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Interview'd, holding fourth

One of the good things about doing an interview the way I’m doing it is that I can interpret the questions however I like. F’r’ex, when Matt Hulan asks What is it about Elvis Costello?, rather than answering What is it about Elvis Costello that makes him such an asshole?, I can answer What is it about Elvis Costello that makes him so important to YHB personally? If you would like to try such interpretations for your own set of five questions, simply leave a twenty-pound note between the end of chapter two (The Detection of Leaks) and the beginning of chapter three (Checking the Thoroughness of Mixing) of any nearby copy of Radio Isotopes: A New Tool for Industry, by Sidney Jefferson. Or type a note in the comments, if that’s easier for you. Now, on to Elvis Costello.

Gentle Readers will no doubt be shocked to learn that Your Humble Blogger was a nerdy kid. Glasses, asthma, bad skin, special classes for the gifted, social ineptness, poor hand-eye co-ordination, ostracization, the whole bang shoot. And, of course, the rage, envy and self-loathing that is the birthright of the nerd, or at least of the male nerd (I suspect the female feels much the same, only worse). By the time I was in seventh or eighth grade, Elvis Costello was the outlet for those emotions. I listened to My Aim Is True over and over. A big old platter, on an enormous Hi-Fi system, usually alone in the house in the afternoon, or, if my mother were home, perhaps in my sister’s room on her more modern turntable. “Allison”, “Watching the Detectives” and “Mystery Dance” expressed the adolescent inferiority/superiority complex with an eloquence I could not, and with a frankness I could not reach, either. Particularly, this was a rock star who not only had glasses and pigeon toes but sang about a sexual life that existed primarily in twisted fantasies, where fulfillment wasn’t as easily imagined as revenge.

It’s cool now, I promise.

You know what? I’m going to go through the album song-by-song, just to bring back the ugly past:

  • Welcome to the Working Week: in my teens, this was a song about a boy whose girlfriend becomes famous, for some reason, and inadequate to the glossy life of a starlet’s boyfriend, and demoted to a sort of assistant/dogsbody. I don’t exactly know where all this came from, but that’s what I got.

  • Miracle Man: This, for me, was the song of a man who is losing his struggle with his urges. He’s got a crazy crush on a girl who sees him as just a friend; she teases him casually and he usually pretends not to care, but he’s reaching the breaking point.

  • No Dancing: This is a fellow who finally makes it to his girlfriend’s house, expecting to get lucky, but his clumsy advances are such a turn-off that she dumps him. Shudder.

  • Blame It On Cain: Just a crazy outsider rant. But fun.

  • Alison: Classic dark, jealous threat.

  • Sneaky Feelings: The boy in this one prefers his fantasies to the possible realities.
  • (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes: Another unrequited love story, but with perhaps the Best Ever line: I said “I’m so happy I could die”/She said “Drop dead” then left with another guy. This is the inevitable result of transitory happiness for this frame of mind. Or, perhaps, when anyone is fourteen.

  • Less Than Zero: Er, about fascism. Worth bringing up the other point, which is that Elvis Costello songs were not just about sexual longing and inferiority, they were about sexual longing and inferiory expressed in erudite terms. You know, for nerds.

  • Mystery Dance: In this song, the boy is not only clumsy, but actually ignorant of the mechanics of sex, for extra humiliation.

  • Pay It Back: Here, the boy is putting up a hard front, until the line Until the lights went out, I didn’t know what to do/If I could fool myself, then maybe I’d fool you too, which brings us back to the previous song’s humiliation.

  • I’m Not Angry: Oh, yes he is. And jealous. Another is-she-really-going-out-with-him song.

  • Waiting for the End of the World: This song is more the aloof nerd, the one who is just better than the circumjacent yahoos, and a little bit afraid of them, too.

  • Watching the Detectives: Although it isn’t clear whether the boy in this song is only fantasizing about kidnapping the object of his pathetic crush or whether he has done it, it’s still creepy. Wonderfully creepy.

I think that’s the whole album that I had on vinyl. I could probably sing the whole thing through, word for word, right now (except for the mondegreens, since the album came without a lyrics sheet, and I learned the words off the Singing Dictionary much later and the intellectual knowledge hasn’t replaced the muscle memory of singing the wrong words), and—and this is really important—hum most of the bass lines and guitar solos and tap out the drum parts on a table top. Because in addition to the whole emotional thing, these are really good songs. The lyrics are witty, and funny in places, and powerful, and the tunes are catchy, memorable and enjoyable.

And then there are the other nineteen albums. Mr. Costello (or Mr. MacManus, to use his proper name) has put out a lot of great music, over my entire adult life. He was the first recording artist that I ever sought out information on when a new album was coming out to go and buy it as soon as it was available. Back when they were on big black plates, you know. Actually, the first album I bought on CD I bought was Imperial Bedroom, to replace the cassette that was worn out, and besides cut off partway through “Town Cryer”. That was, coincidentally or not, the first CD I damaged and had to replace. Ah, well. I walked four miles to buy Spike on the first day it was out. Well, it’s more accurate to say that I wandered around Philadelphia lost for an hour until I blundered my way to the Tower Records on South Street, but I was headed there to buy Spike. I have grown less obsessed over time (as I have grown more complacent with my own life), and I haven’t got around to getting the new album, yet. Plus, over the last ten years or so, I’ve started to resent him for being an asshole. But whenever I hear a new album, I want to like it, because that first one was so important to me, way back when.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I did not realize that all of those songs were Elvis Costello. Wow.

And of course, that's one of the good things about asking an open-to-interpretation question like "What is it about Elvis Costello?"

I don't know that I had a band filling this role prior to college. I used DND, I think. Around college, it was punk rock, generally; and the band that fulfilled this role, in particular, is probably the Wedding Present. I had a lot of nerdy friends who were into Elvis Costello, but I would hear pop music when I listened to his stuff, rather than RRRRRRRRRRRROCK! so I snobbishly ignored his oeuvre. Never listened to the Smiths or other proto-emo much, either.

Although I liked Billy Bragg because he couldn't sing for shit, but he did, anyway.

Now that I can appreciate the man's artistry without the filter of youthful arrogance (I have adult arrogance in plenty, but that's different), I haven't really done any exploration of his songs - there's just so much music out there, and so much of it is good. Still, I got a copy of that Angels and the Red Shoes song, and I like it; and I heard part of a collaboration he did with Roseanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson, in which the purity and power of his voice astonished me, so I recognize that he's Got Something. I just wondered what it was.

Thanks for filling in the blanks, yo.


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