Friday, February 10, 2012

The Many Sides of Elvis Costello

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

There are few things as disheartening as discovering that an artist whose work you admire holds views you can't reconcile. Of course, it's nothing new. Many of our heroes - in the arts and in sports - often live lives not depicted in the actions in their field. (Imagine Boston Bruins fans who are Democrats that support Obama trying to deal with goalie Tim Thomas's recent boycott of a White House tribute because it violated his Tea Party sentiments.) In the case of Elvis Costello, who Shlomo Schwartzberg first wrote about with praise in Critics at Large, he had to deal with another side of Elvis Costello less than a month later in a second piece that revealed a fan's trust broken

The Two Costellos: Elvis Costello Live at the El Mocambo & 

Live at Hollywood High

What a difference three months makes! The two recorded 1978 Elvis Costello shows – Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High – are completely different from each other in tone, attitude and musicianship but, more importantly, they mark the coming of age and the maturation of Costello as a significant presence on the musical scene.

Costello, coming off a derided show in New York, landed in Toronto for a late night set, scheduled for March 6 at the city’s fabled El Mocambo club. The concert was to be broadcast live on radio; when news got out, the city erupted into a frenzy. People began lining up almost half a day before the 11:30 pm show, in the generally vain hope of scoring one of the 300 tickets available (minus those going to industry and record folk, of course).

By the time Costello hit the stage, expectations were remarkably high. To say he exceeded them was an understatement. Live at the El Mocambo, all 49 minutes of it (not including the encores which were not broadcast or recorded), is one of the best live shows ever put to disc, right up there with the 1971 Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East. As with that show, you can only wish you’d been there when you listen to it.

Remember, though he had been on Saturday Night Live in late 1977, where he pissed off the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels by performing the anti-media song "Radio, Radio," against Michael’s wishes. Costello was still pretty much an unknown quantity to most people, with only two (superb) albums, My Aim is True and This Year’s Model, to his credit. And the latter disc was actually 11 days away from its official release when Costello performed in Toronto. After the concert, unknown was the last word that could be used to describe Costello.

With the concert’s 14 tracks more or less equally split between the two albums, Costello delivered a blistering set – including the now classic tracks "Watching the Detectives," "Mystery Dance," "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio" – that was filled with anger, urgency and remarkable power. It’s almost like he had something to prove and in a way, after the bad reviews from his New York gig, and in the wake of some skepticism about his credibility as a punk artist, his depth and staying power, he did. Listening to the El Mocambo concert, however, you won’t think about whether or not Costello is the real deal (of course he is), but about how remarkably gifted he is, as a songwriter and performer. (Amazingly, he was only 23 years old during the span of the two concerts.) With minimal introductions, Costello and (his band) the Attractions simply go from one song to another, punching them out with rapid-fire energy and force. It’s a riveting set and one that dispelled all doubts about his talent, commitment and abilities on the part of anyone who heard the show live or on the radio, as most Torontonians did.

By the time he got to Los Angeles for his 72-minute Hollywood High gig on June 4, 1978, it was a very different Costello on stage. More relaxed and calm, he spoke at greater length before launching into his songs, and performed 20 tracks, including some new ones that would end up on his third album, Armed Forces (released in early 1979). Though almost every track from the El Mocambo concert is also played at the Hollywood High gig, you could be forgiven for not recognizing that the same person was on stage during both shows. The Hollywood High's "Watching the Detectives," for example, is almost insouciant, compared to the El Mocambo version. He and the band play it at such a leisurely and lyrical pace, it sounds almost like a buoyant lost Clash track instead of the angry, profane anthem that was performed in Toronto. "(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea," one of my favourites of his songs, is also another creature in Los Angeles, where Costello doesn’t seem all that worked up about actually having to go to the damn place; he’s enjoying himself too much on stage as he stretches out the song with some adroit guitar work. In Toronto, by contrast, he spits out fury at the very idea of going to Chelsea. As I said, two utterly different interpretations of the same song, a state of affairs which distinguished pretty much every track - "Lip Service," "Miracle Man," "Radio, Radio," "Waiting for the End of the World" - the two shows shared in common, except, perhaps, for "Pump It Up"; that fiery rabble rouser couldn't really be rendered mellow, no matter how good a mood Costello was in.

Here is a sample from the El Mocambo show with EC performing that blazing version of "Pump it Up":

With the enormous critical and popular success of the El Mocambo gig, still no doubt ringing in his ears, Costello could afford to be more laid back and confident in L.A. He likely always knew he was a great artist, but the Toronto concert could not help but give him the impetus to push past his detractors and continue to showcase how terrific he knew he could be. The Hollywood High concert, equally as compelling as the El Mocambo gig, showcases an artist at the top of his powers and suggests someone who is no fleeting star but a singer/songwriter for the ages.

Now in 2010, it’s a given that Costello is one of the most important rockers to ever come down the pike; he’s even graduated to his own TV talk show, Spectacle, where he performs with and interviews his compatriots, influences and musical newcomers. But back in 1978, that was not evident at all, at least until he came to Toronto and launched a career that has continued to the present day. The El Mocamboalbum was not officially released until 1993 and then only as part of a box set, which featured Costello’s first three albums in expanded editions. Universal only released it as a solo disc last year. Live at Hollywood High only came out this year, though three select cuts from the concert were offered as a promo vinyl EP with the release of Armed Forces, while other tracks found their way to some of the remastered and expanded Costello CDs recently put out in North America. Listening to the two live CDs back to back, you realize that it’s not often you get to hear an artist coming into his own but with Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High, you get to hear someone do so twice. This is where it all really started. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to get those concerts on tape for future audiences to enjoy and savour.

- originally published on May 1, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

Elvis Costello’s Cultural Boycott of Israel: Rank Hypocrisy 

and Naiveté

Elvis Costello’s recent decision to cancel his two upcoming shows in Israel because of his concerns about the plight of the Palestinians, and Israeli government policy towards them, is problematic and offensive on so many levels; I scarcely know where to begin. But let’s hear from the man himself, who just recently told The Jerusalem Post, "I know from the experience of a friend who is from Israel and from people who have worked there that there is a difference of opinion there among Israelis regarding their government's policies. It seems to me that dialogue is essential....The people who call for a boycott of Israel own the narrow view that performing there must be about profit and endorsing the hawkish policy of the government. It's like never appearing in the U.S. because you didn't like Bush's policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher."

That’s exactly why Costello should have kept his engagements in Caesarea, Israel, so why didn’t he? Who convinced him to give in to the odious boycott of Israel and what does it mean that musicians like Costello and Gil Scott–Heron, as well as filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard who, after Palestinian protests, pulled a film of his out of a Tel Aviv student film festival last year, are lining up to treat Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, in such a cavalier and dishonest manner? (Personal note: I like Costello’s music a lot and just wrote a fulsome tribute to two of his early live albums on Critics at Large, so to say I’m disappointed in him would be to put it mildly.)

Simply put, especially in the case of Costello, who doesn’t seem to harbour any animus towards Israel, the boycott seems more to be a matter of naiveté, though his hypocrisy is also on display here. Clearly, he recognizes, or did when he gave that interview to the Israeli newspaper, that boycotting Israel because of its politics and/or leadership doesn’t make any more sense than doing so to the U.S. or England. But on his website, his rationale for caving in to the boycott is muddled, indistinct and hard to decipher, suggesting a serious lack of thought on the matter. Here are a few sentences from his statement.

“One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament.

Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.

I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security.

I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation.

Some will regard all of this as unknowable without personal experience, but if these subjects are actually too grave and complex to be addressed in a concert, then it is also quite impossible to simply look the other way.”

What does any of this actually mean? Why would Costello’s performing in Israel suggest a lack of concern for the Palestinians? Does performing in Germany mean he doesn’t care about that country’s mistreated Turkish community? Why, if Costello admits that many Israelis question their government policies vis a vis the Palestinians, does he then punish them by withholding his musical services? What does his reference to ‘despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation’ (read Palestinian acts of terror) mean exactly? Those words seem to be implying that Israel has legitimate reasons to do what it does in terms of national security and its policies towards the Palestinians, which again begs the question, why drop the concerts? But then Costello goes on to say that since he can’t address his concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a concert, better to not one give one at all. I wasn’t aware that political concerns need to be addressed in concerts anyway? Does he want to sing or pontificate? And how will not performing in Israel help resolve the conflict or help the Palestinians he claims to care about?

Costello also goes on to apologize to the concerts’ organizers and advance ticket holders for his decision, praises the Israeli media for illuminating him on Israel’s cultural scene and expresses regret for the fact that he will likely not be invited ever again to perform in that country. All this makes it sounds like this decision was an incredibly reluctant one for him to make, which doesn’t excuse his actions, but makes me wonder exactly why he decided to do what he did. Journalist Tom Gross has suggested that Costello caved when pressured by anti-Israeli activists in Britain.

In one respect, the whys and wherefores for Costello’s’ decision don’t matter as he now plays into the hands of those who do truly wish Israel ill, people like musician Brian Eno, filmmakers Ken Loach and John Greyson and writer Naomi Klein, among too many others. The Global BDS Movement, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organization, which is behind these perpetual attempts to enforce a boycott of Israel whenever a musician or filmmaker decides to play or show a film there, seeks to isolate the Jewish state by falsely labeling it an apartheid regime, akin to South Africa’s past odious government. This is a blood libel that is patently not true. Unlike in South Africa where blacks were legally deemed second class citizens, barred from that country’s institutions and professions and forcibly kept apart from South Africa’s white populace, Israel’s Arab population, about a fifth of the total, have equal rights, can live where they wish, serve in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), hold down jobs as doctors, lawyers and judges and participate fully in the arts. Israeli Arab actors like Salim Daw (James' Journey to Jerusalem) and Sasson Gabai (The Band’s Visit) work regularly in Israel’s cinema and Arab Labor, a controversial TV show created by Israeli–born Palestinian journalist Sayed Kashua, which aims its critical and satirical arrows at the country’s treatment of its Arab citizens, is one of the country’s most popular TV series. Does any of this sound like apartheid? Obviously, that label cannot apply in the case of Israel, anymore than it can to Canada, France or Italy, even if, as in all Western countries, its minority isn’t always treated as well as it should be.

The BDS campaign also advocates for the Palestinian Right of Return, which would have all Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their millions of descendants return to present day Israel, thus creating a situation whereby the Palestinian Arabs would outnumber Israel’s Jewish citizens and, in effect, wipe clean the Jewish state, replacing it, with, likely, another Arab dictatorship whereby those few Jews allowed to stay, would be rendered second class citizens, or dhimmis, as Jews and Christians were treated under Islam in the past. If peace comes to the Middle East, the Right of Return is one of the issues that the Palestinians will have to abandon, just as the Israelis will have to relinquish most of the settlements they have established on the West Bank. Both sides will, thus, have to make the necessary compromises for peace. The BDS, however, doesn’t want to do that and prefers instead to try to stigmatize and deligitimize the Jewish state of Israel. And the Costellos of the world, George Orwell’s "useful idiots," seem hell bent to aid and abet them. (Ironically, Costello's wife, jazz musician Diana Krall, has booked a concert in Israel this summer and, as of the writing of this piece, is still set to perform there.)

None of this should suggest that Costello and the other recent boycotters of Israel are in the vanguard of a movement that is gaining traction in the entertainment and cultural world. Far from it, in fact. A few weeeks before Costello’s ill-advised decision, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and Indian author Amitav Ghosh were awarded the prestigious Dan David literary award, which was given to them in Tel Aviv. Despite the predictable entreaties by the Palestinians and their allies for the pair to boycott the ceremony, they refused, with Atwood defiantly telling The New York Times, “We don’t do cultural boycotts. Artists don’t have armies. What they do is nuanced, by which I mean it is about human beings, not about propaganda positions.” Refusing the Israeli honor, she added, would be tantamount to “throwing overboard the thousands of writers around the world who are in prison, censored, exiled and murdered for what they have published.” Well said, Margaret!

And while it’s hard to gauge exactly how many musical artists, if any, are deliberately boycotting and snubbing Israel - it often doesn’t pay to tour that part of the world as the intolerant Arab regimes are generally not open to Western acts, as can seen in the Islamist attempt to ban Elton John, so far unsuccessfully, from performing in Morocco because he’s openly gay, though he was banned in Egypt for the same reason - some major musical acts have happily performed in Israel in recent months, including Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen and Madonna, who went so far to drape herself in the Israeli flag while onstage, an act that B'nai Brith Canada CEO Frank Dimant correctly labeled "courageous.” Hell, that action alone could get her killed by some fundamentalist fanatic.(Elton John, incidentally, also plans to give a concert in Israel, where his sexuality is not an issue.)

Leonard Cohen, for his part, after cries rose for him to boycott Israel, decided to add a concert in the Palestinian West Bank, so as to reach both peoples in the region. But that concert, which was supposed to be co – sponsored by Amnesty International, was kiboshed by various Palestinian groups, who, against the wishes of many of their brethren, who, understandably wanted to see Leonard perform in their neck of the woods, managed to scuttle it since Cohen refused to do what Costello did and cancel his Tel Aviv show. Amnesty, to its discredit, went along with the boycott point of view by pulling its support of the planned Palestinian event, which was supposed to donate the proceeds to peace groups. (Cohen decided to donate the proceeds from his Israel concert to a new charity he formed that is dedicated to peaceful co-existence of Israelis and Palestinians.)

Even the roster of signatories of a petition, the so-called "Toronto Declaration," unveiled during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, which tried in vain to get TIFF to cancel its planned spotlight on Tel Aviv program, were mostly from the academic environs, who don’t live in the real world anyway, with significantly few of them from the entertainment sector. Yes, a handful of actors and musicians, Viggo Mortenson, Julie Christie, Harry Belafonte, David Byrne, Danny Glover, did sign on, but most of the Hollywood left, including such stalwarts as Michael Moore, Woody Harrelson, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and George Clooney did not. Naomi Klein, who, along with John Greyson led the anti-Israel brigade at TIFF, has claimed that many Hollywood folk didn’t sign the declaration because they were supposedly "bullied" with threats of what would happen to their careers if they did. But it’s far more likely that they, and others such as John Cusack (a personal friend of Klein’s) refused to sign on because they knew how bogus the declaration was and how as artists, they could not legitimately be privy to a plan to boycott, censor and shut down filmmakers, many of whom were as critical of their own country as they themselves were of the United States.

Of course, Elvis Costello could still make up for his misguided actions by doing what actress Jane Fonda did and change his mind and reschedule the planned concerts in Israel. Granted, he’ll look like a right fool by doing so, as Fonda did when she reneged on her signature on the declaration and admitted that the petition was extreme and not conducive to the peace process, but isn’t it better to look foolish than to be a dupe? 

- originally published on May 21, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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