First post here:
But there’s no danger
It’s a professional career
Though it could be arranged
With just a word in Mr. Churchill’s ear
If you’re out of luck or out of work
We could send you to Johannesburg
“Oliver’s Army” may be – no is – my favorite Elvis Costello song. It’s about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, mercenaries, Oliver Cromwell (no friend to the Irish), Churchill – you name it. A great tune covering several years of unfortunate British history with a maddening earworm of a chorus.
The piano cascade was inspired by, of all things, Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” (Fellow blogger and frequent commenter to these pages – The Dark Star Review – advised me of Elvis’ Top 500 albums which is astounding in its range).
By the early ’80’s, despite his initial burst of brilliance, Elvis’s star was somewhat starting to wane which he freely acknowledges in his book. This had less to do, I think, with the quality of his work than just the simple fact that the times had shifted and new musical heroes were coming up the charts.
But he was still doing some good stuff. “Every Day I Write the Book” is a perfect example of his R&B inclinations. (Costello refers to it as “bad Smokey Robinson.”) A hit on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s a hundred miles away from “Watching the Detectives” and demonstrates nicely his great use of wordplay:
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
So then one day in the late ’80’s Sir Paul McCartney – himself no longer exactly riding the top of the charts – contacted Elvis about writing some songs together. (I recall somewhere Elvis saying he responded by saying – at least to himself – “Yes sir, Mr. McCartney sir.” His clear hero worship of McCartney and his difficulty of being a peer of one of his idols comes through palpably in his book). They wrote and played a handful (8? 10?) of songs together, each of them putting a few on their respective albums.
For my money, Elvis’ song “Veronica,” (that excellent, melodic bass is McCartney) is the pick of the lot. It’s about Elvis’ grandmother (nana) and her descent into dementia. If it sounds like depressing stuff for a song, then on the surface, yes it is. But it’s a great song and a real tribute to her.
His work with Bacharach came in the late ’90’s. Their signature song was “God Give Me Strength” which I personally find to be overwrought. Which is too bad because I am an unabashed admirer of both men’s work. Elvis was the opening act for Bob Dylan’s 2007 tour and tells some good stories about singing together and getting locked out of a venue with no one recognizing them.
Alas, they never collaborated on a song. But that would be something to hear. However, Elvis was one of several performers to write music to some old long-forgotten Dylan lyrics. They put out a very good album which you can hear some of and read about in this post.
There’s about five songs I could post from the great 1989 album, Spike, the Beloved Entertainer, that “Veronica” came from. (I think it was Elvis himself who asked the question is Spike a name or a verb?)
But I’ll leave you with “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” which is something we all have to face sometime or other. And if I understand Elvis from his book, he was talking about himself and his infidelities. (Piano on this by the late Allen Toussaint, who passed away last year. Elvis writes eloquently in the book about recording and performing with him in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina):
In 2003, Costello and the Attractions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (by Elton John). In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Costello number 80 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Since 2003 he has been married to jazz pianist Diana Krall. They have twin sons. And he recently recorded an album with The Roots who are, among other things, talk show host Jimmy Fallon’s house band.