Love Songs #15 / My Funny Valentine

“Don`t change your hair for me, not if you care for me.”

Joanne`s smashed. I`m smashed. We`ve been upstairs at Ricky`s. A bowl of chili with your drink, and a chance to watch the dancers in spats. Following their feet. A dream of the heart free in flight. I`m in a second-hand suit, antique yellowing dress-shirt, a silk waistcoat somebody no longer needed, and a square knitted Burgundy vintage tie undone about my neck. A Dax pomade`s coconut mixes a sweet, sickly tropics with the smell of cheap white wine. Having lost its war with the curls left by my `40s short back & sides pretty much the minute I`d put it in. Joanne`s slumped on the beaten and broken couch. It should have been a chaise longue. Falling out of her polka-dot blouse. The lure of one button too many unfastened. Her lipstick, a Rimmel Perfect Red that aspired to Chanel, smeared a sad pierrot. We`d taken the long way home. The TV is on for noise. Elvis Costello appears and I sing along in tremolo ache. A serenade. The song is short. I know it word for word. A fake heart throb in an imagined spot. A croon not met with screaming Beatlemania, but hysterical sobs. As if she`ll never stop. Maybe it was the goofy affectation of, or just my voice. Maybe she didn`t think I was serious.

– – – – – – – – 

Alongside his extensive collection of Tamla Motown 45s Anna`s Dad, Eric, owned Elvis Costello`s, The Man. A greatest hits compilation that Anna often chose as “BGM” once her folks had gone to bed. I spent so much time undressed with her there, on the living room floor, that I learnt to sing every song from memory. I guess I wasn`t supposed to be listening. Just like I was supposed to keep my eyes shut. 

The lyrics quoted Shakespeare. Paired the fading Hollywood underbelly of Sunset Boulevard and Raymond Chandler, with The Police`s Reggae De Blanc.

“She`s filing her nails while they`re dragging the lake.”

Cryptically jabbed at Big Brother conspiracies and totalitarian states. Kennedy & Monroe, and the hypocrisy of the church. Animal cruelty, the Falklands conflict, and the politics / economics of war. 

“Somebody said that someone got filled in, for saying that people get killed in, the results of this shipbuilding.”

There were odes to ex-lovers, sung at high school reunions.

“I don`t know if you are loving somebody, I only know it isn’t mine.”

Scorn poured on pretty much everyone, and self-loathing spat, with the spite and vitriol of a rejected nerd. 

In 1977, Costello told journalist Nick Kent that as far as songwriting goes, “the only two things that matter to me”, “are guilt and revenge”. The targets for which he carried in a black book. 

“I said, “I`m so happy I could die”. She said, “Drop dead” and left with another guy.”

The NME called his My Aim Is True, “emotional masochism”. Not star-crossed romances, or unrequited lust, but angry polemics of failure and inadequacy. Written from the point of view of “a complete loser”. 

“Good manners and bad breath get you nowhere.”

The Village Voice christened him “The Avenging Dork”. Called his knocked-kneed stance part Buddy Holly, part Johnny Rotten. 

He invoked his Country heroes, Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and George Jones. 

“A lip ring on a half-filled cup of coffee, which you bought and didn’t drink, at least you thought you wanted it, which is so much more than I can say for me.”

And softened toward Soul. Everyday I Write The Book, with its

“Don`t tell me you don`t know what love is, when you`re old enough to know better. When you find strange hands in your sweater.”

The Sade-esque sax solos of I Want To Be Loved, and its effecting video, of monochrome loneliness broken by kisses of colour. 

“You tease and you flirt, and you shine all the buttons on your green shirt”, 

went Elvis, as I undid the buttons, zips, and clasps, on everything Anna wore.

Elvis Costello. Declan Patrick MacManus. Son of big band singer and trumpeter, Ross – who wrote “I`m A Secret Lemonade Drinker” for R. White`s.

“I`m a tryin to give it up but it`s one of those nights.”

A gap-toothed, acerbic, sometime scouser with an eye for the ladies and a way with a word, who sold his Pub Rock to America. Duped them that it was Punk, and went from odes to amphetamine to the Tin Pan Alley heritage of Goffin & King. To the arrangement`s of Miles Davis` mate, Gil Evans. To collaborations with Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet, and penning scores for ballet and an opera based on A Midsummer`s Night Dream.

In 1979, Elvis fought with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett in the bar of a Holiday Inn. A “debate” about the state of American music that ended in fists. Costello called Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant nigger”. Swapped “blind” and “ignorant” for “jive-ass” when he referred to James Brown. The insults, way out of character. Costello had spent the early part of his career baiting the UK`s far-right National Front. Releasing songs like Less Than Zero, and Night Rally. He`d also been an active supporter of Rock Against Racism. Costello`s practically American now. A Yankee Doodle Dandy in a fancy suit and outsized hat. Hosting chat shows, appearing on The Simpsons, marrying into Jazz. Playing and recording with The Roots. So, the US press have retrospectively posited that the incident was subconscious self-destruction. The same impulse that got him banned from Saturday Night Live. For performing a song that shouted down the inanity of college radio. Despite a contract explicitly asking him not to. They`ve suggested that he was attempting to head-off an unwanted trajectory of stadium fame. Though he`s never seemed shy of the limelight. Costello himself has admitted that he was trying to provoke a fight. That during the time around Armed Forces, he was in free fall. Disorientated by acclaim, and consumed by the failure of his marriage – brought on by the trappings of fame. He was looking to discourage admiration and upset any pedestal success might have placed him on. Living in “assisted insomnia”, drunk and in on-stage “Punk” persona, offended by Stills and his entourage, he set out to outrage. His words thoughtless and provocative, like Siouxsie Sue sporting a swastika arm band. He succeeded. Though he`d have been better off calling Stills a coked-up fucking has-been. Perhaps he`d already tried that.

A recognised expert in “Americana”, it was Costello who introduced me to the Country of Gram Parsons, the Jazz of Chet Baker, and even Hip Hop. As the guest of Capital Radio`s Nicky Horne, one Sunday afternoon, as I did my homework, he`d played Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel. On the Monday, at school, I`d asked Des, “Have you heard that tune where they turn the record on and off?” I couldn`t fathom Costello a racist.

I was a kid coming out of the `60s. Where South London`s schools were an unplanned experiment in mixing the white, Caribbean, and emerging Pakistani communities. A cliched “melting pot”. Where uniformed crews segregated. Where black and white battled, and both went “Paki-bashing”. My Mum and Dad didn`t know any black people. We had no black families living on our street. Black was an unknown to my parents, and like most human beings, the unknown left them afraid, and defensive. But, at thirteen, most of my friends were of Jamaican descent. The grandchildren of The Windrush. Nearly all of them were forced to go to church on Sunday. None of them swore. When I brought Michael McCleary home, and Dad threw him out, I was stunned. In complete disbelief. I was listening to Two-Tone, Ska, Reggae and Dub. Dillinger, Greensleeves, Rodigan, and Scientist. If sides were to be taken, then the music had made it simple for me to choose. Surely Costello was the same. 

In the late `80s, I took copies of Blood & Chocolate and King Of America with me to University, and hid them. Figuring that no one would be into Elvis Costello. Reasoning that he was far from fashionable. Blood & Chocolate`s Tokyo Storm Warning churned like a psychedelic Dylan. Had the Klu Klux Klan disorientated and disarmed in a Shinjuku capsule hotel. While I Want You was a painfully honest portrayal of self-pity, arising from betrayal. A bitter last argument. Spiralling and escalating.

“Did you call his name out as he held you down?”

Detailing hurt, real enough for me to feel. Years before I experienced it. 

On King Of America, Costello`s “Tiny Hands Of Dynamite” banged out hoe-downs, piano rags, and Cajun, Zydeco waltzes. Songs that told stories of those fooled by love. Those left behind by promises and infidelity. Those trapped in cycles of poverty and abuse. G.I. brides, cheap innuendo, and chat-up lines recalled as poignant, sharp memory. Of trust and jealousy. Of blackouts and hangovers. He covered Nina Simone in a whiskey-hoarse holler. Combined the New Country of Steve Earle with the classic British Folk of Ewan MacColl. Indoor Fireworks was an acoustic depiction of a relationship as a fading fifth of November display. Throughout there were constant allusions to drink. Though Costello himself says he, one day, “just stopped”. “I used to collect stamps.” “I don`t do that any more either.” If only it were that easy. 

Elvis` Less Than Zero led me to Brett Easton Ellis` book of the same name. At university, in Alan, I found my own “Julian Wells”. Together we chased an obsession with Easton Ellis` loaded image of a billboard that read, “Disappear Here”. 


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