Exiles Road


Exiles Road (version 1).
Exiles Road (version 2).

Let’s begin at the end:

Elvis Costello has a song, from 2010, called “Jimmie Standing In The Rain.” It appeared on National Ransom, part of that record’s and indeed that era’s backwards glance at early-twentieth-century American songwriting tropes. This was just as Costello was moving toward lengthy spoken-word introductions to his songs in performance, and he used to preface “Jimmie” with a ramshackle story about the fictional title character, a 1930s Vaudevillian “who’s picked the wrong time to go into cowboy music – that’s if there was ever a right time to go into cowboy music…” Though Costello would nod to his less hardcore audience’s demands by dutifully running through “Peace, Love, & Understanding” after it, “Jimmie” was the show-closer. It was the end of every night. It was played a capella on a barely-miked acoustic guitar, and Costello would conclude it with a few lines from the Depression-era standard “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sung unamplified, his bellow filling the room just as his forerunners once had to sing, without electricity raising the volume of their voices, standing on similar stages in an era long before anyone had ever heard of rock and roll.

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A Face In The Crowd


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

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

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Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band


Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band.

In 1974, Elvis Costello moved out of his father’s home and into a small house at 3 Stag Lane in Roehampton Vale with his band, Flip City. The rent was thirty-two pounds a month, split among six men, none of whom was yet twenty years old. They stayed up late; they fought over who was to do the dishes; they had intense political discussions; they listened to records and made music. Briefly, they squabbled over a girl. A year later, Costello moved out – he’d gotten that girl pregnant, and married her, and the new family returned to the flat below his dad’s place – and not long after, the remaining tenants were evicted. The band broke up in late 1975.

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Jump Up

Ted Cruz

Jump Up.
Jump Up (live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA, 11/8/07 late).
Jump Up (live 2013).

A kerfuffle ensued a few months ago when the website Politico reported on a Republican fundraiser that took place in Manhattan.

Ted Cruz, a Texas senator who is on record, in a clear appeal to heartland voters, as disdaining “New York values,” has been running for the U.S. presidency on the strength of his immaculate conservative credentials – which most certainly includes staunch opposition to gay marriage. Last year the Supreme Court handed down a decision allowing same-sex unions that, Cruz has said, was “the very definition of tyranny”; he considers the subsequent state of affairs, despite the matter being settled from a legal standpoint, as a “crisis.” (The oft-circulated Facebook meme in which Cruz is tagged as having said “there is no place for gays in my America,” however, is a hoax.) Nevertheless, Cruz understands that political success requires the backing not only of evangelicals, but also of more socially moderate money people like those he was addressing in the Empire State – attendance at the Madison-Avenue fundraiser started at a $1,000 lunch, going up from there, and the attendees while fiscally conservative were decidedly socially liberal. Case in point: a Republican gay-rights supporter in attendance posed a question: would Cruz consider the fight against gay marriage as a “top-three priority”? Cruz replied in the negative: “People of New York may well resolve the marriage question differently than the people of Florida or Texas or Ohio… That’s why we have fifty states – to allow a diversity of views.” This was hardly an about-face for Cruz, or even an inconsistency with his oft-stated political beliefs, but it was reported, in classic “gotcha” fashion, as a sign of vast hypocrisy. Rival campaigns leaped on it: “There’s an Iowa Ted,” Politico quoted one opposition adviser anonymously, “and a New York Ted.” The dark insinuation: Cruz is treacherous, untrustworthy, driven by ambition rather than principle.

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Stranger In The House


Stranger In The House.
Stranger In The House (live at Hollywood High, June 1978, with the Attractions).
Stranger In The House (with George Jones).
Stranger In The House (live in Boston, 4/18/84).
Stranger In The House (live at the Great American Music Hall, 11/8/07 late, with Clover).

A conversation I had recently, presented as a sort of amuse-bouche to today’s discussion:

In talking to Brian, perhaps my most music-savvy friend, I found myself mentioning Elvis Costello’s “Stranger In The House.” We were driving through a late-night stretch of fast-food joints somewhere in southern California, on our way back from a show, listening to garage rock bluetoothed tinnily off my phone, and in some context I can no longer recall I brought up the song. Brian couldn’t place the title at first. I could have cued it up, but poor guy, I tried to sing him a little of the chorus instead. My voice is awful, so it was a caterwaul, utterly tuneless over the clatter of those electric guitars on the stereo:

There’s a stranger in the house
Nobody’s seen his face
Everybody says he’s taken my place…

Luckily for all concerned, I didn’t have to continue beyond this point.

“Oh right!” Brian interrupted, a lightbulb going off. “That’s that one I always think is a cover.”

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Warm House


Warm House.
Warm House (live at BookPeople, Austin, TX, 10/20/15).

Ian Penman, in a review of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink that ran in The Guardian last month, notes that:

Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (AKA Elvis Costello) says he wrote his memoir to give his sons an idea of who he used to be (“It was so much easier / when I was cruel…”), and how he came to be the man he is now.

I’m not sure where this assertion comes from – Costello’s statement of purpose might be somewhere in the text, and I do have a faint memory of having read it previously, but I can’t seem to find it now. Perhaps it’s just an assumption: why else would a father of three write down his life story? Anyway, the review goes on to complain – I’m paraphrasing here – that Costello became the man he is quite a while ago, and that the book’s account of what’s happened since isn’t all that interesting. Its back half is, Penman grouses, an “un-edgy portrait of the artist as mature craftsman.” There’s something to this: nobody’s grownuphood makes for stories as gripping as the process by which he came to be. Penman sums up the memoir’s material of more recent vintage with a sharpshooter’s precision: “I met [insert musician here, Allen Toussaint or Burt Bacharach or Paul McCartney], and he was just lovely and we worked together…” Penman prefers the earlier stuff, songwise and storywise alike, and it’s hard not to feel like the author of the book agrees: by far its liveliest prose, and for that matter the stuff that tends to be discussed most in interviews promoting it, is Costello’s era of development, the long road to stardom, his “apprenticeship,” as he calls it. No wonder, really. Costello’s kids know, after all, the man he is now. The guy that requires an introduction, an explanation, often an apology, is the one he “used to be.”

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No Star

Judy Garland

No Star.

In every sense save one, “No Star” is among the oldest songs we’ll be considering here. In that one exceptional sense, of course, it’s the very newest. Though written in 1975, it has existed in the Elvis Costello universe only since October of this year – a matter of months. It’s not impossible that people other than Costello himself have heard it exactly twice.

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Mystery Dance

Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock

Mystery Dance.
Mystery Dance (demo version).

TWO… CHORDS! (Two. Beats.)

The song has begun, announcing itself with a snarl and a boom! It’s powerful. It’s primal. It’s the roar of a lion, followed by its menacing footsteps; the bugle blasts of an oncoming army and the rumble of its tanks.

TWO… CHORDS! (Two. Beats.)

Hear that, friends? That’s a demand for surrender, in every conceivable sense: mean, tough, dominating, sexy – and Elvis hasn’t even started singing yet. But oh, when he does…

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Radio Soul

Radio Cuba Gooding

Radio Soul (1).
Radio Soul (2).
Radio Soul (live at iPhone 5s product announcement, 9/10/13).

It’s late. We should be asleep at this hour – and when I say “we,” I mean it figuratively. “You and me,” is I guess what I mean, though there is no you, because you’re not actually here. Nobody is. I’m by myself, as usual. There’s nobody but me. I’m always alone, especially in the middle of the night. I stay up late, here in my little kitchen, long after my neighbors, my parents, my wife and kid have all retired to bed, and I sit by myself in the eerie light of the dial – in another age, that same light will emit from a laptop screen – and I listen, intently for hour upon hour, to music. Songs play on the radio; I hum along with them:

Ridin’ along in my automobile
my baby beside me at the wheel
I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
my curiosity runnin’ wild…

I love these songs. Maybe someday my songs will be on the radio too. For now, all I can do is dream of it, and it’s not a bad dream to have. They may seem lonely, these nocturnes of mine spent with ear pressed to the radio speaker, but what can I say? At the moment, I have no particular place to go.* At least I’m not the only one doing this. I know – I’m absolutely certain – that there are others out there exactly like me, listening to their radios just as I listen to mine, and we are all of us united in our solitude by the shared experience of listening to these songs: songs that will “turn you to sin,” songs that “bring tears to your eyes.’”

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