Lex Neon on Elvis Costello

I bullshit you not!

It was Halloween of ’79.  My friend Damon and I rode our bikes up to the Hollywood Hills in search of candy for our bags and bellies. Dressed like twin Hobo Kellys (thanks again, Mrs. Thomas), we rang doorbells, yelled “trick or treat,” and performed “Put ‘Er There, Pal” by Crosby and Hope (from Road To Utopia) for Hershey’s kisses and miniatures, candy corn, popcorn balls, and money.

At one point, Damon rang a doorbell.  A very pretty blonde lady answered the door.  We yelled “trick or treat,” and broke into song.  A group of 20-somethings gathered around the door to see what was going on.  We got a great round of applause, and people started throwing candy and money in our bags.  We thanked them, and turned to walk away.  Then it happened.

The pretty blonde lady who answered the door stopped us and said, “Hey guys, I will give you 20 dollars if you can tell me who this man is.”  She pointed to a small figure of a man in glasses who stood about 5 feet to her left.  Damon, never a shy person, piped up and said, “Couldn’t we just have the twenty bucks?”  She laughed.  She looked in my direction; I was quiet because I recognized Elvis Costello.  I sheepishly said, “Mr. Costello, if I can have your autograph then I don’t want twenty dollars.  This Year’s Model is such a cool record.  Is Steve Nieve here, too?”  Damon stepped up and punched me on the arm, really hard.

~  ~  ~

During the summer of ’79, I was out of school and allowed to stay up past my regular bedtime to watch “Saturday Night Live.”  It was on this show that I first saw Elvis Costello and the Attractions.  I’d been familiar with his face, but not his songs.  I had accidentally ordered his first album, My Aim is True, through a mail order record club.  I put the record in my growing record collection and never bothered listening to it; I figured that it was more “punk” that I wouldn’t be able to musically digest, like the Sex Pistols.

During his performance on SNL, he and his band started a song that I would later identify as “Less Than Zero.”  Ten seconds into the song, Elvis stops singing and quickly turns to his band and yells, “Stop, stop, stop.”  His band mates sat there for a moment, looking confused.  Elvis then turns back to face his audience, steps to the mic and said, “There is no reason not to do this song here.”  Once again, he turned to his band,  called out “Radio Radio,”  and away they went!

Elvis snarled and barked his way through this brilliant piece of writing.  At the end of the song, he peels off his Fender Jazzmaster guitar and walks off stage, his curious bandmates sheepishly trailing him.  I sat there in the dark in front of the tube, transfixed.  I’d never seen anyone with that type of piss-and-vinegar perform before.  I became a fan at that instant, and the next morning I peeled the shrink wrap from my still unopened copy of My Aim Is True.

I was blown away by the songs, the sound, and his trademark “angry young man” snarl.  I took my next allowance and purchased his next album, This Year’s Model.  Musically, the sound was sharper and more punchy.  It fit Elvis’ snarl and songwriting a lot better.  I now had “Radio Radio,” plus a host of equally fantastic songs filled with anger, revenge, vitriol, and smarts.  “Lipstick Vogue,” “Pump It Up, ” and “The Beat” would become my favorites during that first listen.  Pretty soon, I had the name Elvis Costello written across all of my Pee-Chee folders that I carried around school later that year.

~  ~  ~

So that Halloween, now four months later, a very drunken Elvis Costello scrawled his name on a napkin and handed it to me.  He shook my hand and asked, “Did she put you up to come here tonight and say that?”  There was silence.  I was crushed, and hurt.  I told him that I wouldn’t lie to him, handed the autographed napkin to the pretty blonde lady, and walked away on the verge of tears.  Once Damon caught up with me, we hopped on our bikes and sped down the hill in silence.  Twenty minutes later, when I finally calmed down, we stopped.  Out of breath, Damon punched me real hard on the arm.  Again.

He said, “That’s for the twenty bucks.  Here’s your damned autograph, you big crybaby.  I told him that his name was on all of your folders at school, in big letters.  He signed another napkin for you.  They even threw in the twenty bucks. Since you got what you wanted, I should have the twenty.”  I took the autograph and put it in my pocket.  When I looked at it later, it read “To Alvin, my biggest fan in California.  Apologies,  Elvis Costello.”  I smiled and put the autograph in my copy of This Year’s Model.  It stayed there for years, until the album (along with 2000 other records from my collection) were stolen and sold by a greedy addict relative.

Shit happens, I guess.  But, over the next twenty odd years I would follow Elvis’ move from genre to genre, including country, rhythm and blues, and classical.  I would, more times than not, quote Elvis in my high school and college term papers.  And yes, my teachers always commented on the quotes I chose because they were either Costello fans themselves, or just liked the “bite” of a great line.

Happy birthday, Elvis (August 25)! Thanks for a memorable Halloween experience, for the autograph, and for brightening my musical vocabulary and term papers.  Hope to see you again soon!  It’s been 29 years already!

(Lex Neon is the musical mastermind behind the music of indie sunshine pop / rock band Poppermost.  For more info, go to http://www.poppermost.com/)

Note:  The date on the album below is the re-release date.  The original was released March 1978.

Currently listening :
This Year’s Model
By Elvis Costello
Release date: 2008-03-04
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~ by Poppermost on September 2, 2008.

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