Unbound: Elvis Costello with Rosanne Cash At Brooklyn Academy Of Music, Tuesday, November 10th, 2015, Reviewed
I can pinpoint the exact moment I was finally sick to my back teeth with Elvis Costello –not his music quite, not his live performance, but the new Costello persona, the beloved entertainer. He was on Letterman pushing Spike, an album I’d spent weeks trying to enjoy and all I had for the effort was one hook, “take that chewing gum outta your ears” , running through my brain. The previous song on the album was the terrible unamusing “God’s Comic”, and on Letterman he was making a prolonged funny about God giving the world back to the monkeys, “Davy, Mike, Mickey, and Pete”. The joke wasn’t all that though that was really due to his inability to reach the damn punch line, it isn’t why I stopped loving him. I stopped loving Elvis, because afterwards his smug, twinkling wait for applause was appalling. I knew right that second that whatever Costello had been, he was no longer, and whatever I may have admired about his as a songwriter, as a public persona I couldn’t bear him.
Fast forward some 20 years or so and I was watching Costello tape an episode of “Spectacle” and a more longwinded loud mouth I have never seen. He wouldn’t shut up. The one hour program took four hours to tape because he couldn’t give it a rest. Both John Prine and especially Lyle Lovett couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Every time Lyle opened his mouth to answer a question, Elvis interrupted him and told another story. Stuck there because they won’t let you out once they close the doors when they’re filming, I missed a 9pm Yeah Yeah Yeahs gig at Radio City Music Hall for the sole pleasure of watching Costello unable to edit his brain. Maybe he should have written it all down. The way he has done in his superb memoir, “Unfinished Music And Disappearing Ink” – a reference to his Grandmother Veronica’s (yes THE SONG) passing from Alzheimer’s Disease and his father Ross McManus, a popular singer and drummer with the Joe Loss Orchestra in the 60s, recent death. The memoir is so good, nearly as good as Bob Dylan’s “Chronicle”. Last night I saw a conversation with Elvis, pushing the product, and the interviewer Rosanne Cash, as part of the Unbound series of interviews. Co-presented by Brooklyn Academy Of Music and Greenlight Bookstore, Rosanne knows a thing or two about the poplife, I thought maybe the curse was over and I’d get Elvis back. Helen Bach had seen a similar performance two weeks ago and returned raving.
I had hopes.
But well before the 90 minute conversation was over I’d had my fill.
Everything I dislike about Costello, the chirpy, charming, twinkly, false modesty, sense of importance hidden in others regard for him, peaked through in his voice as it didn’t do on the printed page. All the best lines belonged to Rosanne Cash whenever she could complete a question: she mentioned asking Dylan at the 30th anniversary Dylan gig at MSG whether he was nervous and Dylan replying “I wish I was.” Surely as revealing a moment as you could get: Costello misheard it three times and then sloughed it off. That was good, what was great was Rosanne mentioning being at her father’s bed while he was dying, and Johnny coming out of physician induced coma, looking at the EEG charts surrounding his bed, and asking if these were the backstage notes telling him when to get on stage.
It was the most interesting moment of the night, and not the only moment death was in the air. Allen Toussaint had just died the night before and Costello showed a video of Allen Toussaint and Costello performing Toussaint’s sublime “The Greatest Love” to start the evening. Then Elvis spoke about his friend, and read a passage for his friend, before segueing into the passing of his own father. It was very moving and while there were also good moments, Elvis discussing and performing “Shipbuilding” was a highlight, the rest of the night was pretty rote.
The problem is people are too polite, Rosanne is too polite. I’ve interviewed everybody from Johnny Rotten to Johnny Entwistle and what I’ve learnt in those years is you can’t break through the PR wall, the same on topic happy happy, without being abrupt. The book is great but it is also self-serving. On stage, Costello dismissed his bad behavior with “I was a bastard”. That’s fine without revealing too much. The problematic part of the memoir is nearly exactly what Rosanne claims it isn’t: his relationship with women.
Here is some questions I’d have asked Elvis:
1 – The hero of this book is your father, but the hero of your life is your mother, why did you not write more about her?
2 – As a self-confessed serial adulterer, isn’t your suggestion that you continued to do sleep with other women during your first marriage because you didn’t believe she’d forgive you after the first one anyway, the moral equivalent of killing another ten people after the first one because you didn’t believe the government would forgive you after the first one anyway?
3 – Stories of your bad manners and bullying of those you deem as inferior are legend –would you address your rampant bullying?
4 – In the 21st century, your songwriting skills have begun to fail you and in the 2010s they seem to have gone entirely, is this what happen when you refuse to work to your skill?.
5 – As a member of rock royalty, you have turned your back on the man you were in your 20s and lost your skills at the same time, is it worth it? I mean, is it that important to be friends with Elton John?
There was no q and a from the audience so I didn’t manage to ask any of them, instead in an action endemic of the preposterously pompous duo on stage, Rosanne read questions FROM FELLOW MUSICIANS. Of all the artists in the world who should not be such a self-important tosser, Cash comes first. A superb country singer, she turned her back on it to record one crappy album after another of singer songwriter tedium. This is a woman who released three masterpieces, Seven Year Ache, Somewhere In the Stars, and King’s Record Shop, back to back to back. These stand alongside her father and not in the shadow she claims he casts upon her. I interviewed Rosanne in 1981 for “East Village Eye” and I fell insanely in love with her. And I was still pretty tough in my questions. She was OK last night, and there is built in obsolescence here, if you’ve read the book you know the questions and you know the answers, so unless she wanted to go in tough there was nothing she could do at all. So she played Inside baseball for 90 minutes
As for Costello, as much as he might claim to the contrary, he wasn’t hard on himself in his memoir, he still held back. Why shouldn’t he? It is his memoir. And on stage he is still a chatty, sincerely, crooked guy. He still doesn’t know when to shut up or when to talk, still is always in service to his hybrid version of pop superstardom, still talking when he should listen, still unwilling to take that chewing gum out of his ear.