Billy Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Elvis Costello, Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Less Than Zero, Mercer, Punk, Rogers and Hart, Saturday Night Live, Stiff Records, Watching the Detectives
So back in ‘77 Louie the Mad Vinyl Junkie gives me a copy of this weird album called A Bunch of Stiff Records. It’s an anthology of several British rockers and one of them is this odd guy with glasses named Elvis Costello who does a fantastic song called “Less Than Zero.” I’m the first to broadcast Elvis in this area, maybe in the U.S., maybe almost anywhere. Pretty soon I’m hunting up singles like “Radio Sweetheart,” “Alison,” and “Red Shoes,” and his first album arrives like the grail many of us rock’n’rollers have been questing for years.
And then in December 1977 we gathered around the TV box to watch him on Saturday Night Live, and there he was, playing the opening chords to “Less Than Zero,” and suddenly he stopped the band, said “Radio Radio,” and launched right into it, and we couldn’t believe it, what an incredible song, and it smacked the whole morbid music industry right in the kisser, just like we always hoped somebody would do, and it got him banished from U.S. television for years thereafter. It was as important as when Pete Seeger sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers Show ten years earlier.
In the ensuing years it became apparent that Elvis was not merely a great progenitor of punk, a reviver of real rock’n’roll, a grouchy icon of the new music – he was all that, but even the wicked mountebanks of the music industry came to realize he was also one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. In the history of popular music his name will be listed along with Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Rogers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Billy Strayhorn, and Duke Ellington. He’s that great a songwriter.
There was the time Linda and I went to see Elvis in Rochester. What a great show, and afterwards, as we were making our way to the exit, a member of the stage crew came up and handed Linda a backstage pass. Cool! Maybe we can talk to Elvis. We followed the crew guy to the stage entrance and he turned around and said, wait a minute, pointing to me, he can’t go with you. Well he’s my husband, said Linda. Well forget it, he said, and he stalked off to find another cutie for the King’s pleasure.
I flash back to the first time Elvis came to Buffalo and did the song I’m listening to now, “Watching the Detectives.” The show was at Buffalo State College, in a small restaurant-style room, and Elvis walks right out off the stage and on to the tables, and he crosses the tables until he comes to mine, and he reaches his hand to – Me! I hand him my pen. Re throws it down. My cup. He slaps it away. My hand. He pulls me up on the table. Help! I’m trying to decide what to do. I put my hands into the back pockets of my Wranglers, and stare him in the eyes, and wiggle my skinny ass back and forth to the rhythms of the song, as he sings, “It only took my little fingers to blow you away!” HELP!!!
Elvis Costello, “Watching the Detectives,” Street Music Co. (1977). From Elvis Costello & The Attractions, “Watching the Detectives/Blame it on Caine/Mystery Dance” (45 rpm EP), Stiff Records, Ltd., Buy 20 (1977). Sleeve design – not credited.