Song written by Elvis Costello; performed by Elvis Costello featuring The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
The sky was just a purple bruise
A stripping puppet on a liquid stick gets into it pretty thick
A butterfly drinks a turtle’s tears, but how do you know he really needs it?
‘Cos a butterfly feeds on a dead monkey’s hand,
Jesus wept he felt abandoned
Just a few excerpts in no particular order.
I feel obliged to point out that I never thought this song was directed at anyone other than the self.
It cannot come as a shock that the biggest nerd of the late 70s new wave has been on repeat play for my internal soundtrack for as long as I can remember. I recognize that the intersections between Costello’s music and events in my life is as much a factor of serendipity as any real significance. Given a five year difference in either direction for my birth date and I might be saying the same of Graham Nash or Bruce Hornsby. Yet, here I am with the guy that wears the National Health Plan glasses, loves old standards, and knows more words than I do. (That last one really hurts.)
Let’s take a real left turn here. Due to an unfortunate lacrosse accident at the end of high school, I needed a pair of glasses very quickly. At home for an afternoon, the vision center displayed the five or six choices available to me if I wanted my glasses in two hours. I picked the pair without examining them closely. As it turned out, the inside bore a label: “Battlestar Galactica”. The original show had been off the air for some time at that point, I believe. For the next couple years, you could stand off to my side and discover my unexpected affinity. Needless to say, I had sympathy for anyone forced to wear glasses chosen by weird luck.
Then there’s a couple other factors.
I like people who can talk and think. Costello hosted a short-lived talk show that displayed a remarkably facile knowledge of the world and, especially, the music that has filled that world. Basically, it’s always nice when you don’t cringe when someone you admire opens their mouth. I’m well past having to agree with everything someone says, but a visible ability to think is always pleasing.
Lastly, the thing I’ve been avoiding bringing up. If you’ve followed his career for a while, then you are well aware that Costello gets angry. Some of his best songs have the emotion on clear display. While bringing up Woody Guthrie and others, I haven’t really touched on the undercurrents running beneath some of their best art. Anger is tough to translate into art because it too easily becomes rhetoric. It can also cloud the artist’s ability to evaluate their own work and decide whether or not it is audience-ready. Costello, like the other greats that I have mentioned, has a remarkable ability to channel righteous indignation into something beautiful and powerful for its beauty.
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 80 more to go.
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