Even though Elvis Costello had decided to boycott Israel, he was still happy to talk to Israelis. The day after the news broke about the iconic British rocker’s cancellation of his two shows slated for the Caesarea Amphitheater on June 30 and July 1, I called Costello on a cell-phone number, which I had inadvertently obtained while interviewing him two weeks earlier and saved for kicks under “Elvis.”
I called the US number, expecting to get a hotel receptionist or office manager who would laugh when I asked if Elvis was there. Instead, Costello himself answered the phone. Instead of angrily hanging up, he patiently said he was at the doctor with his twin sons, and asked if he could call me back in a few minutes. He did, and said he had read the story of his decision to cancel his shows on the Post’s Web site and, because it had accurately reflected what he had said two weeks earlier, he felt he owed it to me to talk to me again.
However, he said he didn’t want to say anything about his decision beyond what he had written in his statement, other than admitting that it had been “part of a 30-year conundrum” regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that, no, he had not been threatened or coerced by anyone to cancel the shows.
Then, off the record, he proceeded to basically reiterate – with a little elaboration – what he had already written. Stepping out of my journalist’s hat, I told him that he was actually strengthening the Palestinian rejectionists and hurting the moderates by canceling and that he was just plain wrong.
“That’s great, we should be able to disagree and talk about it,” he responded. “That’s the way it should be.”
As bull-headed, opinionated and passionate
as his songs, Costello made his decision for intensely personal reasons, based on what he thought he knew to be right. In his heart and mind, it seems clear, his aim is true, no matter how off the mark it may be according to Israeli fans, who were shocked, hurt, betrayed and confused by his announcement canceling the show.
When we spoke two weeks earlier, the specter of playing in Israel for the first time in his 33-year career was already weighing heavily on Elvis Costello’s mind.
“Let me ask you something,” he interrupted a few minutes into our half-hour interview, one of three he gave to members of the Israeli media to promote the June 30 show, which proved to be such a big seller that a second show was added the next night.
“What is the feeling over there? Are there differences of opinion and opposition to the government? How do people look at artists who come over there, as condoning the actions of the government?” the 56-year old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame performer and songwriter asked with the all the urgency you can hear in his songs.
For Costello, long steeped in liberal causes and Western progressive thinking evident from his very first album, 1977’s My Aim Is True
and its anti-fascist anthem “Less Than Zero,” it was a no-brainer that the Israeli government’s policies were wrong, that they were causing the Palestinian people undue suffering and the “Israeli occupation” had to end. The overriding thought that prompted him to accept the invitation to appear here, despite refusing many times in the past, was the notion that the government is not the people.
“I know people in Israel are working at their jobs day to day and
answering to their own conscience. I think it’s naïve to presume that
they all have the same opinions, just as I reject their presumptions
about me,” he said.
“The people who call for a boycott of Israel own the narrow view that
thinks performing there must be about profit and endorsing the hawkish
policy of the government. It’s like never appearing in the US because
you didn’t like [George W.] Bush’s policies or boycotting England
because of Margaret Thatcher.”
Costello must have repeated that mantra to himself many times since the
contracts were first drawn in March. But as he wrote in the letter
posted on his Web site last week announcing the cancellation of the
shows, ultimately his “instinct and conscience” did not allow him to go
against his liberal grain.
It’s ironic that media reports about the decision spoke of Costello
“joining” the Israel boycott along with other musicians – as if there
was an office somewhere in London or New York that was checking off his
name and sending him the official “Boycott Israel” T-shirt as a gift. In
reality, Costello’s distaste for movements and going along would likely
never allow him to join a movement and align himself with, say Gil
Scott-Heron and Santana, two artists who have also canceled Israel
appearances this year after they were already booked.
“I’m largely nonaligned – in the sense that I have opinions and express
them in songs, but I don’t tend to appear at every event or get on a
soapbox. If I did that, I would go to work for a newspaper, wouldn’t I?”
he said during our first phone conversation. We talked about issues
ranging from his musical upbringing, going to hear his father, musician
Ross McManus, perform with the Joe Loss band, to hosting his own TV
interview show Spectacle
Sundance network, to raising two young sons with his wife, singer Diana
Krall. Throughout, Costello was generous in his recollections,
illuminating and extremely well-spoken, and he seemed genuinely excited
to be finally performing here. What a difference two weeks makes.
Following are excerpts from that earlier interview, before Elvis changed
his mind.Do you remember at one point in your
childhood when you were with your father that you thought that being a
musician would be a good thing?
No, and I don’t remember my father ever proposing to me to become a
musician, but he filled the house with music and as a child, he provoked
my curiosity in different kinds of music. There was a constant flow of
music to my head.
On the contrary of pushing me toward music, there were a few people
after hearing me who suggested that I don’t become a musician.
I didn’t travel with him, but I did go with him frequently to the
Hammersmith Odeon dance hall – not in the evening, but on the weekends
when they played afternoon sessions. I would sit in the balcony of a
relatively deserted dance hall, and I have quite a profound memory of
watching ballroom dancers rehearse and mothers taking their young
daughters to learn to dance and little old ladies out dancing. It was
quite a poignant scene, I could recognize that even then.The Joe Loss Orchestra was
predominantly a Jewish band – how did an Irishman fit in, and did you
get much exposure in your youth to Jewish culture?
Joe Loss was an affectionate man for me. He thought a lot of my dad and I
thought a lot of him. He always had a big greeting for me. I can’t say
that I was exposed to any Jewish culture by Joe; my dad may have been. I
know that Joe questioned my dad about his background, he didn’t want to
accept that he was Irish [laughs].
I appeared on Joe’s This Is Your Life
TV episode in the early 1980s near the end of his career. It was a bit
of a tenuous connection: “Do you remember this little boy who used to
come watch you rehearse? Well, here he is now.” But I always had a
special place for him. The only time I sang in public with my father was
at a tribute to Joe. It was very emotional for me.
I have a photo on my wall of the three of us together. It was a rather
defining aspect of my childhood. The band was very successful on the
radio, and I’d go on school holidays with him to see the broadcast and I
got to meet the guest groups. I got to see The Hollies and meet Graham
Nash when I was 10. I got to see them up close and carrying their own
gear in. I think it helped develop the idea of making music being like
an ordinary job – instead of going off to the factory, my father went
off to the dance hall.The London Jewish community apparently
rallied around you when you were starting out in the late 1970s, because
of songs like “Less than Zero.” Were you aware of that and did you feel
any affinity to the community?
I didn’t really know about any support specifically from the Jewish
community. I tend to think of individual people.
Regarding being identified with causes, there are times you feel that
there are things that you put into a song that are different than how a
documentary or a newspaper report would cover something – like pointing
to several different perspectives at the same time. In a politician,
that’s flawed, but in a song, it’s a virtue. It’s like several
dimensions of an object on one surface of a painting.
As a listener, or a writer, it’s not very attractive to hear simplistic
sloganeering songs of course. There’s no doubt that the anti-fascist
rallies in the late 1970s in England were specifically addressing the
rise of the Right in a tangible way and making a clear statement. When
people no longer have the ability to see themselves as human, the appeal
for desperate means is much greater.It’s interesting when you talk about
music as a rallying point and a focus of comment, as to how you feel
about people who believe the opposite should occur. And I’m talking
about Israel here.
[Costello then asks some questions about Israel and after listening to
the answers continues to talk about reasons why he wouldn’t boycott
performing in Israel.]
Most countries tend to cast singers and other artists as mere jesters
whose job it is to distract from the woes. The moment they deem to make a
statement that might be multifaceted and open to interpretation, it’s
demeaned and people say that they’re just naïve. It’s not true. There
are paintings and songs I know that are much more complex in their
argument than a polemic.
I know from the experience of a friend who is from Israel and from
people who have worked there that there is a difference of opinion
there. It seems to me that dialogue is essential. I don’t presume to
think that my performance is going to be part of the process. The people
who call for a boycott of Israel own the narrow view that thinks
performing there must be about profit and endorsing the hawkish policy
of the government. It’s like never appearing in the US because you
didn’t like Bush’s policies or boycotting England because of Margaret
When you look at any democracy, no matter how flawed in the worst time
when a government is in power acting in an irresponsible, violent and
despicable way, the only answer is dialogue and reconciliation. I know
people in Israel are working at their jobs day to day and answering to
their own conscience. I think it’s naïve to presume that they all have
the same opinions, just as I reject their presumptions about me.
People who say it was naïve of Leonard Cohen to perform in Israel and
start his reconciliation fund are in the business of saying it’s naïve.
That’s no different to the dismissive argument that performers should
abuse their privilege of having an audience. It’s not a privilege, it
something we work toward. It’s like a doctor getting a qualification to
earn that audience, and it makes us distinct from another performer.
The idea that we’re not qualified to express the opinion on matters of
the heart is total nonsense. What would be arrogant, though, is to think
is that anything you say or sing has to resonate with importance.What’s been the biggest revelation for
you hosting Spectacle and interviewing some of the musicians you
The curious thing is that people are really surprised about the way
musicians speak among themselves. I don’t think the conversations are so
startling, but one thing we do is allow the conversations to go their
natural course. The bulk of talk-show interviews are set up to arrive at
a punch line. They’re hosted by comedians.
But we’re not without humor – Lou Reed told a joke, it kind of shocked
me. And I remember we talked about his father’s passing and his
friendship with him – an hour-long conversation with those two moments
is to my mind what makes the program different.
There’s no particular skill on my part as an interviewer. I’ve learned
to remember not to scratch my head, and I’m getting more at ease with
the technical aspects.
I’m more than compensated by the generosity of the guests. Someone like
Bruce Springsteen giving four hours of their life to me and having
conversations lead to impromptu songs, you can’t ask for more than that.Now that you’ve been on the other side
of the Q & A session, do you regret that you might not have been as
nice and forthcoming in your interviews as you could have been in the
early part of you career? I remember seeing some interviews with you in
which you were quite surly. Was that real, or were you playing the angry
young man part?
I think it was a little bit of both – my first memory of a proper
English journalist wearing a trench coat with a cigar and leering at us,
trying to get us to tell lurid tales, the same way as other people who
had made assumptions about us. He didn’t care about us and what we had
to say, and when you’re younger, you turn on them.
But I wasn’t usually angry – I just have an unfortunate face. I still
get into trouble crossing borders and get questioned about my attitude
by passport officials. I tell them I don’t have an attitude, I’m just
answering their questions.
But I discovered that confrontation sometimes had an impact, and it was a
way to get interviewers off my back a bit and enable me to get the
words out of my mouth before they changed them. And that worked for a
while, but there comes a time when the music became more
multidimensional, that you end up giving people a little more credit. So
it hasn’t all been confrontational.
But once in a while, I’ll still get someone who didn’t do their
homework, and there’s nothing I can do to help them. I have to remind
myself when I interview people now that I have to put away my theories
and preconceived notions about someone.How do you and your wife juggle your
careers and your children? I know Diana is coming here in August [August
4 in Ra’anana] – will you be accompanying her?
I miss Diana and the boys terribly when I’m away. We share
responsibility from keeping them from traveling too many miles. At this
stage, they usually travel with one of us. Diana’s been to Australia and
Mexico, so they’ve been on the road with their dad in California.
For the next few weeks we’re together. Every moment together is
precious. Unfortunately a lot of the our job requires us to travel –
there’s no great fortunes to be made from records anymore. I haven’t
held to that theory in a long time. I try to make records as joyous and
positive as possible in order to announce the existence of new
repertoire that can be played within the fabric of a concert.I remember a quote from you akin to “I
won’t be around to witness my artistic decline.” Do you think you’ve
kept true to that aim in all the different musical projects and
directions you’ve attempted over the years?
My answer to that is this is my family business. Did you really think I
was going to stop?
The one thing I have no sense and concern abut is posterity. I just keep
going on my instincts. I have no proper education of any kind, and I’m
self-taught musically. I’ve learned technical things that have allowed
me to collaborate with musicians of higher caliber than myself. I’m not
in competition with myself to try and better something that I did 30
years ago – that would be idiotic, why would someone want to do that?
That would be like looking for cheap applause like a seal in a circus.
I’ve turned to do different things out of curiosity, not out of
affectation. It’s out of a love for all characters of music, and how to
work within different forms. And it’s been about building friendships
for life – with people like Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney.
Why would you walk away from those challenges? Maybe you can’t see them
as challenges or lessons, but they are, and they’re joyful. And the
results are that some songs endure and others don’t. When you first
start touring, you have those 12 songs to make your name. If your plane
goes down, that’s all you’ll ever have.
I’ve been fortunate enough to find new ways to interest me. I can’t
imagine someone buying all 30 of my albums, they won’t appeal to
everyone. But there’s always new songs to sing and, as we’re proving by
coming to Israel, new places to play.