I was at debate camp at Wake Forest University in the summer of 1984.
As a camp activity we had a ‘Casino Night’ where everyone played games of chance for chips with no monetary exchange value.
There were probably 200 kids playing and I ended up wiith a pretty large amount of chips.
At the end of Casino Night, we were given the opportunity to bid on items with our chips. Most of the items were like Wake Forest hats and shirts etc.
For some reason, I put all of my money on a cassette tape version of the album Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
I wish I could say that somehow I knew who Elvis Costello was...or who the Attractions were.
Why Imperial Bedroom?
I was relatively into punk (mostly the Sex Pistols and the Clash) and I had just started listening to Echo and the Bunnymen and Depeche Mode.
But, I had NO idea who Elvis Costello was. The album’s cover was no help (it is kind of a surrealist painting). Something about the cassette just said “bid on me and do it now.”
So I did.
I just looked briefly at that odd pastiche cover, saw the name, saw the artists name and the band name and just went all in.
Maybe I was intrigued by the name of the album.
Now, when I think about it, I think of the scene in Sofia Copella’s Marie Antoinette where the royal couple had to be undressed and dressed for bed. Until then, I am not sure I thought of an imperial bedroom as a place of surreal embarrassment as well as a place of sometimes bizarre sexual ritual.
Back then, I just assumed the album was about the things that happen between people in ritually intimate spaces.
Anyway, spending my fake currency on Imperial Bedrooms was one of the best music choices I ever made.
Why I love Imperial Bedroom
What an awesome batshit crazy album. One second you are in the middle of a basic rock and roll break and then you start hearing French Horns or Harpsichord….What? The whole album is just turn after turn down interesting corridors and into lyrical curios. You know where the music is supposed to go, but it rarely follows a direct and obvious line to the conclusion you are expecting.
Every two or three seconds you have to stop and think about what Elvis C. just said….How many songs make you think every few seconds? And I mean think, his lyrics are more than just word play - there are often philisophical implications.
Take the song “Man Out of Time”….Wow….
He could be saying that he is a ‘man out of time,’ like his clock is running down.
Or, he could be saying he is a ‘man out of time,’ like he is displaced (should have been born at a different time).
Or it could be both. He is apparently running out of time to make his relationship work and dressed like someone displaced...who knows.
I mean all the lyrics have clever phrasing and word play like, “the high heel he used to be has been ground down” and “He`s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge...He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege.”
That is some pretty specific and crafty writing.
And much of it is intuitive and insightful, like the notion he mentions at the end of the song "drinking yourself insensitive and hating yourself in the morning."
Who hasn’t experienced that.
And the whole album is like that...Lyrics and music that actually make you think...
If you have a background in music he makes interesting choices that make you think about how rock songs are constructed while his lyrics have to be parsed to be understood. I have probably listened to the album 1000 times and still have not gotten bored with investigating its labyrinths (in the Borges-ian sense).
And who was this Elvis Costello guy? I mean once I had the cassette and looked at his picture..I mean how ballsy is it for a nerdy looking hipster with an entirely intellectual style of lyric and songwriting from somewhere in England to appropriate the name of the King of Rock and Roll (his real name is Declan Patrick MacManus)..
I certainly grew to admire the Chutzpah.
In most ways, he was really the diametric opposite of Elvis Presley but somehow it didn’t seem like he was poking fun at Elvis. I like to think it was more like an alternative music version of bragging (like Run DMC declaring themselves the Kings).
I think Elvis loved many of the things Elvis liked...They just came out of him much differently. I mean Costello clearly loved soul music and was influenced heavily by the blacker side of rock and roll just like Elvis was, for instance.
Identifying With Nerd Cool
Most of my teen years I was really unpopular and had terrible acne.
While Elvis Costello was ‘cool’ to me, it was a much more approachable and relatable cool. I could not really see myself hanging out with Elvis Presley (before his death obvi)...
I would love to have met Elvis but I imagine I was the kind of kid Sonny or one of the Memphis Mafia would have pushed me out of the way. But, I could see myself having a great conversation with Elvis Costello (probably over coffee at a book store).
He seemed like he might sometimes be nervous and sweaty...like all of the people I hung out with.
He also seemed really bright and interesting...like all of the people I hung out with.
I could easily see him as being part of our crew (although he would probably be the coolest member of our crew by far).
Even back then you could see that he was a raconteur but he also seemed to be barely concealing a taste for fancy clothing (now, he always shows up turned out to the nines).
One thing I really loved was that instead of running from his innate nerdiness, he seemed to revel in it.
During solos and bridges he would shake and fidget and almost come undone with joy. Madonna had well-coreographed dance moves while Elvis just embraced his own thing.
It was like the scene in the mockumentary Waiting for Guffman where Corky talks about wrestling with the muse of dance. Yes, in that movie you are supposed to wince, and Corky was not self-aware...But with Ellvis his goofy dances felt self-aware...He was waving his hands like he just didn’t care...and he really genuinely seemed solely possessed by his muse.
I always felt like Corky no matter how much I wanted to feel like Elvis when I danced.
Actually, both Corky and Elvis were totally committed and free in their own way, I never felt totally free at that point to just enjoy what I was doing. It would be years before I felt cool.
I felt like no matter how dorky Elvis Costello seemed, he always felt cool...So, he was cool. The real King of the Nerds (no offense to Anthony Michael Hall).
Another thing that might have influenced my love of Elvis was his Britishness.
There were certainly no shortage of British bands and musicians around America during the 80’s but there was something outwardly British about Elvis Costello. I love the Stones, and they are British, but they were somehow more of an American band to me.
I lived in Oklahoma at this time and Elvis just looked and talked like someone about as far away as Oklahoma as a person could possibly be. I suspect because I was picked on and ostracized at the time, this was very appealing to me.
Elvis C. clearly imprinted on me, through this album, when I was a teen. But, I have never stopped listening to this album or to him as an artist.
I have never enjoyed his solo work as much as his work with the Attractions for some reason. I just like him better as the front man for a really great rock and roll band.
Probably the best complement I have for Elvis Costello is that I have not really heard anyone else who sounds like him.
Courtney Barnett has some of the same gift for turning a phrase in lyrics, but, so far, her songwriting is not on the same level (that is not an insult at all). I have certainly never encountered another album like Imperial Bedroom.
What do you think of Elvis Costello or of Imperial Bedroom? I would love to hear from you, leave a comment!