago, and it takes us back there whenever we hear it.
* No recording of the actual broadcast survives, despite a tantalizing reference on a message board back in 2008 to some ancient reel-to-reels floating around in the possession of a fellow named Tony Alston, then-61-year-old resident of Milton Keynes. Needless to say, this has only increased the uncertainty about which song or songs Gillett actually played that night. Gillett himself claimed, on the same message board, that he played “all the songs on the demo (four, five? I don’t remember now) over a period of several weeks.” For the purposes of this essay, I’m going with EC’s most recent pronouncement on the subject, which says it was “Poison Moon.” See my discussion of the 2016 Brescia show for the specifics. It’s possible, I think sometimes, that each time Costello declares that he heard a different song on that fateful day, history itself changes in a marvelous cosmic swirl to accommodate him. For what it’s worth, even the August 15, 1976 original broadcast date has been quibbled with. Though it has long been the accepted date, going back at least to Will Birch’s 2000 book No Sleep Till Canvey Island, superfan Erey, already known to my readers as a dispenser of valuable correctives, argues persuasively that the date is incorrect. Her most compelling point, to me, is the fact that all accounts have Gillett’s airing of the material predating the opening of the Stiff offices, yet Stiff’s first single, Nick Lowe’s “So It Goes,” which had to come out of those offices, was released on August 14. Furthermore, she notes that the closest thing to contemporary documentation supporting the August 15 date is a highly-unreliable quiz distributed by NME in 1979. Still, there’s wisdom in the old adage to “print the legend,” particularly when the actual truth is unknown; Birch’s research is generally pretty solid, and I hate to question it; and most persuasively of all: here we are, having gone to the trouble of traveling backwards in time, and we’ve discovered that everything is just as we’ve always been told. Can’t argue with that, right?
** More chronology arcana: “Accidents Will Happen” was officially released as a single on January 5, 1979, though it had been performed live as early as April of the year before. It’s likely the Attractions heard a DJ broadcasting the song ahead of the release date during their stop in Brighton on their winter UK tour the week prior. I mention the 1983 date, however, because I always feel obliged – I know some of my readers dislike this – to concede the possibility of Costello’s misremembering things. If by chance he has the location right but the year wrong, the next time the Attractions swung through Brighton was four years later on the Punch The Clock tour.
Recorded: MacManus home, 1975. DPM (as D.P. Costello): vocal, guitar. Released: bonus track on My Aim Is True (Ryko reissue), 1993. Played live intermittently beginning in 2007.
Top to bottom: Charlie Gillett, date unknown, photo taken from the cover of a compilation of songs he played on “Honky Tonk.” Declan MacManus, from his Elizabeth Arden ID badge as reproduced in Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, photo dated July 1976. Elvis Costello, performing “Poison Moon” in Brescia, May 2016. A vintage Grundig reel-to-reel, of the sort “Poison Moon” was recorded on.