Elvis Costello at the Beacon: Misery and Splendor
On the Sunday and Monday just before Election Day—an anxious couple of nights—Elvis Costello and the Imposters played the final two shows of their Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour, at the Beacon Theatre, on the Upper West Side. I had never seen Costello in concert before, and I hoped that it would transport me, for a few hours, away from thoughts of F.B.I. rage and suspicious polling predictions and into a realm of art and beauty that I knew well, and loved. In college, a friend and I had hung out listening to “Imperial Bedroom” on vinyl; he’s now a hardworking public servant, riled about the election in an extremely detailed way, and I brought him with me. It was his fifth Costello concert. “Welcome, welcome, welcome to ‘Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers’!” Costello said at the top of the show. Then, mischievously: “Who knows what kind of misery lurks within?”
In his 2015 memoir, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” Costello describes “Imperial Bedroom,” from 1982, as being about lies and deceits “perpetrated behind gilded doors or during the murky excursions of nighttime.” (Now that evokes the cabinet-appointments process.) These concerts would also feature “the songs that led in and out of that velvet-trimmed playhouse,” as Costello had put it. The Beacon is itself something of a velvet-trimmed playhouse, and the band—Steve Nieve, on piano, Pete Thomas, on drums, and Davey Faragher, on bass—was dressed accordingly. Costello wore a fireball-red hat and held a red Epiphone guitar, dazzling as a vintage sports car. “We’re going to lift the mood a bit,” Costello said. They played “The Loved Ones,” with its bouncy “Oh, what would the loved ones say?” refrain, about, Costello wrote, “the horror of a parade of relations at the fate of a doomed and wasted youth.” The audience grooved along, drinking sippy cups of whiskey or wine. After some energetic hard work, Costello tossed his big red hat aside and shucked off his jacket.
“We didn’t start out in these kind of salubrious palaces of vaudeville fun,” he said. They’d started at places like the Bottom Line. “Those were the days when I was trying to rid the world of alcohol, mostly by drinking it.” Touring the U.S., they’d stay at Howard Johnson’s, “where they had hot and cold running clam chowder.” Costello, a storyteller, spun out amusing lines that pleased him and us all night, producing them as easily as those faucets produced the chowder.
Costello sang “Accidents Will Happen” behind the beat, which rattled me, but the song still hung together, and the band was shockingly good. He played a slowed-down “Tears Before Bedtime,” extracting its jauntiness. “I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to fight,” he sang. It’s usually a song whose chipper sound balances its lyrics: “For the tears that you boo-hoo-hoo, there can be no defense” is head-boppingly zippy. Slowed down, it had a different effect—doom, regret, foreboding—as if the request to avoid a fight at bedtime had happened over and over, for decades. “How wrong can I be before I am right?” the backup singers sang.
“Imperial Bedroom” ’s two most famous songs, “Beyond Belief” and “Almost Blue,” are known to all casual Costello fans; I discovered them in seventh grade, by listening to a greatest-hits tape. They were a revelation. At first, I’d mostly listened to side one—early amazements like “Watching the Detectives,” “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” and “Oliver’s Army.” One week, home sick, I explored the mysterious side two. It began with “Almost Blue”: spare, intimate, melancholy, gorgeous. A piano melody, minor notes, slow, patient brushes on the drums. It was so mournful, so tender, yet so in control. You almost couldn’t do anything else while listening to it. “Beyond Belief,” right after it—“History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats”—pushed that blue feeling into something spontaneous and urgent. The whole B side combined seriousness, wisdom, and exactitude with the kind of tuneful pleasures that made me feel almost guilty, they were so easy on the ear. “Shipbuilding,” “Watch Your Step,” and the rest sustained a feeling I couldn’t get enough of, like I’d gone through a looking glass to the unfathomable beyond.
“I was twenty-six when I wrote the songs for ‘Imperial Bedroom,’ ” Costello told us. “I had all these words in my head like ‘idolatry’ and ‘sultry’ and ‘adultery.’ ” He and the Attractions—Nieve and Thomas, both onstage that night, and Bruce Thomas, on bass—recorded it in London, at Air Studios, in 1981. It has a lusher, more baroque sound than Costello’s earlier albums. “We made ‘This Year’s Model’ in eleven days, and then we booked twelve weeks for ‘Imperial Bedroom,’ ” Costello said. “We didn’t know what to do with all the space and all of the instruments.” (These included a marimba, a xylophone, a twelve-string guitar, a Mellotron, and an accordion.) In his book, he writes, “We hired a harpsichord and an orchestra. Isn’t this how The Beatles had done it?”
Costello had grown up loving the Beatles; a passage describes an afternoon in 1963 when he listened to his father, a singer in a dance band, play “Please Please Me” over and over, to learn it. The descending cadence of the melody, the way McCartney seemed to sing the same note over and over to harmonize with Lennon’s lead vocal, the call-and-response crescendo of “C’mon”s: “To say that it was thrilling and confusing doesn’t do it justice,” Costello writes. “I just went into the living room and sat quietly on the couch.” His fandom proceeded from there. For “Imperial Bedroom,” he enlisted the producer Geoff Emerick, who, as an audio engineer, had worked on “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the White Album, and “Abbey Road,” and who was also engineering McCartney’s “Tug of War,” down the hall.
In concert, notes of Beatle-dom floated around. At the beginning of “Shabby Doll,” a song that was inspired by poster text, in a kind of homage to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” he threw in a line from the White Album: “She’s not a girl who misses much.” He introduced “Kid About It” by saying, “I wrote this song in 1980, in December. I went for a walk. Something had happened—I don’t even want to say what it was.” We knew what it was. Thinking about John Lennon during that gentle song, in a beautiful theatre not far from Lennon’s apartment, stirred some emotion. “Singing ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’ and turning into Americans,” Costello sang. “Say you wouldn’t kid about it.” It puts a different perspective on “Imperial Bedroom” to realize that this Beatles-infused album, recorded with McCartney nearby, and with Ringo wandering in to say hello, and with Linda chasing after Stella, Mary, and James, who’d burst into Costello’s control room, was recorded the year after Lennon’s death. But the album doesn’t sound much like the Beatles, and isn’t meant to; even when Costello’s influences are evident, he sounds distinctly like himself.
At the Beacon, people danced, even to mid-tempo album songs like “Pidgin English” and “Human Hands.” “Whenever I put my foot in my mouth and you begin to doubt / That it’s you that I’m dreaming about / Do I have to draw you a diagram? / All I ever want is just to fall into your human hands,” Costello sang. These are respectably vulnerable sentiments for a twenty-six-year-old. He told us that he could never write purely romantic love songs, as Smokey Robinson and other masters could. “I always had to have a trap door in the third verse through which everything fell into misery,” he said. “The Long Honeymoon” is high misery: “There’s no money-back guarantee on future happiness.”
Even “Watching the Detectives,” which inspired “The Long Honeymoon,” is about romantic angst. It has always sounded to me like blistering commentary about a police state, or some kind of high-stakes cloak-and-dagger situation. But it’s about a woman watching “Starsky & Hutch,” Costello told us: “She was watching the detectives and imagining it so hard it drove her husband completely out of his mind.” Four years later, in “The Long Honeymoon,” Costello said, “He’s gone, and she’s bearing down hard on ‘Colombo’ and Angela Lansbury.” Lit by green lights, he sang “Watching the Detectives” with pulp covers and film-noir posters flashing onscreen behind him. (“Mile-a-minute thrills!”) A painting of a haggard pulp heroine, levelling us with a look, made my friend and me laugh with recognition—she was us. Age, work, the election, life: there it was, on her face and in ours. We could go out for a night, but there was no escaping it.
All night, Costello was fooling around with the way he sang, messing with the timing, sometimes sounding out of step with the band, startling me. My friend assured me that this was a choice, not a yikes, but I felt like I was watching an Olympic gymnast wobble. And something went wrong during the cozy “Every Day I Write the Book”—he didn’t sing some lyrics about chapters one and two, as if distracted. I wondered if a mouse had run up his pant leg. He was back on track by chapter three, and was up to his old tricks in chapters four, five, and six. But, as is so often the case when you see a beloved artist whose work has worn deep grooves into your heart and memory, I was measuring what I knew and loved against what I was experiencing in the moment, and thinking about age and the passing of time.
I thought about this further when Costello sat at the piano and played new songs from an upcoming musical called “A Face in the Crowd,” which he hoped we’d see in 2017. Invigorated, he banged away with enthusiasm, singing about blood, hot sauce, pancakes, eggs, Vaseline, and pompadours. One song, “American Mirror,” was “about a scandal magazine I just made up,” he said. “It’s about a man who comes from out of nowhere saying crazy things and is taken seriously.” This gave me a wave of anxiety, reminding me of thoughts I’d managed to temporarily back-burner. Others felt this way, too, and made some agitated noise. During “Pump It Up”—good drums, good vocals, good raucousness, good everything—my friend said, “I am calling the ending: ‘Peace, Love and Understanding.’ ”
He called it right. “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” overwhelmed our senses. A whiff of pot and cologne, possibly from the same hedonist somewhere nearby; aggressive, harmonious guitar, relentless drums, and the righteous urgency of the lyrics, as raw as they’d felt in the eighties, when I listened to them thinking of Reagan and warheads and Contras and Thatcher. “As I walk through this wicked world, searching for light in the darkness of insanity,” Costello sang, “I ask myself, is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred and misery?” We were all on our feet, singing. “So where are the strong? And who are the trusted? And where is the harmony?” The election was two days away. Costello thumped his leg, jerking his knee high in the air, angry-young-man style. “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?” we sang. The lyrics felt elegiac—as wistful and remote as the ideals of “Imagine”—but the music said fight.