“King of America,” which came out in February 1986, and which I only experienced in compact disc as it was one of my very first CD purchases, was a goddamned masterpiece. It only reached #39 in the US, somewhat average performance for an Elvis album, but I remember critics loving it, and they would have been correct. But, as I said, no vinyl of “King of America,” so that’s not what we get to talk about today.
“Blood & Chocolate” came out in September 1986. It is a completely different kind of masterpiece. This is once again with The Attractions, but again on the verge of breaking up with them — but instead of the unsatisfying mess of “Goodbye Cruel World,” they come up with a rocking noisefest that also includes Elvis’s most gut-wrenching song ever, “I Want You.” This is the album where Elvis goes by three different names — Declan MacManus (his given name), Elvis Costello, and the showman Napoleon Dynamite. It combines his infectious, insightful, sometimes cruel lyrics with some hard-hitting rock that was mostly absent from “King of America.” It’s just an angrier record.
These came out at a very interesting time in my life. Ah, your 20s. Nothing like endless turmoil, confusion, economic worries, and just not knowing what you want to do when you’re grown up, which, by the way you already are. My father died in the latter part of 1985, early and unnecessary, leaving me with all the unresolved feelings a 25-year-old male can have, and more. Someday I may figure out how I feel about all that. But at the very least, it meant that in 1986, everything felt big. I had already made the decision to go to grad school, something seemingly unthinkable just three years before when I slid out of my undergrad career without really knowing for sure that I had a degree. But that had to be deferred for a year — not out of grief, but because my boss at the typesetting shop where I worked had a baby and needed me to stay around. Which was fine, because I needed the extra time to get the money together. My marriage was great, and we were a couple of cute kids in their 20s exploring farmer’s markets, taking hikes, learning to camp and canoe, enjoying having box seats at the symphony and often dragging down the median age of events we went to. But we worked a lot, didn’t have a lot of friends left in the city, and didn’t know what the next stage was going to be like. It was all hard, and interesting. We were both working hard, learning new things, trying to figure out our place in the world — your 20s. There were many feelings.
It’s not that I associate this album with any of those feelings, in particular, but with that time. That opening blast of “Uncomplicated” takes me straight back to 1986, in a good way. In fact, any time I listen to this, I picture the bright, airy living room of our two-story apartment in a converted old Victorian on Syracuse’s Green Street, a place we lived for about five years. (A place where the schoolteacher downstairs didn’t hesitate to thump the ceiling with a broom handle if the music was too loud.)
Not too long after Blood and Chocolate came out, we got to see Elvis for the first time. Without the Internet, I’d have said it could have been anytime in the winters of ’87 or ’88. But thanks to the internet, I know that it was in fact April 24, 1987. Was I wrong about winter? Not entirely, because this concert was in Oswego, at the Laker Hall Gymnasium at SUNY Oswego, the college known pejoratively as “The Mistake By The Lake,” but a place where winter is so harsh — and mind you, I was living in Syracuse, which is no slouch in the harsh winter department — that they would post ropes along the walkways so that students could grab onto them in order to avoid being blown away by the wind coming off Lake Ontario. Also thanks to the Internet, I can report that although it did not snow, the high for that day was 49 degrees and wind was gusting up to 31 mph — so while not winter by Oswego standards, sub-pleasant.
The show was in a gymnasium. Whether the chairs were folding or cafeteria, I can’t recall, but they were chairs laid out on a gym floor. It had the lighting of a gymnasium. It had the acoustics of a gymnasium. I do not believe there was a stage. If there were more than a couple hundred people there I’d be shocked.
The opener was Nick Lowe (Nick Lowe!!). I wasn’t yet a big Nick Lowe fan, but I certainly knew his hits, and his opening set (and, omigod, the set list is online!) was a lot of fun. Nick Lowe is a master showman, and I’m sure that while he was on, we forget we weren’t in a proper theater or club.
Then, out (whatever that means when a show is given from a gymnasium floor) came Elvis Costello. At this point in his career he was appearing for at least part of his set as his ringmaster alter ego Napoleon Dynamite, who would choose what was to be played next by having members of the audience spin a giant carnival wheel (see The Spectacular Spinning Songbook). Memory may be failing me, but it’s possible-slash-likely that Elvis was playing without a band, and, like Nick, had to run the whole show himself. I don’t recall if he used the wheel throughout the show or if it just came up in the encores (likely). I do recall big cheers for the audience hoping it would land on “Country/Western Request,” and when it did, he covered “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,” a personal favorite from “Almost Blue.” (Yes, that whole set list is online too! Thanks, anonymous compulsive nerd!) It was a remarkable show, and just cemented my respect for Elvis Costello.
Sadly, this is almost the end of my vinyl Elvis — sadly, because my relationship with Elvis Costello’s music was just beginning. “Spike” would come out next and absolutely blow me away. But nearly everything I bought from that point on was on CD.