Elvis Costello never wanted to be a pop star, but it happened
By John Carpenter
The well-dressed older British gentleman sipped cappuccino and popped the occasional berry into his mouth, sitting in a discreet corner of the Peninsula Hotel lobby as he quietly remembered his days as an angry young punk.
There was no mistaking Elvis Costello, with his dark suit and Buddy Holly frames. But anyone who was at the Riviera Theatre back on Dec. 3, 1977, when he and his Attractions ripped through a 13-song, 40-minute set for their Chicago debut, surely would not have recognized the total lack of sneering swagger.
Costello, 61, is a raconteur now, riding a wave of positive reviews for his just-released memoir, “Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink,” a 670-page work that seems to have completed his transformation from a brawling disco antidote to an elder statesman of popular songwriting.
In town for the Chicago Humanities Festival, he wandered through his childhood and career for more than an hour for a sold-out, enthusiastically adoring crowd at the Francis Parker School’s Heller Auditorium, having sat down with the Tribune for an interview beforehand.
Costello offered no apologies for jumping on the rocket to pop stardom in 1977, when a clever executive at Stiff Records suggested a new look and a name change for young Declan McManus. At the time, though, he saw himself as more John Prine than Johnny Rotten.
“I had written some songs in ’75 that I thought were good, but they didn’t command people’s attention,” Costello said in the interview before Tuesday night’s appearance. “They kind of relied on the idea that people would be paying attention to me. And that’s the kind of music I listened to, so I was kind of tricked into thinking, if Jackson Browne can do it or John Prine can do it — they go quiet when they sing, maybe they’ll go quiet when I sing. But of course you have to earn that, is what I didn’t realize.”
Costello landed at Stiff Records, where they had a plan for him.
“They said, ‘We’ve got a great scheme. Put on these glasses,’” he told the Humanities Festival crowd. “It was like Superman in reverse.”
In both the book and in conversation, Costello described being in the middle of what he called the “idiotic” world of pop music life, where he and his band would whip young punk crowds into a frenzy with raucous live performances one night, then be asked to lip-sync their hits on television the next.
“I never saw myself being a pop star. Even after I inadvertently became one, I never saw myself being one,” he said.
What he did see himself becoming is a bad person, wandering down the well-worn path of rock ’n’ roll excess, abusing alcohol and pills, and squandering his first marriage.
He took to traveling with a small record player and a stack of old discs, keeping out of trouble by listening to old Billie Holiday songs as if to remind himself that his vocation was songwriting, not celebrity.
“I’m sure it would have been a lot easier if I’d just kept making the same record over and over again,” he said. “But if you do that, it’s just like an echo that’s going to die out in the end. It would seem trumped up. … It’s one thing having a winning formula. It’s another thing (to have it) actually (be) a trap. I always thought it was my responsibility to write different songs, not the same songs over and over again.”
As in the book, Costello talked lovingly and at length about the influence of his father, Ross McManus, a popular singer and bandleader, rearranging and playing the hit songs of the day, as was the trend in the 1950s and early ’60s, when little recorded music was played on the BBC.
Costello remembered his father bringing stacks of popular records home and methodically learning them in preparation for his next performances.
“It is a job, and it was also the flip of what most of my friends’ parents were doing,” he said. “Most of them were banging on the door telling them to turn the music down. My dad was turning it up because he had to sing along with the records, and it was the only way he could really get the measure of whether his voice would negotiate the tunes, was to crank it right up and sing really loud at full volume in the house.”
Costello shared a video clip of his father, sporting the thick frames his son would later reprise, playing “If I Had a Hammer” in a 1963 televised performance.
While Costello has veered into a variety of musical forms, collaborating with artists as varied as Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, the Brodsky Quartet and Burt Bacharach, his early work was notable for its spare, tight style. If you were a young man making a mixtape in the early ’80s, needing one more song that wouldn’t get cut off before the tape ended, Costello was the go-to choice. He said that was more a function of youth than design.
“I wrote them in my bedroom, very quietly singing to myself,” he said. “So I had the sound of the band in my head, but I didn’t know what it would sound like once it came to life. I hadn’t really got the model for the songs having extended instrumental breaks. I wasn’t going out of my way to make them short, it’s just, that’s as long as they wanted to be.”
After 90 minutes of talk he rewarded the crowd’s warm reception with the words the audience was hoping for:
“Do you want to hear some music?”
At first it seemed it might be a feint, as Costello tapped his tablet and an old British pop song began playing, which he explained was a number by his father released under a stage name.
But a chair, microphone and acoustic guitar appeared from the wings. Costello first offered a reading of the final pages of his book, a memory of playing a gig with his father for the first time:
“I know he’s happy to have me playing here with him, but his urgency also says, ‘This isn’t a game, this is my work.’ Just as the spotlight hits us, I hear the seasick sound of a keyboard sliding up a semitone in pitch, leaving me stranded like a stranger on the shore. I’m staring at the page of chord changes and trying to adjust them in my head while moving my fingers just a fraction of an inch above the fret board. I roll off my volume and mime the entire show with a smile fixed on my face. It is a perfect introduction to my life in show business. Almost everything since has been a similar trick of the light.”
He then launched into “Ghost Train,” “Share Your Love With Me,” “Every Day I Write the Book” and “Alison,” the last a nod both to one of his biggest hits and to the very able host for the evening, Chicago Humanities Festival associate artistic director and former WBEZ host Alison Cuddy.