“I want to bite the hand that feeds me/I want to bite that hand so badly/I want to make them wish they’d never seen me.” Against a backbeat of pulsating bass and tremulous keyboards, Elvis Costello first sneered these lines thirty years ago on “Radio, Radio,” the caustic finale of the raucous second side of This Year’s Model, his major-label debut. The album has recently been given another lavish reissue treatment, this time by Universal (the previous two were by Rykodisc and Rhino), and with each reissue, complete with new liner notes and bonus tracks, Costello racks up yet another sale of the back catalog. Yet no matter how many times he’s repackaged, the Elvis Costello of the late ’70s will not become harmless. Those songs still have legs–along with teeth. Here’s a couplet from “The Beat”: “I don’t wanna be your lover/I just wanna be your victim.” Ouch. Elvis is this year’s model yet again.
The bite of Costello’s music has always been as keen as his musical appetite. He knows his Schubert Lieder, his Miles and Coltrane albums, his Mozart and Wagner operas, and his Ethiopian ’70s pop so extensively that he could be rock ‘n’ roll’s most prodigious aesthete, or at least archivist. The B-side covers of “My Funny Valentine” and “Gloomy Sunday” were early hints of his curatorial passion. But since he didn’t earn the title of angry young man for nothing, we know that he’s not shy about sharing his hatreds as well as his passions, and anyone familiar with his musical objects of enmity would be perplexed by his current role as the opening act for the Police during their North American stadium and arena tour. When Costello listed his 500 favorite CDs for Vanity Fair in November 2000, he made a point of noting whose music was absent: “You will see that some very famous names are missing completely. There is nothing at all by Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Michael Jackson, or Sting. You may love them. They just don’t do it for me.” Three years later, when the Police and Elvis Costello and the Attractions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Costello was asked his opinion of the Police’s performance: “They were bloody dreadful.”
When Costello performed “Radio, Radio” to a gathering horde of Police fans in Buffalo’s HSBC Arena on May 3, he sang the line about biting the hand that feeds him with conviction. He was hitting the same notes as his younger self, but he made no attempt to imitate them. What had been, in its genesis, adenoidal and guttural became steely, reserved, bellowing and a bit resigned. Three decades later, radio–really the music business–is still in the hands of such a lot of fools. It was just another day at the office: Costello sounded pissed off, as if he were a deskbound drone with a wanker for a boss.
The megastars performed a glitzy nostalgia show, bouncing with professional efficiency through a two-hour set that included pretty much every crowd-pleasing tune one would expect from an arena show with a three-figure ticket price. It began with Sting playing “Bring on the Night” an octave down from its original recording, with some fancy guitar picking and a mysterious offstage voice providing harmony–not quite Ashlee Simpson territory, but a little unsettling. Every conceivable hit followed, and their signature refrains–“sending out an SOS,” “de doo doo doo, de da da da,” “so lonely,” “put on the red light”–were hammered into the crowd with a mind-numbing repetition stretched out by the band’s inimitable, relentless white-guy ska grooves. The trio performed “Invisible Sun” against a backdrop of manipulative images of starving Third World children. (OK, proceeds from special VIP tickets went to the microfinance organization Unitus.) Sting also shook his 56-year-old ass at the suburban moms in the crowd, who went wild. This from a guy who recently topped the classical music charts with Songs From the Labyrinth, his performances of the late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century lutenist and lyricist John Dowland. He has now found himself mining a more contemporary (and remunerative) nostalgia beat. Back in 1982, Costello summed up this mix of charity and vanity on “Town Cryer”: “Other boys use the splendor of their trembling lip/They’re so teddy bear tender and tragically hip.”