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BATTLE AGAINST HIMSELF
by Marc Shapiro
"The Only reason I care about music at all is that it is the only available medium for writing songs."
If ever popular music needed a rugged individualist to lead its flocks to whatever just rewards there are for burned out rock lovers, the time is now. The plastic was so thick in 1977 that you'd think it was Mattel who created rock music as an accessory compensation for the lack of genitals in their Barbie and Ken dolls. But a saviour in the guise of Elvis Costello? I wonder if the rock gods (let alone any of the organized religions) had such a vision in mind?
On a good day Elvis comes across as a slightly lethargic Hugh Beaumont (you remember Beaver Cleaver's father). There was an Elvis-looking guy at everybody's high school. You remember the guy with coke bottles for glasses who carried a ton of books around all the time and was always being picked on by your token minority troublemaker in history. Well the physical resemblance, in the case of Costello, is misleading for on a musical as well as ideological level Costello's aim (to paraphrase his album title) is true. For his initial U.S. tour, costello's press profile was on the high side of low. I mean you've got to be hot shit (or think you are) to turn down Rolling Stone and U.P.I. without drawing a second breath. And when he has talked there's been nary a hint of what his past was like. His attitude being 'If you weren't there when it happened, fuck yo!'
All of which is making CBS' marketing plans (the better to create a slightly frailer Springsteen) a bit difficult. But by scratching the right back this intrepid writer was finally granted an audience with Costello, with the question of his shunning publicity seeming the obvious place to start. "With press interviews you're at the mercy of the writer to quote you correctly. That's the main reason I don't like doing press interviews. The reason I don't talk about the past is that I feel it's boring. I don't see any point in drawing upon uninteresting things. The things I find exciting are what I'm doing now and what I'll be doing in the future. To talk about anything else seems to be pointless."
Now with an attitude like that you'd think that "My Aim Is True" would be a close encounter of a listening king. At the very least it should have Christ-like capabilities. But while the album, containing some nicely crafted pop cum pub ditties bellowed by Costello in Graham Parker range, is good of its kind, it's nothing like the second coming we had been primed to expect. Calling music run-of-the-mill to its creator's face is tantamount to drinking from the same cup as Socrates. But instead of the royal rebuff, Costello responded patiently with the inner workings of his music. "I'm only interested n songs. I don't know music and I don't write music as such. The only reason I care about music at all is that it is the only available medium for writing songs. But, at the same time, I don't consider myself a poet. I'm not obsessed with the written word. But it is the combination of the two that forms itself into a song which is the form I'm totally involved with.
"You remarked as to how my music sounds like a lot of stuff being put out in the seventies. I would like to think that it could become that. I wouldn't want to dominate the entire music scene on my own but some semblance of that is what I'm aiming for.
"My approach to music is different in that I pick up things that are new and not accepted in hip, critical terms. I don't like a lot of the shouters aspect of entertainment. I think that's a phoney emotion that's sold to people. But then people are basically phoney anyway.
"Everybody complains about the state of the music market being filled with disco and the Eagles but they refuse to try and do anything about it unless it involves a compromise. People have become obsessed with making rock and roll something special but it isn't. Rock and roll is the lowest form of life known to man."
Hey! Now that's what rock and roll has been needing, an Archie Bunker father figure to look up to. I'll bet he even voted Republican in the last election. But wait a minute; before you start calling the rock kettle black I suggest you check out your own pot because from where I'm listening you're strictly Tupperware. Sure, you may be able to string your lyrics together better than a lot of songwriters but your trip isn't Strawberry Fields. What I'm saying Elvis is that your music isn't the Holy Grail.
"I never said I was injecting anything moral into my music. I just do the thing the way I feel I should do it. I know the weaknesses in my music and that's what I have to live with. All the time I'm fighting a battle against myself to escape mediocrity and to do better. All creative people are like that. But the difference between myself and the vast majority of songwriters is that I'm not content with a sloppy phrase when a better one will do. How many people can honestly say that?"
As the duel of words continued, it dawned on me that the reason that Costello on record may be a bit hard to swallow is that the very nature of his music is so concise and to the point that we are literally shocked by this intrusion into our realm of excess.
"I like to think of my music as being of the moment. Throughout the history of popular music, the best of it has been that way. Once an inventive style stops and decides it wants to set itself up as a culture, I think it begins to get boring. What's been missing n music since 1967 is that kind of immediate feeling. Now people are trying to make it into art which it isn't. People are being put to sleep by the excess of most of today's music and the only hope for the form is for musicians and songwriters to bring the music back to the land of the living."
Cosetllo's manager entered at this point and reminded Elvis that he had another interview scheduled for nine. Costello sighed complete and absolute boredom.
"I guess I just have to accept the fact that there's all kinds of fools in the world and I don't have time to deal with them all."