Wednesday, November 04, 2015

"Captured Here In My Quotation Marks": Hearing, Sharing What Elvis Costello Had to Say at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Program Recap

Elvis Costello
in conversation as part of the
Chicago Humanities Festival
Interviewed by 
Alison Cuddy
at Francis W. Parker School
November 3, 2015

In the early days of rock 'n roll, parents were stereotypically disdainful and dismissive of the brash, loud music that was helping to define a distinct culture for their children.

But as the singer for England's premier radio dance-band, the Joe Loss Orchestra, it was Ross MacManus' job to learn and embrace the popular music of the day.

So when in early 1963, his homework meant bringing home "Please Please Me," the Beatles second single, not only did it fascinate and likely facilitate the future course of his young son, Declan--who would become an even more famous singer under the moniker Elvis Costello--it meant that for several years hence, the older and younger MacManuses would largely be learning the same songs.

This was just one of the illuminating insights Costello shared during a 90-minute conversation with former WBEZ host Alison Cuddy, Tuesday night in the spiffy auditorium of Francis W. Parker School.

During the discussion, which was part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Costello broached on the specifics of his own music and rhapsodized about numerous fruitful collaborations throughout his career--"I wanted to play with all different people"--championing standout bandmates like pianist Steve Nieve, heralded collaborators Nick Lowe, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach & Allen Toussaint and cherished kismet moments like having Chet Baker play on "Shipbuilding," while just as much so saluting the many musicians who have less-famously fortified his ambitions, explorations and albums over the years. 

But aside from a surprise sprinkling of songs he performed at the end, the most compelling aspects of the program didn't acutely relate to Costello's own music but--like the anecdote above--celebrated his musical father, and mother, and their affinity's obvious influence on his life.

As presumably detailed in the new memoir he is promoting, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink--the quality of the CHF presentation swayed me to buy a signed copy after the program--Costello explained that his mom was a "smuggler" of American jazz records into 1950s Liverpool, while his dad wasn't just a singer but a jazz trumpeter who, prior to accepting the modernity of rock 'n roll, bought into the brilliance of Dizzy Gillespie at a time when Bebop was at odds with traditionalists.

Having noted that his parents met across the counter of a record shop, or more accurately the Record Department of a British department store, he showed a great video clip of his dad singing "If I Had a Hammer" with the Joe Foss Orchestra at the Royal Command Performance in London in 1963.

Not only were the Beatles famously on the same bill--Elvis showed the autographs his father had brought him, sharing that by separating the four he had "split up the Beatles"--but also Marlene Dietrich accompanied by Burt Bacharach, with whom Costello would collaborate on 1998's Painted From Memory.

Costello later answered an audience member's question about progress on a Broadway musical drawn from Painted From Memory, saying that he and Bacharach had created considerable material for it, but intimated that any eventual staging would depend on commercial interest, with modern Broadway likely none too thrilled about a musical filled with "slow songs in a minor key."

With Cuddy proving a genial, informed interviewer and seemingly genuine Elvis fan--despite referencing "Pump It Up" as "Pump Up the Volume" during an odd question about onstage hand signals--the amiable Costello demonstrated none of the anger or prickliness he was known for when rising to fame in the late '70s.

He shared his confusion over perceptions of misogyny in his lyrics, citing some from "This Year's Girl" as an example of his having written dismissively of men's lechery more so than derisively of women, but owned up to having been not very gracious in his criticisms of Linda Ronstadt when she covered some of his songs in the early '80s, admitting that the royalties he received vitally subsidized some of his early tours.

Costello was also open about his battles with substance abuse (seemingly during the late '80s), which he noted infused the 1989 song "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror."

Twice Elvis stood to read passages from his book, one regarding inspirations for "Shipbuilding," including his consternation during the Falklands War that "shipyards could be opened again to send sons to die in a war that means nothing."

The singer on screen is Elvis Costello's dad, Ross MacManus
That this readily followed a question from Cuddy about the song suggested the interview was more choreographed than I initially perceived; this was no big deal except to amplify the failure of advance prep to prevent numerous technical snafus when Elvis tried to present A/V content that he clearly wasn't selecting ad hoc.

His repeatedly having to summon a stagehand for assistance was somewhat embarrassing, especially as Cuddy is Associate Artistic Director for the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Photos of his father at various ages comprised most of the slides shown, and furthered the sense of family influence serving as a (literal) backdrop for Costello's multifaceted discussion.

Various other insights he shared include:

- Recalling that he first came to Chicago in 1977 to play the Riviera; he had to be told by Tuesday's crowd that the venue still exists.

- He called his early public image featuring glasses, suit jacket and tie "Superman in reverse," with advisers trying to give a memorable persona to a '70s rock singer who didn't resemble "Robert Plant."

- "Watching the Detectives" derived from his love of Film Noir, including Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame, Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann.

- He expounded on his love for New Orleans by citing his fondness for drummer Earl Palmer, who wound up playing on Costello's 1986 King of America album.

- His TV interview show, Spectacle, was quite fulfilling due to the notable musical luminaries who participated, but he has no plans to resurrect it.

- Asked if he was amazed by the volume and quality of the music he had created in his 20s, Elvis shared that "Songs haven't come any slower to me in later life."

Though there wasn't a guitar onstage during his talk with Cuddy, at the end of a brief Q&A Costello delighted the crowd by asking if we wanted "to hear some songs?"

With an acoustic Spanish guitar brought to him, he proceeded to play an old rarity, "Ghost Train" and a cover of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Share Your Love With Me" prior to the more obvious and apt, "Every Day I Write the Book."

After thanking and praising his interviewer, and telling of being given one of Elvis Presley's original guitars to use during a recent promotional appearance in England, he performed the King's "Don't" as a segue into "Alison," which he ended by working in his nicknamesake's "Suspicious Minds"--upon which Elvis left the building.

Here's a video I shot of that final number:

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