ELVIS COSTELLO

The novelist and critic Rachel Cusk hails Elvis Costello as king of literate pop music
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The Independent Culture
I first saw Elvis Costello in the late Seventies, when I was 11 or 12, on Top of the Pops. Not quite qualifying for adolescence, this weekly milestone was at this stage, for me, as unsettling as it was fleeting; there I sat, in front of the television in my corduroy dungarees, without a clue and meek and mute at the prospect of receiving one, attempting to sift sin from stupidity and maintain an expression of benign good humour while I did it, lest my parents should burst in on Legs & Co and demand some explanation for them. Instead, an awkward man in ugly glasses appeared on the screen, a sort of generic jerk with spider legs and clothes worse than mine. His appearance was a gob of truth deposited upon a tissue of lies. He looked funny. I laughed, as if he'd made a joke and I'd understood it. He looked, in fact, exactly like my father in youthful photographs. From this platform of affinity, he proceeded to sing. The song was called "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea". When I bought the record the next day, it was called "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea", but by then I had already begun to realise that Elvis did unusual things with words.

My idolisation of Elvis was, I'll admit, instant and in- curable. I detected a subtle danger in him, far more potent than that of his posturing parent punk. He made little bombs out of words, which detonated afterwards in the mind; his songs were strewn with barbed couplets, laced with irony, invective and scorn. Listening to his music, I began to perceive a dimension to words hitherto invisible: in his mouth they could cut and tickle, turn themselves inside out, perform the magic of saying one thing while meaning another. And he was called Elvis. Elvis! What a name! A name concocted of sheer hubris, from a long-dead British sense of humour, beneath which lies the bedrock of Elvis's unshakeable belief in his own greatness.

This greatness, I think, is of the kind that is usually the property of literary rather than pop heroes. It derives from the degree of mastery a mind possesses over its work, the completeness of its creations, and, of course, their isolation: like his namesake, Elvis is a one-off, a comet in a galaxy of pop stars. His music is self-interpreted, self-circumscribed, impenetrable, finally, with articulacy: there are no vague passages, no interminable guitar solos on which to impose the lyrics of one's own clammy heart, no vagrant sentiments which can be caught and tamed to one's own emotions. Elvis whispers in the ear, and he tells unbearable truths.

In his book The Dark Stuff, Nick Kent devotes a chapter to Elvis felicitously entitled "Horn Rims From Hell". They might have been from hell, but so is he; a hell designed for geniuses, and one hinted at in another parenthetic early song, "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes". "I used to be disgusted," it begins, "Now I try to be amused." It was perhaps to douse this tension that Elvis has reinvented himself so relentlessly over the years, changing his name and identity, cutting his music on the templates of different genres, looking for other characters through which he can make a chorus from a single voice. One senses in his music the fear that he has too much to say, that one life and one body will be insufficient to manufacture it all; in short, if Keats might be invoked, "When I have fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain."

The prolific nature of his talents, and the many disguises in which they are exercised, mean, of course, that Elvis is a showman par excellence, the Beloved Entertainer he once, immodestly but doubtlessly well booby-trapped with irony, styled himself. A reminiscence of Glastonbury cannot, unfortunately, be avoided. One long heat-blasted afternoon in those fetid fields, I watched Elvis, from the sweaty armpit of the vast crowd surrounding the main stage, play an entire acoustic set alone, casting a strange and devilish spell over the masses at his feet. This spell was carefully composed of the most cunning ingredients. It began with surprise as Elvis slipped, solo, from between the curtains at the front of the stage, for we had all expected something splendid and noisy. We were required to believe. Elvis, the man with the golden sleeve up which there was always more than something, had never let us down. Two or three songs later, a murmuring disappointment was palpable. The crowd doubted. Was he going to play the whole concert on his own, without even an electric guitar? I mean, it was good like this, but the whole set? Half an hour later, we were dumb with admiration. He was right. We were worthless, fans of little faith. The plaintive flight of voice and string had seduced us, silencing a babbling ocean of people, wringing from us every drop of complicity and penitence we possessed. He played like that for a long time. Just as we lay at his feet in breathless abnegation and worship, fearing that it was about to end, the curtains parted. There, standing behind on the stage, were the Attractions, revved up and ready to go. The crowd, as they say, went wild.

There are many, I am sure, who share my opinion of Elvis Costello. To those who don't, as my hero has succinctly put it: "I wish you luck with a capital F".

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