Rock and Roll Heaven

My Aim Is True

Everything changed the first time I saw Elvis Costello

Photograph by Redferns

I was living in San Francisco in 1978, working at a bookstore on Fisherman's Wharf. I had taken a sort of hiatus from rock in the years previous, listening to more country and jazz while trying to avoid the ubiquitous sounds of Journey and Steve Miller, not just on the increasingly corporate rock radio stations but in my own home. My girlfriend still thought the Rolling Stones were cool and we were starting to have turntable battles: her Bob Seger versus my Graham Parker.rock in the years previous, listening to more country and jazz while trying to avoid the ubiquitous sounds of Journey and Steve Miller, not just on the increasingly corporate rock radio stations but in my own home. My girlfriend still thought the Rolling Stones were cool and we were starting to have turntable battles: her Bob Seger versus my Graham Parker.

There was new music in the air. S.F.'s original underground radio station, KSAN, had been sampling the new punk sounds coming out of New York and London and while I responded to the energy, I craved more than three chords.

I think it was on Richard Gossett's show that I first heard Elvis Costello. It was a number called "Radio Sweetheart" and I stopped whatever I was doing in the kitchen to listen. The jazzy guitar opening, complemented by a hissing hi-hat and a walking bass line, slipped into a country vamp with steel guitar and a sing-along chorus that reminded me of the bouncy British pop I'd been reared on, but with much sicker lyrics and a strangled vocal that gave me chills: "My head's spinning and my legs are weak/Goose-step dancing, can't hear myself speak."

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When I heard Elvis was coming to Winterland with his new band, the Attractions, I ran over to Tower Records and bought myself a pair of tickets.

Rockpile opened the show, billed as Nick Lowe; I remember the band playing "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass" and the fact that they quit after only 30 minutes. (When someone asked Elvis about their short set on KSAN the next day he said, "Maybe that's all the songs they know.")

Mink DeVille followed them, with Willy DeVille doing his sort of junkie James Brown number. My girlfriend loved it but as much as I liked some of his songs, DeVille turned many of their numbers into laborious vamps. By the time Elvis took the stage I had worked my way to the front of the crowd and was ready for something sharper.

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The entire set lasted an hour, encore included and from the opening number ("Mystery Dance" from his first album, "My Aim Is True") it was clear that Costello and the Attractions (Steve Nieve, keyboards; Bruce Thomas, bass; Pete Thomas, drums) weren't going to be doing much vamping. The song, a sexual-confusion recast of Lieber and Stoller's "Jailhouse Rock," lasted two minutes and eight seconds (which I know thanks to the set-list for that show I found on Concert Vault ) and the patter between songs was just as pointed.

"Welcome to the Last Fox Trot," the singer said at one point, referring to the sacred ground on which he stood, site of the Band's Last Waltz concert less than two years before. How could he make fun of our national treasure (even if four of them were Canadian) and the rock royalty who joined them that night (Dylan, Clapton, Van Morrison)?

Quite handily, it seemed. Though we know from his recent memoir, "Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink," that the former Declan MacManus loved those artists as much as we did growing up, he felt that all the drug-fueled, velvet-rope excesses of rock and roll superstardom needed a good tweaking.

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Maybe that's why that show was such a game-changer for me. In their thrift store punk-pop finery, Costello and his crackerjack band seemed to be both mocking and exalting our shared musical heritage. Hearing "This Year's Girl" for the first time that night (the tour was in support of Costello's second album, "This Year's Model"), I recognized the bridge ("Time's running out/She's not happy with the cost") as virtually identical to that of the Rolling Stone's "Stupid Girl" ("Well I'm sick and tired/And I really have my doubts …").

That song was the B-side of the first 45 I bought ("Paint It Black"); I had seen a number of former British Invasion bands when I was a teenager, including the Stones and Clapton for that matter, but there was an age gulf between us then. Costello is my age, and seeing a fellow 23-year-old staggering around like an electrocuted man that night gave me no end of pleasure.

My girlfriend and I broke up not long after that show. She dumped me, naturally, and in the months that followed Elvis provided me with lots of musical salt and lemon to put on my emotional wounds. But that night was about change. I cut my hair soon thereafter and got rid of my hippie dungarees, trading them in for the requisite polka dots and checkered slacks. Elvis closed his set with "I'm Not Angry," letting the last word just hang in the air after he left.

   
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