Hallelujah Elvis

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My favorite cover of an Elvis Costello song so far: “The Comedians” by Roy Orbison.

Malcolm Gladwell spends the first 10 minutes of his “Hallelujah” podcast lambasting Elvis Costello’s Goodbye Cruel World. He calls it “awful,” “disastrous,” and “unlistenable.” He emphasizes that he is a “massive Elvis Costello fan” and that even Elvis Costello himself says it’s his worst album. In the liner notes of its Rykodisc’s re-release Costello writes, “Congratulations, you’ve just purchased our worst album.”   

Gladwell uses his disdain for Goodbye Cruel World (in particular the song, “The Deportees Club”) as a springboard to introduce his  comparison of conceptual innovators to experiential innovators. He says the former have clear goals and devote themselves to reaching them quickly. He uses Picasso to anchor his example of a conceptual innovator. He places famous people like Herman Melville and Orson Welles in this group. Paul Cezanne anchors the second group: Experiential Innovators. Gladwell believes the people in this group do not have a clear plan or goal. Instead they have a more general idea of what they would like and use a trial and error approach to get the results they’ve imagined. In addition to Cezanne, Gladwell identifies Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock as experiential innovators. 

I was fortunate enough to hear him work through his thoughts on conceptual and experiential innovators almost 10 years ago, live at the 2008 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conference where he was a keynote. This is after the publication of Tipping Point and Blink but before Outliers. At the time he called his theory the “Time Price of Art” and my favorite idea from his speech was the notion that in education we “are seeking classrooms of Picassos where we should be cultivating Cezannes.” The former representing a single and immediate understanding. The latter representing persistence and the process of building understanding.

I am an Elvis Costello fan too. My Elvis Costello was the “Alison” -era Elvis Costello. Specifically the Elvis Costello they played on WLIR in the 80s heyday of New Wave — “Alison,” “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” “What’s So Funny Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding” — “Dare to Be Different!” was the station’s tagline. And Elvis Costello was different in that his lyrics were amazing “turns of phrases” and pun — 

Oh, oh I said, “I’m so happy I could die”
She said, “Drop dead, ” then left with another guy

This is the line that Gladwell sings in his podcast:

You don’t know where to start or where to stop
All this pillow talk is nothing more than talking shop

Where he sees “The Deportees Club” as a song about the “dissolution of romantic love,” I see the song as an immigrant’s story about loving a hostile country and the song’s title as a nod to Woody Gutherie’s “Deportees.”

Some of us are illegal
And others not wanted
Our work contract’s up
And we have to move on
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border
They chase us like outlaws
Like rustlers, like thieves

Good bye to my Juan
Goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos Jesus y Maria
You won’t have a name
When you ride the big airplane
All they will call you
Will be “deportees” 

That line that Gladwell loves when he’s sad — “All this pillow talk is nothing more than talking shop” — in my interpretation it’s a “Green Card Marriage” negotiation like the movie with Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell. It’s a white Hollywood movie so even though it has a sad end, it is hopeful. The truth among non-white immigrants is simply tragic. Gladwell calls Costello’s original version of “The Deportees Club” “angry, loud, and upsetting.” I call it “suiting.” Don’t these headlines make you angry and upset — “ICE agents arrest high school student on prom day,”  “N.J. Indonesian man deported by ICE leaves behind young citizen son,” “Immigrant arrested by ICE after dropping daughter off at school”

This is a link to the original recording of Costello’s song: http://bit.ly/2t9lOw4. Gladwell is right it is “angry, loud, and upsetting” and it captures the anguish of the words perfectly.

This is the version that Gladwell, Costello, and Clive Langer (the producer of the original song) like: https://youtu.be/FIzTXbixEaQ. It’s somber and reflective. A clean and simple discourse between singer and guitar. It might be a final regret-filled prayer spoken by a passenger on Guthrie’s plane as it plummets to a final peace but it isn’t the tone of someone caught in an ICE raid and deported.

I am not in the music industry and I am not well read enough to offer a well-informed opinion so my thoughts are purely subjective. The professionally preferred version sounds a lot like the roots music that Costello experimented with in Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane and National Ransom. While I like the results of his foray into roots music and I believe it has musical merits. I just don’t feel it worked on “Deportee.” There’s an urgency — a frustration — in his original that is missing from his slower roots-influenced critics-approved version.

In the Arrivederci Roma nightclub, bar and grill
Standing in the fiberglass ruins watching time stand still
All your troubles you confess
to another faceless backless dress
Schnapps Chianti porter and ouzo
Pernod vodka sambuca I love you so

If he is “watching time stand still,” he is waiting for someone or something and is impatient. If he is getting drunk and confessing all his troubles to “another faceless backless dress,” he is hopeless. “Deportee!” He is drinking to forget but keeps reminding himself of who he is. There’s a self-loathing in the song that its roots version has turned to melancholy. 

Gladwell places Costello as in Cezanne’s court. Costello is an experiential innovator who habitually revisits to seemingly finished works to edit them with newly learned techniques. “Deportee” is an example of this. Costello kept the words, stripped them of the 80s production techniques, and created a new version using what he’s learned about roots music. The result is good and he may have “found the song” like Clive Langer tells Gladwell but it’s lost some of the meaning and symbolism in the original. 

My favorite Elvis Costello cover so far: “Don’t Let Me Be Understood” by Nina Simone.

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