LONDON – I’ve just mentioned to Elvis Costello the publicity stunt he pulled on his first trip to Japan in 1978.
“Ah, our attempt to get ourselves in the papers,” Costello recalls over the phone from his Vancouver home. It had seemed like such a fiendishly provocative idea: dress like Japanese schoolboys in Nehru jackets and brass buttons (“we thought we looked like the Beatles at Shea Stadium”), hire a truck, drive it through Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza district playing as loud as amplification would allow, and throw your records at the growing crowds. What could go wrong?
“Nobody took any notice,” he laughs. “It just goes to show what would make the papers in England wouldn’t make a ripple in Japan. Too unprecedented I guess! We thought we’d be hauled away and it would be a fantastic scandal and that’s how we’d make our name. But it didn’t work out that way.”
The man born Declan MacManus, now 62, says he “never did reach the level of recognition or fame that became an inhibition” but the intervening years between his botched stunt and his latest Japanese trip have seen him become one of music’s great polymaths. After an imperial phase as New Wave’s late-1970s intellectual tunesmith, Costello took a diverse path that has seen him embrace country, classical and funk, collaborate with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and The Roots, host his own TV show and, thanks to his recent autobiography, “Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink,” become a best-selling author.
“For some people that’s all evidence you’ve lost your mind and got above station for not sticking with three chords of rock ‘n’ roll. But they are my genuine curiosities.”
The Costello of today — family man to jazz singer wife Diana Krall and their twin sons, respected elder statesman — is an understandably more adjusted version of the agitated upstart that surfed the new wave scene with, as he put it at the time, “guilt and revenge.” Today he is forthcoming and affable and like his lyrics, in conversation he can command an eye-catching turn of phrase.
“If you take the back off your television set it’s a bit of a mystery, but we stare at the front of it quite happily” is how he analyzes his “mystifying” constant reinterpretation of his songs, demonstrated once again on his current solo, anecdotal Detour shows.
“You don’t want to stick to just one way of doing things. There’s lots of different ways to tell a story. And I’m more surprised that people are still curious to hear songs that have a few years on them now, so I owe it to the people who have paid me that compliment to try and find something in them other than just to rely on their familiarity.
“What I do is write songs, which is a very solitary thing, and then I go on stage. I don’t have a beautiful voice and I don’t have matinee idol looks, and somehow I’ve managed to hold people’s attention and tell them a story.”
Elvis Costello plays Sankei Hall Breeze in Osaka on Sept. 5 (7 p.m. start; ¥10,000, ¥12,000; 06-6535-5569); and Showa Women’s University Hitomi Memorial Hall in Tokyo on Sept. 6 and 7 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥9,000, ¥10,000; 03-3444-6751. For more information, visit www.elviscostello.com.