Everyday I Write the Check

By John Marshall

Are New Wavers the new toasters?

Are New Wavers the new toasters?

A Special Engagement Featuring Elvis Costello
Complimentary Event
Open to Citi credit card and Citibank Mastercard customers only
SIR Stage37
New York City
December 16, 2010

You won’t take my love for tender
You can put your money where your mouth is
But you’re so unsure
I could be a miser or a big spender
But you might get much more than you bargained for

- “Love for Tender,” Get Happy!! (1980)

Everybody got more than they bargained for at this once-in-a-recession event featuring a solo concert by one of rock’s biggest iconoclasts, performed for an audience composed entirely of credit-card holders.

As someone who hasn’t had a credit card since Elvis released Spike in 1989, I went as a Citicard member’s guest, joining the only audience in history whose common denominators were “Less Than Zero” and 0% Intro APR.

The hip, cavernous space had a small stage, surrounded on three sides by seating for 500. Tables and couches lent the evening an intimate, downtown feel rather than an impersonal, corporate one. If this was a waste of bailout funds, it was the best I’ve seen.

Some on-line message boards lamented that EC was performing for a bank and wouldn’t “bite the hand that feeds me,” as he sang in 1978’s “Radio Radio.” However, it was hard to focus on any bites other than the ones everyone was taking out of the nonstop hors d’oeuvres. Plus, the food and drink, like Citibank’s Online Payment Program, were free.

For a bank-sponsored event, there was no hint of anything even vaguely financial-related. Although the excellent opening act, The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn, did mine classics from past economic eras (“Stardust” – the Depression, “Ragg Mopp” – post-WWII expansion).

Money talks and it’s persuasive

- “Possession,” Get Happy!!

Nothing was more persuasive than Elvis when he took the stage promptly at 8 p.m., with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Wearing his usual suit and trademark hat, he quickly strode to the microphone and delivered the iconic opening line of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”: “Oh I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused.”

The cardmembers went over their limit.

Citibank may own the economy, but EC owned the room. He spat out the song like it was 1977, but it didn’t feel nostalgic. It felt urgent and current. I last saw him 28 years ago at the Pier in the Dr. Pepper concerts. He was so angry he kicked over an amp. He didn’t kick over an amp now, but he still kicked it. In other words, his aim was still true.

Then he took it down a notch, if you can call doing a poignant, heartfelt “Veronica” taking it down. He said, “This next song is one I hate.” That got a big laugh. “I mean, I used to hate it until my friend Ron Sexsmith showed me how to sing it.” Then he did a simple yet moving rendition of “Everyday I Write the Book.” That was Part I.

Part II was the Interview Section, with DJ and MTV/VH-1 VJ Matt Pinfield.

Matt asked which musicians Elvis liked and he said how much he loved the Attractions and how thrilled he was to play with the drummer who played for Little Richard and The Flintstones and Mission Impossible themes.

They discussed EC’s collaborations with Paul McCartney, particularly “That Day Is Done,” about the death of Elvis’s grandmother. Elvis said Paul came up with the title phrase as well as how to craft it into a melody that everyone would sing. “I realized he was doing the same thing he did with ‘Let It Be.”

After some more exchanges,  Matt left the stage and Part III began.

First, Elvis went into Blue Vipers territory with the upbeat, 1920’s-style “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” from this year’s National Ransom, the only new song he did and a real crowd-pleaser.

Then he picked up a massive, Bill Haley-style electric guitar and started strumming some extremely distorted, twanging, minor chords in a lilting reggae rhythm. At first I thought it was “Goon Squad” from Armed Forces but it turned out to be “Watching the Detectives.” More ominous than I’d ever heard it. Elvis seemed to be listening to it as much as playing it, as if he had never heard it before. Maybe in this form, he hadn’t.

There had been shouts all night for “Green Shirt.” I always loved the song but it struck me as an odd one to shout for. Nobody shouted for “Pump It Up” or “Accidents Will Happen.” Whether he meant to do it all along or was responding to the requests, that’s what he did next.

Like “Detective,” this was also mining a darker emotion. I couldn’t help but think that the lyrics now applied to Julian Assange: “I never said I was a stool pigeon / I never said I was a diplomat / Everybody is under suspicion / But you don’t want to hear about that.”

Then he picked up a different guitar and ripped into raucous, acoustic power chords. In the interview he had talked about “Peace, Love and Understanding” and how Nick Lowe had written it as a bit of a joke in the early 70’s – a slightly tongue-in-cheek peace-and-love number.

Elvis, who was always known for his clever wordplay and arch delivery, never saw the song that way and always did it completely straight. Which is how he did it now. Like a one-man Who, he shredded the guitar and tore the roof off the place, to the point where it would take the combined credit ratings of the entire audience to pay for a new one.

Then the event, like America’s days as a creditor nation, was over.

We were left thinking: what is so funny about peace, love and understanding? Or for that matter, Elvis, music and banking?

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