I. Death, and Life
It started to seem like every few days, somebody else had died.
This could make for a strange counterpoint to the celebration of a life that formed the core of the show. There was no new record, and hadn’t been for years – there may never be again, but more on that in a minute – so Elvis Costello’s “Detour,” if it was promoting anything, was promoting his autobiography: the merch table shilled vinyl reissues of Punch The Clock and This Year’s Model, along with the obligatory t-shirt and miscellaneous bric-a-brac, but most patrons plunked down forty or thirty bucks for a copy of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, signed or unsigned; meanwhile, many of the stories that made up the show itself, couched as introductions to songs beloved and obscure, were drawn from the book’s pages, with the jokes and more importantly the discursive narrative style preserved. The set mirrored the book – it was arguably more linear in shape – in that it was structured as a loose amble through Costello’s life: at the top of the night we would hear very early songs, often quieter numbers dating back to before My Aim Is True; as the set unspooled and things got a little rowdier, we would be introduced to Costello’s family members, his parents and grandparents as well as his wife and kids, or we’d learn about past collaborators and co-workers, get glimpses into a life in show business, and maybe even be allowed a peek into the workshop as we were treated to works–in–progress from a forthcoming musical called A Face In The Crowd. This, we had to conclude, was a life well-lived, still in the process of being lived well. And yet a certain cloud of mortality hung over the proceedings.
Costello was aware of it; you might say he even embraced it. The final image of “Detour,” projected onto the scrim of the giant television set erected at the back of the stage, just as the final strains of inevitable closer “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, & Understanding” were fading away, was often a photograph of a recently-departed friend or colleague or luminary – and it’s sobering to realize just how many folks shuffled off over the 2015-2017 course of “Detour.” Sometimes it was a picture of Milo Lewis, Costello’s beloved production manager, standing beneath a scaffolding and looking wistfully up into the sky; at other shows we’d see fabled Beatles producer George Martin at the boards, or Muhammad Ali at the height of his celebrity, or Dan Hicks of the Hot Licks pouting for the camera; Merle Haggard received a tip of the hat in San Diego, having died earlier that week; John Bradbury was given the “special” treatment with a soulful cover of “You’re Wondering Now”; by the tour’s end, in Paris and Rome and especially Madrid, a pause was being taken nightly, midway through the show, to say goodbye to Allen Toussaint – who, prior to his passing, had been Costello’s guest at an earlier New Orleans stop of this very same tour. The most notable nod to the ghosts in the room, of course, was the near-omnipresence of Costello’s father Ross MacManus, lovingly saluted with a lengthy mid-concert interlude and even allowed to steal the show entirely with a between-sets video clip, filmed in the early sixties, of the Joe Loss Orchestra playing a rousing, boogie-filled rendition of “If I Had A Hammer.” Costello would return to the stage before the clip reached its conclusion, his garb often changed into a garish purplish-striped jacket, and for a moment or two he’d dance and sing along with his white-suited papa, younger on the screen than the son was in life, before charging into his encore. In moments like these the tour’s impulses began to blur, and to seem decidedly less at odds: figures who have departed this world were crucial parts of the life being celebrated; as the autobiographical act implies, life itself can’t be celebrated without acknowledging its finitude.
The tour emerged out of grief – for a parent, and for prospects. Not to be gauche about correlating these things, but Ross’s decline coincided with the undeserved fizzle of 2010’s National Ransom, after which Costello vowed to stop making records. He explained himself thus:
Recording, while pleasurable, had become a vanity, and advocating records was no longer a good use of my time set against making a respectable living taking the same songs directly to the stage.
The marketing and consumption of recorded music, in short, had not stayed in commercial step with the costs of recording it, and as a professional musician – someone who seems always to have viewed rock-stardom as a role he, a tradesman rather than a celebrity, was playing – Costello chose to set that aside and devote himself to performing. He claims to have been even-keel about the decision, noting that it was more amazing he’d been able to be a recording artist at all:
I see now that I was lucky to work in the record business during that brief interlude between the time when they bought your songs outright for fifty bucks or the keys to a Cadillac, and now, when everything is supposed to be free… Like any working person, I was proud to be able to take care of those that I loved.
Still, there’s a palpable disappointment in Costello’s response to the poor reception given a disc he was clearly, and rightly, very proud of – one suspects that he was sorry to see a fruitful part of his career come to an end, and in a way was mourning its loss. In spring 2011 he revived an old gimmick, the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, in which he left setlisting to chance and allowed himself to vanish into the character of a bilious and ill-tempered emcee – in his return to the nasty persona of Napoleon Dynamite, one can’t help finding a parallel to his original adoption of the moniker Elvis Costello, itself a querulous character Declan MacManus took on in response to commercial indifference shown his songs back in 1977. Following this he was to embark on a series of short solo tours, rough drafts in a way for the massive “Detour” that was to come – in the fall of 2011 Costello did the rounds in Europe, hopscotching from Athens to Belfast to Sligo to Istanbul; for 2012 he scheduled a jaunt through the smaller towns of America’s California coast which, as if tussling with the retrospective impulse that had surely come over him as he reckoned with the idea of his discography having reached its terminus, he christened “2054: The Centenary Tour,” a signal perhaps that the songbook he’ll be drawing from when he reaches his hundredth year will, if he holds to his no-more-recording resolve, be unchanged from what it is now. In the midst of this – on November 25, 2011 – Ross died. To read the deeply-moving description of this period in Unfaithful Music – perhaps the finest thing Costello has ever written, and that includes every one of his songs – is to be made almost too vividly to feel the horrors of having a parent pass: Costello was moving from the height-of-life onstage at his concerts to the end-of-life gloom of his father’s deathbed; he was receiving phone calls, moments after bowing before eager and adoring audiences begging for one more encore, that had him tensing up in dread lest this be the call telling him there would be no more calls. He felt the pain of wishing, like those audiences, for just a little more time, even as he recognized that the truest love, given his father’s suffering, was to wish for his release. He experienced the joy of sharing music with his father, seeing Ross emerge from a haze and light up at the sound of Fred Astaire singing “The Way You Look Tonight,” and also the agony of finding music turn into a torment, when a brass ensemble’s hallway rendition of “Danny Boy” struck Ross as assaultive and made him unexpectedly miserable. Costello’s conclusion to this incident with the brass band is one of the crucial passages to understanding his memoir’s strange title:
I had to ask them to stop playing. Perhaps there was no magic in this unfaithful music after all.
For our purposes here, though, the most important piece of Costello’s account of his father’s death is a confession dropped into it like a raindrop splashing upon an oily puddle. He mentions his resolve never to make records again, and rehearses his old explanation that, to put it crassly, there’s just no money in it anymore. But then he concedes something secret, and moving, and sad, about his decision:
The real reason was that I needed time to imagine how I could bear to write songs and not be able to play them for my father. Watching him listen to music was irreplaceable to me. There are some things that music just can’t fix.
Another confessional raindrop, this one dropped into “Detour” itself, came in Salt Lake City on April 12, 2016. Costello was on the blue chair at stage right, next to the mounted megaphone, settling in for the show’s regular seated interlude, and was about to tell his Ross story. Anyone who attended “Detour” a time or two knows it well: it’s the final anecdote of Unfaithful Music, and it served as the introduction to “Ghost Train” at all but a small handful of stops over the tour’s multi-year course, even in countries where the audience was unlikely to understand the language it was told in; if you saw a show – and if you didn’t, you should go buy the Live At Liverpool Philharmonic Hall DVD and watch it immediately – then you know it as the one that climaxes with a teenage Costello playing his first-ever gig as a part of his father’s band, but discovering that his guitar is hopelessly out of tune, whereupon, with admirable presence of mind, he turns his volume down to zero and pantomimes the entire performance, “playing the show of his life.” This, he’ll claim, was “the perfect introduction for a life in show business” – but hold up, because he hadn’t gotten to that punchline yet. For now, an image of Ross in his youthful glory had appeared on the TV-set scrim, and Costello was about to recount his father’s career fronting a danceband, eventually leaving to take his “message of peace and love” to the workingmen’s clubs in the provinces, as well as introducing his son to the highs and lows of a professional performance career on that fateful night of frantic miming – all of this, in Costello’s telling, was more or less the same every night, down to the jokes about the tied-up donkeys on the Blackpool beach and his father’s sixties-era fashion choices anticipating Austin Powers’s. But tonight, for whatever reason – perhaps it was that this was the first time he was unveiling some of his Face In The Crowd material, which had him paradoxically forward- and rearward-thinking – Costello meandered into a contemplation of what prompted him to devote so much of each “Detour” performance to recalling his father. It had been obvious in its way, and yet this was to my knowledge the first time he articulated it, however briefly. “I wouldn’t be up here, playing these songs for you now,” he said, as he always said by way of preface to this section of the show, “if it hadn’t been for the fact that my father was a danceband singer before me…” But then he paused, and as if it was a new idea occurring to him then and there, he added as a parenthetical:
I lost him about five years ago, and I couldn’t have told you this story then. But it’s kind of comforting to have him with me every night…
Flash forward almost a year to the very last concert of the tour, in Sheffield on March 20, 2017, when Costello made a similar concession:
I speak a lot about my father in this here show, and as this is the last night, I suppose I should tell the truth to you finally: we really spent very little time together, and I suppose that’s why it’s been a pleasure to have him with me as my co-star in this show, in some ways…
This, it seems to me, is the key to “Detour.” Costello had lost his father, and just as importantly he’d lost the person he most loved making music for. Ross was, not incidentally, the first person Costello made music with – we have film of them, in the form of the alternate “Secret Lemonade Drinker” commercial, playing dress-up and goofing off together back in 1973 just as Costello and the filmed Ross would every night, to “If I Had A Hammer,” just before “Detour”’s second set – and now, despite his absence, Costello was finding a way to make music with his dad again, every night for three calendar years running. It was a beautiful, loving, filial gesture. If, in acknowledging mortality, “Detour” was celebrating life, then it was fitting that in celebrating Elvis Costello’s life, it was surreptitiously engaging audiences in a parallel celebration of Ross MacManus’s likewise.
II. Straight Lines, and Circuitousness
Which, I suppose, brings us to some crucial questions in looking back at this, the longest tour of Costello’s career: why was it called “Detour”? What was it a detour from? Where was it a detour to? It seems a bit much to take my observation that the tour was preoccupied with death, and to suggest there was some metaphysical component to the tour’s name – to suggest Costello was arguing, however facetiously, that life is just a brief diversion from some grand path the undying soul takes through space and time, on its journey from one plane of existence to another. Indeed, in keeping with the show’s jokey tone – Costello seemed, many nights, to be channeling the vaudeville stars who once trod the same boards decades earlier – the host himself offered an alternate, much more down-to-earth interpretation: “Where I’m from,” Costello would tell us at the top of the night, “people say, ‘Where are you goin’?’ And I say, ‘I’m goin’ on de-tour…’” He would punctuate this groaner of a gag by kicking a pedal that lit up a black-and-orange DETOUR sign on a metal stand at stage left; the crowd would laugh, a shade obligingly. All efforts – maybe I was the only one making them, but I was making them determinedly – to look for profundity in the tour’s title were instantly stymied, and perhaps that was for the best.
Because “Detour” was a concept that evolved, a little haphazardly, over the course of those solo tours, which continued after 2012 and spilled almost directly into 2015. There was a tour of Australia in 2013; American tours in 2013 and 2014; a jam-packed month touring Europe in the fall of 2014. “The Centenary Tour” featured a set adorned with old-timey props including a light-up sign at Costello’s feet that read “REQUEST” in an ornate font like something you’d find on a music-hall poster; he would light it up using a kick-pedal whenever someone in the crowd shouted out the usual demand that he trot out “Radio Radio.” The 2013 and 2014 tours repurposed these props toward the charming conceit that Costello’s concert was an AM broadcast, beaming out to the world from the little theater we were sitting in, with the song choices as varied and as improvisatory as a DJ’s playlist: he seemed to be going for the feel of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, only live and with all-Costello numbers. This show featured a light-up “ON AIR” sign atop a metal stand that, if its design wasn’t replicated precisely with a black-and-orange DETOUR arrow for the following year’s outings, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. The giant television appeared at the first “Detour” show proper on March 1, 2015 in Boulder, showing old Attractions videos as the audience took their seats and a somewhat-distracting montage of Costello lyric snippets melting into each other throughout the show, which over the course of the tour vanished and was replaced by tasteful selections from the MacManus family photo album – it was as if the radio-broadcast concept had morphed into something like a This Is Your Life-style TV variety showcase. A significant structural element had also appeared during the late-’14 European outings, when Larkin Poe were booked as openers. Rebecca and Megan Lovell had known Costello for years, since a chance meeting at a festival in 2010, but their appearance on the bill at a handful of southern dates in the summer of 2014 seems to have prompted somebody to realize the sisters bring a lot of bang for your opening-band buck: not only do they deliver a sizzling half-hour kickoff set, they also happily wait around to do another five or six songs with Costello at the top of the encore and usually one more at night’s end to boot, adding a little extra storm to a drummerless version of “Peace, Love, & Understanding.” (Not for nothing, but atypically-grumbling onstage references in Jackson, Wyoming, by the usually-sunny Rebecca to a traffic ticket they got en route from Utah indicates they also provide their own transportation, at least in the States, which has to add not-negligible opening-act value as well.) All this is to say, the format Costello toured so tirelessly as “Detour” seems to have sprung less from an exhaustively thought-out agenda and more from felicitous coincidences and spontaneous epiphanies.
And this only comes as a surprise because the shows themselves seemed so carefully constructed. We should get one thing clear: “Detour” was not at all the extemporaneous free-for-all Costello was fond of presenting it as. Countless promotional interviews, designed to put butts in seats in the small regional theaters he was being booked into, found Costello insisting again and again that he’d vary the “Detour” setlist nightly according to whim. A typical example comes from a phoner with the Tampa Bay Times, rustling up interest in the March 16, 2015 show in Clearwater:
I’m up there with my songs, and I have the guitars and the instruments that I need to play them. I have about five shows laid out. I have lists of things. But they’re only just sort of a guide. I’ll say, “I’m going to go this way tonight, because that’s what this theater looks like, or that’s the way I’m feeling today.” And then something happens, and it takes you off in a different direction.
This is only sort-of true. Sure, the “Detour” stage was indeed packed with instruments Costello only rarely picked up, and glimpses at the printed setlists from various shows makes clear he was always coming up with new ideas about possible swerves he might take into unexpected songs. But the show he was describing this way is not “Detour” – rather, it’s “The Centenary Tour,” or maybe the fall 2013 American tour, where you genuinely had no idea what was coming on any given night. “Detour,” Costello’s claims to the press notwithstanding, was a much more composed affair. There were one-offs here and there, and they were spectacular: “Diamond Ring” in Kansas City or “Two Little Hitlers” in Los Angeles; “The World’s Great Optimist” coming out of nowhere in Southend-On-Sea; “Just Like A Jukebox” popping up in Cedar Rapids or “I Want To Vanish” breaking hearts in London. But for the most part the shows adhered to a rock-solid structure, refined over time but present from the earliest concerts in the American midwest in 2015 and still strongly perceptible as the tour wound to a conclusion in Scandinavia and the British Isles in early 2017. I’m assuming anyone reading this is familiar with the format – even if you ignored my earlier suggestion to purchase the official DVD, I strongly encourage you to spend a little time with a bootleg or two, at least, before continuing. For those who are with me and yet need a refresher, with your permission I’ll take a moment to outline it.
This is how a “Detour” show worked: things would begin with a bang. There was a loud opening number, “Complicated Shadows” or “Lipstick Vogue” or “Hurry Down Doomsday,” which by the tour’s second and third legs started deploying tape loops to thicken up the sound. Costello stood in darkness; on the television behind him was a montage of old photographs: images of his family; onstage shots from his heyday; sometimes a flicker of Milo, as if he was checking in on things in our world before returning to the ineffable one beyond. It was an overture, maybe the visual and even sonic correlative of the subconscious chaos from which the truths of dream emerge. The second song would hush things considerably: “I Can’t Turn It Off” or “Blue Minute” or occasionally “Cheap Reward” came next, always a quieter song drawn from among Costello’s very earliest compositions – we had returned to the very beginning of the story, the starting-gun of Costello’s creative life, and the set would take us forward through time from here. This formed the entrée to a section obviously built with the nonlinear capriciousness of one of the Unfaithful Music chapters: starting from that vantage at the outset of Costello’s career, we’d hear about his growth as a songwriter and a performer, perhaps being introduced to “Poison Moon” with a story about the first time he ever heard himself on the radio, then moving into a sort of perils-of-stardom cautionary tale as he described the sordid outskirts-of-Tucson circumstances that led him to write “Accidents Will Happen”; he might sprinkle in a soupçon of raucousness with “Mystery Dance,” the song that first gained him notice from a record label and that thus fit neatly into the “early Costello” mood of this section of the show, or he’d swerve willfully forward a decade or two into a lesson in songsmithing – the sort of thing the book never shies away from offering – in the form of “Ascension Day,” a magnificent edifice built on the foundations of a Professor Longhair tune, as remodeled by Toussaint and interior-decorated by Costello himself. The capstone of this section would come with the appearance of a photograph of actress Gloria Grahame on the television, our cue that we were about to hear “Church Underground” – about which more in a moment. A handful of guitar tunes would follow – this was probably the most variable section of the set, and you’d find anything in here from “45” to “Everyday I Write The Book” to “Stella Hurt” – and then Costello would change out of his sunglasses and stroll over to the piano, joking as he settled onto the bench about his lifelong anxieties when tasked with operating machinery, which would lead into stories about his earliest jobs correcting ships’ charts and struggling with a room-sized office computer. These musings on employment would preface performances of “Shipbuilding” and if we were lucky a cover of David Hidalgo’s “Matter Of Time”; later in the tour “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” would pop up here as well, along with a handful of piano-based Face In The Crowd numbers. The show’s next section would kick off with another hackneyed, but not-uncharming, joke: “It’s time for me to introduce my special guest for this evening,” Costello would say, pausing the perfect amount of time before explaining: “It’s me.” He’d move across the stage, he’d put on a hat, he’d sit in the chair; “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” would be dedicated to Diana and the kids, along with maybe an old vaudeville number like “Little White Lies” as well as the long Ross-centric intro, discussed above, that led into “Ghost Train.” He’d rise again, and the loops would return for first-set-closer “Watching The Detectives,” played in darkness against a backdrop of spooky and silly and sinister film noir movie posters, before Costello retired to the wings. During this encore break, we’d see Ross performing “If I Had A Hammer,” even more glorious in recorded person than Costello had made him out to be in anecdote, and then Costello was back, in that purple-striped coat, clapping and singing and shaking his rump with his dad.
The second set would be a short, six- or seven-song interlude with Larkin Poe accompanying: “Pads, Paws, & Claws” was a stalwart; “Love Field” was played more often than not; a twenty-first-century treat would be smuggled in here in the form of “Nothing Clings Like Ivy” or “That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving.” “Burn The Paper Down To Ash,” sung by Rebecca, turned into a highlight of this set; the ladies seemed particularly to enjoy hoofing it up on “Blame It On Cain.” Off everybody went once again, and then Costello would reappear inside the giant TV, the scrim falling away so it looked like he was performing on a broadcast – with that red Jazzmaster in his hands, it was like Saturday Night Live ’77 all over again. He’d play “Alison” and “Pump It Up,” maybe “Less Than Zero,” and then there was another break before one last piano stretch, with “Side By Side” and “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” and a few more Face In The Crowd tunes – “Blood & Hot Sauce” became a favorite in this slot late in the tour. Back on guitar, “Peace, Love, & Understanding” would close things out, though sometimes Costello could be coaxed back to do one more, usually with the Larkin Poe sisters: “Brilliant Mistake” or “A Good Year For The Roses” or “The Scarlet Tide” or, a few times and gloriously, “All The Rage.” Then he was gone, and a dead person’s picture was on the TV, and the lights were going up and we were going home.
To summarize – and I hope you’ll be patient as I restate this, because I think it’s important – the show could be divided into the following segments:
- An overture (“Complicated Shadows,” “Lipstick Vogue,” “Hurry Down Doomsday”).
- A semiautobiographical tour of his early years (“I Can’t Turn It Off” through “Church Underground”).
- An all-over-the-map guitar-based sequence (“45,” “Everyday I Write The Book”).
- Contemplative piano songs loosely centered on the theme of work (“Shipbuilding,” “Matter Of Time”).
- Seated retrospection, sprinkled with standards (“Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” “Ghost Train”).
- Noise and fury: “Watching The Detectives.”
- A cameo from Dad, beamed in from an earlier era of live entertainment: “If I Had A Hammer,” as performed on tape by Ross.
- The Larkin Poe set (“Pads, Paws, & Claws,” “Love Field”).
- The amped-up inside-the-TV mini-set (“Alison,” “Pump It Up”).
- The second piano sequence (“Side By Side”).
- An eclectic closing, usually on guitar (almost always concluding with “Peace, Love, & Understanding”).
Perhaps it’s obvious from this rundown, but “Detour” was not a straightforward journey through Costello’s life any more than Unfaithful Music is – early songs occur late; later songs occur early; some regulars in the set aren’t even Costello’s own compositions. Much as in the book, the shape formed by songs being sequenced together proves more important, in telling a story, than chronology. Indeed, as Costello noted in an interview with the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat keyed to his March 29, 2016 show, “Detour” was a show about songs:
The way I think of these stage shows, really, is that they’re a way of framing the songbook, to generate the element of surprise, for me as much as for the audience. I need to guarantee a good night… The title of the tour suggests that it takes an unusual route through all the songs I have at my disposal.
Though he overstated once again, here as in other interviews, the degree of spontaneity in his song choices, this particular comment was indisputable: the show was only a tour through Costello’s life inasmuch as it was a tour through his body of work. But maybe those are the same thing: it’s hard not to see the “Detour” structure as mirroring Costello’s life, however obliquely and perhaps unconsciously. After all, we could offer up a decent thumbnail description of the career of Elvis Costello if we broke it down thus:
- An early period, the one this blog has so far been bogged down describing, in which Declan MacManus reckoned with the formative influences of his father and grandfather and learned his trade;
- An apprenticeship, pre-My Aim Is True, leading into the adoption of the name Elvis Costello and his tumultuous and runaway success with the Attractions, this early phase marked by many cobbled-together-from-scraps songs like those of 1981’s Trust – which were built out of fragments from old notebooks just as “Ascension Day” was constructed from a Longhair composition and a Toussaint arrangement;
- An all-over-the-map early-eighties of relative rock-stardom, when Costello started his own record label and produced his favorite acts and began touring with a horn section and become something of a political commentator and wound up performing in settings as wildly varied as the Grand Old Opry and Wembley Stadium – in the midst of which, ever the contrarian, he released an entire record, 1982’s Almost Blue, of country covers;
- A quieter interlude, focused on work, in which he went to an office everyday to write, Tin Pan Alley-style and often on a piano, the songs that wound up on 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World;
- A ballad-filled Americana record, 1985’s King Of America, billed to “The Costello Show” and credited to Declan MacManus rather than Elvis Costello, which only intermittently employed the Attractions and that harked back to the great song-standards of yesteryear;
- A return to loud guitar-based music: 1986’s Blood & Chocolate;
- 1989’s Spike, whose subtitle was “The Beloved Entertainer”;
- A stretch of records made with unexpected collaborators, from the Brodsky Quartet in 1993 to Bill Frisell in 1995 – even the reunion with the Attractions on 1994’s Brutal Youth and 1996’s All This Useless Beauty was, after so much acrimony, a surprise;
- Noise (“20% Amnesia,” 2002’s When I Was Cruel), but also
- Quiet (“Favourite Hour,” 2003’s North) – which, taken together, can probably best be termed
- Eclecticism (1991’s majestic Mighty Like A Rose, 1995’s shitkicking Kojak Variety, 2004’s elegiac The Delivery Man, the near-perfect roots-rock of 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane and 2010’s National Ransom).
If it strikes you that I’ve summarized the man’s professional life here – that this list omits marriages, births of children, all the personal successes and tribulations that truly make up a life, and is thus more a biography of the made-up Elvis Costello than the real-life Declan MacManus who wears that mask – then I would point out, by way of countering your point, the oddness, however understandable from a marketing perspective, of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink being termed “Elvis Costello’s biography” when it includes an account of the construction of that persona, and is in many ways a deconstruction of it as well, and when almost every figure who appears in its pages would have called its author “Declan” rather than “Elvis.” What I think is worth noting here is that the broad outline of the show adheres, with impressive fidelity, to the broad outline of Costello’s public life. The story of the songs is also the story of the songwriter: once again, as with the omnipresence of the departed in a night celebrating the work of the living man onstage before us, we find that one of the hallmarks of “Detour” was the blurring, the breaking-down of lines between one person and another, between the living and the dead and between the real-life and the fictional.
III. The Story, and The Other Story
But if the show was telling a story, by telling another story, then it’s the liminal moments, where Costello crossed that line, that beckon our attention. I won’t belabor things by examining the entire format, but here’s a case in point: each concert would reach a telling moment of inflection with “Church Underground.” I’ve posited this as the culmination of a whirlwind four- or five-song whistlestop tour of Costello’s early years, segment #2 in my summary above, beginning with the first time he heard his voice on the radio, as recounted in that introduction to “Poison Moon”; wandering through an account of his first visit to the United States and staying at the Howard Johnson’s in Mill Valley, the “unimaginable luxury” of which went to his head and caused him to “stray from the narrow path”; being as he was, at the time, “trying to rid the world of alcohol – by drinking it,” he got into scrapes like the loveless and cheap affair with the female cabdriver in Arizona who inspired “Accidents Will Happen.” All this was probably harrowing in real life, and also thrilling of course – these were adventures, the spice of life, and they resulted in some pretty tremendous songs on those first few records. But it’s conveyed here with good humor and a healthy narrative distance: what reads as tawdry and sad in Unfaithful Music is presented onstage as the fodder of rollicking bar talk. The cabdriver story, for instance, terminates in the book with this effete sigh:
I hadn’t found anything that I was looking for – only an aching head and a dull, guilty regret.
Onstage, by contrast, Costello would insert a couple of jokes into his account:
I went back to my hotel, and picked up my guitar, covered in guilt and shame – I was, not the guitar – and I wrote this song… for you.
The humor comes from grammar, and from the oddity of a creative life, which takes as its raw materials the personal failings that most of us would hide in shameful secret, and works them into high or at least pop art for the consumption of strangers. “Church Underground,” a National Ransom highlight that almost invariably appeared in “Detour” setlists despite being far from a crowd favorite, as if Costello wanted to hit us over the head with how much we’d screwed the pooch in ignoring that record, would emerge out of the discrepancies prefigured in this tale of mésalliance and “Accidents.” The face of forties femme fatale Gloria Grahame would appear on the TV screen – clutching a cigarette, appearing sweet but also soured, like she grew up innocent but met with too many misfortunes or perhaps just ate too many lemons – and Costello would make a subtle shift in the way he’d been building the show’s ongoing narrative. His own story became Gloria’s, and then it became not-Gloria’s, as if hammering home that it was the crucial culminating act of the early years he was recounting when Costello took on the persona of someone he wasn’t. Occasionally, as in Calgary on December 10, 2016, he would dive into the striking change-of-subject head-on:
Continuing the shabby tale of my moral decline…
he began, pointedly as if he were about to speak further about himself. And he would, but Elvis Costello or Declan MacManus or whoever it was who was shabbily declining would vanish from the tale midway through: “When I first went to the town of Los Angeles,” he said in Calgary, picking up on having left his story off in San Francisco and then Tucson,
…I thought I would walk into a smoky dive and find a girl in a silk dress, sittin’ on a high stool and sippin’ on a Singapore Sling, who looked just like this. Of course I’d seen too many films noir – that’s French for, uh, for “film noir.” Of course, this woman is Gloria Grahame, and this song is not about Gloria…
Forgive the awkward shift, but the next part of Costello’s intro was more fleshed-out elsewhere, so I’ll switch to his “Church Underground” introduction from Boise, on April 15, 2016:
This song isn’t about Gloria Grahame, it’s about a girl who dreams of being Gloria Grahame. It’s about a girl who lives in the middle of nowhere, and reads fan magazines and decides one day that she’s going to leave her town… I have to think of somewhere that maybe I’m never going back to – like Wichita, or Norwich in England, because they’ll be waiting for me with pitchforks and flaming torches when I get back there. Anyhow, she leaves, seeking a life of fame, and has to settle for infamy, and she eventually finds the things she’s looking for down in the holy places, down in the ground…
It’s worth noting that “Wichita” was the punchline for his joke about “a place I’m never going back to” for most of the tour – until, of course, “Detour” reached Wichita itself on October 8, 2016, after which he would apologize to the good people of Kansas nightly because, as he admitted in Calgary, “they were so nice.” (On that bone-chilling Calgary night, incidentally, nodding to his Canadian audience and displaying a familiarity with local geography learned, most likely, from his wife, he swapped out Wichita for “Saskatoon.” I’ll also mention, since I’m safely in parentheses, that the liner notes to National Ransom specify that “Church Underground” originates not in Wichita but in the ghost town of “Utopia, KS.”)
Now, since I want to talk about “Church Underground,” we should talk about “Church Underground” – and about the song that “Church Underground,” in the set, is replacing, just as this character called Elvis Costello came to replace Declan MacManus right around the late-seventies time this second section of the show fancifully recalled. On record, the track is a bit busy – in his book, Costello concedes that it was the one song off National Ransom that “I did not pitch correctly until long after the recording” – but while it features no fewer than eleven musicians in that studio take, Costello stripped it down magnificently to unaccompanied guitar throughout “Detour.” Indeed the book goes on to note: “It took almost until the time of writing to realize that it only required the sparest of accompaniment.” Costello also says of the lyric that “the opening scene was written in the same film noir language that I used when I entered this fray in 1977” – which, of course, is a reference to the song that towered above all others in the apprenticeship-slash-runaway-success period that this second segment of “Detour” covers: “Watching The Detectives,” a noir-tinged pseudo-mystery without a solution, built like Twin Peaks on the underpinnings of Otto Preminger’s Laura, rejiggered in the “Detour” running order to a spot higher on the bill but performed at this point in the show nightly by its understudy, “Church Underground” itself. In the book, Costello illustrates the language by excerpting the lyric:
She stood spotlit in a plain print dress
Came howling out of the wilderness
There beat a cunning and murderous heart
Beneath that calm exterior…
Sure enough, this does sound like just about any film noir heroine: guileless, to judge by appearances, but harboring secret desires or even motiveless malevolence beneath the surface and thus unquestionably dangerous; a farm girl who’d be more comfortable sitting on that stool with that Singapore Sling. She’s Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice; Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai; Ann Savage in a film clearly close to Costello’s heart, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. She’s also – and this is why the song, despite the slipperiness of subject, stands so well right here in the set – Elvis Costello himself, who was a family man and computer operator in 1976 but “came howling out of the wilderness” to announce, in a 1977 print interview, that he was “thoroughly despicable.” In a lyrical passage that Costello omits from Unfaithful Music but sang every night, the heroine is allowed to speak for herself:
“You know my name
You don’t know my mind
Don’t doubt my eyes
They betray the past
And I’ve already forgotten
Much more than you will ever know…”
Of course, we don’t know this woman’s name – we’re never told it – and similarly, Stiff Records did everything it could, including issuing outright physical threats, to prevent the press from unmasking Costello as MacManus. Everything he’d “forgotten” in adopting this new persona was, in a press-management sense, off limits for public consumption. As for the heroine’s mind, it’s as inscrutable as Turner’s and Hayworth’s and Savage’s – or, indeed, the young Costello’s. That same oft-quoted 1977 interview provided the famous “revenge and guilt” quote that critics, and alas I’m one of them, have lazily pointed to as a key to comprehending Elvis Costello’s fixations and motivations – but even if the assertion that “the only emotions I know about… are revenge and guilt” was sincere, which is doubtful, still it’s almost insulting to think that Costello’s plainly prodigious intellect could be so completely backburnered to all this seething and resentment and fury. Indeed, that entire interview and perhaps the whole of that era of Costello’s career could be summarized with the sneer “You know my name, you don’t know my mind,” and the teasing, taunting tone of it all is perfectly captured in the next words we hear from “Church Underground”’s heroine:
Every word that I have spoken is true
Except for those that have been broken in two…
All this is to say that “Church Underground” is as autobiographical – and as obliquely so – as Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink or as “Detour” itself; it’s also to point out that in the sense that this second segment of Costello’s career was epitomized by “Watching The Detectives,” a brazen announcement of his arrival on the scene that didn’t offer the world so much as a single word that really spoke about himself, “Church Underground” is precisely the right climax to this portion of “Detour.” His entire career has been a study in being un-nakedly confessional; even his autobiography is about his songs more than it’s about himself; his most autobiographical tour starred not Elvis Costello but fictional correlatives thereof and, as we’ve noted, his own father.
And so I can’t help wondering if maybe Costello’s calling this tour “Detour” didn’t refer in part to the putting-on of a mask, the adoption of another name, the moving-away from being a MacManus like his father and then returning, eventually, to an embrace of where he came from. The tour’s retrospective, sometimes even sad tone, evident in its awareness and occasionally even its underlining of mortality, was there in the ambivalence about show business detectible in the story about Costello’s turning down the volume on his guitar and making his professional debut without adding a single note to the music; it’s there in the background, in his father having been a beloved star who once shared the stage with the Beatles but wound up alone on his deathbed clamoring for a brass band to stop playing his favorite song; it’s in “Church Underground,” which finds its heroine beaten down by rejection of her talents – read: Costello and the reception of National Ransom – yet standing triumphant inasmuch as she still has the music, and still has her songs, and still has her ability to find salvation in performance, in “making a respectable living taking… songs directly to the stage”:
The shaft of fanlight streaked with rain
Poured through the glass, punched through the pain
A holy picture hidden in the midden of that poisoned stitch
Her lonely voice was just a ruin in these riches
Must have been dreaming this all along
Could she be redeeming herself in song?
“I’m no one’s martyred, plaster saint
Below the grease, beneath the paint”
I’m rolling like a barrel,
Swinging like a gallows
I’m rising up fast like all hell and all hallows…
This man whose past as a guy alone onstage, playing a guitar, includes performing for a snoozing Ewan McColl and also for an audience of two billion people at Live Aid, was now doing gigs in small towns like Bellingham, Washington and Springfield, Missouri as well as in London and Taipei and Zurich; he was playing crumbling old vaudeville theaters where Chico Marx once tickled the ivories, and so his voice was “a ruin in these riches,” or perhaps something rich amid ruins; if his own account of abandoning his songwriting and recording career is to be taken at face value, he was indeed “redeeming himself in song,” by picking up his songbook and making a living off of it. That catalogue is full of lonely images – “the shaft of fanlight streaked with rain” – as well as thrown punches and elegant insults and kiss-offs that wish death upon people he hates – “rolling like a barrel, swinging like a gallows.” The heroine of “Church Underground” has found a holy place in performance, however seedy its trapping; she may be “rising up fast like all hell and all hallows,” but so is Elvis Costello himself. He’s singing about himself, by singing about someone who correlates to someone he used to sing about. He’s utilizing the masks and the slipperiness of identity he’s always trafficked in to talk about those masks and that slipperiness. There is no such thing, in “Detour,” as a clear line between one thing and another.
IV. Prequels, and Sequels
But all this would be merely curious, interesting only in a critical and retrospective sense as we look back on a now-concluded tour, if it didn’t also point the way ahead. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about a great artist who has decided to change the way he produces art is that the change necessitates our looking at his work differently; if Costello is truly not going to make any more records – if his live performances are where it’s at now, in terms of what we the public get to hear – then we need to listen closely to those performances to find out what he’s doing with his music now and what’s to come in the future. “Detour,” starting that night in Salt Lake City, was marked by the debuts of more new material than any other tour in Costello’s performing history: a full ten songs from A Face In The Crowd, and an additional handful most likely from other musicals he’s been working on. The most noteworthy, for our purposes here, are the three new ones debuted during the tour’s closing weeks in Europe: a tender ballad about a heartbreaker in twilight called “Isabelle In Tears”; a magnificent showtune called “Stripping Paper”; a somewhat mysterious character study called “Under Lime.” It would be impossible to leave off this consideration of “Detour” without a discussion of these three important and illuminating tunes, but in order to understand them we need to contextualize the tantalizing, brief glimpses they represent into Elvis Costello in 2017.
A not-insignificant concession: despite everything I said earlier, Costello’s last record, as of this writing, was not really National Ransom. He did not, contrary to his stated intent as quoted above, completely renounce recording in 2010; as the very existence of new songs played during “Detour” makes clear, the 2011 death of his father did not in fact terminate his writing or even his releasing albums. In 2013 he teamed with The Roots for a spectacular one-off called Wise Up Ghost, which like its predecessor was a deeply-undeserved commercial failure – it was built on recastings of classic Costello songs, rearrangements by Questlove and Steven Mandel of “High Fidelity” and “Pills & Soap” and “Bedlam” and “She’s Pulling Out The Pin,” with new melodies and vocals and lyrics laid overtop; the result was the closest thing in Costello’s catalogue to a hip-hip album, and a challenging, rewarding exploration of the rich possibilities available to a songwriter, as well as to a record producer, in the world of sampling. If these were Costello’s first forays into “imagining how he could bear to write songs and not be able to play them” for Ross, then perhaps he took some comfort in the idea that Ross actually had heard them, at least in their original versions: no, he couldn’t play his father the gorgeous “Tripwire,” for instance, but his father was surely intimately familiar with “Peace, Love, & Understanding,” which underlies “Tripwire” as pervasively as I’ve suggested Ross’s ghost moved through every single performance of “Detour” – so in the same sense that Costello was dancing with his dad during “If I Had A Hammer” every night, Ross knew and loved even this song despite its having been written after his passing. A couple of Wise Up Ghost tunes have become standards in Costello sets since 2013 – he plays “Sugar Won’t Work” and “Walk Us Uptown” with the Imposters; he does “Come The Meantimes” and, wonderfully enough, “Viceroy’s Row” in his solo sets when he’s feeling inspired – but for the most part these songs, like the songs beneath them and like the figures gone from this world who popped up every night in photographs on that TV-set scrim, hide in plain sight or lurk below the surface, composed as they are of lovely chord changes and telling turns of phrase whose familiarity is apparent only if you listen close; whose artistry you can only discern if you squint.
But then, at the very end of “Detour,” Costello relieved us briefly of the obligation to squint. The tour’s solid structure had remained largely intact but became a little more flexible in those final weeks: “Welcome To The End Of The World” and “Just About Glad” and “This Year’s Girl” wormed their way into the opening “overture” slot; Larkin Poe were absent for the last leg so the tour’s second set disappeared; Costello began to tire of clambering into that big television and occasionally dropped that segment, playing the same songs down front instead. He debuted a few new songs, as I’ve noted, but he also tried an experiment in lifting the veil on his Wise Up Ghost material: three times, he played the beloved Falklands War lament “Shipbuilding” and its Wise Up Ghost counterpart “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” together, in a medley. As he explained by way of preface to this in Sheffield, stumbling even as he spoke due to the complexity of introducing two songs at once:
I never really had to face much of a moral dilemma about my job, but I wrote this here tune with my pal, about a man who’s given the choice of having his job and building a machine to send his son away to die… And then, that song “Shipbuilding” was sung by Robert Wyatt most beautifully… But I thought then, about five years ago, I thought about writing the other side of the story, because there were lads on both sides that died, needlessly, in that conflict that we were sort of writing that song against the background of. The English boys, you know, that went off… The British boys that went off on the ships to the South Atlantic, they were mostly lads that had joined up. I’m not saying anything against them, but they hadn’t been conscripted. The lads on the other side had been conscripted – and that’s the difference, you know? So I thought, we should maybe think about, like, what they had to go through. I tried to imagine what it would be like if you were sitting at home, watching all of this unfold, whichever side of it you’re on – there’s no judgment intended, except that somebody’s responsible for sending somebody to go and die and do the dirty work. And I wanted to try and make them into a dialogue for you tonight, these two songs…
The result, though Costello played with and adjusted it in Bruges and Manchester and Sheffield, wasn’t entirely successful. You get the sense that the Wise Up Ghost studio alchemy that had rendered old songs into new ones was something of a one-way process, and could be reversed only with great labor and awkward transitions. This is not to say it wasn’t breathtaking to hear Costello shift from the dark urgency of the one song to the despairing lassitude of the other:
Now the sirens wail
There’s a fever in the winding sheets
And the bullets hail
And they’ll pull you right off the streets
Our chances are slim, but the searchlights will dim for
Five minutes with you…
gave way, slightly lurchingly but illuminatingly, to something familiar and sad:
Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday
It’s just a rumour that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon, we’ll be shipbuilding…
It’s hard to say that the two songs gained from being juxtaposed this way, though those of us who’ve heard them a hundred times enjoyed – isn’t this always the thing you’re looking for in a favorite performer’s live shows? – hearing them in a new light. The aspect of this medley that seems crucial to note, however, is that after two years of “Detour” blurring lines and overlaying the living with the dead, even utilizing stand-ins for its own central character and playing extensively with masks and personae, Costello had at last picked up on and highlighted his book and his tour’s great insight: that the distinction between artist and art, between life and song, even between any two songs or frankly between two people, is fluid. This seems like a realization that comes to us with age: staunchly left and solidly anti-war as he was, Costello would never have seen the Argentinian soldiers who died in the Falklands as “the enemy,” but still it took him thirty years to find a place to give them voice in his music; he discarded his father’s last name as a young man out to make his own mark in the music business, only reclaiming it years later, and it took him four decades and his father’s dying to find a way to share the stage with the man who meant the most to him.
“Isabelle In Tears,” “Stripping Paper,” and “Under Lime” are crucial additions to the Costello canon precisely because they share this recognition that, at a certain point in an artist’s career and indeed perhaps in a person’s life, everything is sequel. This idea has endured in Costello’s mind: he reiterates it every evening on the current “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” tour, “Detour”’s own sequel, when he asks the question:
Ever wonder what happens to people in songs, after the song’s finished?
He goes on to explain that “The Long Honeymoon” came about when he got to wondering what happened to the characters in “Watching The Detectives” – which, he claims, was about a girl so obsessed with TV crime dramas that her boyfriend loses his mind. (It’s about more than that, of course, but I’ll have to ask you to stay tuned for a future blog entry on the song before I take that deep dive.) His 1982 depiction of a broken marriage, all this is to say, emerged from imagining what might have become over time of that deeply-flawed 1977 relationship – and while Costello explicitly underlines the sequelness of the later song, cracking jokes about the Die Hard and Highlander series by way of saying it’s silly to perpetuate something meant to shine bright then fade away, it seems more important, looking back at “Detour,” to consider the suggestion implicit in his having written a follow-up to a song played nearly every night since the seventies: that even as everything is sequel, everything is also prequel. If the characters from “Watching The Detectives” lived on after that song ended, then all the characters from every song ever written live on likewise – they too are ghosts, like Milo and all his friends phantasming through the various “Detour” venues, ever- and omni-present. “Isabelle,” introduced in Malmö, Sweden, on February 24, 2017, was, Costello informed us, about another femme fatale. “It’s a sort of sequel to a song I wrote years ago,” he noted, and though he didn’t specify the song he was thinking of we can recognize a few of Isabelle’s forebears: she could be an older version of the young girl caught in an abusive relationship in “Wave A White Flag,” or of the one “practicing her blackmail faces” in “I Can’t Turn It Off”; she could be the little fool in for a world of hurt in “You Little Fool” or the less-little and more aware one, wondering sighingly how she wound up in an Italian statuary with so deeply uninspiring a man in “All This Useless Beauty.” She could even be the nameless girl from “Church Underground,” older now and very different, yet still dreaming in her way of being the girl with the Singapore Sling. Isabelle is lonely, and desperate for a man she used to hate:
Isabelle in tears
Isabelle is ringing
Sayin’ I need you near me
But a telephone just isn’t worth the flingin’
Like that book or that ashtray
I aimed at your head…
Of course, she could also be another of the female correlatives we’ve been noting for Costello himself – at least, as he was in that grief-for-his-prospects, not to say self-pitying, frame of mind that led the coldness shown National Ransom as well as the sadness of having lost his father to start him down the road to this decidedly retrospective, sometimes sadly reflective tour. It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t at least a moment or two, early on, when touring without a new record made Costello feel a little bit like his glory days, the time when his screeds would morph into hit singles and his vitriol made the ladies’ knees weak, might be behind him:
Oh you’ll never know the thrill
Of the Isabelle of memory
They say she was a bombshell
She turned to an incendiary
Till the whole town burned down
And returned into the earth…
The slant of time obscures,
Then on certain nights appears,
Like Isabelle in tears…
That enervation, that feeling that everything isn’t prequel but that everything is past, is a hallmark of grief: I suggest that over the course of “Detour,” Costello left this mood behind or at any rate managed to shake it off; the existence of the glorious Face In The Crowd songs and the fearless blurring of “Shipbuilding/Cinco Minutos” are themselves rejoinders to any lingering air of creative finality that might have existed when he kicked this thing off back in Boulder. In that sense, the tour’s end can be seen as a sequel to its beginning – just as “Isabelle In Tears” is, as Costello noted, a sequel to something, indeed many things, that came long before.
Which is as much as to say that Costello, as “Detour” proceeded, seems to have begun to see the task he was engaged in as something different from the one he’d embarked upon – perhaps this is what getting through the grieving process is. In exploring these songs as part of his search for what songs even mean without his father to hear them – in learning to be a musician without his father, by celebrating Ross and co-starring with him even after his death – he’d hit on a project of excavation. This is, perhaps, one he’d carefully ducked in structuring his memoir with a kind of willful structurelessness, full of suggestive teases rather than scandalous revelation. One gets the sense he came to see himself once again in yet another heroine, this one of “Stripping Paper,” the story of a woman going through a late-in-life breakup. As Costello introduced the song in Sheffield, it’s
…about a woman who’s found her husband is untrue. And they live in a kind of well-to-do neighborhood, and everything was going along fine until she finds out this news – and so she goes to the tool shed, and she finds the can of aerosol spraypaint that her teenage daughter used to use when she was a graffiti artist, and she writes some choice slogans on the bedroom wall. And then she thinks better of it, and she gets one of those scraping tools and she starts to scrape away the evidence, all the heartbreak. And she pulls away the kind of beautiful paper that they have on the wall – you know that kind of paper with gold flowers on it? – and underneath is a much more modest layer of printed floral design, that they actually put up themselves when they had no money. She peels it away a little bit further, and she finds the evidence of the pencil mark from when their daughter was just a little girl. And little by little she pulls it away, and finds the whole story of their life.
This song is likely another refugee from a musical – the complexity of the storyline certainly suggests as much. “This might actually be the first song I’ve ever written about interior decorating,” Costello joked, but of course the song is really about looking backwards, and uncovering forgotten things buried underneath other things; it’s about discovering what the lines, between different times of life and different emotional states, that had previously been blurred through overlaying, actually mean. I won’t lie, I’m kind of more curious to hear the songs sung by the teenage graffiti artist – who doesn’t want to hear Elvis Costello tackle that topic? – but “Stripping Paper” is gorgeous, and it’ll be a real showstopper of a number when and if this show, whatever it is, makes it to a Broadway house:
I got time on my hands
I’m just stripping paper
It’s amazing what you will find
When you get back to the past…
If we’re positing that Costello kicked off the tour as Isabelle, I put it to you that he ended it as this woman, discovering that calm reflection emerges out of grief and fury, and that the things the “slant of time obscures” are deeply worth reclaiming, no matter how much scraping is required to uncover them and bring them back to the light.
But maybe the most intriguing tune of this new bunch – especially if we’re continuing to look for hints of Costello himself in these characters – is “Under Lime,” debuted in Antwerp on March 12, 2017, and played three more times after that. This is another sequel, as Costello explained prior to its debut:
I figured that sometimes we leave characters stranded in songs, that we never hear no more about them, and I figure that’s not quite right. So I decided I would write this here sequel. I sang you a song about “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” a few minutes ago. That story takes place in the 1930s. Now, you think Jimmie maybe died of tuberculosis on the railway station, but he didn’t…
Now, I confess, a sequel to “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” feels like the thing I most want in the world from Elvis Costello. I can’t help seeing it as the culmination, the climax, the shining raison d’être of “Detour,” the thing this long string of shows had been building towards for two years running. To understand why, it’s necessary to back up a little bit – and apologies to anyone who’s read my earlier essay about “Exiles Road,” where I’ve discussed this stuff previously. “Jimmie,” you see, is perhaps the best thing on National Ransom – Costello once read the lyric to Bob Dylan in a kind of impromptu lyric-off, and after Dylan reeled a little Costello considered himself to have “got a shot in” in the process, so I suspect he would agree with this assessment. It’s the story of a hapless cast-off from the entertainment industry back in 1937 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…” The song depicts him getting wet, as the title suggests, reflecting on his career in show business – much, it’s hard not to notice, as Costello himself was onstage at each of these “Detour” stops – loitering on a platform and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for a train that never comes. Interestingly, over the course of “Detour” a song that had been about a fictional character came, by association, to be about a real-life one – Costello’s grandfather Pat McManus: the song started to appear in the eclectic closing segment identified above as #11, and it would usually be prefaced by an introduction describing Pat’s career in the military; his being wounded in World War I; his time playing music aboard ocean liners and his later years, unemployed because of changes in the way music was consumed, but standing proud nevertheless. (Does that last bit sound familiar? It should.) If Jimmie, as the development of the song suggests, was to be seen as an analogue of Pat, then through his appearance there in the final segment of “Detour,” he was really standing at the beginning of the entire tour’s story – the first in a line of musical MacManuses that brought us, over three generations and some blurry transitions and persona-adoptions, to Elvis himself. So what, we need to ask as we approach the end of “Detour” and thus the end of Costello’s autobiographical revue, would an older Jimmie be like? What if we could meet Jimmie when he grew to be the age that Costello is now? What if Pat, too, could be brought out in unexpected garb just as Ross was for “If I Had A Hammer,” to stand beside his son and his grandson on the “Detour” stage and make this a big MacManus party? Well, folks, here you have it: “He’s discovered sometime about 1951,” Costello explained to us in Antwerp,
…and he’s invited to this… Uh, you remember those shows where they have people come on and guess what they did for a living? Well, he thinks he’s gonna make a big comeback, and in fact he’s the mystery guest on one of those panel shows, and they’re gonna torture him pretty good. He’s got a reputation by now of being something of a roué. He’s a carouser. So they put this young impressionable woman in charge of him, who’s kind of slightly romantic about those old days, and she says, “Well, I’ll take care of him. I know what to do…” I suppose I shouldn’t just tell you the rest of the story, I probably should sing it for you, shouldn’t I? So the producers of the show, they take her aside, and they say, “You gotta be careful with this one. He’s no good…”
So begins what will be, if he ever records it, the longest song in Costello’s catalogue, and also maybe the tawdriest. This hapless young woman is attracted to and ensnared by Jimmie – much like Marcia Jeffries in A Face In The Crowd is by the charming and devilish Lonesome Rhodes – and the result is a greenroom roll in the hay. Show business, in “Under Lime”’s dark vision, is something that runs you through the wringer and then mocks you: when Costello referred to “those shows where they have people come on and guess what they did for a living,” he was talking about precisely the This Is Your Life variety shows that I’ve posited “Detour” itself is meant to evoke; “Detour,” in this grim ideation, is the purgatory Costello/older Jimmie has wound up in, after being spat out by the industry and left to fend for himself. The producers of the show – the gods, the critics, the audiences who didn’t buy National Ransom – are vicious tormenters; they want to take this venerable figure and make an ass out of him:
He’s the last dying echo of a bygone friend
Whatever you do, whatever you think
Don’t let him drink
Or tell him your name
We know that he’s desperate, and we know that he’s broke
He’s the mystery guest, and we will puncture the joke…
But Jimmie, who’s seen it all, isn’t worried about this; he probably half-expects it. Maybe this is what wins over the young woman: she’s the opposite of the girl from Utopia who dreamed of being Gloria Grahame, in that she has no illusions about entertainers except the ones from distant yesteryear – she romanticizes Jimmie not as that girl romanticized Gloria but as Costello romanticizes Ross and Pat, and indeed his own younger self. She doesn’t fall for him, but she’s in love and half-lust with the idea of him, and she’s deeply drawn to the twisted version of carpe diem he manages, through age and bitter experience and drunkenness, to spout:
Little, and by little, she fell under his spell
Essentially when he said, “Oh you know me so well…”
He was so out of tune, his words out of line
He’s pushing his luck, he’s almost out of time
“So let’s make merry, it’s necessary, they ought to bury us under lime…”
Jimmie’s line – that he’s well aware that the fate of most entertainers is utter obscurity, burial in a pauper’s grave beneath a corpse-destroying layer of lime – is one she falls for completely, not that the pawing and yielding and clutching and coupling that follows leaves her feeling particularly proud:
Now the interview is over
Every aspect is hollow
Every alibi swallowed, every crime confessed
And she made for the door, as he muttered his best
He said, “Hey gal, you’ve been a pal, you’ve been a sport
Don’t pay it any mind, please don’t give me any thought…
Don’t judge me or curse me, or make this an act of mercy
Soon they’re gonna bury us under lime…”
Pretty bleak, huh? Even the sordid hits-and-runs, the love-starved sex that in Costello’s own life once coughed up a masterpiece like “Accidents Will Happen,” in this universe can lead to nothing but hollowness and guilty confession and eventual unloved castigation and being lost, crumbling away to dust “under lime.” But hold on: wasn’t I positing that “Detour” ended on positive note, one of victorious reclamation of a creative impulse that had been stilled by rejection and loss and grief? How on earth is this black vision of an entertainer’s latter-day life consonant with thinking of “Detour” as a hopeful new beginning? Well, in the spirit of “Detour”’s this-and-that blurring of lines, I would have to say it is, and it isn’t. It is, because the discovery of these new stories, new beginnings emerging out of things concluded – a song that, finished, seemed to leave its main character doomed to spit up blood and expire on a 1930s railway platform, yielding instead a new song about that same character living on into a new era with new possibilities for publicizing his work – is, in a world where we’re probably not going to be hearing any new Elvis Costello records anytime soon, the engine that’s going to generate new music for us to hear him play in performance. And it isn’t, because it suggests that “Detour” itself, a concert built on the conceit of a TV variety show offering up a performer’s past as a spectacle for public amusement, is a hopeless purgatory prefacing obscurity and unmourned death. Party party.
And yet: Costello’s heartbreaking account of his father’s death in Unfaithful Music contains this semi-comic interlude during the early days of Ross’s decline:
When his home could no longer provide for my father’s needs, we went looking for a place in which he might spend his remaining days in something like peace and comfort. The first was a retirement home for variety artists and musical performers that had always been supported by an annual royal command performance and benevolent fund. Walking down the corridor, I took in a framed poster for the Royal Variety Show of 1963 on which my Dad had appeared. You might say he’d paid in advance…
This, incidentally, was the show where Ross and the Joe Loss Orchestra shared the stage with the Beatles – the one described in detail every night in Costello’s introduction to “Ghost Train,” and the one that found Ross singing “If I Had A Hammer” for the Queen Mother in the same arrangement as that video clip we saw Costello dance to every night. But this isn’t the end of the story:
…Each door in the nursing home was painted with a star and inscribed with a famous name, like that of a theatrical dressing room. I wasn’t sure how aware of his surroundings my Dad was likely to be, but I thought he would never forgive me if I landed him in a room named after a racist comedian he couldn’t stand. The company of other entertainers might have seemed convivial, or it could have felt like being trapped in a television studio greenroom, forever. It was a brief moment of black comedy in a melancholy search.
This, for the record, isn’t where Ross winds up; it’s not where he dies. He doesn’t end up trapped in a TV greenroom forever, so we have to assume Jimmie/Pat doesn’t either. Where does he wind up? He winds up going back to where he began:
We finally found a more suitable address that, by complete coincidence, was just a five-minute walk from the cul-de-sac in which we’d lived in turn, between 1960 and 1976. I was able to tell my Dad truthfully that he was almost going home.
A single neighborhood became the site of Ross’s life and also of his death; a place where so much began is a place where something ends; the next stop after a hopeless stint in TV-greenroom purgatory is, of course, heaven.
V. Vitriol, and Empathy
The very last song Costello played at the very last show of “Detour” was “Tramp The Dirt Down.” This product of Costello’s raging-against-the-Tories eighties was written about Margaret Thatcher; it’s been dusted off recently to comment on Theresa May. It’s a brutal excoriation, vicious and mean:
When England was the whore of the world,
Margaret was her madam
And the future looked as bright and as clear as the blacktar macadam
Well I hope that she sleeps well at night, isn’t haunted by every tiny detail
When she held that lovely face in her hands, all she thought of was betrayal…
The song’s core is a long rumination on political indifference, on lazy resignation and creeping cynicism; it’s a call-to-arms urging sympathy for the hurting and the desperate, as well as resistance if not outright rebellion in the face of dictates from our leaders to accept cruelty rather than care. (Intriguingly, Costello tells us in Unfaithful Music that for a time he considered adding a countermelody to the song’s building political anger, in which a separate, mocking voice would dismiss all these concerns, insisting that such naivety was coming from a mere “face in the crowd.” It’s probably coincidence that the closing song of “Detour” shares a roundabout lyrical affinity with the title of Costello’s upcoming musical, but at the same time it suggests a tidy, satisfying political throughline to the last thirty-some years of his work.) By the time Costello arrives at “Tramp The Dirt Down”’s conclusion – that Thatcherite leadership “takes all the glory but none of the shame” – his speaker has turned violent, at least in attitude. It’s to the song’s credit, or perhaps it’s simply typical of Costello’s worldview, that it manages to end in a place of internalized bitterness rather than outward-aimed savagery, of quasi-civility rather than rude contempt in the face of large-scale callousness. Costello, assuming he’s speaking for himself, winds up in a place best summarized by the old adage that to outlive your enemies is the best revenge:
Yes, I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live long enough to savor it
That’s when they finally put you in the ground
I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down…
Thatcher’s been dead for years; it seems almost a shame that rightward political lurches the world over meant this song had to be revived in the summer of 2016. It was hauled out of cold storage for a brief tour with the Imposters, a hiatus from “Detour” that left its mark despite its briefness: it seems to have given rise to the “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” tour currently underway, and in “Tramp The Dirt Down” it lent “Detour” its valediction.
But here’s the thing: in playing the song solo, at the tail end of that final Sheffield show, Costello transformed it. He made it about, of all things, healthcare – it is now, he insisted, a song not about anticipating death but about the good people who help us stave it off, or at least face it with dignity. As the capstone to a tour about grief, it was a remarkable sign-off. He introduced “Tramp The Dirt Down” by talking, remarkably enough, about his mother:
You saw a picture of my mam before. She was a beautiful woman, and raised me to do as well as I could do, given the curses of a face like this… You know, she’s gonna be ninety years old in July…
This was met with deserved applause, and Costello, clearly enjoying thinking about his mother, weaved a moment, retelling some stories about her father – not Pat, but his other grandfather – and how she got her name, all of which you should read in Unfaithful Music because it’s good stuff, not pertinent to the discussion at hand. But then he got back to his point:
So she’s had to kind of fight her way through most of life, and like a lot of people that get to that age, she’s got some health problems. And I came over to see her at New Year, and she spent the whole of New Year in a hospital, where they took absolutely magnificent care of her. There were young women there that were working every hour, and then some – and they were the great nurses and doctors of the NHS…
Recognizing the way the National Health Service has been under fire, with Conservative leaders floating plans to sell off its assets based on contradictory claims that the organization is both underfunded and underused, the audience applauded once again as Costello pressed on:
…and I want to thank them very much, because they kept me alive when I was a little boy, and now I’m here to torture you about it… But you know, the thing that is shocking… You read about it all the time, but I’m sure somebody knows somebody, or you’ve actually seen it yourself: you go in and you see a procession of men, older gentlemen, in the corridor, on gurneys – they’re not on sun lounges, they’re on gurneys – waiting to get treatment, on oxygen. And that’s sort of a disgrace. And I don’t like to make big long speeches and everything, but there’s a hundred thousand people at least, maybe two hundred thousand, walked in London, to protest: nurses, doctors, workers, patients. And you didn’t hear one fucking word about it on the BBC. I want to say, if there’s money enough for George Osborne to be the fucking editor of the London Evening Standard, but you can’t fix the NHS, there’s something fucking the matter with the country…
To be fair, the BBC actually did report on this march – though a March 4, 2017 write-up on the BBC website lowballs the participation figure, referring only to “tens of thousands of people” gathering in Parliament Square and dismissively noting that “there is no official estimate of the numbers who took part.” Meanwhile, not living in the UK I can’t really comment on Osborne’s editorship, though from everything I’ve read his being given the position feels like yet another unfortunate example of the free press being undermined and coerced into serving as a kind of official organ of government, when it should instead be a watchdog upon government’s actions. This is the world we live in right now. But what I’d like to highlight here is that Costello’s concern is a humanitarian one, based solidly in firsthand experience: the NHS is made up of good people who went above and beyond in helping his mother. How does this introduce an anti-Thatcher song? Well, according to Costello we’ve been misreading “Tramp The Dirt Down”:
…so whatever you believe, I wrote this song a long time ago, and I thought… There came a time the person that people assumed that it was about, passed away, in a dreadful way – but it never was a song about a person, it was always about an idea, and I still think there’s something in the song to be said.
This is revisionism, I think – Thatcher’s name is in the lyric, for heaven’s sake – but there’s truth to it too. Thatcher passed away in 2013 after a long and humiliating battle with dementia, and it’s to Costello’s credit that his longtime bête noire was humanized, in his eyes, by her very sad death. Yet the angry and unfeeling and elitist conservatism she represented – the idea Costello says the song was always about – has stuck around, rearing its head in new forms in the twenty-first century and just as deserving as ever, post-Thatcher, of being tramped into the ground. The version of the song Costello proceeded to sing was lovely, less angry than it’s been in the past, more feeling. There’s sadness perceptible in his having to sing it at all, and pride at having a song to sing on behalf of something as worthwhile as the National Health Service.
But this is how “Detour” ended: with a song about the people who are helping to care for his mother. A tour that sprang out of grief at the death of one parent, ended with a tribute to those tending the one who survives; a stretch of Costello’s life summarizable, in fictionalized form, as the journey from “Isabelle In Tears” to “Stripping Paper” concluded with his locating a reservoir of sensitivity in a song written as a denunciation. She didn’t merit a memorial photograph at the show’s end – “Peace, Love, & Understanding” took a night off in Sheffield anyway – but even Margaret Thatcher herself, at one time Costello’s greatest nemesis, received a kind of tribute: such was the degree of expansiveness in “Detour”’s willingness to admit that lines are never fixed; such was the open-armedness of its embrace of the many ghosts swirling through the room. After “Tramp The Dirt Down” concluded, Costello took his final bows, and expressed heartfelt thanks to his crew. The very last name on his list of people who’d made the tour possible was Milo Lewis’s. There wasn’t even a nod, in this final expression of gratitude, to the fact that Milo wasn’t physically present to hear it. Maybe that was because he didn’t need to be. He, like so many others, was there in the room nevertheless.
Detour: A hundred-and-seven dates (thirty-five in 2015; fifty-one in 2016; twenty-one in 2017) from March 1, 2015 through March 20, 2017, opening at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, CO, and concluding at the City Hall in Sheffield, England.
Special thanks to all the good people who made my seeing “Detour” multiple times over those two years such a pleasure – including more than a few who I met and adored but who seem most easily identifiable here by their handles on the EC Fan Forum: And No Coffee Table; sulkylad; cocktailmurderess; bradwellboy; MOOT. Thanks also to the many tapers – Remco Wetzels; area51GM; waxdoll; countless others – whose work as shared online has allowed me to hear even more of these shows than I actually attended. Last but far from least, thanks to the many anonymous contributors to YouTube of video clips from one “Detour” gig or another: perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve linked to many such video snippets throughout this essay, so that readers can remind themselves of or experience anew shows now past. Any and all preservation efforts of Costello’s work, I applaud and am grateful for.
Top to bottom: EC at the Masonic in San Francisco, CA, on March 30, 2016; at the Konserthuset in Jönköping, Sweden, on February 26, 2017; with Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, CA, on March 29, 2016; with the Lovells once again at the Rococo Theatre in Lincoln, NE, on March 3, 2015; in the blue chair, also at the Masonic on March 30, 2016; finally, that shot of Milo Lewis hovering over the empty stage at tour’s close. Photos courtesy of Fred Walder, Heather Montgomery, Charles Martin, and John Foyle.)