Baby, it's them

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach are not such unlikely partners

Hero worship is not such an easy thing for rock-and-roll fans. To adore a songwriter or a performer from afar for so many years is to be disappointed once too often; there's nothing worse than witnessing the immortal who becomes all too human. Musical heroes are perhaps the most fragile of all artists; so often they shatter into a million pieces right in front of our eyes, like crystal figurines dropped from the roof of a 50-story building.

Some grow soft as they grow old, turning in their guitars for string sections and stools. Others simply retrace old, familiar steps until they become parodies--laughingstocks. Even more just seem to run out of talent, until they become shadows in a dark room. Too often fans talk about what used to be instead of what's to come. How many Van Morrison admirers reach for The Healing Game instead of Astral Weeks? Do Sinatra fetishists play Duets or In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning? And is there a single Al Green acolyte who plays 1995's tepid comeback Your Heart's in Good Hands when it sits on the shelf next to a copy of Let's Stay Together?

Declan MacManus, better known as Elvis Costello, knows too well the threat of being run down and destroyed by your own history. He has spent the better part of this decade trying to outrun his past, to escape those old photos of a pigeon-toed, knock-kneed punk staring down the world through Buddy Holly rims and those old songs about "revenge and guilt," as he once snarled.

For a while, he refused to play the old favorites, deleted "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" and "Pump It Up" and "Radio Radio" or songs from Blood and Chocolate and King of America from his sets. Instead, he performed songs from 1989's Spike and '91's Mighty Like a Rose, and audiences--shrinking with the release of each successive record--became restless, disinterested. They found no pleasure in such claustrophobic, bittersweet (and so often, just bitter) songs such as "So Like Candy," "All Grown Up," the cacophonous "Hurry Down Doomsday," even "Veronica," the closest thing he's had to a hit in the United States in a decade. They scoffed when he appeared on magazine covers with Jerry Garcia, looking so much like the Grateful Dead leader you couldn't tell the two apart. The faithful felt betrayed.

Which didn't bother Costello so much. He stopped playing rock and roll for a long while, recording in 1993 a strings-and-vocals album with the Brodsky Quartet. Titled The Juliet Letters, it was a subtle, lovely triumph--and it remains among the poorest-selling of all his records, and the most reviled by even his staunchest admirers and apologists. He would also, in time, record a track with the Jazz Passengers, another with the gospel-singing angels of the Fairfield Four, and appear as vocalist on John Harle's classical gem Terror + Magnificence.

He showed up on MTV singing George Gershwin with Tony Bennett, recorded a live import-only album with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell that featured a song by Charles Mingus and a cover of "Gigi," and joined mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter on a Swedish stage. Oh, yes--and he would also write a song with Burt Bacharach for a movie that really didn't deserve such a special blessing.

"Obviously I've experimented a lot in the early part of this decade with some very experimental ways to construct records," he says. "It consequently gave people the impression of claustrophobia and confusion in a few instances. But it is a necessary part of just finding out what you want to do or you're capable of. I have no sense of apology or regret about any of those records. There are some great things on Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, and some things I can understand entirely why they bewildered people. The Brodsky Quartet record was a big surprise, because it lacked any of the sounds people were used to hearing around my voice, and some people from the classical world that came to it from the quartet playing may have found difficulty accepting the quality of my voice in that context. Even some people who knew me from pop records perhaps agree with that." And he laughs.

Elvis would reunite with his old band, the Attractions, as well as old pal and collaborator Nick Lowe for one complete rock-and-roll record, 1994's Brutal Youth. But the album--his first collaboration with Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas, and Steve Nieve in almost a decade--seemed less a return to turned-up glory than simply a revisiting of old ghosts. He would tour with the Attractions once more, performing the old songs and rewarding the audience for their patience. But no matter how brilliant the shows--and they were indeed extraordinary, furious and funny all at once--it seemed Costello had become the very thing he had tried to avoid becoming.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions had turned into the Rolling Stones.
But even now, during an hourlong phone conversation, Costello insists that "I didn't think Brutal Youth was like anything that had been done before. I was aware that the basic musical premise was those four guys playing in a studio together, using very little, or no additional orchestration and just a few instruments we may not have had access to initially. There was a difference in age and experience that went between that record and Blood and Chocolate and the first record we made together. It was like checking out against the blueprint, going back and saying, 'Let's have a look at the blueprint, let's see if we can get another sort of building out of it.' And we did, and it's a good record."

But in the end, it's not a great record--at least not when held against the myriad of great records in Costello's discography, including such albums as his 1977 debut My Aim is True and its follow-up This Year's Model (his first with the Attractions). Indeed, both of those albums have become to his admirers like museum pieces, records best listened to behind glass; few performers could ever live up to those albums, or live them down. And Brutal Youth certainly looks out of place next to 1979's Armed Forces, 1982's Imperial Bedroom, 1983's Punch the Clock, and 1986's Blood and Chocolate.

The record does not drip with venom, does not howl in anguish, does not scream in anger, does not sigh in delight. It feels like product, as though each song should come with its own bar code. Brutal Youth does not sound like a record made by a man who is any longer passionate about making a rock-and-roll record. To quote from "Lip Service," written by him 20 years ago, everybody is going through the motions.

As a result of poor album sales--which Warner Bros. Records blamed on his decision to digress instead of rock, and Costello blamed on Warner Bros.' failure even to advertise his more recent records--he left the label in disgust. He is now on his third label in 20 years, having signed to Mercury Records at the beginning of 1998.

And so, perhaps, it is a relief to hear from the man's own mouth that, for now, he is through with rock and roll; finished with trying to impress with his wicked, witty, intricate wordplay; fed up with strapping a guitar around his neck one more time and, yes, going through the motions. Instead, he dreams of one day writing and performing a disc that features no words at all. Galling!

Such a desire grew out of writing over the past two years with the 70-year-old Burt Bacharach, whom he ran into 10 years ago while Costello was in the studio recording Spike. Their first meeting in 1988 was a brief, thrilling one for Elvis. Imagine a child running into Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds' tunnels after a game. They exchanged a few words, Costello apologized to Bacharach for "stealing" his arrangements, and that was it. Eight years later, they would wind up collaborating on a song for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, without ever standing in the same room together.

Eventually, they would record a full-length disc together featuring their music and Elvis' sparse words. The result, Painted From Memory, will be released on September 29--though it sounds like a record that's been in the racks for decades.

Perhaps their collaboration was inevitable, almost fated. Costello, after all, had long been a fan of the music Bacharach had written with lyricist (and ex-journalist) Hal David during the 1950s and '60s. Twenty years ago, before Costello even had a deal with Columbia Records, he and the Attractions recorded Bacharach and David's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" for the Live Stiffs collection. In 1984, he and Nick Lowe performed "Baby It's You," intending it as a single release until Columbia deemed the song "too good" for release (Elvis' words); "Baby It's You" would later appear on the import odds-and-ends collection Out of Our Idiot and, subsequently, on Rykodisc's reissue of Goodbye Cruel World. In 1990, Costello also recorded the Bacharach-David classic "Please Stay"--though it too wouldn't be released until 1995's all-covers disc Kojak Variety.

Now, instead of paying homage to Bacharach, Costello is his partner: They wrote each song on Painted From Memory together, performed them in the same room with an eight-piece ensemble, then invited a 24-piece pop orchestra to lay down the plush carpet that blankets each song. For the second time in his life, Costello has been given the opportunity to write and record with a childhood idol.

A decade ago, he collaborated on a dozen tunes with Paul McCartney, whose old band turned a young Declan MacManus on to the power of rock and roll (and whose former band once covered "Baby It's You"). Now, Costello shares royalties with Burt Bacharach, whose music takes up so much space in the pop dictionary. Such songs as "Walk On By," "I Say a Little Prayer," "(They Long to Be) Close to You," "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Wishin' and Hopin'," and "Any Day Now" are filled with melodies and lyrics you've memorized without even trying, like old phone numbers you haven't dialed in years.

To recite the list of songs written by Bacharach and David during their days and nights together in New York's legendary Brill Building and to catalogue the roster of artists who've covered them is to recount the history of modern pop music. Few other composers can claim to have had their work performed by Perry Como, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, the Drifters, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Benny Goodman, Isaac Hayes, Cilla Black, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Stranglers, the Bay City Rollers, and Bomb the Bass. Hell, to have withstood Ethyl Meatplow's distorted, druggy take of "(They Long to Be) Close to You" alone is to prove one's invincibility.

"It was a little daunting," Costello says of sharing an album credit with a man whose resume reads like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entrance exam. "I've had this experience twice now with very notable songwriters, and it's something where you have to remind yourself that you're there for a reason. In the case of Paul McCartney, I was 34 or 35, you know, and now we are 10 years later. When Burt and I first started, I'm thinking, 'He doesn't want to know from the 9-year-old, the person that first fell in love with "Magic Moments" or "Anyone Who Had a Heart." He wants to hear from the grown-up guy who writes his own songs and had a degree of confidence in what he is doing.'"

On a beautiful Los Angeles night late last summer, Burt Bacharach gathered a few family members, some friends and business associates, and a handful of fortunate journalists, and treated the intimate group to a repertoire of songs so timeless, so affecting, so absolutely perfect. Every piece Bacharach and his band performed that night--and there were dozens, dating all the way back to "Magic Moments," among the first songs Bacharach and lyricist Hal David wrote together--was once a hit.

Behind the keyboards, Bacharach moved with every note and mouthed every word. He stood on the pedals till he resembled a runner in the starting blocks. He was mesmerizing to watch, a kaleidoscope of movement and noise always seeking perfection.

"He doesn't stop moving," Costello says. "This is the great myth about Burt Bacharach--that he's Mr. Laidback and Cool--but here is a very physical aspect. When you're not a singer and you don't play electric guitar and you have any of the more bombastic gestures of music at your disposal, what people assume is that that somehow equates with a lack of emotional commitment. That, to my mind, is really crazy, because here's a man who can take the tiniest, most delicate gesture in music to a really thrilling crescendo, and he knows how to control the elements of the orchestra that are around. I think if you go to see him in a performance, you see him kind of playing the orchestra as his instrument in a way."

Those who are fool enough to speak of a Bacharach renaissance on the heels of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, My Best Friend's Wedding (with its Bacharach-heavy soundtrack), a 1997 John Zorn-produced tribute album that's no homage, a McCoy Tyner disc that's more water than wine, his collaborations with Costello, a couple of commercials using his music, and dozens of magazine articles trumpeting his comeback miss the point. You can't come back from here.

His songs from the 1950s, '60s, and even early '70s are more than golden oldies, but indestructible, complex, dense pieces of pleasure that eat you up the first time or the millionth time you hear them. Bacharach gave Hal David's words a heartbeat--his sad, wonderful words, these three-dimensional falling-in-and-out-of-love songs that sought the middle ground between sadness and satisfaction. Bacharach, who came of age working for Marlene Dietrich and hanging around bebop clubs in New York, brought them to life with tangled arrangements and time signatures and voicings, by making the song less about what the words meant and more about how they felt.

They're perfect creations, where intangible emotion meets tender flesh. Only a handful of pop songwriters managed to create such music, men such as Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Only Bacharach and a few contemporaries--including Motown's Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, and, yes, Elvis Costello--belong among their Tin Pan ranks.

Costello and Bacharach first began working together without once seeing each other face to face; they communicated by phone and fax. Costello was in the middle of contributing songs to director Allison Anders' 1996 pseudo-biopic Grace of My Heart--which takes a wrecking ball to the history of the Brill Building--when Anders and music supervisor Karyn Rachtman approached Bacharach about writing a number for the record. Because Costello had already completed one song and was in the middle of another, he sent Bacharach the beginning of what would become "God Give Me Strength."

The result was a song that is performed by the film's protagonist, Denise Waverly, played by Illeana Douglas. Waverly is writer-director Anders' not-so-disguised version of Carole King, a frustrated singer-songwriter who ends up working for a Phil Spector-like producer in the Brill Building, writing hit singles for black all-girl groups. (On the soundtrack, Waverly's "hits" were penned by the likes of Bacharach's ex-wife Carole Bayer Sager, Lesley Gore, Joni Mitchell, Gerry and Louise Goffin, Los Lobos, and Costello, who also contributed a tune called "Unwanted Number.") About halfway through the film, Waverly stands in the studio with a Brian Wilson-like figure (played by a dazed Matt Dillon), opens her mouth (revealing singer Kristen Vigard's voice, thank God), and performs "God Give Me Strength" over nothing but a piano's tear-drop accompaniment. It's the film's sole highlight, a woman crying "I want, I want him to huuurt" while shaking as though riding out an earthquake.

Oddly, Vigard's version, so sparse and heartbreaking, does not appear on any record. Instead, MCA Records released a far more opulent version featuring Costello on vocals backed by Burt on piano and an enormous orchestra. The song also made its way onto the Live on Letterman collection, Painted From Memory, and a forthcoming Bacharach boxed set on Rhino Records.

In a weird way, "God Give Me Strength" sounds very much like a Bacharach-Costello composition: It's enormous and intimate all at once, its lyrics dripping with the sort of despair ("Now I have nothing so God give me strength, 'cause I'm weak in his wake") that was once Costello's trademark. Indeed, it sounds not so different in some ways from his very first single, "Alison," about a man scorned by an old flame--an assessment Costello doesn't necessarily disagree with.

"There's no doubt that over the years I have referred to Burt," he says. "There's always been different little references or just tiny suggestions of his influences that would be invisible to anybody without being tipped off to it, I'm sure. It's been in the background. I won't say it's a dominant thing, but it's been an underlying thread. I was very lucky. I'm 44, and I've grown up in a very rich time of music, and particularly in the 1960s. People romanticize it very much, particularly the latter few years, but the early few years were just an amazing sound coming at you all the time with all these different events and ideas.

"Of course, if you went back and listened very meticulously to each year's output, you'd find that there's just as much rubbish in 1966 or 1967 or any of these legendary years of music as there are today. And just as many good records. It's just that we remember them more fondly 'cause it's longer ago. It's the rosy glow of nostalgia, I suppose. It's not even nostalgia. It's just a faulty memory."

But in the end, it's perhaps a little surprising that Bacharach initially accepted the offer to compose with Costello for Grace of My Heart. After all, he had long ago put aside his past, refusing to talk about what used to be unless hounded by a journalist seeking answers or a peer looking for a little guidance. Like Costello, he has no time for nostalgia. That is because Bacharach does not like to be thought of as a walking waxwork whose best work lies far behind him, 30 years in the past. To him, the Brill Building is a faint, pleasant memory; to recall those days is to recollect a time when songwriting was, more or less, a job. He seems almost dismissive of his and David's output back then. He regards those days with the affection of a construction worker speaking about a skyscraper he once built--with pride, and with distance.

"I never could stand back and smell the roses very much or have any kind of historical sense of what was going on," Bacharach said late last year, before a performance at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center with Dionne Warwick. "I was going so fast and working so much, I was hard-pressed to even take a vacation. Part of you always feels not so special, not so good, not such a great writer. You steal a little bit, you don't need to work so hard, something's derivative. But then you meet somebody like Miles Davis, who says, 'I like that,' or he looks to hang out with you, and then you start to say, 'Miles Davis? Maybe he's not that wrong, maybe I really got something.' But back then, I had a chance to write material that had a chance to survive, to make standards."

Bacharach once seemed a thing of the past--a vestige of a time when pop music was opulent and untold, when Bacharach's cotton-candy strings swelled with misty-eyed grandeur and women named Dionne and Cilla and Dusty turned Hal David's lyrics about heartbreak and hurt into the stuff of adult poetry. Bacharach has of late been lionized by the lounge crowd, the sharkskin swingers who take their Bacharach with a little Martini & Rossi on ice. Somewhere between the hit parade and royalty-rate retirement--between "The Look of Love" greatness and "That's What Friends Are For" detritus--Bacharach became the missing link, the long-lost influence, the hero cited by the alternarock crowd when its members seek to wrap themselves in the cred of Cool. But don't be fooled by the Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Stipe and Oasis endorsements; you don't need John Grisham to tell you William Faulkner was a good writer.

And you don't need someone like John Zorn or Shonen Knife to remind you either, no matter how heartfelt the sentiments. It's sadly ironic that a good deal of the songs on Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach--a "tribute" released on Zorn's own Tzadik label as part of his ongoing Radical Jewish Culture project--has chosen to celebrate the man's immortal music by so completely screwing around with it that you can't recognize the results without looking at the song list. What, after all, is the point of paying homage to one of the greatest melody writers and arrangers of all time by allowing Joey Baron to reduce "Alfie," among the most complex and heartbreaking melodies Bacharach ever penned, to nothing more than a drum solo?

The same goes for versions of Bacharach's songs covered on the recently released tribute album What the World Needs Now..., featuring Shonen Knife and the Wondermints and so many unknown indie-rockers treating Bacharach's songs as though they were disposable tissues. Bacharach, for his part, doesn't listen to others' interpretations of his music. He is flattered by McCoy Tyner's recent album of his compositions, What the World Needs Now (can you say original?), but uninterested in the idea of actually playing it.

"I just saw the sheet music someone sent me from Australia of 'I Say a Little Prayer' by Diana King [from My Best Friend's Wedding]," Bacharach said in November. "I'm glad the record is a hit, and I was curious about the sheet music. And sure enough, they had changed the piano bar and time signature on the chorus to match with how Diana King does it on the record. If you ask me do I like it better that what I wrote originally, the answer is no--it doesn't make any sense. But it made sense to them.

"It's funny--I can't go in for listening to my material. I have a hard time with it. You know, it's not even that I'm going to feel uncomfortable hearing it. I'm very happy they did it. But maybe it's partially that I don't want to be disappointed. And another part is that I want to think ahead."

Which is probably why, until earlier this year, only a handful of Bacharach's original A&M releases remained in print--the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Casino Royale soundtracks and the horrible, hooked-on-Muzak 1987 Greatest Hits that sounds as though it was recorded in a dentist's waiting room. But within recent months, various labels have reissued most of his older albums, in addition to something titled The Burt Bacharach Songbook. Rykodisc has also just issued the Bacharach's soundtrack to After the Fox, which features Peter Sellers and the Hollies performing the hysterical Bacharach-David-penned title tune.

But more impressive is Rhino Records' The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three-disc boxed set that dates back to 1957's "The Story of My Life," performed by Marty Robbins, and Perry Como's take on "Magic Moments." It's a thrillingly comprehensive compendium of the magic Bacharach and David created together, a collection of songs that span the distance from country ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") to kitsch (the title track to The Blob and What's New Pussycat?) to so much glorious R&B (the Drifters' "Please Stay" and Chuck Jackson's "I Wake Up Crying") to the dozens of pop treasures performed by the likes of Dionne Warwick, Cilla Black, Tom Jones, Jackie DeShannon, Herb Alpert, and Dusty Springfield.

Thankfully, the box excises much of his late-1970s and 1980s detritus, songs written after he and Hal David had an acrimonious split that resulted in a lawsuit long since forgotten. Indeed, Bacharach might well have disappeared during the late 1970s and '80s. Save for a few soundtrack contributions, including "Arthur's Theme," he seemed to stumble along without David. Bacharach's output, once so complex, turned into Muzak; on songs such as "On My Own" and "That's What Friends Are For," the grand orchestras gave way to tinny keyboards, and the depth felt suddenly very shallow, even when his songs were performed by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Luther Vandross. The later compositions contained so much cheese, you could buy them at a deli.

Which is why his collaboration with Costello is so significant. It offers proof that Bacharach is himself no museum exhibit. Even at 70, he is willing to take on a new partner, to trade a little knowledge with the man who once insisted his first album could best be described as being about "politics/philosophy and revenge."

It's too simple to say Costello is Bacharach's new Hal David, just as it was too easy to describe Elvis as this year's John Lennon when he collaborated with Paul McCartney. After all, Costello isn't only a lyricist; he's an obsessive melody writer as well, apt to call Bacharach in the middle of the night with a new bridge or chorus, in addition to a handful of lyrics.

"He's a good risk taker, a serious risk taker," Bacharach says of Costello. "He takes his chances, like with the Brodsky Quartet. He's got a group of hardcore people who are his fans, and they're going to say, 'Damn it, Burt Bacharach? The king of the middle of the road writing with Elvis? But it's an interesting thing...He's a brilliant lyricist--I won't even suggest a word to him, because he's one of the great, great writers--and musically, he brings to certain songs more than others a distinctly Elvis core."

Which is perhaps why Painted From Memory is so often a remarkable record, though now and then it lies in the middle of the road and waits for a truck to run over it. Using "God Give Me Strength" as their departure point, the two men decided to write an entire album of what Costello calls "lost-love songs." But the record's a rather joyous affair as Costello's deep, almost soulful vocals float above Bacharach's sparse, lavish melodies and arrangements. Songs such as "In The Darkest Place," "Toledo," "I Still Have That Other Girl," "The Long Division" (a very Costello title), and "What's Her Name Today?" are very much what you imagine Costello-Bacharach songs to sound like--beautiful, complex, sophisticated, angry, sentimental. It's a mouthful of sugar and salt, what happens when two men out of time connect to make music that pays homage to then while trying to be relevant for now.

Initially, Costello wrestled with just how to write with Bacharach. He didn't want simply to imitate his style, but he also didn't want to come in with a bunch of "rock and roll" songs, thus creating an album that was more like a "Frankenstein's monster." So instead, he decided to "borrow gestures that I think of as his, but still obviously employ them in a way that is entirely mine." The result is an Elvis Costello record even a grandmother could love--pristine pop music made for the concert hall, Costello as the Dionne Warwick of the 1990s.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the record is Costello's Spartan lyrics. Where once he filled every second of every song with a twist (of a knife, most often--"I wish you luck with a capital F") and crammed his music full of puns ("You lack lust, you're so lackluster"), now he's content to write simple, straightforward lyrics. Bacharach's songs, so full of knotty time signatures and even staccato melodies, demand such streamlining. And so the man who once wrote "She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use" now pens lines such as, "I can't believe this is happening / We're such unlikely lovers." It doesn't get any simpler than that.

"The challenge became saying things simply enough to where they were immediately understandable, but to stay away from cliches," Costello says. "I hope we've stayed away from cliches, and maybe we've coined a few new phrases. That was a very definite conscious decision, and of course that caused me all kinds of problems. Burt writes very sparsely, so the words have got to be very spaced out, and yet they still have to be very coherent. And with me, I would have a tumble of words coming out in some songs without as much consideration of melodic shape...There's a difference in the approach of a lyric-driven songwriter and a melodic-driven songwriter. I'm somewhere between the two now.

"I'm less driven by lyrics than before. I think the music has the ability to suggest things to you if it is handled properly, and words just reinforce that feeling, and that was what I went for in some cases. I wasn't so concerned to dazzle people with my wit. Who cares? Wouldn't it be better to touch you with something, that you're feeling it before it's explained to you?"

In May, Costello wrote an essay for The Guardian in England celebrating Frank Sinatra, who had just died, and pronouncing Only The Lonely as his favorite album. His Sinatra fetish is well-documented; his version of "My Funny Valentine" that appeared on 1980's Taking Liberties owed everything--the arrangement and the phrasing--to Sinatra's rendition. Like Sinatra, Costello has always had a fondness for the pop standards of the 1940s and '50s, having recorded throughout his career such songs as Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," Jerome Kern's "They Didn't Believe Me," George Gershwin's "But Not For Me," and myriad other Tin Pan Alley standards.

More to the point, in his own song "The Deportees Club" off Goodbye Cruel World, Costello himself longs for "the secret life of Frank Sinatra." It is suggested to him that, in a perfect world, he would like to be both Cole Porter and Sinatra.

"Absolutely, if only you could be!" he says. "What a sex life you would have had! But no, I don't ever want to be somebody else. But to be perfectly honest, I certainly don't think music begins and ends with rock and roll. It never did."

A few nights ago, Costello was watching television when some performer--he does not recall who, perhaps intentionally--explained to an interviewer that he is a "rock star." He recalls wondering at that moment, "Is that a career? Can you train for that?" He then explains he is not much a fan of rock music anymore, at least of that "monolithic beat" that has come to define too much of the genre. Costello's decision to work with Bacharach is actually an admirable move. It signifies that as he approaches middle age, Mr. MacManus will no longer find it necessary to go on the road with an electric guitar, singing about how radio's a sad salvation and accidents will happen and how he's got to pump it up until you can't feel it.

To that end, he has disbanded the Attractions for good, hanging on only to pianist Steve Nieve, who appears on Painted From Memory. The two of them will tour behind the disc (Bacharach and Costello will only appear in a few cities), performing the new songs in addition to a few Costello oldies rearranged for piano and vocals. Last year, the duo released a five-disc boxed set featuring performances recorded around the country, and among the highlights is their austere rendition of "Watching the Detectives." It swings, but it does not rock.

"There has been the impulse for a number of years now to build a temple to rock and roll, and when that happens, the more solid and static it gets," Costello says. "It just crumbles away, and it stops moving...You watch the MTV Music Video Awards, and you can't find anything of consequence. If that's the best that the business can provide, then we're really in trouble."

He begins to chuckle just slightly; you can hear the smile in his voice. "But I particularly liked Madonna's impersonation of Cameron Diaz. You know when Cameron Diaz gets up to sing at the karaoke in My Best Friend's Wedding? Wasn't that what Madonna was doing in 'Ray of Light'? It was fantastic. That was the most out of tune I've ever heard anybody sing on TV. We shouldn't be slagging her off, but I was falling on the floor laughing.

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