Riot Act...

Riot Act...

I am an Elvis Costello fan. He and I go waaaay back to the early '80's at least. I remember watching him twitch and jerk through "Pump it Up" on MTV at Tommy Simpson's house (we didn't have cable) and thinking "That's so fuckin' cool."
Course everything was cool then. There was this thing called New Wave and it sounded bright, energetic and shiny. Some of the older white kids in my Junior High school were into it: Checkered Vans, loud colors and asymetrical haircuts. Everything was new then. A new president, I was going to a new school. My family (due to my parents divorce) had changed. I remember the kid who supervised our newpaper drop-off spot (an old garage near Rainier and Holly St. - long since gone) listening to Cheap Trick on KISW on the groggy, foggy Sunday mornings when we'd come stumbling in to stuff and roll the Sunday editions. I was intrigued!
For a time it seemed like the future had really arrived and this is what we'd be listening to. If only lumpen, poor, unstylish me could be a part of it all.
I remember my friend Barbara telling my something about Elvis...that he'd used the "N-word" in one of his songs. But I recalled seeing him apologizing on TV about it. Besides, I thought, isn't the term "white nigger" (in "Oliver's Army") referring to the Irish?
I moved to Georgia after 9th grade (this would be '82) to get to know my old man better. Seattle, held no promise for me and I was afraid that things would be the same forever. So I fled, not realizing what I was running into. A new family (Dad remarried), new siblings, new school, new social order, new expectations...stressing to a 15YO, to say the least.
My Dad, convinced that my mother had ruined me somehow, decided that a policy of "tough love" was the best. He thought he was being "a Father", I thought he was a tyrant and a bit of an asshole (the latter due to all the terrible things he'd say about my mother). I went from having a lot a freedom (which I never abused) at my mother's, to having virtually none. Both my parents are very religious and while they had huge record collections, they viewed my love of music as something Very Bad. My guitar and sketchpad was taken away, as were the few casettes I had. I was told I was to concentrate on church and school and any dreams of being a musician (or an artist) were a waste of time.
Naturally, I rebelled.
There was a couple of hours everyday, when my Dad left for his job (he worked swing shift) and before my stepmother, brother and stepsister got home that I could do my thing. I also found a small transistor radio my folks had forgotten about -- I'd lay in bed at night, listening to Georgia State Radio (Album 88) and 96 Rock! There was also a channel on free TV that played videos that never made it onto MTV. It was there I got my second introduction to Elvis Costello.
I came home from school one sunny day in 1983 in time to catch the video for "New Lace Sleeves" (which, I might add -- is my favorite song) and I was hooked. Still, I didn't buy any of his albums until I was back in Seattle a year later. I started with "Trust" (naturally) and probably own or have CD-R's of everything up through "When I Was Cruel." My best friend Stu and I bonded over our mutual love for EC's music and my friend Tess took me to see him in concert for the first time a couple of years ago.
Anyway, last weekend I was at my friends JR's for the 4th and I hijacked the ambient and techno playlist he'd made for that had more new wave and rock.
"Riot Act" came on. I was saying what a great fookin' song it was and Jason's wife Liz told me that the reason the performance was so impassioned was the Elvis thought he'd never get to make another record. So he went into the studio and nailed the song in one take! I was pretty impressed with that but being nerd I am, I thought there was more to the story.
I was right:

Q. What was the Bonnie Bramlett/Ray Charles incident?
A. Elvis back in early 1979 made some not-so-politically-correct comments about Ray Charles (calling him a 'blind, ignorant nigger') while drinking with Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills in the bar of the Holiday Inn
-Downtown in Columbus, Ohio. He also called Stills 'steel nose', in reference to Stills' one-time cocaine habit. A fight then ensued between the Attractions and Stills' backing band. He was later forced to make a public apology at a press conference.

From an interview with Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone, September 2, 1982:

'What actually happened was this: we were in the bar--Bruce Thomas and I were in the bar after the show in Columbus, Ohio. And we very very drunk. Well, we weren't drunk to begin with--we were reasonably drunk. And we
started into what you'd probably call joshing. Gentle gibes between the two camps of the Stills Band and us. It developed as it got drunker and drunker into a nastier and nastier argument. And I suppose that in the
drunkenness, my contempt for them was probably exaggerated beyond my real contempt for them. I don't think I had a real opinion. But they just seemed in some way to typify a lot of things that I thought were wrong with
American music. And that's probably quite unfair. But at the exact moment--they did.'

'...What it was about was that I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say to them--that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them more than anything else.' (source here)

This site puts it all together:
"Elvis Costello had problems -problems with women, with the music business and with society at large. His neurotic behavior during the first couple of years of his career was legendary. He claimed publicly that his motivations for getting into the business were "guilt and revenge."
Despite the brilliance of his work, at some level Declan MacManus felt that he was a fake and a fraud, and that he would soon be found out and run out of the business. He basically dealt well with the early rejections from all the record companies. Rejection he knew how to deal with: he just kept hustling till he finally got a deal. What he didn't know how to deal with at all was success. His first album got rave reviews and sold like hotcakes. He just couldn't believe that he would in fact become a big rock star, just like his idols.
Elvis then went to great lengths to sabotage his burgeoning success. His most infamous incident came in some crappy little hotel bar in Ohio. He was being berated by some worthless, jealous dried up old singers not worthy of having their names mentioned in the same breath with Elvis. Having been taunted and baited with accusations that he was just a ripoff of James Brown and Ray Charles, he eventually dismissed them as "niggers." His nominal point was simply to piss off some smug liberal idiots who were harassing him
Now this was asinine enough to get him some serious humiliation. Naturally, the self-righteous pigs went tattling to every reporter they could find. They were going to make some ink! This was bigger news than anything in their pathetic careers. Of course Elvis didn't mean that stupid stuff, but his apologies still left him sounding like a fool. This stupid outburst was only a minor drag on his career, but left him with a little albatross of shame to carry around.
One good thing did come from all this foolishness. "Riot Act" is a merciless slow, grinding soul song. Feel the grand drama of bad karma coming inevitably back home. The organ and bass heavy groove works up tremendous torque. Hear the descending chords pulling down the narrator's ego and slowly grinding it into a fine powder.
He does not specifically invoke the Ohio nonsense, but it would be obvious to someone who follows his career. This is an outstanding tactic, making it autobiographically meaningful to his loyal followers, but not wrapped up in what to later generations will be boring and irrelevant personal details that would also make it difficult for others to cover the song. The narrator has been running his mouth, indulging his "pent up insolence," and finds himself having to step up and take his whipping. "A slip of the tongue is going to keep me civilian." By the end, he's volunteering to take it like a man.
"You can read me the riot act." Repeat 10 times. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
One cool thing about the record is that you might take it partly as a tribute to Ray's style. The best apology to be made for Elvis in the whole matter is to note how good a student of Ray the guy obviously is. Nothing would ever be cooler than to hear Ray himself sing "Riot Act." Damn, but that would be tough."

Indeed. (Too late, for that tho.)

I don't have a problem with this information. It happened a long time ago, he apologized publically and I imagine if I was drunk and some git was giving me the business, who knows what I might be apologizing for later! Elvis thought he'd never make another record because of the "Ohio Incident!" This does clear up a mystery for me AND (once again) it's proof that the 'net (and music) are a beautiful thing...

Riot Act

Forever doesn't mean forever anymore
I said forever
But it doesn't look like I'm gonna be around much anymore
When the heat gets sub-tropical
And the talk gets so topical

Riot act - you can read me the riot act
You can make me a matter of fact
Or a villain in a million
A slip of the tongue is gonna keep me civilian

Why do you talk such stupid nonsense
When my mind could rest much easier
Instead of all this dumb dumb insolence
I would be happier with amnesia

They say forget her
Now it looks like you're either gonna be for me or against me
I got your letter
Now they say I don't care for the colour that it paints me
Trying to be so bad is bad enough
Don't make me laugh by talking tough
Don't put your heart out on your sleeve
When your remarks are off the cuff



M. Duss said...

Great post.

fat_girl said...

WOW! Very passionate.