Of course the high school tribulations of the average kid are neither unique nor noteworthy, but they can serve as a vehicle to follow Costello back to a time before Diana Krall, Ann Sofie von Otter and Deutsche Grammaphon; before the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach and Austin Powers; before Paul McCartney, T-Bone Burnett, the Pogues and George Jones; before Chet Baker, Charles Mingus and the Jazz Passengers; before TV soundtracks and Notting Hill film scores — all the way back to a time when a pigeon-toed smart-ass wearing oversized horn-rimmed glasses, skinny ties, pointy shoes, and a classic Fuck You sneer burst onto the American scene with powerfully compact songs filled with scorching put-downs and enough vitriol, bile and cynicism to please even the hardest heart.
Yes, Costello's American debut was memorable — he toured the States four times in one 12-month span between the release of his debut, My Aim Is True, in 1977, and the follow-up, This Year's Model, in 1978. Like his fellow travelers in the parallel punk world, Costello seemed set to explode at any moment — only it was clear from the opening notes of his debut that the man could execute a hook, and had clearly immersed himself in musical history. And that's what wound up intriguing some of the people who had rejected out-of-hand the brutal-but-inspiring simplicity of the Sex Pistols. By the time of Costello's American ascension, Johnny Rotten and Co. had already imploded, their one and only US tour (most of it south of the Mason Dixon line) an unmitigated disaster due to the vast national yawn of indifference from musical America.
But the popularity of Costello's first two records — "Watching the Detectives" from My Aim is True reached #15 on the singles chart, and This Year's Model debuted at No. 30 on the album chart — made the anointed one nervous and even more edgy. Combined with his fiery temperament, professional perfectionism and truckloads of booze and blow, it seemed only a matter of time before he went off. With a tongue that sharp, someone was bound to get flayed.
One of his favorite targets, and one he shared with the punk crowd, was the hippie generation, whose rebellious music, politics and counter-culture behavior had once inspired awe in a pre-Costello Declan MacManus. But by the mid and late 70s, Flower Power had wilted and died. In its place, musically at least, was often a laurel-resting, self-righteous, bloated, lazy caricature-in-long-hair. Bands had taken the progressive traits in the Beatles' music and turned it into fatuous art; others took the Stones' and Yardbirds' rhythm & blues chops — as well as their on-tour hedonism — into cartoon land. Live concerts consisted of two or three basic types, exemplified by three real-life gigs from that time: you could catch classically trained pianist Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer rotating — along with his piano — over the stage like a Ferris wheel; you could watch grown men in white face and motocross gear playing a lifeless, cartoon version of rock & roll; or you could cringe and wax nostalgic when some 60's powerhouse like the Who tried — but failed — to recapture their spark.
The radio wasn't much better. "Classic Rock" stations had already taken root, only waiting a few years for someone to call them that. Between unimaginative playlists and the deification of virtually any pre-1974 song (no matter how dated), the FM dial wasn't doing much. And that must have been, in retrospect, inspiration for Costello, for when the band later took the stage at Saturday Night Live — the TV show most representative of the counter-culture's assimilation — Costello sent NBC into fits by switching songs in mid-performance to "Radio, Radio," a scathing indictment of those radio whores who "would anaesthetize the way that you feel."
It may seem tame or quaint by today's standards, but it was a defining moment in Costello's early career, and tickled those who'd grown weary of the counter-culture's alleged divinity. Unfortunately, another defining moment nearly ruined Costello. Crossing paths with 60s' rock royalty Stephen Stills in Columbus, OH, and feeling even more contrary than normal that evening, Costello told Stills and Co. that James Brown was a "jive-ass nigger" and Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger."
So offensive were the remarks that CBS records made Costello hold a press conference in New York City to apologize and explain — mostly the latter, since the mea culpas weren't forthcoming, at least for Stills and Co. Costello said that he'd been trying to find the most offensive thing to say to Stills at the time; mission accomplished.
So with Costello's third record, Armed Forces, just released, but with little or no backing support from the label any more due to the racist comments, Costello realized that he, too, had become something of a caricature. He'd had enough of his role, too. He's a musician, with an encyclopedic appreciation of music history, thanks primarily to his bandleader father, and he knows, at least, that he's not a racist. And that's the only opinion that really matters. So in the months and years that follow, Costello begins to shake his bad-ass punk image, releasing kinder, gentler pop records at first, before venturing off into country, folk, Latin, jazz and classical sounds. As Graeme Thomson writes in the introduction to his upcoming biography of MacManus, Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, "now he could be anything he wanted."
So while other veteran acts try to squeeze a few more million from their three-decade old rock operas, Costello continues to experiment, for better or worse, trying on different styles of music the way some guys swap guitars between songs. From that first splash on, he's answered only to his muse.
Elvis Costello plays the Grady Cole Center Monday, March 8, at 7:30pm.