Affluence of Words: Coming of Age with Elvis Costello

Cover art

Oh, I just don’t know where to begin
(“Accidents Will Happen”)

Well, the door swings back and forward from the past into the present
(“Little Palaces”)

He’s the only singer fully to have mastered the come-hither snarl.

I was riding in my friend Tim’s compact car.  We were hurtling from Gallipolis to Cincinnati, Ohio.  We were going to see Elvis Costello.  Tim was a fan, but from a distance.  I’m not sure he ever entirely understood my devotion to Costello’s songs.

He listened to me indulgently through the din of This Year’s Model.  I was trying to explain.  “Other than the words of a few dead philosophers, his words mean more to me than anyone else’s.”

Why did they mean so much to me? Why do they?

I walked into a dorm room during my freshman year of college to find a new friend of mine, Jim, sitting on the far side of his bed with a guitar.  He had a cassette player sitting against the wall and was playing and singing along to a song I had never heard.  He seemed to be singing to the wall.  When he noticed me, I asked about the song.  He looked at me strangely when he told me that it was Elvis Costello.  He could see the name was news to me. I left his room that evening with a bootleg cassette of Imperial Bedroom.  I had no idea quite what to make of it at first.  The music was so different from what I knew.  But then the words began to hit me, like a spray of buckshot.

History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies, the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues
I’m just the oily slick
On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel
(“Beyond Belief”)

I knew nothing about fashionable hovels, having grown up in a double-wide trailer in rural Appalachia, but I knew something about old conceits and glib replies, and about the intestine turnings of authenticity and inauthenticity.  I could imagine myself an oily slick.  This often feckless, rueful self-monitoring–its dry heave of self-disgust–was mine.  I knew it from the inside.  But it was not just what Costello expressed.  It was also his expression of it.  A complex irony needled through the words. Formal properties of the words themselves (other than rhyme) were being attended to, responded to, marshaled to purpose. Some game I knew and did not know was afoot among the words

I went to college with three disparate musics in my head.  My father’s bluegrass, my church’s acapella hymns and my own small collection of Devo and Gary Numan albums.  The latter was my attempt to find a music of my own, one that distanced itself from the living  human all-too-human qualities of the other two–the murder and regret of bluegrass, the sin and salvation of the hymns.  I wanted to hole up in Gary Numan’s embalmed “Cars”, in a place where I could be stable for days.

I listened to the cassette of Imperial Bedroom over and over, playing one side from beginning to end as I waited for sleep to fall each night.  “Beyond Belief” became the anthem of my freshman year.  It captured my dislocated fears and my feeling that my days were just a passing show, a phenomenalist’s play of welded-together sensations.

I’ve got a feeling
I’m going to get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing
Now I am beyond belief

The last line exactly captured my own ambiguity, my sense that I was both the subject and the object of a frigid incredulity.

The other songs on the album mapped the failures of domesticity.  The bluegrass of my youth had often enough done the same, but typically the persona presented in those songs sang self-righteously or regretfully, with a cumbersome Cumberland’s sincerity.  Bluegrass can do high and lonesome, but it cannot do irony or alienation.  During that freshman year I was often lonely enough, I guess; but mainly I was struggling with self-alienation.  I didn’t care for my company.  I could do without me.

Tim and I arrived in Cincinnati as the August sunlight stretched and turned golden.  Costello was touring behind Goodbye Cruel World.  My luck was good that night.  Nick Lowe opened for Costello, and Lowe had Paul Carrack with him.  I more or less got to see Nick Lowe and Squeeze (Lowe and Carrack performed “Tempted”) before Costello came on.  Lowe mentioned at one point in his show that it was Costello’s birthday, and he played “The Rose of England” in honor of the occasion.

Other than the words of Costello, the words of my freshman year were the words of dead philosophers, particularly Plato and Plotinus and Schopenhauer and a couple of British Idealists–Bosanquet and Bradley.  Bosanquet and Bradley’s Victorian prose entranced me more perhaps than  their idealism, but I styled myself in those days an expatriated latter-day British absolute idealist.  I read Plato and Plotinus in a divinatory spirit, and read all of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation in one unblinking twenty-four hours.  Costello played on as I read on. I was 17–and the world was my will and my representation.

I walked the campus with my head down, lost, genuinely lost, in my thoughts.  The fallen leaves of a Wooster autumn scattered as I walked along.  I nearly ran into a woman.  She scolded me for walking with my head down.  I muttered a line from Proverbs in response:  “Ponder the path of thy feet.”  But the truth is that the words in my head were simply more real to me than my feet or the leaves or the autumn landscape.  Meaning plagued me more than being.  Being was taking care of itself.  Meaning I needed to tend.

Pretty words don’t mean much anymore
I don’t mean to be mean much anymore
All I see are snapshots, big shots, tender spots
mug shots, machine slots
Till you don’t know what’s what
You don’t know what you got
(“Pretty Words”)

Costello’s songs were often slightly deranged lists, efforts to anatomize experience or to bind together its loose ends.  Sometimes the lists were quite mad–sequential but otherwise disunited.  It all fit my moods, sense-making and sense-unmaking in turn, witness to the daily rise and fall of my life.

My love of words drew me to Costello and deepened because of him.  He has left his fingerprints on my verbal imagination.  He is capable, like Lewis Carroll or James Thurber, of making nonsense so delightful that the paucity or mere parody of sense do not matter.  He can write nonsense or semi-sense so moving that it slits you from your guggle to your zatch, from here to here.

You’re sending me tulips mistaken for lilies
You give me your lip after punching me silly
You turned my head till it rolled down the brain drain
II had any sense now I wouldn’t want it back again

New Amsterdam it’s become much too much
Till I have the possession of everything she touches
Till I step on the brake to get out of her clutches
Till I speak double dutch to a real double duchess

Down on the mainspring, listen to the tick tock
Clock all the faces that move in on your block
Twice shy and dog tired because you’ve been bitten
Everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written
(“New Amsterdam”)

There’s a girl in this dress
There’s always a girl in distress
(“Shabby Doll”)

I fell in love and then got flushed by love during my freshman year.  Costello’s wary love songs–with their obligatory escape hatches or hidden tunnels–matched my skittish paranoia that love stories were cautionary tales.

I won’t walk with my head bowed
Beyond caution where lovers walk
Your love walks where three’s a crowd
Beyond caution where lovers walk

Lovers walk, lovers scramble
Beyond caution where lovers walk
Lovers step, shuffle and gamble
Beyond caution where lovers walk
(“Lovers Walk”)

My father played bluegrass.  Back in the 50’s, he cut classes for most of a term at Marshall University and practiced the mandolin.  He had heard that Eck Gibson and the Mountaineer Ramblers, a local group of some acclaim, planned to head to the studio but without a mandolin player. My father, never ordinarily one for rash acts, showed up at the studio the day that the group was scheduled to begin recording.  Dad talked his way into an audition and got the gig.

My father did not talk much.  At home, when it was too dark to work, he picked up his guitar or his mandolin and played.  I can hardly remember him in doors without an instrument in his hands.  As a small boy, I spent many weekends at the homes of other bluegrass players, usually the lone child in the house, nursing a warming Pepsi and listening.  I listened a lot.  I still have a head full of bluegrass songs, songs of loneliness and homesickness and failed farms and love gone wrong, songs of dying  little girls and dreadful snakes.  I don’t know how much of it I understood at first but I began to understand it, and to understand something of the darker corners of the adult world.

I can no longer remember the list of songs Costello played that August night.  Many of the songs on Goodbye but others too; I was especially eager for songs off Get Happy! and Trust.  I had spent long hours listening to both and wondering about the cover photo on the latter.  That above-his-sunglasses glance away came to seem essential to the music to me.  I coveted the indirection of the music.  I wanted to be told things in ways somehow consistent with my finding them out for myself. Costello’s lyrics obliged.

The sun set before the show reached its finale.  Costello came out and played a few songs by himself.  The band rejoined him, played another few songs and then they finished.  The stage lights went down and we drove home in the dark.

The hymns that stuck with me most were hymns whose lyrics were by Isaac Watts. I especially loved his “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.  I had no way of knowing it as a child, when the song first took up lodging in my memory, but the song is a full-on spiritual exercise.  So too are many of Costello’s songs.  (Perhaps this is a vestige of his Catholic upbringing?)  They require that we adopt, in a way resembling Costello’s own adoption of it, the persona of the song.  We are then shown the persona, often shown its tragedy, and shown it as caused by various of the character flaws of the persona.

Consider this a negative spiritual exercise; it works through a bad, not a good example.  (“No man is good for nothing; he can always serve as a bad example.”   –Someone should explore the similarities between Costello and Nestroy.)  The songs alert you to your own flaws or beginnings of flaws to the extent that you find the persona a good fit.  Costello’s goal, I take it, is to implicate us in the world of such a persona, and to ask us if that is where, who we want to be.

The irony–sometimes transmuting into satire–in Costello’s songs is his way of flinging himself against the world without posturing.  It is a function of his desire for the world to be good and his conviction that it is bad, and that he, too, would be good but is often bad.  His unwillingness to acquiesce to that badness, even if it takes the relatively innocuous form of conformity or of spiritless drudging, drives the music.  But his awareness of himself and of his own flaws and conformity and drudging forbid self-righteousness.

I wouldn’t see Costello live  again for another 15 years or so.  The next time I saw him with my wife in Atlanta, Georgia.  I had grown up (some).  He had grown older.  But the words were still there, his and mine. When talking to my grad school teacher, Lewis White Beck, I once attributed (rightly) a distinction to the philosopher, C. I. Lewis.  I called it “Lewis’ distinction”.  Beck chided me.  “Kelly, we are friends, but you should not refer to me by my first name in a paper.”  I explained that I hadn’t; I had referred to C. I. Lewis and not Lewis White Beck.  Beck looked down, embarrassed.  Then, brightening, he looked up and said:  “I have been using that distinction for so long I thought it was mine.”  By the time I saw Costello for a second time, I had been using his words for so long I thought they were mine.

There’s a hand on a wire that leads to my mouth
I can hear you knocking but I’m not coming out
Don’t want to be a puppet or a ventriloquist
‘Cause there’s no ventilation on a critical list
Fingers creeping up my spine are not mine to resist
Strict time

Toughen up, toughen up
Keep your lip buttoned up
Strict time
(“Strict Time”)

Puzzled and perplexed by a failed love and by my failure at philosophy, I dropped out of school at the end of my freshman year.  I packed my philosophy books in boxes and took them home, putting them in an empty corner of Dad’s tool shed.  Months would pass before I reopened those boxes, tearing away scabs.  But Get Happy! was in my tape deck all the while.

But he’s not the man you’d think that he can be
I don’t know why you can’t see
That he is only the imposter
That he is only the imposter

When I said that I was lying
I might have been lying
Never let me hear you say
You’re not trying, no, no
(“The Imposter”)

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