June 09, 1986 12:00 PM

She calls him “the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.”

She is, of course, only 21.

Still, he does seem, as she says, “romantic and idealistic.” Not to mention useful around the house. He cooks, she doesn’t. He calls each of her two dozen stuffed animals by name. When the couple stroll together through London, they like to buy carnations for their buttonholes. They used to buy white ones. But, says she, “as we got closer and more honest, I admitted I really preferred pink. Declan said, ‘Yes, so do I.’ Now when we’re home more than three days, the house will be filled with pink carnations.”

Pink carnations? Wait a minute. Isn’t this Elvis Costello we’re talking about? And who’s Declan?

Declan is Elvis, but more on that later. And, yes, we are talking Elvis Costello—that skinny, bug-eyed rocker with the Buddy Holly glasses and the permanent sneer. Except his build is a little closer to Wayne Newton’s now. At 31, he doesn’t do that dorky stuff anymore, like stand on the sides of his feet when he sings or buckle his knees, making his pipe-stem legs describe a wobbly hourglass. And he gave the glasses—which were just ordinary horn-rims—to his fiancée, Caitlin O’Riordan.

When she isn’t admiring carnations, O’Riordan plays bass with the Celtic folk-rock band the Pogues, whose last album, produced by Costello, was titled Rum, Sodomy and the Lash—echoing Churchill’s sardonic description of the navy. Beneath her Statue-of-Liberty spikes, Cait (rhymes with hot) is willowy and blue-eyed, and in a very gentle voice she will tell you that she can drink her future hubby right under the table.

But slow down. Isn’t this the same Elvis Costello who informally subtitled one of his albums Emotional Fascism (he was against it, though sometimes it was hard to tell) and who got his tongue caught in the wringer a few years back when, in the heat of a drunken argument, he reportedly called Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant nigger”?

That’s the guy. But for a long time now he’s been trying to suggest that he’s not just “Mr. Revenge and Guilt,” as he once ruefully put it. From many of his most convincing songs, certain plaintive lines leap out: “I need, I need, I need the human touch” or—take a deep breath, Costello writes motor-mouth lyrics—”Whenever I put my foot in my mouth and you begin to doubt that it’s you that I’m dreaming about/ Do I have to draw you a diagram?/ All I ever want is just to fall into your human hands.” Those lyrics slithered over an unforgettable chicane of a melody that owed little to the thump of rock. The song, called Human Hands, is on Imperial Bedroom, the 1982 album that had the New York Times asking, “Is Elvis Costello…going to turn out to be the Cole Porter of the 1980s?”

Reminding Costello of praise like that brings the curl back to his lip. “There’s an awful lot of fake virtuosity in rock,” he says. “The moment you spin three words together you’re made poet laureate. If you throw in a few minor blues inversions, people think you’re a melodic genius. So I thought it was an embarrassing exaggeration.”

The sneer, the knees, the Ray Charles incident, the Cole Porter hype—a lot of uncomfortable karma had accumulated around the Elvis Costello name. Last year Elvis did something about it. He dumped the name.

From birth, in 1954, to his signing in London by upstart Stiff Records in 1977, he had been plain Declan Patrick McManus—Dec, for short. Stiff’s flamboyant co-founder, who had changed his own name from Andrew Jakeman to Jake Riviera, thought Elvis had a certain something that Declan seemed to lack. McManus saw the point, and threw in his mother’s maiden name of Costello. “At first I thought the name was really funny,” he says. “The next thing I knew it was all over the papers.” The name served its purpose at first, but eventually became an albatross. Though Costello will continue to use his “brand name” professionally, sparing Columbia Records much anguish, his legal cognomen is now Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus. After all, the most florid lyricist of the last decade cannot resist a little embellishment, even on his own ID. “My family always thought of me as Declan,” he says. “Very few people close to me call me Elvis. I thought of the name change as just a gentle reminder that there was a human being lurking behind the glasses and the imagery. Once and for all I wanted to make the distinction clear.”

The runways of rock ‘n’ roll are littered with the bodies of stars who took off fast and crashed hard. Costello’s is not one of them. To date he has packed more than 150 of his own songs onto 10 fervid albums and will soon enter his second decade as a productive singer and songwriter. David Weiss, co-leader of the eclectic art/ funk band Was (Not Was), went record shopping with Costello in Los Angeles last year and found him to be “a virtual scholar of American blues and country music.” Says Weiss: “He turned me on to a lot of things I’d missed.” Later the two wrote a song together. “He’s the master of the elaborately detailed conceit,” Weiss says. Loosely employing the chords of the rock ‘n’ roll classic Under the Boardwalk, Costello fashioned a melody, then sang the new tune into his little sea-green ghetto blaster. Weiss later played the cassette at a recording studio and was impressed once again. “It wasn’t something he’d lived with,” he says, “but he delivered it with such conviction. Like Dylan, Elvis had a way of respecting black idiom without being outright imitative. There’s an extra expressiveness there.”

Pop music of all kinds had been the daily bread of Declan McManus’ youth. Growing up in blue-collar London, he received heaps of records from his father, Ross, a successful big-band singer and trumpet player who got promotional copies free. “I memorized records, sang solos off them,” Costello says. “I learned all my vocal harmony off records of that era.” At Catholic schools he underwent trial by violin lesson and sampled other instruments as well. “They were boring,” he says. “They made screechy, horrible sounds, and it took too long.” Deliverance came in the form of a guitar he picked up at 15. “It was magic. I couldn’t believe it was so easy, because everything at school was hard work for no reward.”

There were more than half a million unemployed in England in 1973, the year McManus graduated from secondary school in Liverpool, where he had gone to live with his mother after his parents’ divorce. Married to his school sweetheart, Mary, and with a new son, Matthew, to support, he moved back to London in 1974. He wrote his songs on lunch breaks and on the commute to a menial computer job. “Welcome to the working week,” he would sing on My Aim Is True, his debut album. “Oh, I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you….”

Reborn as an Elvis, Costello recorded Aim in a single week while on sick leave. That summer, when CBS Records held its annual convention in London, Costello played his guitar on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. He got arrested but was signed to a contract by CBS-owned Columbia Records.

Costello and the Attractions, his devastating backup trio, had a backstage diversion in the early days—counting the number of times they’d be asked each night whether they were punk or New Wave. “People could only ask what they were being fed by these idiotic, perplexed music journalists who were suddenly terrified that the little world they’d built for themselves was all irrelevant,” Costello recalls, the sneer creeping back into his voice. “We didn’t care whether we were better than Led Zeppelin, whereas everybody else apparently did.”

Confrontational and uncompromising, Costello whipped through intense 30-minute sets and often refused to play encores. “Just getting from the dressing room to the stage could be a major hassle in some clubs,” he says. “We’d explain, ‘We don’t want a roll of the drums. We don’t want some guy getting up there and spouting ludicrous platitudes about us. We just want you to shut up and let us do our job.’ Perhaps we didn’t put it reasonably. But when you’re working very fast and you’ve got a club full of mad people, you tend not to be reasonable.”

In fairness, the crush was stupefying. “I’ve never seen anything like the intensity of it,” says Gregg Geller, the talent scout who signed Costello for Columbia and is now head of artists-and-repertoire at RCA Records. “Nobody was trying to rip his clothes off. That’s easier to deal with—you just get out of there fast. These were all people who wanted to talk, who wanted a piece of his mind. I thought he was unbelievably patient.”

But not patient enough. Inevitably the musical menace with the Gatling gun mouth finally talked himself into trouble. It happened in 1979, in a Columbus, Ohio bar where Costello and his bass player, Bruce Thomas, had gone to drink after a gig. Members of the Stephen Stills Band happened to be there, too. A drunken, nasty England vs. America argument ensued, with both sides baiting each other until Costello, asked what he thought of James Brown and Ray Charles, said the most outrageous thing he could think of, hoping to silence everyone. Instead he triggered a brawl and found himself in the papers. His apology at a New York press conference was neither graciously given nor well received.

The irony of the “Ray Charles incident” is that Costello was never a racist. In England he had produced the first album by the ground-breaking interracial band the Specials and had attacked the neofascist National Front in song (Night Rally) and in performance at Rock Against Racism concerts. But he could see, as he told Greil Marcus in 1982, that he had become “not a very nice person.” One reason was drink; another was drugs. After the Columbus debacle he began to face both problems squarely. “You have to teach yourself a lesson, sometimes several times over,” he says. “But there was no dramatic, staring-death-in-the-face moment where I straightened up. I haven’t become a puritan. It’s just that if you do drink and take loads of drugs, you turn into a very dull person after a while.”

The Columbus humiliation was a watershed for Costello. After three years of silence he spoke at length about it in 1982. “A lot of people were very angry, and rightfully so,” he said. “Those words I used certainly don’t represent my view of the world. I had always just assumed that people would recognize my allegiance to R&B, to black music, but it wasn’t obvious enough. I suppose if you allow uncontrolled anger to run away with you, and if you make a career out of contriving anger, up onstage, whether you’re feeling angry or not, sooner or later you’ll find yourself saying things, using words you don’t mean. But I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses. There aren’t any….”

The three albums Costello made before Columbus were tough and tight-knit in content and style. The eight he has made since then have been more wide-ranging and, as he has observed, “warmer…more directly emotional, more personal” in tone. His latest, King of America, was recorded in Los Angeles last summer and fall with a number of veteran session musicians, including the core of Elvis’ original backup band. There are no synthesizers on the LP and almost no overdubs. With its blend of rockabilly, blues and ballad, all filtered through Costello’s elliptical sensibility, King runs counter to the current glossy trend, so much so that Costello thinks of it as “a kind of punk record.”

Critics have commented on the relaxed quality of Costello’s singing on the new record. Caitlin O’Riordan might have something to do with that. Costello’s marriage had already dissolved when the Pogues opened for his solo tour in the fall of 1984. He and Caitlin began as friends, often going to see bands or films together, but soon became lovers. Last year, while the Pogues were on tour in Manchester, England, Costello turned up at their hotel. “He had booked the Royal Suite,” O’Riordan says, “so I knew something was up. He got a bottle of champagne, and then he went down on one knee—you know, classic—and proposed. I was in tears.”

The couple hasn’t set a date, but plan to marry sometime this year. Already there is a hint of a domestic routine. When the two are at the studio rehearsing or recording, she’ll tug his sleeve and say, ‘We’ve got to get back, it’s time for Dynasty [which she pronounces in the British manner, dinnesty.]” He will gripe but go. “I’ve got catholic tastes, whereas he is very snobby,” she says. “But I love the guy. What can you do?”

Costello is an early riser, hardly typical for any musician, let alone a rocker. “When I’ve had too much to drink, then I don’t want to be up early,” he says. “The rest of the time, what’s the point of sleeping your life away?” Once awake, Costello gets on the telephone, often to his parents. “Every couple of days he’ll say, ‘I’ll call my mother,’ or ‘I’ll call my dad, see how he’s getting on,’ ” says O’Riordan. “He’s very close to them.” Costello also remains attached to his son, Matthew, 11, whom he sees at least once a week when he’s in London.

Recently Costello found himself home alone while Cait and the Pogues toured the eastern U.S. “It’s a new situation to find myself in after years of being out and away all the time myself,” he reflected late one night. “I now know how difficult it is. Maybe MTV will do a special on it: ‘Rock fiancés who are left at home.’ ”

But don’t break out the Alan Alda Raised Consciousness Award just yet. Costello, who is back in the studio cooking up some “wild, howling noise” with the redoubtable Attractions, hasn’t torn up his enemies list. He accuses Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the scores for Cats and Evita, of “ripping off Tchaikovsky…. It’s like having treacle put in your ear.” He considers himself “a million times better writer,” he says, “for all the fact that he’s technically more capable than me.” Costello would like to see one of the ballad singers he reveres—Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald top the list—”cast a bit further when looking for songs” and record a couple of his. He laments the dwindling number of singers of this stature. “Pretty soon,” he says, “we’re going to be stuck with people who are on the Miami Wee sound track.”

“He wants to be provocative,” observes O’Riordan, “just so he knows he isn’t dead yet.” Although Costello isn’t in any danger of underrating his talent, he has no passion for celebrity. One of Costello’s favorite movies is Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, about a filmmaker bedeviled by his relationship with his public. “A lot of people said it was cruel to the audience,” he observes, “but you shouldn’t say that until you’ve stood in the position where somebody is pushing this loaf of bread in your face, saying, ‘I baked this for you,’ with this hopelessly lost look on their face, and you have no idea how to respond.”

“I’m not interested in courting people,” he says. “If people don’t like me, there’s no way I’m going to be nice to them so they do like me. All I want is for the records to be heard. I’m not out there saying, ‘Love me, love me.’ ”

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