Elvis Costello: The Teenage Years
Death and Discovery, from London to Liverpool
No seventeen-year-old lad should die that way. It was an idiotic accident.
I’d stopped trying to pick an argument with the teacher—an ability that the other lads knew might spare us another thirty minutes of taking dictation of the philanthropic works of Jeremy Bentham.
The prim little teacher closed the dog-eared university thesis from which he recited, rather than actually explaining anything, dismissed us with pursed, impatient lips, and headed for his lunch.
We hurried down the shabby Georgian stairs and burst out on the pavement for some less stifling air. My friend Tony Byrne spied the master already turning the key to his small battered car and called out, begging for a fast ride to the main school building, a mere three hundred yards from the steps of the annex.
“Please, sir, me legs are tired.”
His comic wheedling plea softened the man’s initial reluctance.
The lad left the curb in a sprint. He probably didn’t see the other car at all. None of us saw the first contact. All we heard was the dull thud and turned to see Tony twisting in the air and then making sickening contact with the tarmac. His head bounced and made a second agreement with the ground. He lay quite still.
There was no blood. No one was screaming. The only sound was footsteps running away to summon help.
In minutes, his skin turned a translucent tint of blue. I don’t remember anyone crying.
I don’t remember anyone speaking. There was a siren in the distance.
* * * *
In the eleventh hour of that day, I walked home over the Penny Bridge that crossed the West Float of the Birkenhead Docks to my Nana’s house in the North End. The only sound was the dull clang of my own footfalls on the metal grate above black water.
I’d kept my Friday-night date to sing a few songs at the Lamplight—a folk evening lodged within the Remploy Social Club, which was attached to a factory staffed by people with disabilities.
I have no memory of what I may have sung that evening. I was probably in shock. I couldn’t sleep that night. I spent the fearful, wakeful hours cursing Sister Philomena, remembering how she had come into a class of eight- and nine-year-olds and told us, “By the time you reach thirty years old, not all of you will be alive.”
I suppose this was just a melodramatic way of giving us some sense of mortality and responsibility for our eternal souls. When I think of it now, I can only imagine how very young and inexperienced she must have been, just accidentally cruel, and not meaning to wield the legendary lash of the Catholic fear.
By Sunday night, Sister Philomena was proven to be correct. Our friend never woke up.
There was an old-fashioned open-casket viewing at his house. I got to the door of the front room and could enter no farther than to glimpse his waxy forehead, sealed lashes, and painted lips. I had nothing to offer the abject tears of the family or his distraught mother at the graveside who managed to say, “Good night, God bless,” as if she were putting her child to bed.
The doctor had given me some blue pills. I don’t know if we were all in the same chemical fog, but six of us carried him out of the church on our shoulders without breaking down.
A week after the funeral I found a tattered sheet of folded paper tucked inside a small notebook in my blazer pocket. It was the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” which Tony had meticulously written out for me in an erratic hand with a leaking biro, in an attempt to persuade me that I should sing it.
I said I didn’t think I qualified for the title and, for that matter, neither did John Lennon.
Tony loved the line about “fucking peasants,” I think because nobody had ever sung “fucking” on a record before, and there are people in Liverpool who can insert five “fucks” into a three syllable word if they’ve got a point to make.
Not quite two months later—on April 28, 1972, to be precise—my singing partner, Allan Mayes, and I played support to a psychedelic folk trio called the Natural Acoustic Band. The show was at Quarry Bank, John Lennon’s old school.
I thought about Tony and our almost comical debates about whether the recently released “Imagine” was a load of bollocks or a work of genius and arguing the merits and authenticity of “Working Class Hero,” and was somewhat surprised to find that Quarry Bank was a nice middle-class grammar school with a pleasant bit of greenery around it. It was surely nothing like our grim Victorian redbrick monstrosity at the top of Islington rising out of Liverpool city center.
I suppose the teachers were doing their best. I wouldn’t have wanted to drill an appreciation of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins into our unwilling heads. They taught us about “sprung rhythm” and made us recite:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow
The only “Holy Cow” I wanted to hear about was the one on that Lee Dorsey record.
We were given Dickens’s Hard Times to read, as we were being told they were right around the corner.
Until the age of sixteen I’d gone to a secondary modern school in Hounslow on the road out to the London airport, where I think we’d been part of some mad educational experiment in which classic literature was pretty much limited to one play by Shakespeare. The rest of the reading list consisted of relatively contemporary books from the ’50s and early ’60s: Arnold Wesker’s play about kicking the fascists out of the East End of London; and John Osborne’s drama about an “angry young man”; and northern novels about thwarted ambitions and desires by John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and Alan Sillitoe, full of daydreamers and vaguely predatory women.
Most of these books had the advantage of having already been made into films with an “A” Certificate from the British Board of Censors. “A” was obviously for “Adult,” but that didn’t have the same implication as it would today. It meant that you had to be over sixteen or accompanied by an adult if you wanted to see such a film, but if you could sneak into the cinema you could write your essay based on the film adaptation and avoid reading the book entirely. I’d managed a fairly decent mark for an essay about A Tale of Two Cities despite having referred only to an American Classics Illustrated comic-book version of Dickens.
Still, we faithfully worked our way through works of George Orwell, William Golding, and Nevil Shute, all predictions of tyranny, the breakdown of civilization, or the coming mass destruction.
I went ahead and read all of George Bernard Shaw’s plays for my own pleasure, because I liked the cut of his beard. In fact, I read all of the Irish literature that was on the family shelf—W. B. Yeats’s poetry, the comedies of Oscar Wilde, and Fenian plays from O’Casey to Behan—even though none of it was on the curriculum.
Now, in Liverpool, I was expected to develop an appreciation of “The Windhover,” on the grounds that little Gerard Manley Hopkins had briefly taught at our school during its previous incarnation as an esteemed Jesuit college, which had now decamped to a leafy suburb.
For the two years after my mother and I moved to Liverpool, my school even retained the noble St. Francis Xavier name, which impressed the hell out of my former headmaster in Hounslow when I bid him farewell. I didn’t point out that the place actually had no more academic pretensions than his pleasant little secondary modern, located about one minute from touchdown beneath the Heathrow flight path.
I’d say that the main difference between the two schools was that if you threw the windows open during the summer in Hounslow, about half the lesson would be drowned out by a VC10 coming in to land, and if a big Tupolev Tu-114 arrived from Moscow, the whole building shook from the noise of the four double-propeller engines whirring past.
I used to lie awake at night and listen to planes drone overhead. Sometimes they’d seem so close that I felt they might land on our roof. For a while, my ideal would have been the freedom and means to go to London airport and just select any destination in the world.
Then, if you are an only child and you don’t have an older sibling trying to smother you with a pillow or keep you awake with endless speculation about a sweetheart, there’s a lot of time alone with your own imaginings. There is always someone or something to dream about.
I’d seen the girl I wanted to marry when I was just fourteen. Mary was a year younger. The Burgoyne family had arrived recently from their hometown of Galway in the west of Ireland. One afternoon, I watched her step down from the platform of a Routemaster bus after a summer shower. There was a rainbow of oil or petrol in the rainwater puddle and it splashed over her brown shoe as she alighted. It took me four years to get up the courage to throw down my coat for her and ask her out.
For a couple of those years, I lived more than two hundred miles away.
My school in Liverpool didn’t even have girls to distract me.
By the time I turned seventeen and entered the upper sixth, I was obliged to wear a stupid-looking prefect’s gown and police the younger boys running recklessly up and down the stairs, some of them nasty little ankle biters from Everton.
Whereas in the south I had sometimes been known as “Mac,” every second lad in my Liverpool classroom seemed to have “Mac” in his name. Those who didn’t have Irish surnames like McEvitt, McVeigh, Kearns, Byrne, or Devine had names that were Greek or Italian. It seemed like there were no entirely English Catholics in the city.
We spent most of the time we could hiding in a common room in which we were briefly allowed the privilege of a record player. The class was divided between those who scratched their heads over Pink Floyd albums and a couple leerier lads who liked soul music.
I was persuaded to bring my guitar to school, once it was discovered I could play a little bit. Tony Byrne’s interest was photography, but I hadn’t recalled him taking any pictures that day until his sister, Veronica, recently sent me some of his photographs. One of them shows an eager-looking guitarist playing for a group of lads wearing school blazers and blank expressions, slumped at well-worn desks. I’d like to think that was just concentration and not boredom.
Oddly enough, I do remember exactly what I was singing. It was a Tony Joe White song called “Groupie Girl” that we all thought was pretty racy, even though I really didn’t know what it meant.
* * * *
I’d come up from the outskirts of West London, where all you needed for a teenage party was a copy of Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3 or the Rock Steady collection Tighten Up Vol. 2. To get the full effect, you had to add a Watneys Party Seven—a can of beer just one pint shy of a gallon—and a bottle of advocaat, for mixing with lemonade to make “snowballs” for the girls, because they were “dead sophisticated.” In my attempt to fit in at an all-boys school on Merseyside, I seemed to never get around to mentioning that I liked “Working in a Coal Mine.”
Thankfully, we were past the usual trials of strength and courage that attend the arrival of a new pupil in a school. The worst of it was me being “skitted” endlessly about my supposed “Cockney” accent. As far as I was concerned I’d inherited the northern a from my parents—rendering “glass” and “grass” rather than the southern “glarse” and “grarse.” My classmates would only hear of me reading my “buck” in my “rum,” because I didn’t say “bewk” or “rrroom,” with a roller r. Ever since, I’ve been able to change my speaking voice as the occasion demands it.
It was all pretty harmless stuff, and a couple of us soon found that we shared the common, hallowed ground behind the goal of the Kop at Anfield for Liverpool F.C. home games.
The rest of the time, we sat around listening to the new acoustic music coming out of Laurel Canyon. I managed to talk a couple of my new pals out of an unhealthy fascination with the music of Emerson Lake & Palmer.
A lot of the best music tours came no nearer than Manchester, which was forty miles away. If you wanted good tickets, you’d have to get up around dawn, sag off school, and catch an early-morning train to be first in line at the box office. On one such outing, we saw James Taylor with Carole King opening for him, but either had to miss the final number or our last train home.
Occasionally, a tour would play Liverpool Stadium, a dank boxing venue that didn’t always have the blood washed off the seats. I once saw Loudon Wainwright III hold the place in rapt attention with just an acoustic guitar and a song about a deceased skunk, but then the place definitely had that air about it.
In the early spring of 1971, it was announced that The Rolling Stones were coming to Liverpool to play two shows in one night. This was a month or so before the release of Sticky Fingers and immediately before they went into the French tax exile that yielded Exile on Main St.
On the day the shows went on sale, I overslept, and by the time I got to the Empire Theatre most of the pupils from my school and several others in the inner city were wound around the block, two or three deep, queuing for tickets.
I affected teenage indifference and had the following conversation with myself in my head.
“The Rolling Stones?”
“Yeah, they’re probably past it.”
And I decided to spend the money I’d saved on a record instead.
All of which would be a good story if the record I purchased had been something more inspiring and enduring than Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane.
* * * *
In the days after my friend Tony was killed, it was difficult to go back to school and carry on as before.
It was hard not to think that some other afternoon we might have used that lunch hour to walk all the way down to Whitechapel, where we’d pretend we were going to buy albums in the record departments at Rushworth’s, NEMS, or Beaver Radio.
Tony didn’t like to take a direct route through the center of town, as we might run into his father, who worked on a stall selling the Liverpool Echo. I knew his Dad was estranged from the family and Tony knew that my parents were separated, but that’s as much as the guard came down. We didn’t talk about our feelings or any of that kind of thing.
We’d have had the shop assistants play a few new tracks from an LP under a listening hood, even though they probably knew we didn’t have any money. They were indulgent and I’d make the occasional purchase of discounted sheet music or one of a box of reduced 45s on the counter. Most of these deleted titles were bubblegum fare that had outstayed their welcome in the charts, but sometimes you’d stumble upon a gem.
One day, I rummaged through the discs and found an Elektra single that I’d read about in Zigzag magazine, which featured articles about Captain Beefheart and Love and other outfits that you couldn’t read about anywhere else. The magazine had also printed Pete Frame’s meticulously hand-drawn Rock Family Trees, explaining how members of Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band had mutated into Dantalian’s Chariot, and other absolutely essential information.
It was due to such a Frame diagram that I knew that “Please Let Me Love You” by the Beefeaters was actually an early recording by a group that had been just about to change its name to The Byrds.
I’d seen The Byrds play twice in 1971. The first time was a ferocious show at Liverpool University at which Clarence White’s twenty-minute Telecaster solo during “Eight Miles High” had just about eased the pain of seeing Liverpool lose to Arsenal in the FA Cup Final earlier in the afternoon. The second occasion involved traveling right across the county to the cathedral town of Lincoln.
I was a fairly naive sixteen-year-old who’d never slept in a field, but my friend John was a couple of years older and thought responsible enough to get us there and back without us getting into any trouble. We were given strict instructions from John’s parents not to swallow anything we didn’t recognize, and my Nana packed us some sandwiches.
Lincoln was to be a one-day festival, but we had to camp on the site the night before in order to catch as many of the acts as possible. John had been a Scout, so he knew a thing or two about pitching a tent, even in a howling rainstorm. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that you don’t touch the canvas from the inside, and we spent the rest of the night shivering and trying to dry out.
By the standards of British summertime, the next day was blisteringly hot and the ground was soon baked dry. We got ourselves a good viewing spot and dined on disgusting “fake” vegetarian ham from a can, which might as well have been rations of bully beef.
The bill of the Lincoln Folk Festival had its share of English folk stars, from Sandy Denny to Pentangle and Steeleye Span, but the day kicked off with the harmonica and guitar of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
I had one of Tim Hardin’s records, so seeing his name on the poster was reason enough to get there early. I didn’t know enough about the effects of drugs to recognize what made his performance seem so fragile and scattered with just a few moments of unsteady beauty.
The day got a little long on jigs and reels and fey hippie songs for my liking, so when the “Acoustic” Byrds arrived around sundown and proceeded to plug in and storm through “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” it was just the jolt the day needed.
A year earlier, The Byrds had been rained out at the Bath Festival so played an impromptu acoustic set that had gone over really well, hence their billing at Lincoln. After that opening electric blast, Roger McGuinn and the band brought out their acoustic guitars, but the crowd found that Clarence White was just as dazzling on his Martin as he was on his Fender.
Like most festivals in those days, nothing ran on time.
We arrived at Lincoln station in time to see the last train out of town pulling out of sight and tipped out our pockets to find that we had barely enough money between us for a cup of tea, let alone a night in a bed-and-breakfast.
There seemed no sense in heading back to the festival site, so we rolled out our blankets and tried to sleep on the now chilly stone floor of the station building. Any sleep we managed must have been pretty fitful.
We stirred at first light, shivering more from exhaustion than the temperature. It was still long before the trains started running again.
Suddenly, an exotically attired figure appeared out of nowhere, strolling along the line of stragglers like a drill sergeant at the sound of reveille. He told us that he was from Nigeria, but he spoke in a theatrical upper-class English accent. He seemed to take pity on our bedraggled appearance and offered us breakfast at his flat.
This was expressly the kind of invitation that our parents had instructed us to refuse, but we followed him a few blocks to what looked like beat-up student accommodation. The walls were lined with psychedelic posters and there was a lingering in the air of incense and funny cigarettes.
Our host disappeared through a beaded curtain, and suddenly loud music was booming from the next room, despite the early hour. Seconds later, he draped himself in the doorway smoking a joint and wearing just a blue satin robe gathered carelessly at his waist.
“Fuck me, he’s got no kecks on,” said John, and we bolted for the door.
From UNFAITHFUL MUSIC & DISAPPEARING INK. Used with permission of Blue Rider Press. Copyright © 2015 by Elvis Costello