A close encounter with Elvis Costello
My heart was beating like a jackhammer, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds. All because I was standing in line to get a couple of items autographed by one of my teenage heroes.
I should, and do, know better. After decades of interviewing musicians and other creative types, on the phone and in person, from hanging out backstage on occasion and whatever other occasions, I’ve become anything but an autograph hound, in fact I actively seeking to keep my encounters with people whose work I admire to an absolute minimum. But this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The occasion was Elvis Costello in Conversation, an event at the Chan Centre at the University in British Columbia Nov. 23. Presented by the Vancouver Writers Festival and the Chan Centre, the event was exclusive to Vancouver, and probably the result of the confluence of two things; the recent publication, in paperback, of Costello’s 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink; and the fact that Costello lives, for at least part of the year, a hop, skip and bridge away, in West Vancouver.
So, a few things first:
- I haven’t read the book, although I’ve been a fan of Costello’s work since I first heard Armed Forces at 14 (in 1979)*;
- I received comps to the event;
- I’d tried to get an interview for the Vancouver Sun, but had been told the Man wasn’t doing any press;
- I knew that he was going to sign books after the onstage portion.
Before we get to the whole signing thing, a quick recap of the event itself.
The Chan was maybe two-thirds full, with most people being in my age bracket (i.e. has no idea who Skrillex is, or why). I didn’t see any evidence of people bringing anything other than books, as I had, to be signed. Onstage, a piano and an acoustic guitar hinted that there might be more than just conversation, that there might be some music as well.
To begin, CBC host and event moderator Stephen Quinn came out and explained the roots of his own Costello fandom, which seemed to go back at least as far as mine. Shortly (no pun intended), Costello, in signature hipster dad hat and dark suit, ambled out.
During the ensuing conversation, Costello presented an affable, self-effacing persona as he read briefly from the early pages of the book, and then followed up with anecdotes about his father and grandfather. Via a tablet on the coffee table before him, he called up family pictures on the screen behind. Also touched on were the early days of the Attractions, the British pre-punk, pub-rock scene, and his later collaborations with Alain Toussaint and Burt Bacharach.
There was a brief Q-and-A (someone asked about the song “What’s So Funny (’bout Peace Love and Understanding)”), and then Costello played three songs. These were “Indoor Fireworks” (by request) and, I believe, “My Lovely Jezebel” (written with Leon Russell, who passed away Nov. 16 of this year), both on acoustic guitar, and then a new, unrecorded song, “A Face in the Crowd.” He introduced the latter as a piece he’s written for a new musical based on a story by Bud Schulberg that also served as the basis for the 1957 movie of the same name (A Face in the Crowd). And then, after an announcement that he would be signing books in the lobby, he was off…
We’d already bought our copies of the book (I’d brought my girlfriend, N., who knew approximately one Elvis Costello song) in the lobby before the show, so we were among the first in line. A guy ahead of us wanted his picture taken w/ Elvis, and asked us to take it. N. reported seeing another guy leaving the autograph table with a signed record, so at least I wasn’t alone.
Now, I knew from past experience that something like this was meant as a book-signing, and not an opportunity to cart down your crate of artist-related memorabilia and have your rare 7″ or ticket stub or whatever signed. But at the same time, I didn’t think it was unreasonable to bring a couple of things, and I put a lot of thought into what I was going to get signed – if the opportunity arose.
Anyway, as we’re moving towards the front of the line, I notice two official-looking observers. One, at the head of the line to our left, is a smiling young woman in a Chan Centre outfit. “Please have your books open and ready,” she says.
But to our right, standing in front of the Chan Centre ceiling-length mirror just behind Costello, is a Jason Statham lookalike, his hands folded in front of him.
“He’s only signing books,” he says, noticing the record-shaped bag I’m carrying. “There are lots of people behind you.”
Here’s the thing: I’d say at least half of the audience had made a bee-line for the exit right after Costello left the stage. Maybe, just maybe, there were 200 of us left.
But fair enough, I suppose. I place my open books on the table in front of Costello. “One’s for my friend Eugene, the other’s for me,” I say, justifying the two books. I don’t remember if Elvis looked up.
As he’s writing “To Eugene” in the first book I mention that “he saw you in ’77. In Winnipeg.”
Apparently, Costello doesn’t think this is as earth-shaking as I do. He scribbles his looping signature and asks, “What’s your name?”
I spell it and he signs. I grab the books and move away from the table, spot my girlfriend. We reconvene – she tells me that she told him “Nice tie” (blue with pink polka-dots, I didn’t even notice) and he’d replied “Nice hat” (she was wearing her wooly white toque with pom-poms, supposed to look like some kind of animal – a bear or a sheep or something). Then she goes off to talk to someone. I look at the line.
It’s not looking bad. I get back in line.
This is when my heart starts beating fast, though. I don’t know what kind of reception I’m going to get. In our first non-encounter, I was careful to engage with Costello as little as possible – I didn’t want to say anything he’d probably heard a million times, and couldn’t think of anything he hadn’t (“Uh, I tried to interview you, but was turned down”?). In fact, I’d probably done the opposite of sounding like a rabid fan, by just mentioning something about a friend seeing him nearly forty years ago, as though I’d just shown up at this thing by accident. But now, I was That Guy – the one with the old records, the fan, the collector, or worse, the eBay seller.
But so what? I wanted my copy of Armed Forces signed, goddammit! And I was willing to stand in line a second time.
And it’s (probably) not like he has a plane to catch. He lives here, for chrissake.
Slowly, slowly – okay, maybe not that slowly – the line moves along. But really, it only takes about 20 minutes before I’m up at the front again. The Chan Centre girl says something about having my books ready and I say I already had them signed, and then I hear the dollar-store Statham ask if I’d bought a book.
“Yeah,” I said. “Two of them.”
Then I was up. I lay my two items on the table before him – a vinyl copy of Armed Forces, and the insert from a nineties British CD compilation called Girls Girls Girls. He moves them aside. “There are some more people with books, I’ll sign those first,” he says.
Again, fair enough, I suppose – a few more people had gotten in line behind me. I wait and watch. The next person in line comes up, a woman, opens a book and tells him a story. Elvis seems to be half listening, probably wondering what Diana Krall’s got in the oven for when he gets home. But then I hear my girlfriend, who is standing nearby and has been listening to this woman’s story, say “Oh, that’s so beautiful!” Costello must have heard too, because he actually seems to notice the woman and adds something to what he’s already written in the book. He signs a couple more books and then, finally, turns to my two relics. In the time it takes to say “What’s So Funny” he’s scrawled something on each that could just as easily say “loop-de-loo” as “Elvis Costello.”
“I guess you don’t see a lot of those,” I say, making one last attempt at human-to-human interaction, motioning towards the Girls Girls Girls insert.
“Uh, no, I don’t,” he says. “That’s a British compilation.”
And that was the extent of it. I skulked off, carrying my precious cargo. Half an hour later I was still shaking, while downing a beer at the Koerner Pub and watching international student karaoke.