|Late in 1997 I travelled to a pub outside Dublin to meet Elvis Costello, who was living in Ireland at the time. I always enjoy his company but he is a demanding interviewee. By this I mean his mind is sharp and his musical knowledge is vast, so you need to work hard at keeping up with him. Luckily for me, this particular job was easier, done for a regular Q magazine feature called Cash For Questions. I merely had to pass on Q readers’ enquiries and duck for cover where necessary.
In the black fastness of a windy winter’s evening on an Irish mountainside, the traveller’s spirits are lifted by the sight of Johnny Fox’s pub (“undoubtedly the highest licensed premises in Ireland – pleased to quote you for small farmer’s outings, golfing awards, weddings and christenings”). Here is our rendezvous with Elvis Costello, resident of the parish, beloved entertainer and – as it happens – teetotaller. (“Fuck knows why he came to live over here, then,” puzzles our taxi driver). And here he comes now, swaddled against the elements and every inch the hardy country walker – every inch, that is, except for the gold-painted fingernails of his left hand. “It’s a style thing,” he explains, with a cryptic smirk.
Cash For Questions is the game, and Costello lunges eagerly on the stash of Q readers’ letters, fax messages and e-mail print-outs. Around the lounge are chintz armchairs and agricultural implements. Upon the mantelpiece are china dogs, chimey old clocks and the occasional vintage rifle from the glory days of Michael Collins’ IRA brigade. It’s a peculiar blend of twinkling bonhomie and faint, vestigial menace – not unlike the bloke in specs who now casts a beady eye across your enquiries. Costello is the same pugnacious, invigorating conversationalist he has always been. He turns the same, steel-trap mind to queries from his fans as he does to the probings of the press.
So, sleep uneasily, the reader from Birmingham who asked him why there hasn’t been a decent Costello album since Blood And Chocolate. Not only does our man take issue with your view – as of tonight, he knows where you live…
I heard that in the early days your glasses had no glass in them, or were clear glass – pre-dating the now common practice of wearing them for purely aesthetic purposes. True?
GW, Northwood, Middlesex
At the time I had my first pictures done, I did wear glasses, regular cheapo ones. But I decided I was going to change to something striking. So I got what were old-fashioned ones then, but every 15 years someone comes along to make them fashionable again. Like in America Kurt Cobain wore them a bit, so the kids did, and over here Jarvis wore them. Every so often there has to be a speccy guy comes along. In some of my old shots you can tell they’re flat from the way the light catches them, but I have worn glasses since I was 18, so I wasn’t cheating.
Why are your songs never on karaoke machines?
DR, Colchester, Essex
Too many words in ’em. Can’t fit them on the scroll.
Alison. Who is she?
That’s an impossible one. It’s whoever you want it to be. I know who the song relates to, but I’m not going to tell you because the song is for you to listen to. It’s for who it should be in your own mind. Is that a slippery enough answer?
Have you ever written a song to get a girl to sleep with you?
MK, Seattle, Washington
I think that was about the first 250 wasn’t it? (Laughs) No, I don’t think so. It may have had that effect but I didn’t do it deliberately.
What’s the story behind I Want You? Is it just a personification of lust?
YP, Ithaca, New York
I’m very reluctant to tell people the stories. For one thing it’s none of their fucking business, and the other thing is, knowing how much is real and how much is invention spoils how you listen to it. Your business is to work out how you feel about the song, and if you can make up an even more dramatic story than the one I intended then you’ve done a good job.
What do your friends call you?
JC, Northern California
Anything but Gladwys. Depends on who they are and how they know me, simple as that. Family call me Declan.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
MB, Santa Monica, California
I’ve got more superpowers than I need. This X-Ray vision is a bit of a drag.
Apart from the Hank Williams lyric book I gave you, what’s the nicest thing a fan ever gave you?
PG, Newbury, Berkshire
Some very nice things. People are generous to give you a record they think you might like. Letters are nice because they contain thoughts, so long as they’re not written in green ink, saying things like ‘You are the Angel of Death.’ You get a fair share of those.
Your last several albums have not been great commercial successes. Do you feel you are creating ‘useless beauty’ for ungrateful masses?
SK, Stanford, California
No, I’m just making the music that means the most to me… I’ve worked hard, I’ve made good records and in the long run people will see them for what they are – or they won’t, depending on whether they’ve been distracted by something else shinier… Since we started the industry has grown much bigger and some people are shouting louder and therefore getting people’s attention. And people will invest more curiosity in a new thing, just as they did in me when I started. I’m passionate about what I do, but people are sceptical that you can mean it as much as you do, this far in. But I do. I mean it a lot more than some people I can see who are coasting.
Is it cool being Elvis Costello? Do you still look in the mirror and say, ‘What a cool life I’m having’?
CP, New York
What a cool life I’m having! That’s my mantra, I say it every day. No. I’m very lucky, I do the thing I want to do every day. The main frustration is not reaching your objective in the studio or writing, if I’m struggling with the song. And the unhappy things that happen are the same as in everybody’s life, they’re just magnified by being in public.
Any advice on handling hecklers and drunken ticket-bearers?
SO, Los Angeles
Anyone comes on the stage, they’re fair game, unless they’re coming to kiss you. And we always had a rule: anything thrown on the stage that’s heavier than a paper cup, then we’re off and we don’t come back. One idiot is trying to get the attention. In 1978 in Britain, people would gob on you because that was part of being in the gang at punk gigs. In America we were the short-haired weirdoes and there were people in the audience who looked like members of the Marshall Tucker Band, taking Mogadon, so we actually alarmed people with the speed we were playing at. They’d complain we played too fast for them to hear. The first time we went to LA there were a lot of people walking around in bin-liners thinking that was what was going on in London. It was pretty sad, like seeing a Swinging ’60s movie and walking round in Beefeater outfits.
Early in your career you famously said, ‘I won’t ever hang around to witness my own artistic decline.’ Did you ever consider honouring this pledge around the time of Goodbye Cruel World or Mighty Like A Rose?
JW, Accrington, Lancashire
Well I’m still getting better, so that doesn’t come into it. Commercial fortunes can go up and down, but I know I’m getting better. And I haven’t even started yet…. [Peers at letter] Accrington? That’s close to Manchester, isn’t it? That’s a real Mancunian question. I thought Mighty Like A Rose was a great record, so there you go.
Would you still tramp the dirt down? [as per 1989’s song, set by Margaret Thatcher’s graveside]
Ian Berrisford, Manchester
I’d burn her in Parliament Square.