Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Man Out of Time



1977...




2000...



2000 again, this time covering U2...

Thirty years ago this December, Elvis Costello made a name for himself in the United States by "pulling a Lulu " on Saturday Night Live, stopping in the middle of "Less Than Zero," the song that had been rehearsed and blocked for the cameras, apologizing to the audience, and launching into the then-unheard new song, "Radio Radio." Different stories of why abound: one has it that Costello wanted to perform "Radio" in the first place, but was blocked by his record company, which wanted him to plug a known song for his major U.S. TV appearance. My own favorite version, told years later by Costello himself, is that Costello and the Attractions were the second choice of the show, after the Sex Pistols' various visa problems kept them out of the U.S., while Costello, in turn, thought that SNL was less-than-advertised: "Maybe something got lost in translation, but none of the humour seemed nearly as 'dangerous' or funny as they seemed to think it was, or perhaps they were just having a bad show," he sniffed, and he and the band hatched a plot to prove "we were just acting in the spirit of the third word of the show's title." Either way, Costello's legend was set: his actions "proved" was punk in spirit (even if he sounded more "new wave"), and supposedly banned him from SNL for twelve years.

It's a great story, and I don't doubt a lot of it is true. But look at the first video: Costello appears nervous, but this is hardly the wild spontaneity of legend, with Lorne Michaels running crazed through the studio trying to figure out how to shoot this act of madness (MADNESS!!!): it actually appears extremely well-blocked, and the cuts fit the tempo of the song and its quietly crazed energy really well (especially like the canted angles on the keyboard). Perhaps this is just a testament to the professionalism of the SNL cameramen, but it's not the cinema verite, "rush to get the shot" moment I'd always heard about.

Still, however smoothly it was captured, I'm willing to believe it was unexpected, spontaneous, what Robert Ray, in The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, calls "an event," defined as such precisely because it's unpredictable. So what do we do with the second clip, what Jeff might call the "remix"? It's brilliantly done, and very fun (and the Beasties are a surprisingly adept back-up band), but it's a restaging, a cover not only of a song, but an event. Can you restage an event whose legend relies on the supposed "danger" of a split-second decision? Do we need to know the backstory here, whether or not the Beastie Boys knew they'd be "interrupted" (I'm guessing they did)? Is it the music that counts here, or the gesture?

Finally-- the same year Costello spoofed himself on SNL, he showed up to cover someone else's song, someone else's legend. He's older, mellower, and much more audience-friendly. But he still chooses a relatively obscure song from Pop, arguably the least-popular album by the world's most popular band (a great, great album, too, by the way). In other words, he's still the punk, still grabbing the unexpected tune, instead of the hit single, still finding a way to subvert folkie earnestness (at a folk festival, no less). Bono's lyric ("You had to win, you couldn't just pass/The smartest ass, at the top of the class") is an apt description of Costello, a cousin to the earlier "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna bite that hand sooo badly...," but notably, Costello misreads it here, singing "You had to lose, you couldn't just pass..." Another gesture of defiance? A Freudian slip? An acknowledgement of the fragility of backstories and legends in a media age? Or is it just, as Walter Benjamin said, that "These are days when no one should rely unduly on his 'competence.' Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed"?

5 comments:

dave said...

I'd never seen _any_ of those clips, so this post was a real treat. Thanks.

Cinephile said...

Cool-- glad you enjoyed it!

jef said...

"I want to bite the hand that feeds me..."

I feel like pulling out my Blood and Chocolate disc.

Cinephile said...

Ahh, Blood and Chocolate-- good record. I prefer King of America a little more from that same year, but it's hard to get more twisted and obsessive than "I Want You," or loopier than "Tokyo Storm Warning." I'm listening to Imperial Bedroom as I type this, actually.

joiez said...

I heard it was because he wanted to use the lyric about Oswald on American TV - just as Oswald was shot on American TV - and the mess the Warren Commission made of everything - & the swastika tattoo reference - & they told him he couldn't, so he just did the most incendiary part, and then what they told him to. Thus legends are born, apparenlty.