The Elvis Costello Immersion
I’ll admit I’m a bit late to the game on this.
I recently sat down and watched Mark Kidel’s documentary Elvis Costello: Mystery Dance that was first broadcasted on the BBC television network back in November 2013 and is currently running on America’s Showtime network. Along with all of the press and publicity surrounding Elvis’ autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (published Oct. 13, 2015, by Blue Rider Press), and its companion “soundtrack” of the same name, it’s been hard to keep from bobbing and weaving this man. Considering Costello is pretty close in age to me, and was a nine-year-old member of the Beatles’ fan club, his story offers an interesting and compelling, comparative and conflicting musical genealogy chart. I have yet to read the book, but if Mystery Dance is any indication, it will be an exercise in delight and wonder. For all the things Costello is or isn’t, has or hasn’t been … he has lived up to Stephen Thomas Erlwine’s description of him on AllMusic.com as an utterly fascinating “pop encyclopedia.”
There is little need for me to regurgitate Costello’s entire biography and discography since we all know how to leap over to his Wikipedia page with the click of a mouse, trackpad, or finger. But an interesting place to start is with his father, Ross MacManus — a musician and bandleader back in the 1950s. In 1970, he recorded a version of the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” under the pseudonym of Day Costello. That’s where that half of Elvis’ name comes from.
While I’m not from England, it seems that if you are, you know the theme song to a commercial for R. White’s Lemonade called “Secret Lemonade Drinker,” in which Ross plays drums and sings background vocals. This is a remake of the ad from 1993, in which Ross plays the starring role in two versions.
My own dad was a mechanical engineer who liked big bands, Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza, and Herb Albert and The Tijuana Brass. Our house was always filled with music from either his Dumont high fidelity system, the older sister’s phonograph with Elvis — that would be Presley — 45s spinning around and around, or my own transistor radio pulling in Jerry “The Geator with the Heater” Blavat on WHAT-AM as he played “songs from the heart, not a playlist.” I’ll tell you, my childhood simply could not have been anywhere near as cool as that Costello house: having a performing musician for a dad. To that point, as Gerard O’Donovan wrote in The Telegraph with regards to Mystery Dance:
Mark Kidel’s film was a deftly constructed trip through a restless, shape-shifting career, allowing Costello to revisit significant moments of his past. But it couldn’t be called a full biography as it only ever touched on the personal in order to shed light on the musical journey. Even so, it was particularly good at bringing out the extent to which Costello was drenched in music from birth, and the enormous influence his musician father Ross (a stalwart of the Joe Loss Orchestra) had not only on his tastes but also his rebellious determination not to sing “other people’s songs” but to write and perform his own.
Forgive me for the diversion, as I’ve just taken four paragraphs to get to this memory chip from 1977, when My Aim is True was released. A few months later, Costello performed it at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey — which my spellcheck poetically prefers to spell out as “Prosaic, New Jersey.”
At first I really hated that Costello used the name Elvis and that he wore glasses, a sport jacket, and tie to evoke those Buddy Holly publicity shots. Or perhaps he was trying to evoke Peter and Gordon or Chad and Jeremy?
But I laughed at the joke that he was marketed and hyped as punk rock, a now-and-then laughable, antiquated term, right along with the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Clash, Television, Jam, and any other safety pin of the week. Unlike the others, he was pure pop. And although time has shown that he has an incredibly enormous songwriting and performance vocabulary, at the end of the ’70s, Costello was cranking out the cheesiest and most embarrassing videos for TV.
For the next two decades, I think I bought every single Costello album he released, even if I only listened to them once. I never fell in love with any of them at the time, which was my mistake. Most were brilliant, or at least had something on them that was uniquely different from anything else at the time. But the song below is what finally tipped me. It comes from the series of concerts that were later released as The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited.
Now, I know you aren’t going to spend 13 minutes watching something amazing; this is the damn internet and nobody has the time. So please just go with me to 9:14 (you’ll foolishly miss Kate and Anna McGarrigle at 5:36, but that’ll be your cross to bear) and behold the first revelation of how I finally “got” Elvis Costello.
In the past two weeks I have loaded onto my iPhone 25 Elvis Costello albums (with the exception of The Juliet Letters, which is an altogether different story). They are squished into a playlist with over 100 original Carter Family songs taken from an XERA border radio transcription as well as some Hank Snow, Patsy Montana, Charlie Louvin, Rose and the Maddox Brothers, Ernest Tubb, Charlie Poole, Skillet Lickers, Norman Blake, Suzie Glaze, Bob Dylan, and Iris DeMent. Costello is a bloke among the folks.
The algorithm of the shuffle feature allows for one in three to be an Elvis Costello track, and each one is like reaching into a bowl of candy and pulling out a dark chocolate covered almond with sea salt and caramel. Delicious. It’s an infused immersion I can hardly get enough of.