The Meaning of Costello’s Moral Collage “Motel Matches”

Get Happy - Elvis Costello

I got a line from a song stuck in my mind, “I struck it lucky with motel matches.” Elvis Costello’s early work was filled with this kind of word play. But usually, it is more of the straight pun variety, like in “The Only Flame in Town” where he sings, “You’d be less tender and more tinder” — a pun that is almost impossible to get unless you have a lyric sheet or listen to the song a hundred times. But it got me thinking about the meaning of “Motel Matches” that this clever line comes from.

It’s a fascinating line. The set up line is typically evocative, at least for men of my age, “Boys everywhere, fumbling with the catches.” The truth is, I really don’t know: are bras still the same? Can a man’s sexual experience still be gauged by how effortlessly he determines if the clasp is in the front or back? Regardless, that line sums up the awkwardness of youthful sex. And strangely, I find that I can remember early sexual encounters far more than later ones.

“Motel Matches” Is Incoherent

The song itself is typical of Costello in making very little sense. According to Costello, on his first American tour, he was told that he was staying in the motel room where Sam Cooke was murdered. Sam Cooke was shot at a Los Angeles motel, but not in a room. Although there is much that isn’t known, it’s pretty clear to me that he was murdered by the motel manager in her office. Regardless, this little lie or joke told to Costello explains the inexplicable first line, “Somewhere in the distance I can hear ‘Who Shot Sam?'”

At no point does he come back to this. The song seems to be more or less about one-night stands. I’ve always heard that clearly in the lines, “And you know what I’ll do; When the light outside changes from red to blue.” If you have spent much time in motels, you know that outside, it is always kind of red because of car tail-lights and neon signs. And what he will do, which she knows, is leave in the morning.

More than most artists, I don’t think much of what Costello himself thinks of the meaning of his songs. A lyric, sure. And clear songs like “Ship Building” and “Let Him Dangle.” But what is “Motel Matches” if not a kind of indictment of men never getting past their teen years trying to remove bras from their girlfriends. There is a strong moral repugnancy toward sex in the British popular music of that period — a feeling of great shame. And that’s very clear in a lot of Costello’s work like “Watching the Detectives” and “Pump It Up.”

The Meaning of “Motel Matches”

So the meaning of the song, if “meaning” is the right word, is that it is a kind of fever dream of sexual humiliation. Sam Cooke, after all, was murdered while almost completely naked — I assume he was killed because of a sexual act that went wrong for one reason or another. And ultimately, what is art but a great cry for help? Costello combines Cooke’s murder, his own one-night stand, and the memory of awkward youthful sex and creates a kind of collage that seems more like something you would say to a priest in a confessional.

“Giving you away like motel matches.” That’s the refrain. That’s Elvis Costello at 25 on the subject women. It’s heartbreaking, which may be why the song woks so well despite never being able to get to the truth but rather just dance around it. “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned… original sin.”

17 thoughts on “The Meaning of Costello’s Moral Collage “Motel Matches”

  1. Interesting you have that song in your head. I have “As Long as You Follow” from Fleetwood Mac stuck in mine. I like how pretty it sounds.

    Then again it also reminds me of certain things in my life.

    • Christine Perfect either has bad taste in men, is difficult to live with, or both. But I do think she’s a competent songwriter.

      • She was successfully married for almost ten years with some other dude than John McVie so maybe it is just that touring, drugs, and fame are a toxic mix for any relationship.

        • I’d have to look it up. I think she’s more a 5 year gal. But I don’t blame her. Five years is about my max.

  2. The Confessional was a burden to me. I suffered through it because I had to. Artists should examine the depth of thought that goes into the redemption process. Most of it would be found to be false.

    We humans are less plastic than we believe.

    • I feel like I really get this comment on an emotional level even though I’m not 100% clear what you’re saying. I like the language. I’ve often found myself to be less flexible than I imagined — but also more flexible than I thought. Like THAT makes any sense at all! ;)

      • I think it makes sense. When dealing with abstractions, my brain is fairly flexible. But as I know from painful experience, I have no control over how a piece of art touches me. I can spend hours in a single room in a museum because I am, for lack of a better way to explain, in love. I can always justify it. But that’s clearly a game. We are just a chemical soup, I’m afraid.

    • I’ve always liked the idea of the confessional. But I have only one memory of ever using it and it was a confusing process.

      Redemption is a myth that we’ve created because we apply our storytelling tendencies to grand narratives of our lives. I’m certainly not immune. But intellectually, I know that I am both noble and debased — and that neither affect the other. Luckily, others are almost always more gracious towards us than we are to ourselves. In this way, I rather like the idea of original sin and God’s grace. Sadly, one can’t believe something is true just because it is beautiful.

  3. The lights outside changing from red to blue is: A: the hotel sign changing from no vacancy to vacancy because she is being dragged away by the cops. B. The lights of the cop car and maybe even C: his mood changed from excited (red) to sad (blue)
    Elvis swore he was innocent, the heroin wasn’t his; he had just met her; but when the matches fell out of her purse he realized that she had been there before and wasn’t so innocent; the matches gave her away; then he gave her away to the police, feeling like he was being nice for getting her help. He realized when she (the siren) woke up in an emergency; needing another fix; and she was full of “love” making but in her eyes was the vacancy of a drug addict.
    He struck it lucky when the matches fell out and let him know her true agenda; as he was lighting his lucky strike with one; the light went on in his head; it crosses his mind that it was a similar chick who shot a similar big time musician, come to think of it; a distant voice reminds him.. it was probably lucky that the cops arrived when they did…

    • I love the hotel sign idea.

      As for the heroin and the woman, I don’t know what that’s about. I try to avoid hearing what artists say about the inspirations of their work. First, inspiration is just that; it isn’t meaning. And second, as I always say, meaning is for the reader not the writer. Writers are very often their own worst readers because they are blinded to what their subconsciousnesses reveal. As I noted: Costello has shown a lot of sexual shame in his work.

      But your meaning is certainly as valid as mine. And yours is more coherent. You provide a story. I don’t see it. But it’s an interesting one!

  4. Years ago, I read a quote from Elvis Costello where he said something along the lines of when he was learning to become a musician/songwriter, that he wanted to be George Jones. He admired him as a singer. A big early hit of Jones’ was “Who Shot Sam?”, released in 1961. Now, I don’t know this for a fact, but I would bet this is what EC was referring to in this song. It’s just a personal detail he included, for whatever reason, and it makes sense that he would hear this in Motel Matches, and not that it was an overheard conversation :)

    • Excellent connection!

      Especially in his early songs, EC doesn’t give a lot away. So one can go in a lot of different directions. I’d completely forgotten that I’d written this article!

  5. As for the main meaning of the song, to me it’s fairly simple: Elvis (or the “character” in the song, because it doesn’t necessarily have to be biographic) was in a relationship with the woman, and she was cheating on him. He surmised this because the woman inadvertently dropped a book of matches from a hotel that she would of had no reason to go to, unless that is where the tryst took place with the other man.

  6. Not that anyone will ever read any of my meanderings here, but, yes, EC did say what he said about the song vis-a-vis Sam Cooke, so I’m going with the idea that because of the “hoax”, it simply reminded him of “Who Shot Sam?” the song, and he put it in, but what happened to Cooke is beside the point. It’s got nothing to do with the song itself.

  7. Light outside changes from red to blue is a reference to his mood, when his lust turns to sadness, he’ll kick the girl out of the room. It’s a song about cheating on his wife, which he vowed to never do. It’s the antithesis to Riot Act, which is a denial of cheating. This is the confession. The Who Shot Same thing is just to get a mood of the motel. Motel Matches is the physical item that betrays the cheating becase there’s no denying it once the spouse sees those. Hands on the fumbling with the catches is other band members trying to come in but he can’t open the door cuz he’s got a woman in there.

  8. “And you know what I’ll do; When the light outside changes from red to blue.”
    If you’ve ever driven by, let alone tried getting a room in any motel, while on the road with a band, you’ll have seen the blue “Vacancy” light versus the red “No Vacancy” light on the bottom of the sign that faces the road.
    In my opinion, Elvis is referring to the light changing to blue as a meaning of “there’s a room ‘vacant’ ” in a possible motel where prostitutes work.
    Motel matches were on the desk (or used to be years ago when smoking was allowed in the rooms) and were free to take with you as you checked in ( or out).
    Elvis alludes to this saying
    “I struck lucky with motel matches
    Falling for you without a second look
    Falling out of your open pocketbook
    Giving you away like Motel Matches..”
    It’s obvious to me that he relates Sam Cooke’s death with prostitution as well as his opportunity to get some sex from a girl that works for “one night stands” for a living. “I struck lucky” also a pun on striking a match to light the fire..
    Of course, that’s my view because I spent well over 50 yrs in the music business and much of that was road work and included nice motels and more often not-so-nice motels..or as they call them “No-Tell Motels”.

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