I first time I saw you, I knew. It was 1977 and you were on TV, filling in for the Sex Pistols as the coveted musical guest on Saturday Night Live. You wore those signature black-rimmed glasses, Buddy Holly-style, but with attitude. You were on stage with your band, The Attractions, and you’d started to play the first few bars of “Less Than Zero” but then in a signature fuck-The-Man turn, launched into the network-verboten, anti-corporate “Radio, Radio.”
My unpredictable hero! But the suits didn’t appreciate that much; I wouldn’t see you on SNL again for 22 years.
Of course, my crush actually began in the playground. During recess, the older kids would sing the words to the latest radio hits by the GoGo’s, the Police and the Clash. Naturally, they began to sing your stuff, too—“Alison,” “Watching the Detectives,” “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”—from your first album in 1977, My Aim is True. Later, when I had my own copies, I’d listen to your voice, heartbreaking and snotty, and I fell in love.
I became enamored with your eccentricities. Like, your name, for instance. You couldn’t be content with Declan Patrick MacManus—which is the name you were born with on Aug. 25, 1954 in London. So you borrowed from the King of Rock ‘N Roll and your maternal grandmother to become Elvis Costello. But then for your seminal album King of America (1986), you legally switched back to your birth name, adding Aloysius. Then there’s the “Napoleon Dynamite” moniker—yes, you thought of it first—that you adopted in ’82 for a B-side single, and then four years later attributed to an obnoxious vaudeville character you created on tour, as well.
Ah, but a rose by any other name would smell as bittersweet, eh, Elvis?
My love for you only grew in the ‘80s with “Pump It Up,” “Accidents Will Happen,” “Everyday I Write the Book,” and the fact that you once referred to yourself as “rock and roll’s Scrabble champion.” You may have been impetuous, but critics constantly lauded your literate lyricism.
It was also your eclectic tastes that made my heart aflutter. Once you had that punk-pub rock thing down, you incorporated soul, pop and ‘50’s roots rock, then switched to country—Merle Haggard and Hank Williams covers on Almost Blue (1981)—with the disclaimer, “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.”
Oh, Elvis, there’s just no limit to what you can do! I mean, you’ve collaborated with the likes of Daryl Hall, Chet Baker, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Diana Krall and the Brodsky Quartet. You’ve performed with everyone from Roy Orbison to the Beastie Boys. And you’ve produced albums for The Specials (ska) and The Pogues (Irish punk/folk). I’ll bet you could talk to anyone at the party, couldn’t you?
We might’ve had a lapse in our romantic flame during the ‘90s. That was when you grew that weird long beard, co-composed an award-winning instrumental soundtrack for a mini-series, toyed with classical music, and finally broke it off with The Attractions. But then you were back on SNL for their 25th anniversary, where you flipped the switch on the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and they backed you on the oh-now-it’s-okay-to-play “Radio, Radio.” And the light was reignited.
Unbridled ambition is so sexy. The new millennium saw you dabbling in ballet and opera, acting as “storyteller” in Roy Nathanson’s avant-jazz concept album, Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill (2000), touring with your new band The Imposters and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2003). A year later, you received an Academy Award nomination for “Scarlet Tide” and released a country/blues/folk album, Delivery Man. Then you sang some jazz standards with Marian McPartland and recorded an album with New Orleans’ legendary Allen Toussaint (The River in Reverse, due in May).
But now, Elvis? Now, I hate you. For although much time has passed between us and we may never meet, I am left with this cumbersome affinity towards ill-behaved, bespectacled creative types. And it’s so totally your fault. MTW