Barker. Ring master. Punk jester. Poet with a cocked eyebrow. Roots revivalist. Jazz master. A classical-tinged American-gothic murder ballad snaking throughout his lyrics. All performed in those iconic horn-rimmed glasses. Declan MacManus.
I once lost my son. I’m exaggerating, but go with me. It was only for a moment, and it never crossed my mind that anything was actually wrong. He was a toddler, and we had taken him to Bonnaroo. Our backstage passes assured that I could set him down and let him crawl and wander. I was talking with a friend when he left my line of sight. In a split-second, I whirled around to find him safe in the arms of a stranger. I guess I would call Elvis Costello a stranger. We had never met, but like any musical hero, I had spent a fair amount of time having one-way conversations with him in what would look to any outsider to be a silent room, all of the sounds resonating in my headphones. I politely introduced myself, wondering if I was holding any kind of composure, not that it mattered. He was far from home and missing his new twin boys, who may have only been a year or two old themselves at that point. We talked for a few moments about parenting and kids, as he handed mine back, and then off he went toward the stage to deliver one of his great sermons.
I don’t recall what the first Costello song I ever heard might have been. If I had to guess, it was probably “Pump It Up.” The pop songs tend to arrive first. I do remember noticing that there was something different about it, or maybe something askew about the man singing it. His voice was unconventional, definitely nothing you would call pretty. It had a cut to it like a pocket knife that wasn’t so much sharp, but piercing just the same. Somewhere not long after, I heard “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” and found myself with the song on repeat for days, maybe weeks, after. It wasn’t until much later that I was introduced to My Aim Is True and his early Attractions period, though that too came at a perfect time in my life, and carrying a wealth of other musicians that were tied to those LPs. In fact, one of the greatest side-effects of being a fan has been the artists that he’s led me to. Nick Lowe, The Pogues, The Specials, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint, T Bone Burnett. On and on. These are the musicians who surround him, each with their own brilliant catalog and lineage. It may be an unintentional gift, but it keeps giving.
More than any other from his selections, I’ve probably listened to When I Was Cruel the most. Catch that title track, built on a loop of an Italian song with an Abba quote toyed within. Or the insta-fun of the lead cut “45,” easily one of his most danceable. The mood of “Spooky Girlfriend,” a comical, cartoon horror flick that Max and Dave Fleischer could have some real fun with.
Or take some time to find the thread between his albums Spike, Mighty Like A Rose, and All This Useless Beauty. It rolls off like a three-act play about a love that was dangerous from the onset. Two people who ended up together for all of the wrong reasons. Maybe a love that was always brewed in malice and in spite, and carried out with the convenience of separate lives, all the while both of their souls slowly dying. I’d watch that movie. It has truth, and eventually, it even has a happy ending. I probably connected to those songs more than I would like to have at a couple points in my own life, but that’s why we love music so much, right? We can turn to it for the expressions that we’re too embarrassed to admit for ourselves, or to find solace. Or escape.
I feel lucky to know Elvis Costello like I do. To this day, I’ve never bumped into him again outside of that day in Manchester, and he wouldn’t know me from Adam if we were to, but I know him within the characters that he writes that I in turn pick up and take further in my imagination. A game for certain, but one that continues to surprise, influence and inspire. What more could I ever ask for in a song?