Elvis Costello Resists

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At the start of October, I went to see Elvis Costello at Town Hall, a small theater near Times Square with a history of hosting political meetings. You can see framed programs from some of those meetings, hazy, fading memories of the past, as you walk into the building:

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The show had been loosely billed as a review of Elvis’s life and career, aligned with the memoir he released last summer, and I was looking forward to a few hours spent listening to him resculpting his songs in new and deeply satisfying ways. (I still felt warm from the time I saw him carry this off several years ago, at Carnegie Hall of all places, when he opened the show by playing the entire first side of My Aim is True, sang songs from all over the map, and told the kind of stories you might hear from the cool uncle you wish you had.)

For the first half hour, the show felt much like that night at Carnegie Hall. The stage was dominated by a giant TV, which showed 80’s Elvis videos as we waited for him to come on, then, once he did, ran a slide show of old family photos (hazy snapshots from the past again) and pictures from his early tours behind him as he played (solo, with acoustic guitar). He gave us both old and recent standards, culminating in a lovely rearrangement of Everyday I Write the Book. But as I burrowed deeper into my plush chair, getting comfortable for a couple more hours with Elvis’s fabulous songbook, he walked stage right, sat down at the piano, and smashed the time machine to bits.

In a halting, almost shattered voice, accompanied by the most austere, jagged piano figures you could imagine, he sang Shipbuilding, perhaps his greatest song. Written at the time of the Falklands war, Shipbuilding is a biography of out-of-work men in the English shipyards, waiting for the war to restart the shipyards and bring them jobs,

A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

and also for the warships that emerge from the shipyards to take those boys away, and bring them to their graves. “Is it worth it,” Elvis asks, and then asks again in a later verse that I hadn’t known before,

A small bunch of flowers is all that you get
And a box to bury the baby

I had heard Elvis sing the song before, but not like this. I wish I knew how to describe the cocktail of regret and loss and compromise and inevitability I heard in his voice, but all I can do is point you to another song: if you listen to Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman, you’ll catch the same emotions when you hear Bruce’s voice trail off as he sings When it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way at the end of the second verse. Hearing Elvis now, you could see shipyards, but also car factories on the outskirts of town, and mom and pop stores on Main Street, all of them filled with people’s dread of decisions they might know they’ll come to regret but still can’t avoid making. By the time the song’s resolution — diving for dear life, when we should be diving for pearls — exploded from the stage, you felt the full weight of the present day, of this election. Somehow, in just four minutes, Elvis had managed to make you feel the dilemmas of Trump voters deep down in your bones, more convincingly than any analysis I’ve read before or since the election. But he was only getting started.

He sang Deep Dark Truthful Mirror, an answer record in some ways, about facing up to the consequences of whatever choices you’ve made. Then, still at the piano, he started to tell us about a musical he was working on with the playwright Sarah Ruhl. It is an adaptation of the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, which tells the story of the media-driven rise and fall of an American demagogue. If hearing Elvis sing Shipbuilding wasn’t enough to convince you he was addressing today’s political climate, the new songs he had written for the musical made it even plainer. He sang as the anti-hero, promising the angry and ignored to be their champion. He sang silly jingles that scoot back and forth across your screen and sell you silly things. And he sang for and with the faces in the crowd, all of us looking ourselves in the mirror and trying to find some common ground. The songs were theatrical, raw, maybe still works in progress — but they felt necessary and Elvis got them across. I am no fan of musicals, but I can’t wait to see what these songs will be like, and what they will mean, by the time they hit the stage, in the full blossoming of Trump’s America.

And then the finale. Given the range of Elvis’s songbook, it’s ironic that the song  he is most associated with in the public imagination, What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding, is one he didn’t even write. But it is, and you won’t feel like you got your money’s worth unless you hear him play it, will you? Still, I’m not sure the song ever felt like it had more at stake than when Elvis sang it at Town Hall to close this show. And, as he sang it, the giant TV behind him projected a late 70’s, Armed Forces-era poster with the headline of the evening, Elvis’s answer to the America of Donald J. Trump, the next president of the United States: DON’T JOIN!

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Soon it was over, and it was hard to believe we actually had to leave the building. But we did, and as I walked downstairs, the faded programs on the walls, from Town Meetings of long ago, were suddenly as sharp and timely as anything you might see on TV or on your Facebook feed. The past is not dead, not even past, as Faulkner said, and now all of us have many more town meetings to go to.

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Real Life Rock Top 1: Finding Greil Marcus Online

When I was a student at Berkeley in the 90’s, sometimes I would walk home instead of taking the BART. I lived a few miles north of campus, about an hour’s walk if you didn’t stop anywhere, but it always took longer because of the bookstores (and the bagel shop, and the scenery) along the way. On one of these walks, I fished a $5 copy of Greil Marcus’s “In the Fascist Bathroom” out of the remainder bin in Half Price Books on Solano Ave. I can’t guarantee you that I read it cover to cover that night, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t go to bed before getting through all the essays on Elvis Costello, and The Mekons, and The Clash, and Gang of Four, and Springsteen, and The Go-Go’s… so pretty much cover to cover. There were insightful points over the place, but more importantly Greil cared so much, you just couldn’t put the book down.

I’ve been a big fan of his writing ever since. So it was a treat to find out that a lot of it is now available online, at GreilMarcus.net. I don’t know who runs the site, but it has a range of his pieces, from the 60’s and 70’s to today, and keeps adding more. It also links to his monthly Real Life Rock Top 10 column, now hosted at Barnes and Noble. A great intro is this extensive conversation with Elvis Costello from the early 80’s, which was one of the pieces that grabbed me that first night. Two thoughtful, sincere, creative people talking, and taking life and music seriously.

Enjoy.