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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I’m Not Angry


I’m Not Angry.

Anger, is the obvious place to start.

Elvis Costello has been called an angry young man since he was a young man, which he no longer is. As an older man – we’ll refrain from saying he’s anything nowadays but far from young – he tells jokes about the other adjective in that well-worn appellation. Anyone who’s seen one of Costello’s recent solo dates has heard him serve up well-rehearsed comic spiels about his family, in which one of the better gags is a crack about his grandmother becoming embittered against Al Jolson, holding the popular 1920s actor personally responsible for putting her husband out of work when the advent of talkies ended the cornet player’s career as a silent-movie accompanist. Apparently Jolson was never forgiven: “People say I’m angry,” Costello jibes, “but that woman could really hold a grudge…” Stage personas in rock n’ roll have a way of clinging to you – ask Mick Jagger, forced in some sort of cosmic joke to remain a priapic lech well into his seventies – but how is it the man who went on to write “Almost Blue,” who put out King Of America and The Juliet Letters and North, whose biggest chart hit remains a lively little ditty co-written with Paul McCartney about a loveable but senile old woman, remains unshakably pegged as possessing this infinite reservoir of rage? And what does it mean to think of him so? How much was this reputation constructed, and how accurately does it reflect what we know of Costello himself through his music?

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