Me and Elvis

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

If anyone should ask me who my favorite singer is or asks who my favorite songwriter is, I’ll give the same answer to both questions. It has been the same answer for more than 30 years.

The singer/songwriter and now author is Elvis Costello. I first discovered his music while working a late-night shift at a college radio station. His first album, My Aim Is True, had just been released in America on Columbia Records, and the label had sent us five promotional copies. As a ten-watt FM station whose signal barely got around the block, I’m not sure we even had five listeners, but there you go.

I decided to give a copy of the album away on the air to the third caller. When my shift ended and I still needed three callers to get to that winning call, I decided to take the album home. Thus began a life-long love of the music and especially lyrics of the man once (if memory serves) referred to as the Frank Sinatra of his generation because of the feeling he put into his music and who, in a 1982 New York Times article, said he aspired to the kind of songwriting that legends such as Cole Porter produced.

I began writing lyrics a few years before Elvis Costello burst onto the music scene. After that first album (and, honestly, nearly every one since) I aspired to, but never could achieve, the kind of songwriting that Elvis produced. I’ve always admired his turn of phrase, his juxtaposition of word images.

All of this brings me to his latest effort, a 672-page memoir titled Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. The book was a Christmas gift from my wife, and I devoured it in just a few days. Like his music, the book paints a number of word images and shifts time and space, basically tossing them on their ear as he jumps from a childhood memory to a concert story to a recording session and so on, each story triggered by or recalling another memory.

Some less charitable critics might call the book disjointed because it does jump around a lot (and others have complained about various “obscure” musical references), but the book would have been much less interesting and a much worse read (in my opinion) had it followed a more straightforward chronological narrative.

The book is punctuated throughout with snippets of Costello lyrics, both better-known and more obscure, lyrics that once again reminded me how much I always wished I could write lyrics of that same quality. Having read the book, I now know why that was not and will never be possible. I was not exposed to the same musical influences and did not grow up in the same circumstances. So, of course, my songs would of necessity be different.

However, reading Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink gave me the courage to write lyrics I could almost imagine as something Elvis Costello might pen if his life and mine had been a bit more alike, although I’m sure he would have come up with a much better title.

One Song Away

Your story reads like yesterday’s news
Masked by the pills and the bottles of booze
That prop you up beneath the neon lights
You were once a runaway train
Till the accolade muddled your brain
Struggling now to remember your place most nights

A third-rate star in a two-bit club
Playing for tips and drinks; ah, there’s the run
Once, the angels laid it all there at your feet
Now you’re just one song away from the street

You once rode that rocket to the stars
Hard to find the light in those dingy bars
Where drunk Romeos and Juliets keep the world at bay
You wallow in your misery
Knowing the next song holds no key
There’s no register, no release to take you away

Your meteoric rise required re-entry
Your flame out something to behold
You burned red-hot until the flame went out
And now that inner fire’s gone cold

The fingers struggle to play the chords
For just a few when there used to be hordes
Now you’re just thankful someone remembers your name
Your guitar your only faithful lover
But as you try to play you soon discover
That even she is getting tired of the game

A third-rate star in a two-bit club
Playing for tips and drinks; ah, there’s the run
Once, the angels laid it all there at your feet
Now you’re just one song away from the street

You burned it all away getting too close to the heat
Now you’re just one song away from the street

© 2016 Walt Huntsman. All rights reserved.

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