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You Are Warned: Note contains close reading of an Elvis Costello lyric from 1980

So. Your Humble Blogger only today caught a bit of wordplay in an old Elvis Costello lyric.

YHB was quite the Elvis Costello fanatic in the 1980s. I spent quite a bit of the years 1983-1987 listening to the albums that were out at that time—eleven of them, I suppose, as I didn’t have Almost Blue, and that includes the b-sides collection Taking Liberties, which I’m not sure I even knew was a b-sides collection at the time. I didn’t have access to a lot of information about pop music, and wasn’t all that interested in winkling out what information I could get from fanzines, if I could fine any. No, my information about Elvis Costello was largely limited to listening to the albums again and again, paying very close attention to his vocals, and looking at my brother’s copy of A Singing Dictionary. I pretty nearly memorized all the songs on those albums, and still have what you might call a working familiarity with the lyrics. And I adored his facility with puns and double-meanings, his wit, if you will, the way he can turn statements around and make them mean their opposites. I didn’t have a very sophisticated understanding of the themes—I was a teenager, you know, with no real training in interpreting literary tropes—but as far as getting the allusions and catching the puns, I think I was pretty thorough. I ought to have been, given the thousands of hours I put into it.

Anyway, I happened to hear —Just a Memory— today, and I thought I noticed something I had never noticed before. I thought I would share it with y’all, because, of course, you are terribly interested, yes?

The character in the song (Mr. Costello is notable for writing songs as the first-person of interesting characters; it’s not as common as you might think) is depressed, late at night, musing over his botched love affair, writing and then tearing up a love letter, and defensively repeating that the “memories don’t mean that much”. The sound of the song has a loopy, dreamlike, going-nowhere quality with some quirky not to say alienating rhythmic turns; it evokes that late-night feeling of being emotionally stuck. It’s not one of his great songs, actually, and was (it turns out) the b-side to “New Amsterdam”, not making it the cut for Get Happy!!!. The narrator is unreliable, and as is often the case with Mr. Costello’s characters is unreliable even to himself. He uneasily equivocates and backtracks; it’s hard to like him, or even connect to him, as he fades into darkness.

The opening lines of the song are laying about, lying in bed/maybe it was something that I thought I said. The rhythm is important to the effect, as the first line-and-a-half leads naturally to the expectation that the second line will end something that I said, when he interpolates the two syllables, each held for two slow beats, cluing us to distrust, well, everything here. She left him, and maybe (only maybe) it was something that he said, or didn’t say, or he thought he said it but didn’t say it, or he meant to say it, or something. Most likely, that thought is just now coming to him as he lies in bed with his memories, which he claims not to trust and which don’t mean that much to him anyway, despite keeping him up at night.

There’s a verse that isn’t in the version I listened to that shows up in the Dusty Springfield cover as well as the live versions from the 90s. It details that what he is writing with his untrustworthy pen is a letter, a nine-page letter, for which he is trying to disguise his handwriting, and which he eventually rips up. The fundamental lie of the song (his supposed indifference to her memory) is heightened by this attempted deception, and he can’t even believe his lies to himself about what he remembers and what he doesn’t. What was it, really, that led to his loss? We don’t know, and he doesn’t know, or at he least doesn’t believe that he knows, or perhaps just tries to believe that he doesn’t know. But with all of that, there’s a hint that it was something big.

Which leads me to the line I just caught. The song ends with the same couplet that begins it, except that he has reversed two of the words. Instead of “laying about, lying in bed” he is “lying about, laying in bed”. Which may mean the same thing, of course—all of the covers I know of repeat the first couplet intact. But in a song about dissembling and equivocation, it’s also possible that he isn’t just lying about in the sense of lying around, but that he is lying about laying in bed. And, if that’s the case, then the laying that he was doing in the bed, and the lying about it, may have been the real reason why he lost her.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.