Morning Music: Elvis Costello

Taking Liberties - Elvis CostelloSo I find myself down south staying with my sister for the Thanksgiving holiday, many days of writing ahead. Still, since I will be driving all Sunday, I realized that I hadn’t written Sunday’s posts when I got here. And it’s kind of hard to get work done here. It’s a little better now. But still, I was panicking. So as I think I mentioned, I decided to do a week of Elvis Costello. I don’t just have to get Sunday done; I also have to do Monday, because I’m sure I’m going to be a mess all Sunday night and probably all of Monday as well.

Costello does a great cover of the Rodgers and Hart classic “My Funny Valentine.” But I really don’t remember when I first heard it. I thought it had been on Get Happy!! But it wasn’t. According to the Elvis Costello Wiki, it was actually on, Taking Liberties — which until now I didn’t know was a compilation album. Regardless, the two albums came out at the same time, so I’m not totally insane.

Anyway, here he is performing the song live. It’s a great combination: three of my favorite songwriters working together (although not as writers — both Rodgers and Hart were dead by then anyway). After our week of Thanksgiving music, this should be pleasant.

10 thoughts on “Morning Music: Elvis Costello

  1. I read his memoirs recently (or 80% of the book, really: it’s a big disjointed thing, and I never found the part I wanted most to find, how did he pick his fake name?) Here’s the best bits. I read books so others don’t have to, it’s my calling.

    That unique plunking-guitar sound you hear on “Less Than Zero” and “Watching The Detectives” which Elvis never uses again? It’s because he got a guitar from the factory in a box and he didn’t know how to adjust it. Midway through sessions for “My Aim Is True,” another musician showed him how to adjust it.

    Most of the songs we think of from those first three albums (and if anyone else started their career with three albums that amazing, they’re on a very short list) which come across as Elvis being angry towards unfaithful partners are him being hugely angry towards himself. He cheated on his wife as often as possible.

    One of the best things about his book is he never regards those instances as “conquests” or never dismisses the women as “groupies.” He’s enormously respectful of them as adults who participated in adult behavior and their names are not anybody’s business. They’re mentioned only to describe what a lousy life partner he was at that time. In one moment, he admits that he had a hard time finishing the book because he didn’t like the subject very much.

    The combo platter of booze, drugs, and instant success almost killed him. He recorded the vocals to “Green Shirt” whacked out of his mind. (Nicely done; I can’t hear it on the record.)

    His dad was a dance-band performer, playing in music halls for teens. Due to bizarre copyright stuff, often the radio would use working musicians like Elvis’s dad to play versions of American songs a few days before the records were legally playable in England. So that’s where Elvis learned his love of American music.

    Bob Dylan is a very brilliant, exceedingly strange person. But we all knew that. Dylan is to music what kook genius scientists are to their respective fields. Upon meeting Elvis, Dylan asked if “Watching The Detectives” was about a TV show of that title.

    (He was close! It was about watching American detective movies on late-nite TV.)

    My favorite thing from the book was discovering Elvis did a TV show, “Spectacle,” where he interviewed other musicians and played songs with them. It’s a spotty show so far as the interviews go. I did like the music quite a bit. Bono doing “Allison” can be thrown in the dumpster on general Bono-is-clueless principles, but there’s an episode with Lyle Lovett and John Prine which is terrific.

    Elvis is a hero of mine. He’s never stopped challenging himself. He’s never sold the rights to his songs for ad-jingle money. And he wrote with Paul friggin’ McCartney a grim, catchy tune about people living in disabled-care homes.

    Plus those first three albums. Jesus blistering Christ, they are amazing. The drum/piano breakdown on “Lipstick Vogue” is as good as anything the Velvet Underground ever did, minus the deliberate shittiness. And then “Oliver’s Army” on the next record? Holy damn.

    • According to an interview I read about 30 years ago, the name came from his manager. Costello thought it was bizarre, but went with it.

      I used to be a huge fan. I’ve seen him live a number of times. But I don’t much follow anyone anymore. I agree that the first three albums are great, but I never really saw a discontinuity. But I’m most fond of the King of America and Blood & Chocolate period. Those are the albums I still listen to a lot.

      • The songs mean different things to people at different times. Another good line from the book was one reviewer’s take on “Imperial Bedroom” — that it sounds like getting drunk and fucking the wrong person. Yep, that’s just about right.

          • I think it was a compliment! As in, “these songs evoke very screwed up relationships.”

            I enjoy that album a lot. But then I like that kind of ambitious production.

  2. I know one Elvis Costello song-the one from an Austin Powers movie. Which means I have nothing more to say on this topic.

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