Authors: Graham Thomson
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by
Canongate Books Ltd, 14 High Street,
Edinburgh, EH1 1TE
This digital edition first published by Canongate in 2013
Copyright © Graeme Thomson, 2004
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders of the photographs used in this book
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library
ISBN 1 84195 665 1
eISBN 978 1 78211 163 4
Typeset in Sabon by Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Book design by James Hutcheson
For my own ‘Three Distracted Women’:
Jen, Kat – and my mother, Kathleen.
THERE ARE NUMEROUS PEOPLE TO THANK
for their contributions to the writing of this book. Like Blanche DuBois in
A Streetcar Named Desire
biographer also finds himself relying on ‘the kindness of strangers’ to a slightly worrying degree. As such, the most significant input came from the memories, opinions, insights and
revelations of those who know or have known Elvis Costello, and who provided the raw material for much of this biography in hundreds of hours of taped interviews conducted between August 2002 and
Everyone I spoke to gave their time freely and generously, and in particular I would like to thank: Robert Azavedo, Roger Bechirian, Bebe Buell, Marianne Burgess, Brian Burke, Paul Cassidy,
Philip Chevron, John Ciambotti, Alex Cox, Chris Difford, Charlie Dore, Paul Du Noyer, Steve Earle, Dale Fabian, Jem Finer, Bill Frisell, Mitchell Froom, Bob Geldof, Charlie Gillett, Ian Gomm, Eric
Goulden, Richard Harvey, Philip Hayes, Steve Hazelhurst, Larry Hirsch, Carole Jeram, Allan Jones, Clive Langer, Andrew Lauder, Allan Mayes, John McFee, Sean O’Hagan, Marc Ribot, Nick Robbins,
Dave Robinson, Jerry Scheff, Paul Scully, David Sefton, Ricky Skaggs, Ken Smith, Mat Snow, Bruce Thomas and Ron Tutt.
Not all of these interviewees are quoted directly in the book, but I thank them all individually, reserving special mention – for dedication above and beyond the call of duty – to:
Brian Burke, Allan Mayes, Ken Smith, Steve Hazelhurst, Bruce Thomas and Philip Chevron.
In addition, the input, interest and unwavering assistance of Richard Groothuizen at the
Elvis Costello Information Service
and Mark Perry and Mike Bodayle at the now sadly defunct
fanzine was invaluable, especially in the early research stages and in assisting with photographs; indeed, I can scarcely imagine where I would have been without them. I
would also like to thank John and Martin Foyle and the numerous – and therefore, by necessity nameless – journalists, writers, record company employees and photographers who made the
path of my research all the easier with their help and suggestions. Special thanks to Pennie Smith and Starfile (starfileonline.com) for their patience and flexibility.
At the typeface, reliable and invaluable transcription help was provided by Dawn Hucker. Kate Beveridge also helped out with various time-consuming and hugely helpful tasks, running the gamut
from tape transcription to correcting my spelling, a task she has been performing since I was old enough to write. For ploughing their way through the work in various draft stages and making
numerous winning suggestions in bright ink, I would also like to thank my brother Gordon and my partner Jen.
At Canongate, I tip my hat to Jamie Byng, Marney Carmichael, Jim Hutcheson and Andy Miller, whose collective input – and patience – aided the book in numerous ways, both technically
and creatively. Thanks also to Deborah Kilpatrick for her meticulously efficient copy editing. Above all, I raise a glass to my editor Colin McLear for sterling work in the face of adversity. His
contribution to the finished text is incalculable. Finally, I must also acknowledge the role Clare Pierotti played in getting the whole thing going – I think I still owe you a drink.
To my colleagues and employers at all the publications I write for, for showing (varying, it must be said) degrees of understanding and patience while I finished the book – thank you.
Special mentions to Michael Hodges, Mat Snow, Hugh Sleight, Gordon Thomson, Gavin Newsham and Bill Borrows, for help, guidance and wildly distracting e-mails.
On a personal note, I pass my thanks back through the years to Chris Gaffney for lighting the Elvis torch, to Bevis Hughes for his help in keeping it burning, and to Martin Baker, my musical
friend and foil before the flood. As ever, the lion’s share of love and thanks is reserved for my family – especially Mum and Gordon – for endless and ongoing support in all
manner of ways. And to Jen, who was there at the beginning and still there at the end: for allowing me to frequently go emotionally AWOL, and for tolerating my obsessive jabberings on the occasions
when I was present, always with humour, understanding and love – thank you most of all.
Elvis faces his inquisitors during the combative press conference at CBS headquarters, New York, 30 March 1979.
Credit: Starfile/Chuck Pulin
THE BAR OF A HOLIDAY INN
is as good a place as any to die. Stranded in the nowhere lands between Cleveland and Cincinatti, Elvis Costello finally pulled
the trigger in the game of Russian roulette he had recently been playing with his career. Drunk, wired and coiled tight with aggression, a one-sided, after-hours slanging match with Stephen Stills
and his entourage escalated to the point where Elvis branded James Brown ‘a jive-ass nigger’ and Ray Charles as ‘nothing but a blind, ignorant nigger’. Never keen on
half-measures, Elvis also described the British as ‘original white boys’ and Americans as ‘colonials’.
Initially, the incident seemed like just another example of the increasingly desperate escapades that Elvis and The Attractions were making their speciality: too much attitude, too much of
, swapped insults, a scuffle. But while Elvis emerged the following morning remembering little of what he had said or done, he would soon be reminded in intimate detail. The
sorry tale that spilled out from the bar in Columbus, Ohio would slam the brakes on his swift ascendance in the United States. It was the story the circling US media had been waiting for, and they
would make sure they seized their opportunity with both hands.
* * *
It had been going so well. Of all the loosely-labelled British punk and new wave hopefuls of the late 1970s, Costello alone had struck gold prospecting
across the Atlantic. With a band that could swing and punch in a way which everyone – even the Americans,
the Americans – could instinctively understand, he had
managed to bully and inveigle his way into the hearts and minds of the critics and music-buying public with a trio of best-selling albums that had invited comparison with the best of Dylan,
Springsteen and The Beatles.
By March 1979, he was poised to go the extra yard, right up to the big league.
had lodged in the US Top 10 as Elvis and The Attractions were marauding through the country
on the ‘Armed Funk’ tour, their fourth US trip in a little over a year and, by far, the most important and intensive: fifty-seven dates in barely two months. With Elvis up for a Grammy
for Best New Artist, CBS viewed
in much the same way as they had regarded Bruce Springsteen’s third album,
Born To Run
in 1975: it was the record intended to
make the artist not just a star, but a superstar.
‘We either make it all the way with
or we don’t,’ said Elvis’s manager Jake Riviera on the eve of the tour. ‘If this album doesn’t break
us in America then Columbia will still keep us, but we’ll be considered pretty much a spent force.’