Saturday, March 12, 2005

King of America / Son of Sam

Tonight is Soul-Restoration Night at the offices of BookAngst 101, and it's Elvis Costello who's driving the pink Cadillac. [To get this out of the way: we've forgiven him (and Diana Krall) for the travesty that is NORTH.] Tonight we're dipping into some personal favorites--IMPERIAL BEDROOM, PUNCH THE CLOCK, KING OF AMERICA, plus the odd hit here and there on some BEST OF compilation I've got handy.

And so we'll start with PUNCH THE CLOCK--forgive my craven pull toward topicality, for this is the album that contains the pop masterpiece (and, surely, every writer's secret fave Costello composition) "Every Day I Write The Book." No doubt I'll take grief from all manner of biblio-/audio-/Costell0-philes by starting here, with one of his most popular "hits" (with all the bad connotations that word carries) rather than something more obscure--but sometimes even masterpieces are popular, and masterpieces come in all shapes and sizes; and I defy you to play this song at high volume and not hook everybody in the room.
Chapter One, we didn't really get along
Chapter Two, I think I fell in love with you
You said you'd stand by me in the middle of Chapter Three
But you were up to your old tricks in Chapters Four, Five and Six
Meanwhile, the most swingin' background singers since Lou Reed's unforgettable Colored Girls in "Walk On the Wild Side" carry you away with their own version of "Doo, doo doo, doo doo, doo doo doo," singing back to EC the refrain:
I'm giving you a longer look
Every day, every day, every day I write the book

And if you haven't already fallen in love with EC yet:
Don't tell me you don't know the difference
Between a lover and a fighter
With my pen and my electric typewriter
Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal
I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel

[And then those exquisite background singers carry the song through the fade-out with a fabulous counterpoint to EC's lead vocal...]

Ahh! A thing of finger-snapping, hop-off-the-sofa beauty...

The funny thing is, I remember, about a hundred years or so ago--just when KING OF AMERICA came out (that would be, umm, 1986, kids)--about his explaining how PUNCH THE CLOCK was, for him, some sort of epitome of the lie that the "Elvis Costello" personae had become. I didn't really grok the whole story then, and so I won't try to reconstruct it now...but I don't know how any album that could contain both "Write the Book" and the heart-breaking "Shipbuilding," a love song that concludes

It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life when we could be
Diving for Pearls

Threaded throughout is Chet Baker's haunting trumpet solo, one of the last of his life, and quite possibly the one that brought everyone around to thinking that he was an unappreciated genius (a view I don't share, despite the loveliness of his playing on "Shipbuilding.")

Yet I did read that article in which Elvis disavowed PUNCH THE CLOCK and, more generally, the "thing" that Elvis Costello had become--a classic angry young man hiding behind a veil of irony. And I guess he'd grown tired of it, felt constrained by it. Then he put out the KING OF AMERICA lp, in which (for that album anyway) he abdicated the crown/persona of Elvis Costello; and claimed that henceforth he'd be known by his God-given moniker, Declan MacManus. Layering the complexity further is that the cover shows him looking vaguely ridiculous--but not hiding behind a wink-and-a-nudge--wearing a gaudy full-regalia pawn-shop crown. And there's this lyric in "I'll Wear It Proudly"
If they had a King of Fools then I could wear that crown
And you can all die laughing because I'll wear it proudly
KING OF AMERICA is a fascinating album; much of it reads like a immigrant epic, the sacrifice of identity in exchange for the promise of America's streets of gold. Here, in "Brilliant Mistake," he seems to be speaking of himself in third person:

He thought he was the King of America
But it was just a boulevard of broken dreams

By the end of the song he's dropped the disguise entirely, concluding (in first person)

I was a fine idea at the time
Now I'm a brilliant mistake
And then, in "American Without Tears," there's this:
Now it seems we've been crying for years and for years
Now I don't speak any English, just American without tears
Just American without tears
Of course, perhaps we shouldn't make too much of this notion of Elvis Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus Costello's identity crisis--his next LP, BLOOD & CHOCOLATE, was released under the name Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Go figure...

But let us return again to KING OF AMERICA and "Brilliant Mistake," and celebrate Costello's unparalleled capacity for the sort of precise, concise and unforgettable skewering that would, I dare say, make even Oscar Wilde bow his head in respect. Here we find the narrator meeting a woman about to interview him:

She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the
alphabet as she knew how to use
Her perfume was unspeakable
It lingered in the air
Like her artificial laughter
Her mementos of affairs...

I love Elvis. I no longer like every cut of every album he makes, but nonetheless he ranks, unquestionably, as one of the most consistently great songwriters since he appeared on the scene with MY AIM IS TRUE in 1977. Sure, there've been many other great songwriters in the interim, but none (in my opinion) who've maintained such a high level of songcraft for so long.

Which is what breaks my heart whenever I listen to the dearly departed Elliott Smith, who killed himself a year and a half ago. Elliott Smith was a brilliant guitarist (EC never pretended to be more than a rhythm ace); perhaps because of his superior musicianship, ES's compositions had a dynamic range and variability that EC's have never had; his melodic sensibility was (this is no exaggeration) of the same sophistication as the Beatles'; he had the same lyrical dexterity as EC--but never, ever, hid behind the veil of irony. Indeed, if there's a flaw in the fabric of EC's life's work, it's the extent to which irony is such a constant plaything.

And maybe that's what's kept him alive all these years. Smith seemed to have no filters whatsoever. The result is a catalog of genius that is virtually unprecented, but far too brief--and a life that ended in suicide. The last album that came out before he died, FIGURE 8, opens with a song called "Son of Sam," in which ES credibly inhabits the psyche of a murderer, and reveals, at the very end, a touch of what made him so different...

I may talk in my sleep tonight cause I don't know what I am
I'm a little like you, more like Son of Sam

Between that and undisguised anguish of "Everything Reminds Me of Her"
Everything reminds me of her
This evening
So if I seem a little out of it--Sorry
But why should I lie?
Everything reminds me of her

we find a rawness and vulnerability that Costello acheives perhaps once, in his aching inquisition of his lover's infidelity in "I Want You" (from BLOOD & CHOCOLATE).

I want you
Did you call his name out as he held you down
I want you
Oh no my darling not with that clown
I want you
You've had your fun you don't get well no more
I want you
No-one who wants you could want you more
I want you
Every night when I go off to bed and when I wake up
I want you

Here Costello strips it all away, bellows his heart-ache in a way that--like so much of Elliott Smith--is quite unforgettable.


Anonymous said...

Ahhh, Max… so good to see you attending to the soul-reconstruction. In my book, music, lyrically elegant music, reaches in deeper than… well, second only to a lover’s hand. A pot of joe, a batch of Elvis, a little late-night solitude, and the nighthawk we know as Max has the keys to his inner universe. Only thing is… I’m getting the visual on some middle-aged guy boogying in his shorts in his office to Everyday I Write The Book… and it’s not altogether a good look. Charming, uplifting, reaffirming, yeah… but put some pants on would ya? You’ve got company. Sheesh.

Since we’re going the route of lyrics that matter, I’ll share some of my personal favorite songsmiths:

How’s Crowded House strike you? Same vintage as Costello so I know we can’t have missing the Max radar entirely. Neil Finn, who’s own craftsmanship has been compared to your beloved Beatles… these boys get the fingers snapping and then sneak in a deft, poetic set of lyrics that alarm with their sincerity. Moody? Yeah. But with efficiency. Here, from Don’t Dream it’s Over:
There is freedom within, there is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There's a battle ahead, many battles are lost
But you'll never see the end of the road
While you're traveling with me
Good to have you back, Max. You’re missed.

Anonymous said...

Here's my best Elliott Smith:

And I try to be but you know me
I come back when you want me to
Do you miss me miss misery
Like you say you do?

Ami said...

Vintage EC is always a good plan...
and I'll add that I also have a soft spot for "Taking my Life in Your Hands" from "The Juliet Letters" with the Brodsky Quartet. I know it's not in his home court of ranting, blessed Costello rock, but it is truly original and satisfying to my ears. (If you only like EC's rockin' sound, don't listen to this album and don't rag on me for liking it. I'm still getting over the snarky bookshorts remark. sheesh. ;-)

To keep things literary, (not that you have to) here's a review of "When I was Cruel" written by none other than Jeffery Eugenides.

Anonymous said...

Ami, I also like "The Juliet Letters"--from "The Birds Will Still Be Singing"

Banish all dismay
Extinguish every sorrow
If I'm lost or I'm forgiven
The birds will still be singing

Believe it or not, Robert Plant can write some fine lyrics and has a nice way with self-mockery.
How about Mark Knopfler, the crown prince of restraint.

Libertarian Girl said...

"Middle-aged guy in shorts"? You really know how to hurt a fella...

Anonymous said...

Think Tom Cruise's Risky Business riff, only not quite... I did say "charming" didn't I? What? Did I hit it a little to close to the truth?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

By your listing of my two favorite songwriters and musicians, you've hit the perfect day for me to do some Soul Reconstruction myself.

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."