CLEARING THE AIR
Elvis Costello Is Mad as Hell: ‘I’ll Punch the Next Person’ Who Says I’m Struggling With Cancer
The celebrated musician opens up about his new album ‘Look Now’ and the offensive rumors surrounding his health.
“I’m not going to critique other writers, because I had a very nice conversation with a young man the other day, and 99.9 percent of the article he wrote was really interesting, but he used the word ‘remission’ to describe my health, and therefore his editor decided to put cancer in the headline,” Costello explains, noticeably still upset about the incident. “I’m not in remission because I didn’t have cancer. How could I be in remission? I was relieved of something that may have caused cancer. So out of respect to my friends who recently have lost that particular fight, and to those that continue to have it, of which I have rather too many, I’d rather everyone get the words right.”
In fact, Costello and I had corresponded last summer, and he had claimed then he was fine, if a bit shocked that anyone cared about his health, after headlines that made it sound like he was at death’s door when he’d been forced to cancel a string of live shows.
“I went out on the road too soon,” he confesses. “We’d played some sensational shows, but then one night I lost all my power in the middle of the show. I thought, ‘This isn’t right. It’s not right for the band. And the audience isn’t getting what I want to give them. I just need more time to get my strength back, that’s all.’ I then gave a statement because I didn’t want to make it seem like I was just irresponsible. I thought, ‘Well, maybe some good will come of this, and that other people will be lucky like me.’”
“But unfortunately, that was not enough for tabloids in England,” Costello continues. “They wanted to make a big drama out of it and suggest that I was dying. So next thing, I had to explain it to my 91-year-old mother, and I had to sit my boys down, who are 11, and speak to them about it. Then I was getting letters from strangers, and letters from all my friends. It was really unfortunate. And it then becomes a thing that’s attached to your name. And it made me think, if I’d just canceled seven shows and said I’d felt like going on holiday, you’d have been none the wiser. So I’ll punch the next person that puts ‘He struggles with cancer.’ It makes me furious, because it’s so disrespectful to somebody who’s really struggling. Think about it for a second, it’s not a laughing matter. We all have friends who genuinely are frightened for their lives against a mortal illness. And they deserve our respect.”
All of this may lead you to believe that Costello is still the “angry young man” he made his name as during the late-‘70s punk explosion, and who produced that remarkable string of albums during the ‘80s—with and without his band The Attractions. In fact he's become a revered elder statesman of rock, albeit one who continues to collaborate with everyone from Burt Bacharach—who co-wrote several songs and appears on Costello’s new album Look Now—to Questlove and The Roots, and who name-checks Nicki Minaj.
“It’d be fanciful for me to think that I’m in a race in the charts with Nicki Minaj,” a chuckling Costello says of the prospects for his new album. “It’s just not what I’m doing. But I love her music, by the way. Most of my favorite music is what they call ‘pop music’ now. I don’t much go with the boxing-off of music, because that will just lead to the death of it. We live in a world of plentiful possibility now, though there still needs to be a way so that you can pick your way through it. Otherwise you’re looking for needles in a big haystack.”
Still, Look Now ranks among Costello’s best work and will surely find an audience. It hearkens back to the broad, almost CinemaScope perspective of his 1982 masterpiece Imperial Bedroom, which Costello paid homage to on tour last year with his current band, the Imposters, and which informed his ambitions on Look Now, albeit through the lens of a 64-year-old.
“We didn’t have then where we are right now,” Costello’s says, reflecting on the chaotic sessions for Imperial Bedroom. “Now we have trust.”
The contributions of drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard virtuoso Steve Nieve are remarkable throughout Look Now, and, along with bassist Davey Faragher—embellished by gorgeous vocal arrangements and string and horn parts written by Costello himself—serve the songs in sympathetic, and often surprising, ways.
“I’m not being sentimental, but I have spent a lot of time with Pete and Steve,” Costello says. “We have been through lots of seasons, and lots of different fortunes. Time brings changes in your life, independently. You start to lose friends, and you say goodbye to members of your family. They’re things that are part of everybody’s experiences in life, but they make you a slightly different person when you start trying to tell stories like the stories on Look Now.”
Recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios and Los Angeles’s EastWest and United Recording, Look Now couples the elegance of Painted From Memory, Costello’s 1998 collaboration with Bacharach, with the urgency of his 1978s breakthrough album, This Year’s Model.
“I know I’ll sound almost entirely fancifully, but this is This Year’s Model 2,” Costello offers. “Literally, this is the second edition of This Year’s Model. But this is This Year’s Model 2, because it also is a model for how to write songs, how to record, and how I feel about things at this point in my life. It isn’t supposed to be competing for your attention. It’s what it is. And if that isn’t what people want, what can I do about it?”
Costello is also circumspect about the state of the music industry in 2018, and doesn’t seem too worried that Look Now will make its mark.
“You know the story about the Velvet Underground?” he asks. “They didn’t sell any records, but then everybody who did buy the record started a band. That’s legend, at least, whether or not it’s real, there’s some sort of truth to it. There’s music that resonates in ways that has nothing to do with sales. Of course, this record would’ve had a different commercial life if I’d released it 10 or 20 years ago, but do you honestly think that my record label doesn’t know that? So I know I’ve made a good record. And we made a record of what this band sounds like at this moment, singing these songs that I care about, that I gathered together in a way we felt we wanted to present them now. The stories are all true-to-life stories, and it’s a record that doesn’t contain any moralizing or judgment. In fact, a lot of the time it’s people struggling with something, mostly with their own worst impulses. As you do!”
As we wrap up, Costello returns to where we began. Because he wants to set the record straight, and because the rumors of his demise have not only been greatly exaggerated but have affected him in a profound way.
“Unfortunately, we live in a world where people would rather trade in melodrama than they would in fact,” he says, clearly fired up again. “And that’s true of a lot of things, aren’t they. I’m not being falsely modest here, but my well-being is not a major thing. It’s a major thing to the people who love me, and it turns out, a lot of people whose names I didn’t know would send me good wishes, but in the greater scheme of things, in the good and bad of the world, it’s not a major thing whether I’m well or unwell. The world will keep turning if I don’t make any more records, sing any more songs, record any more songs, or anything else. It’s just getting it in proportion. When it’s happening to you, yes, it’s upsetting but it didn’t affect anything about my judgment—except to make me grateful to do what I love to do, which is sing.”
He adds, “And maybe there’ll be another time to record, and maybe there won’t. Maybe there’ll be more time. But maybe there won’t…”