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.”