Poison Moon (live in Brescia, Italy, 2016).
Step into my time machine, friends! That’s right, I’ve invented a time machine. Why do you think it takes me so long between blog posts? It’s because I’m very busy tinkering in my lab. Anyway, strap yourselves in, because we’re going back exactly forty years from today – to August 15, 1976, the first day Elvis Costello’s voice would ever be heard on the radio. Half a world away, another Elvis is embarking on the final year of his life. Here in suburban London, a new Elvis begins the first of his.
Shatterproof (1982/83 EC demo).
Shatterproof (1984 Billy Bremner standalone single).
For almost a decade it would go unheard, but in 1975, before he was Elvis Costello, Elvis Costello wrote a song called “Shatterproof.”
Pay It Back (Flip City version).
Pay It Back (live with Flip City, 11/30/75).
Pay It Back (My Aim Is True version).
A comment on a recent post took me to task.
The point was made apropos of my essay on “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band,” and it’s hard to argue with it. I was using an almost-forgotten piece of juvenilia to consider Declan MacManus as a youth, as a member of a rock band fated to go nowhere, as an artist-in-embryo whose development was about to be altered forever by the adoption, the imposition even, of a persona with another, made-up name – one half drawn from his own family history and half from the revered mononym of a bloated rock n’ roll dinosaur moments from departing the world. I focused on dimly-remembered tales of the time: adolescent pranks; tiffs over women; enthusiasm for football teams and eccentric combinations of sandwich fixings. In Flip City’s snippy internal politics, in their late-night philosophical discussions, in their doomed efforts to turn the germs of brilliance provided by their frontman into a successful musical career, I admit I saw – or, perhaps I should say, tried to see – something familiar from my own teenage years. In this, as commenter Erey noted, I was doing my subject an injustice.
Just Like A Jukebox (live at the Great American Music Hall, 11/8/07).
The song was only ever performed once.
It was during the second set of a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott show at the Other End in Greenwich Village, on July 3, 1975. Bob Dylan happened to be present in the crowd, and Elliott called him up to play on “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “How Long Blues.” This was a nice, though not an unheard-of treat, but then something extraordinary happened: Dylan started strumming something nobody recognized, a brand-new song, whereupon Elliott had the good taste to withdraw from his own show and let Dylan have the stage as he premiered “Abandoned Love.” The number was recorded properly a few weeks later, briefly a candidate for inclusion on Desire, but for reasons known only to Bob – some have speculated that it was because the studio version failed to capture the unrepeatable power of that one live performance – it was shelved for a decade. It popped up, unheralded, on 1985’s Biograph, but over the course of those ten years it spent in oblivion, the song became legendary thanks to a bootlegger who, doing god’s work, had been running tape at the Elliott gig.*
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.
A Face In The Crowd.
Town Called Riddle.
They Call Me Mrs. Lonesome.
Blood And Hot Sauce.
Burn The Paper Down To Ash.
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.
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.
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.
Cheap Reward (live with Billie Joe Armstrong, 5/19/06).
Cheap Reward (sung by Stephen Colbert, 11/19/09).
Cheap Reward (live 2014).
Early last year, Chris Offutt published a lengthy essay in the New York Times about his father, Andrew Offutt. Offutt the elder died in 2013, after a nearly fifty-year career as perhaps the most prolific pornographer in the history of American letters.
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.”