From a whisper to a scream

In an interview with the ‘Post’ prior to canceling his two scheduled shows here, Elvis Costello was singing a much different tune.

Elvis illustration (photo credit: Rick Steinhauser / Akron Beakon Journal MCT)
Elvis illustration
(photo credit: Rick Steinhauser / Akron Beakon Journal MCT)
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 on the 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 Thatcher.
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 admire?
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.