Monday, September 27, 2004

Elvis Costello's Suicide Note: The Deluxe Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition

Francoise Sagan died Friday, author of Bonjour Tristesse. She couldn't have been that sad if after her teen angst novel was published she lived another 51 years. I vaguely remember reading this about twenty years ago and never thinking twice about it again, although maybe I should check out that Otto Preminger version with David Niven and Deborah Kerr sometime. What a curse to have your first novel become a hit at 18 and a major Hollywood motion picture at 21. I suspect in the end she will be the Bret Easton Ellis of France's Beatnik generation, but I'm not a fan so it's not for me to say in the end.

I have, however, listened to Get Happy a few hundred times, at least, since I first listened to it in 1980, and that's what I put on the old laser turntable Friday. It was a sort of non-Proustian association: Bonjour Tristesse, Get Happy, no wafty madeleine odor required.

Get Happy was the most complete concept album of the fraying post-punk period. (I used to think Zen Arcade had that distinction until I realized it was about utterly nothing.) After punk buried everything, including itself, there was all sorts of indy revival activity going on, from rockabilly to blue-eyed soul to neopsychedelia (speaking of Zen Arcade). It was as if we were going through the old closet, trying on old clothes to see if any of them would fit comfortably in the new climate.

The concept behind Get Happy, of course, is take the happiest music style on earth, Motown, slip it on over your depression, mix in a little Stax and 1962 soul, let the personal angst and despair bleed out into the fabric, and end up with a complete inversion: bouncy dance music and slow dreamy ballads all written and performed as music to blow your brains out by.

Elvis' angry-young-man-pub-rocker albums went like this: pissed off and raw - My Aim is True (my interepretation of the album title has always been this is from the sniper's perspective); pissed off and tightly rocking - This Year's Model (now ludicrously misinterpreted as theme music on stadium PAs and PBS); pissed, off, political, and playing the pop heart strings (under Nick Lowe's theory of an apocalypse you can tap your toes to) - Armed Forces.

So when you drain yourself through anger and booze and railing against the machine and none of your first three albums seem to do anything, there's only one thing left to do: write your suicide note and get it all over with. Lots of bands just skip to self-implosion at this point without bothering to write their last testament, and some artistes in particular just get on with the big black with or without bothering to tie up the loose ends of their singer-songwriter doodles.

Here's how the LP ended up, if you played it in the proper order of the UK release:

doesn't mean forever anymore
I said forever
But it doesn't look like I'm gonna be around much anymore
"Riot Act", is pretty straightforward in saying 'this is it'. The context of the album, of course, was the incident where he called Ray Charles the N-word and said something unfavorable about James Brown in a stupid drunken argument with a red-neck Amuhricuhn band and was on the verge of being blacklisted; he may have meant it as a commentary on his career, of course, and not his mere existence.

Of course, us Yanks were under a curious misimpression. 'Riot Act' finished side one on our version of an LP whose songs were so tightly spaced together on the vinyl to accomodate the 20 cuts that it didn't play on every turntable out there. Our LP had the sides reversed and ended up with 'High Fidelity', which sounded like an update of 'Radio Radio', saying that he didn't give a shit, after all, if he wasn't going to get played on the radio:

Maybe I got above my station
Maybe you're only changing the channel

[Nick Hornby, being a Brit, no doubt listened to the record in the correct ordering when it came out, but apparently only heard it as a record of depression over lost loves. 'High Fidelity' didn't even appear on the soundtrack of High Fidelity, possibly because Roky Erickson was a better avatar for that kind of love-angst. I love Hornby's books, but they seem to uniformly make better movies because, in part, you can listen to the soundtrack he compiled while he was writing. That, plus his directors fix the narrative problems in the books. I will say this for Hornby: he articulately formulated the essential question -- Do you start listening to pop music because you're depressed, or are you depressed because you listen to pop music? But there's a reason the book/movie wasn't called 'Riot Act' - the guy who listened to the LP in that order gave up, in desperation, before he finished the book Riot Act.]

Kurt Cobain had the peculiar misfortune of being a depression-era Cassandra in a boomtown, the classic introspective self-destructive folk daddy with lead in his pockets without the buoyancy of anything bigger than himself and a wide world of rosy prognostications to keep his head above water. He was a heroin yowler in a world of wake-up latte. Every little cry of help he yelped out seemed self-indulgent when times were good; every time he put a new suicide note out on a recording everybody told him how awesome he was, instead of throwing cold water on his face or at least kicking him in the nards. I'm sure it was just like the deceased 60s generation who all checked out at 27, after their good buds offered them another jug of wine to go on top of the grass and reds. So instead of getting punched back down where he could've toiled in happy cult obscurity, he got his hit record, and instead of making everything better like he'd dreamed when he was fourteen it just seemed like there was nothing left to try. Like maybe, a Motown record. More's the pity.

The difference between "Riot Act" and, say, "All Apologies" (not even to mention "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die") among recorded suicide notes, is that the former contained the understanding that an apology wasn't ever quite good enough and that you had to slog on and hope that actions would speak louder than words:

(the narrator of the song, speaking to himself:)

Why do you talk such stupid nonsense?
When my mind could rest much easier
Instead of all this dumb dumb insolence
I would be happier with amnesia
Riot Act - you can read me the Riot Act
You can make me a matter of fact
Or a villain in a million
A slip of the tongue is gonna keep me civilian

...while the latter song is just an imagistic fade-out, hoping that the apology he leaves behind will suffice to keep his connection to the humanity he left behind, or maybe a rationalization he wasn't going to do any more damage. Elvis himself, only a couple of years later on Imperial Bedroom, decried the evil trail of consequence of suicide on the survivors in "The Loved Ones".

I think Elvis trusted himself enough to know his talent was above it all. To know that it's a damned pity Buddy Holly didn't live past 21 or Jimi past 28, all that great music never written, that Sam Cooke never made it out of the Hacienda Motel:

Somwhere in the distance I can hear "Who Shot Sam?"
This is my conviction, that I am an innocent man
Though you say I'm unkind
I'm being as nice as I can

...and he was smart enough to put it in the musical vernacular. He may not have meant it, but the best apology is hommage and the best therapy talk therapy, not pharmaceuticals.

"Riot Act" is -- hell, I'd be happier if it all hadn't happened, but it did. Elvis figured, in the end - if they're not going to take my apology at face value, fuck 'em, I'm moving on and they can kiss by black ass. Which, at 25 and 26 and 27, when you are faced with the choice of dying before you get old and moving into the great unknown of middle age, is the correct attitude to take. There's something about having the young snot slapped out of you that is just totally, wonderfully character-building if you accept the challenge kismet throws at your dirty feet.

I don't mean to make this whole essay about just one song on the LP, especially since it isn't even close to being the best song in the collection. One of the reasons his fans loved Elvis back then was the prolific nature of his output (his legendarily short early live concerts notwithstanding) -- he cared enough to just keep piling it on, cut after cut, and he was good enough to make most of it enjoyable. That there was, as it turns out, lots of editing and re-working makes it even more remarkable after the fact.

Get Happy, for reasons unknown to me, was the last of the early Elvis to make it onto CD. A limited edition of the UK record was available, then not available, briefly some years ago. If you wanted to listen to the record, you had to put on the record, for the most part, or at least fire up the cassette deck. But what I threw into the CD drive the other day is not that record. It's a weird Borges-like version of Don Quixote that provides the antidote to it own peculiar poison.

The re-issue of Get Happy is, in its way, a weird revival of that giddy overproduction of the period. The first disc is the full UK-ordered LP, and then there's a bonus disc with thirty cuts - like Taking Liberties on steroids. It's full of alternate versions, demos, live performances, and outtakes from both Get Happy and the other sessions around the Taking Liberties period. And to further highlight the DVD audio commentary feel to the whole thing, you not only get a lyrics sheet but copious song by song commmentary from the surivor himself, Elvis Costello. Not too many men get to re-write their own obituaries, quoting their own suicide notes, and stand laughing looking towards the next surely-fruitful twenty-five years.

The second disc is a defusion of the first disc's ticking bomb, and for us survivors it's a way of cooling down after a hot workout of the soul and feet. I'm not saying I would necessarily recommend it, but if you want to skip the mere risk of sliding into the depths of depression in the original Get Happy, put the second disc into the CD changer and then something truly lite and less filling and happy pop into the third slot. I'd suggest the first Hanson CD.

The real bonus in the liner notes is a coda written in 2003, which I will quote in part:

I was standing backstage at a gala show in Los Angeles with a group of friends in the dingy, concrete loading bay when I saw a man in dark sunglasses being led in our direction. It was Ray Charles, and as he drew level, his assistant stopped to introduce him to the singer at my side. Realising that to try to offer any apology after all these years would do little more than embarrass everyone present, all I could do was turn my head away with shame and frustration knowing that this was a hand that I will probably never shake.

One would hope that it is evident in many of my songs that I understand dignity to be the right of all humanity, whether one's ancestors walked in chains in Rome or were put up for sale in an American market place, or were driven from their homes by the duel oppressions of fanaticism and poverty. Nevertheless, in every encounter with an African-American musician, I have to wonder whether the distorted and obscure fragment of my biography will have filtered through unexplained. I have also found that guilt is a burden without any statute of limitations.

If there's anything to encapsulate the ultimate in regret, it's the inability to apologize to a guy who is now dead.

But wait...just to show he really does want to still bite the hand that feeds him, Elvis goes on to savage Rolling Stone, which made him their cover boy with a sympathetic article by Greil Marcus just after the N-word Holiday Inn incident, saying

...this rag has, over the years, undergone a remarkable transformation from an organ of the supposed counterculture to shallow pop-culture shop window for starlets and acrobats while funding their efforts with generous amounts of Big Tobacco advertising reveue and offers of penis enlargement to easily deluded teenage boys. I can only hope that those responsible continue to sleep untroubled by the illusion of moral superiority that laid me so low in a dark Holiday Inn bar in 1979, the consequences of which I suppose I will carry all of my days. For now, I have done explaining.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the next LP Elvis put out was a less successful and in its own way campy country-tribute record, Almost Blue. At the time, I recall being outraged and unhappy, since we all knew country music was boring and uncool. But the great themes of country, like the blues, are of finding yourself on the bottom of the barroom floor covered in your own filth, with nobody showing any interest in whether you're unconscious or dead, and then finding something within you to pull yourself up, wipe the sick off your shirt, and stagger home to see a new day. It wasn't a great effort, but man, was he trying. And you know what, that's all any of us can be expected to do: keep trying. Get Happy.


Rick said...

A friend of mine (a fellow Costello fanatic) emailed me this entry. Thanks for the great read.

DB said...

Beautiful. I used to spin Get Happy and Armed Forces and This Years Model nonstop in college, and I occasionally marveled that such "happy" music just made me want to drink more, cuss louder and later blow up the world.
Now, I listen to that music with a curious kind of black nostalgia.
Seeing Costello in Atlanta a few weeks ago, dressed in a tuxedo in front of a symphony, for all the world a post-millenial Sinatra, was not just surreal. Despite Costello's indisputable genius, I felt a little betrayed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. That's one of the best things I've read on Elvis Costello and his music.