Costello back on stage af­ter cancer di­ag­no­sis

Three months af­ter his cancer di­ag­no­sis, mu­si­cian is re­turn­ing to ac­tion


Elvis lives! “I’m do­ing great,” says Elvis Costello, ruddy-cheeked and bristling with en­ergy, “and ac­tu­ally I al­ways was.” In July this year, af­ter can­celling his Euro­pean tour only a few shows in, the 64-yearold singer-song­writer an­nounced that he’d had surgery to re­move “a small but very ag­gres­sive can­cer­ous ma­lig­nancy” only six weeks ear­lier. “I wasn’t singing well,” says Costello now. “So I thought I’d bet­ter ac­tu­ally take my doctor’s ad­vice and get some rest.”

No sooner was the state­ment re­leased than things be­gan to spi­ral out of con­trol. “It was be­ing re­ported like I was at death’s door,” he says, with more than a hint of anger about the way the story was sen­sa­tion­al­ized by the press. “All this ‘bat­tling cancer’ non­sense is re­ally dis­re­spect­ful. I’ve got friends who are fight­ing a real bat­tle, and to bracket my­self with them would be melo­dra­matic.”

Costello was in the Elec­tric Lady stu­dio in New York with his band The Im­posters (drum­mer Pete Thomas, key­board player Steve Nieve and bassist Davey Faragher) when he re­ceived the call from his doctor. “Of course, news like that makes you take a deep breath,” he says. “You are ven­tur­ing into the un­known. But I was too busy to re­ally think about it. I sang every note of the new record af­ter I got the di­ag­no­sis.”

Recorded in just four weeks and due for re­lease Oct. 12, that al­bum ranks among Costello’s finest work. His 31st LP, com­ing eight years af­ter he an­nounced there would be no more, Look Now fea­tures 12 orig­i­nal, lyri­cally daz­zling songs with glo­ri­ous melodies and in­ven­tive ar­range­ments.

More than half the songs on Look Now are sung from a fe­male per­spec­tive. “I thought of it like folk mu­sic, where peo­ple sing across gen­der all the time and noth­ing is sig­ni­fied by it ex­cept the predica­ment of the char­ac­ter.” The uni­fy­ing theme might be sex­ual power im­bal­ance, whether con­sid­er­ing the plight of a wife in a de­clin­ing mar­riage (Strip­ping Pa­per), a daugh­ter re­flect­ing on her fa­ther’s in­fi­deli­ties (Pho­to­graphs Can Lie) or a model re­ject­ing un­wanted ad­vances (Don’t Look Now).

It could al­most be an al­bum in­spired by the #MeToo move­ment, ex­cept it is not al­ways ob­vi­ous in Costello’s nar­ra­tives ex­actly who has the up­per hand. “Some of these songs were writ­ten 25 years ago, which goes to show it’s a prob­lem that’s al­ways been there,” he says. “The ap­par­ent power im­bal­ance of man and woman hasn’t been in­vented by putting a la­bel on it.”

While he is not un­sym­pa­thetic to #MeToo, he ad­mits he’s “never been a great rep­re­sen­ta­tive of ban­ners. I un­der­stand why peo­ple have them, I’m not critical of it, but it’s just not the way I work.”

Emo­tional and sex­ual pol­i­tics have been at the core of Costello’s mu­sic from his very first al­bum, My Aim Is True, in 1977, a punk clas­sic packed with such poi­sonously bit­ter anti-love songs as Ali­son, I’m Not An­gry and No Danc­ing.

In 2015, he pub­lished a 670-page au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Un­faith­ful Mu­sic and Dis­ap­pear­ing Ink — “the tome” as he jok­ingly calls it. The saga of how De­clan MacManus, son of big band singer Ross MacManus, rose to fame as Elvis Costello, it is fu­elled by guilt, shame and self-re­proach, pick­ing over his fa­ther’s un­faith­ful­ness and his own two failed mar­riages. Since 2003, he has been mar­ried to Cana­dian jazz pi­anist and singer Diana Krall, and they have twin boys, Dex­ter and Frank, now 12 years old.

Costello speaks about Krall with glow­ing af­fec­tion, prais­ing her mu­si­cal abil­i­ties and emo­tional in­tel­li­gence (“she can find things within songs that prob­a­bly the com­poser didn’t even know were there”). They live in Van­cou­ver and both work from home, a place Krall once de­scribed to me as hav­ing “a pi­ano in every cor­ner of the room. Du­elling pi­anos! Elvis will be work­ing on some­thing in one cor­ner, and I’ll be work­ing on some­thing in an­other.”

Costello, ever the con­trar­ian, doesn’t en­tirely en­dorse this picture of do­mes­tic har­mony. “I am not much of a pi­ano player,” he says. “I am su­per loud, be­cause I don’t have any nu­ance, and I’ll be ham­mer­ing out the same key changes over and over, mak­ing all sorts of funny sounds. It must be mad­den­ing.”

In the years since his last al­bum, 2010’s Na­tional Ran­som — which he de­scribed at the time as “the end of the line” — Costello has made a col­lab­o­ra­tive al­bum with hip-hop band the Roots (Wise Up Ghost, 2013), con­trib­uted to a pro­ject of dis­carded Bob Dy­lan lyrics (Lost on the River, 2014) and con­tin­ued to tour re­lent­lessly “to cre­ate shows for the reper­toire to ex­ist.” But he re­veals that he has also writ­ten two mu­si­cals that never reached the stage, while a third is be­ing work­shopped right now. Based on Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, it’s the story of an un­scrupu­lous, ve­nal, small­town ra­dio jock who be­comes an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. “You can see how it might have some contemporary rel­e­vance,” Costello notes.

It sounds as though he’s come a very long way from his punk rock be­gin­nings, I sug­gest. “Thank God!” says Costello. “You know I never liked rock. I hate to say this, but to me rock is a big square thing that fills sta­di­ums with a re­ally square beat and it has never in­ter­ested me.

“Still to this day I have never heard lots of clas­sic rock records. I’ve never heard Pink Floyd and never heard Led Zep­pelin. Peo­ple keep say­ing rock is dead. Well, let’s f-----g hope so.”

Rock is dead, but Elvis lives. It’s good to have him back.


Van­cou­ver-based mu­si­cian Elvis Costello is per­form­ing again and re­leas­ing a new al­bum, ti­tled Look Now, af­ter tak­ing a bit of a rest to re­cover from cancer surgery.

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