Anyone who knows me knows that I am a hardcore Elvis Costello fan. I’ve been trailing him closely (fanatically!) ever since I heard the song “Opportunity” (from Get Happy) come out of my transistor radio courtesy of DC101. It was 1980 and it felt like some kinda opportunity for me.
I first saw Elvis in 1983 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Aztec Camera supported him. Thank you, Dad, for taking Andrew and me.
I most recently saw EC last summer at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA on the Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers tour. Thank you, Mark, for the lift.
In between, I’ve seen the man nearly 100 times (could be more than 100 at this point). The weirdest show was in Baltimore with David Hidalgo deputizing for Steve Nieve!
Musicians generally do not like being compared to others. But every time – and it’s usually after a Donuts’ gig – someone approaches me and tells me that we sound like Costello, I say: thank you or, wow, what a compliment! Now, if you compare me to REM, for instance, I will not be so gracious. Worst band ever. Other than U2.
(One time at the Northstar, someone told me that I sounded like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Arlo Guthrie which I took to mean a cross between a dying goat and someone with a bad sinus infection.)
In any case, Elvis had to cancel some shows recently. Seems like he may have jumped the gun after an otherwise successful surgery. I know he’ll be alright. He better be. I just purchased tickets to seem him in Bethlehem, Washington, DC, and Asbury Park!
I wanted to send out a “get well” and figured I’d direct you to some EC obscurities while doing so. Yes, it is true: I am willfully obscure. How many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb? An obscure number you’ve never heard of &tc. But, listen, in this increasingly and depressingly obvious world, obscurity may be an important component in our salvation. Let us bless and praise Rhino Records. Amen.
Even choosing only 10 EC obscurities is difficult for me. So I’ve decided to limit myself to covers. Elvis has turned me on to so much great music over the years by covering it himself.
1. Ship of Fools: When EC grew out a beard and started hanging out with Jerry Garcia in the early 90s, I nearly had a conniption. How could the Prince of Punks (as Musician magazine called him on a cover story featuring him and Jerry) break bread with the Head of the Hippies? I’ve since embraced the Dead and, of course, neither EC nor Jerry fit into any sort of categories. But, at the time, I was really upset. Still, I loved EC’s cover of Ship of Fools for an album called Deadicated, an early 90s tribute to Jerry and the gang. Check out the legendary James Burton’s guitar solo on this one. EC cut SOF with his Mighty Like a Rose era combo which included Burton as well as Marc Ribot and the late great Larry Knecthel. You can find Ship of Fools on the Rhino Records reissue of Kojak Variety.
2. Withered and Died: In 1984, I picked up – as always at Yesterday and Today Records on Rockville Pike – EC’s latest single, Peace in our Time, on the Impostor label. The flip was this beautiful ballad by Richard Thompson whom I had never heard of to that point. Thank you, Elvis, for leading me to RT and Fairport and Sandy Denny and on and on. Richard and Linda Thompson’s original of Withered and Died on the Bright Lights Tonight lp is brilliant, of course (especially Linda’s plaintive sounding vocal) but EC’s is still my favorite version. It’s somehow even bleaker than the original. You can find this one on the Rhino re-issue of Goodbye Cruel World.
3. End of the Rainbow: Ibid. Cf. Rhino re-issue of King of America.
4. Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line: EC sings Waylon. This also appeared on the KOA reissue recorded live on Broadway in 1986 with the Confederates featuring, once again, James Burton. T-Bone Burnett played on that show as well. I was a freshman at Columbia University at the time and was lucky enough to score a ticket to this show. A few years later, I heard EC say, regarding Jerry Garcia, “he’s got the bigger beard; I played Broadway first!”
5. You’re No Good: EC sings Linda Ronstadt. I’ve got this on some sorta cd maxi-single supporting Spike. EC, by his own account, was less than gracious when Linda R. cut a few of his songs in the late 70s, so I thought it was hilarious when he released a low-fi version (distorted beat box and all!) of a song so closely associated with Ronstadt.
6. Brilliant Disguise: EC essays Bruce. Apparently, Elvis cut a whole album’s worth of demos of songs that he thought George Jones should record. This is one of them and is also on the Kojak reissue. He achieves a loping effect on this gem that reveals the dark heart behind one of Bruce’s great pop melodies. I suspect Bruce was influenced (certainly in terms of the title alone) by EC’s Brilliant Mistake, the lead-off track from KOA.
7. Full Force Gale: Acapella take on Van the Man. Originally on some sort of tribute record but eventually collected on the Kojak reissue. It takes a gifted singer to bring something to a Van Morrison song that equals if not betters the original.
8. That Day is Done: Not technically a cover as EC had a hand in writing this one which originally appeared on Macca’s Flowers in the Dirt lp. But I thought of it as it is also acapella and is certainly one of EC’s greatest vocal performances, here supported by the wonderful Fairfield Four.
9. Congratulations: Again, thank you, Elvis. In this case for sending me back to Paul Simon’s woefully underrated first solo record where this lovely song originally appeared. Another of the “George Jones” demos.
10. From Head to Toe: Elvis sings Smokey. This was from the Imperial Bedroom period and can found on the Rhino reissue of that record. I saw Elvis play this when he opened for the Police at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. I walked out on the Police after two songs … which is one more than I lasted for the Dead when Bob opened for them in ’87. But that’s another story for another day.