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The Last Word: Elvis Costello on Reassessing His Back Catalog and Why He’s a ‘Freak of Nature’

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Before the pandemic hit, Elvis Costello was living what he calls a “carefree and jet-set” lifestyle. He’d recorded a well-received album, 2020’s Hey Clockface, completed a tour, and had even tracked a handful of new songs in Helsinki and Paris before Covid hit pause on the world.

“The next thing, I found myself staring at the water on Vancouver Island, not knowing when I would leave again, not knowing when we’d start work again,” he says on a call from his Manhattan home this past November. “So I looked at a group of songs that I had begun that year, and I saw they were actually connected in some ways. They were, I hate to use the word ‘philosophical,’ but they did have a look at life at different times —the innocence of childhood, the confusion of young adulthood, and then looking back at different things with a different perspective later.” Those tunes — some of which sound carefree and jet-set, some which reflect the singer-songwriter’s trademark bittersweet brooding — now comprise his 32nd studio album, The Boy Named If, out this week.

Costello, who was born Declan MacManus in London 67 years ago, has always been an introspective songwriter, chronicling the acrimony, shame, and occasional glimmers of hope that accompany everyday life for the past 40-plus years. He’s the first to point out that while songs like “Alison” and “Pump It Up” are beloved classics, neither were smash successes. His biggest hit in the U.S. came in 1987 with “Veronica,” a song about the unlikely subject of Alzheimer’s that peaked at Number 19 on the Billboard chart. So his perspective on his career is that it’s been successful enough to allow him to keep making more albums, tour, and collaborate with artists he grew up admiring. Over the years, he’s taken advantage of opportunities to work with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Roots, and many others. His artistry earned the singer an Order of the British Empire medal for his contributions to the arts.

In an interview for Rolling Stone’s Last Word column, Costello reflected on what he’s learned at nearly every stage of his life and what keeps him going. “I’ve been doing it long enough now that I should’ve learned something,” he says. “For heaven’s sake, you can become a priest and a doctor in seven years; I’ve been doing this 43, I should be able to do something by now. I certainly can’t do anything else.”

In 1977, you said that your primary motivations were “revenge and guilt.” Does that still hold true?

Yeah, I had drunk about half a bottle of Pernod when I said that. I thought it sounded good and so did the journalist, and then I have people quoting it back to me as if it was a page from the catechism. It’s just some moment of bravado. It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But think it through for a minute and it doesn’t make sense. But awfully picturesque.

How did you learn to move past that press persona?

Making 30 or more albums. Each one is different in personality. Those records sometimes require you to unpack that mythmaking aspect of those first few records, because if you listen to the individual songs on those first albums, you’ll find much more nuance to what’s being said about anything. And to some degree, if you’re stuck with my face and my voice, things sound more aggressive because I’m a freak of nature. I have a gap in my teeth. Everything explodes out of my mouth as either a threat or a snarl [laughs].

What do you think caused you to think about the various stages of life while writing the songs on The Boy Named If?

I do have boys that will be 15 next week, and an elder son who’s in his forties, so I have the perspective on some of these transitions. And I lost my father 10 years ago; I lost my mother early last year. Those things will tend to make you think about yourself as a child because now you’re promoted by that event in some way.

How did your mother and father influence you as a songwriter?

I wrote a 600-page book [2015’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink] sort of romanticizing the stories of my grandfather and my father as traveling musicians and how it influenced me. But I also began that book when my father was in his last illness with Parkinson’s. Although he had passed during the process of me writing that book, he was sort of alive on the page, wasn’t he? The actual truth was, it was my mother that told me to write things down that troubled me or bothered me, both good and bad ways. That was her example.

You have a line on “Farewell, OK,” a track from the new record, about “Elvis in the velvet hereafter.” What’s your relationship with the name Elvis now?

I never really hear it because my family don’t call me that; most people call me by my initials, which my dad began. He called me “D.P.” [for “Declan Patrick”] so that’s an Irish convention, I guess, that he picked up. And I don’t really hear many people call me by that name, so I just don’t hear it anymore. It’s like a secret identity, or something; it’s like being called Clark Kent. It’s just a name. It’s just a brand.

You’ve played with the Attractions’ Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas for more than 40 years in different capacities. What’s the secret to making a collaboration like that work?

Well, of course there was a time when we didn’t work together. They had different views of what that band was; we had reached an end with that band a couple of times, two or three times, long before we actually disbanded for the first time, let alone the second time. … Even when we weren’t cohesive, we made good records. Blood & Chocolate was a good record, and we were completely at war most of the time. Sometimes not getting along can be good. You didn’t have to be happy-go-lucky or cheery all the time. That’s not really what it’s about.

What still attracts you to writing rock music?

I don’t like much rock music. I like rock & roll. I think if you lose the roll part, a lot of the fun goes out of it. And when people ask me, “What’s your favorite record?” I usually don’t name any electric-guitar records made in the last 30 years because the beat is so square. I like things that float a bit or swing a bit, whether it’s rock & roll or actual jazz that swings, or even the way Hank Williams records lope.

You listen to these records out of Nashville, they couldn’t float if you filled them full of water. They just don’t; they’re square and they sound like bad rock records from the Nineties. To my ear, they just do. But somebody likes them. My grandfather — he was a trumpet player — never used to criticize other musicians. I’m trying to live by his example a little better these times and not be so critical of everybody else. But you can’t like everything.

Do you wish you could record songs in a different style?


I wish I could sing certain types of tunes that I’ll never be able to sing. I don’t think I’m ever going to sing as a countertenor.

What songs do you wish you could sing?

It would be great to sing [Purcell’s] “When I Am Laid in Earth” like Jeff Buckley did at Meltdown in ’95. It was astonishing to hear him sing this piece of music from Jacobean times, and it just feel like it could’ve been written for his voice. But he had such a gift of an instrument of a voice. He could turn that to all sorts of music that took his interest, and it didn’t sound in any way an affectation that he did it. He would sing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan pieces he’d learn phonetically; he didn’t understand the language. He talked about singing Mahler at that festival. I said, “That’s in German. Do you speak German?” “No, I’ll learn it.”

I was curating that festival. Now it’s very poignant because it was his last performance in London, but we didn’t know that then. His life was ahead. There was all these great things that he was still going to do. That was just a very sad coincidence. We should be happy that he sang it that one time. You heard him sing something like [“When I Am Laid in Earth”], surely you’ve heard Grace, you’ve heard “Corpus Christi Carol” by Benjamin Britten — he could sing that as well as he could sing a song by Morrissey, although why anybody would want to do that, I don’t know. Or a song by Led Zeppelin; why anybody would want to do that, I don’t know, but he did. That’s his choice.

You’ve collaborated with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach on songs, but they seem to write words to fit the melodies where you have said you do the opposite. What have you learned from working with them?

With Paul, we started very spontaneously. One of us would start strumming a rhythm and then some harmony would emerge. Like most everybody, I’ve been watching Get Back. And it’s really amazing to see the Beatles writing like that … taking those same stumbling steps that all songwriters take, letting the nonsense words almost carry the tune for a moment, and then the real meaning comes out from that. So I did actually have that experience of writing with Paul in that manner. I’m not saying [my experience is] equal, but that was one of the ways we worked.

What about working with Burt Bacharach?


With Burt Bacharach, it was very different. It was predominantly music first and often one or the other of us would make the first musical statement. In some cases, I wrote a melody to which he would write the bridge. Sometimes writing every other line would come from one or the other of us once we’d got a dialogue going. But then my job would be to respond to the mood and the implication of that music, what would serve that music in a narrative. The mood of the music was very apparently melancholic and reflective, so I didn’t want to overcomplicate lyrics with lots of showy images. I wanted to keep the language fairly plainspoken.

When you’re writing without a collaborator, you can choose to speak simply, or you can sometimes explore more images that the listener has to ponder more. There’s some lyrics that I wrote for Imperial Bedroom that are quite opaque. There are some songs that I wrote 10 years ago that have very clear narratives, like “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” and then others that are much more impressionistic, like “Stations of the Cross.” If you read that lyric, you can see the seams within each verse, but each verse does not necessarily lead to the next; they lead to the chorus. Sometimes it’s almost like the editorial function because the bridge might be from the perspective of the other character in the song, or it might step outside a first-person narrative to observe that. You can travel in time and space just like a novelist can, but you’re doing it in a much more compressed form in a song.

What have you learned about expressing complicated perspectives in your lyrics?


You don’t usually get taken to jail for killing people in songs. “Watching the Detectives,” “Alison,” “Man Out of Time” — these are just early songs that seem to mention murder or shooting people, but they don’t actually describe shooting people. That’s not what they’re about. They’re not about an act of violence at all. They’re about observing violence on a TV or they’re about taking the hope from somebody or taking the will to carry on from yourself. There’s all sorts of ways that you might choose to express it: Sometimes extreme language is used to convey something very mundane, but nevertheless, something that you feel you want to say.

Early on you actively kept “Alison” out of your set lists. Why was that?

Because it was the only ballad we had. It was like a moment where the tension would slacken in the show, and that wasn’t what I wanted. So I felt, “Well, that makes it too easy. Let’s make it a little harder. Let’s play a bunch of songs they haven’t heard yet.” So, we played the second record, which nobody had heard. I think those were probably stronger songs for the Attractions because we had started to record them [for Costello’s first LP with the group, This Year’s Model] and they belonged to us.

Last year, you released Spanish Model, which featured Spanish-speaking singers covering This Year’s Model. Did that give you a new perspective on those songs?

I was sort of shocked to find several of these songs had much better tunes when sung by somebody with an evidently more beautiful voice than I have. “Hand in Hand” quite surprised me. That’s quite a pretty tune. It literally never occurred to me, because it was “don’t ask me to apologize” — all attitude. And then [on Spanish Model] I heard that I’d actually set it to quite a tender tune, much more so than I sang it.

Speaking of attitude, in 1977, you were famously banned from SNL after suddenly switching to “Radio, Radio” in the middle of your slot. How do you look back on that decision now?

Before anybody noticed that we’d even done it, we were back in England, recording the rest of This Year’s Model. We’d forgotten about America temporarily, because we had to be on Top of the Pops in England. We never thought about NBC again. …  It’s clear we weren’t going to have a career in television; they told us that. And guess what? I never wanted one, really.

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‘My Daughter Had a Life’: Family of Lauren Smith-Fields Protest on What Would Have Been Her 24th Birthday

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What would’ve been Lauren Smith-Fields’ 24th birthday celebration was instead a day of protest to demand answers and justice in her mysterious death. Today, approximately 100 family, friends, and activists gathered together in front of the Bridgeport, Connecticut, police department to march to the Margaret E. Morton Government Center, where they chanted “Happy Birthday, Lauren” and “Black Women Matter.” 

“My daughter was a daddy’s girl,” Smith-Fields’ father, Everett Smith, said to the crowd. “To lose your daughter, your only daughter, your baby girl at the ripe age of 23 years old and to be treated the way we were treated by the Bridgeport police department is unacceptable. My daughter had a life, she traveled the world, she went to college and did tutorials on how to do hair and nails. She had a voice and that voice was stripped and the Bridgeport police station ain’t doing shit about it.” 

On Dec. 12, following a Bumble date at her apartment, Smith-Fields was found unresponsive by a white man named Matthew Lafountain. Lafountain called police, reporting that Smith-Fields was unresponsive and had been bleeding from her nose. Smith-Field’s family — who learned of her death days later, after finding a note from the landlord on the door — found a used condom with semen and an unidentified pill in her apartment. They still have not received answers regarding her cause of death and describe communication with detectives as unprofessional and scarce. (Lafountain has not been charged with any crimes, and is not a suspect in the case. Rolling Stone has been unable to reach him for comment.)

The family is demanding answers from Bridgeport Police Department and are upset that they have not heard from city officials regarding the circumstances of Smith-Fields’ death. They also want an apology. The family says their frustration is rooted in the fact that the last person who saw Smith-Fields, Lafountain, was let go without further questioning and or investigation from police. They say the officers on the case have not been responding to their phone calls, and didn’t adequately examine evidence found at the scene of their daughter’s death. As of Friday, the family’s lawyer Darnell Crosland issued a letter to the Bridgeport City Clerk regarding their intent to sue. 

“The police department has been racially insensitive to this family and has treated this family with no respect and has violated their civil rights,” wrote Crosland. “They have failed to investigate this matter, and they refuse to view the last person with Lauren Smith-Fields before she died as a person of interest. This behavior is unacceptable.”

Bridgeport Police Department has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Rolling Stone, but has previously issued a statement to NBC News: This investigation remains open and active. The Detective Bureau is awaiting the final report from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office for cause and manner of death of Ms. Smith-Fields. The Bridgeport Police Department offers it’s sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Ms. Lauren Smith-Fields. We encourage anyone with information regarding this incident to contact either Detective-Sergeant Joseph Morales at 203-581-5219 or the Bridgeport Police TIPS line at 203-576-8477.”

Another family at the protest — that of Brenda Lee Rawls, 53, who died the same weekend as Smith-Fields — claim they were met with indifference by the Bridgeport PD after the untimely loss of a loved one. 

“They treated my sister like a Jane Doe, like they found her on the side of the road with no identification,” said Dorothy Washington, Rawls’s sister. Similar to the Smith-Fields’ family, Rawls’s family say they received no notice or help from the Bridgeport police department. 

“My family is very close and we don’t go a day without talking to each other. The last day we talked to Brenda was on Dec. 11,” Washington said. “On the 12th, she said she was going to a friend’s home to visit after that, we heard nothing from her.” 

After days of calling and texting, the sister went to the man’s home that Rawls said she was visiting. “The guy said ‘Brenda? Oh, she died Sunday,’” said Washington. “‘A police officer and one coroner came to pick her up.’ My family called the hospitals, the police department and they knew nothing about her death.” 

It wasn’t until the family contacted the Farmington Connecticut State Medical Examiner, that they found out where she was. Rawrs died Sunday and the family says they were informed on Tuesday. By the time they were aware, an autopsy had been conducted. 

“They never called us for identification,” said Washington. “We went down there on Friday of that week and the guy at the window gave us the wrong detective’s name. That detective called me back and gave me the right detective’s name. They never started on the investigation. They never quarantined that guy’s house or questioned him. Never quarantined my sister’s apartment. I called [the detective] four or five times, he never reached out.” (Bridgeport PD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) 

Smith-Fields’ mother wants to create a bill in Smith-Fields’ name that will create police accountability and for families to be notified within 24 hours of the death of a loved one. 

Following the protest, Smith-Fields family and friends who were dressed in her favorite color, pink, released pink balloons into the sky as a celebration for her birthday. The crowd was then invited for cake at a local restaurant in the area. 

“Today would’ve been her 24th birthday. In a couple of days she would have been leaving to go to Greece to celebrate but now that was taken away from her,” said her mother, Shantell Fields. “No one is going to disparage my daughter like she’s rubbish.”

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Fashion Designer Thierry Mugler Dead at 73

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Thierry Mugler
French Fashion Designer Dead at 73

1/23/2022 3:29 PM PT

Thierry Mugler — an iconic French fashion designer — has died … this according to his team.

An Instagram on Mugler’s official page went up Sunday with the tragic news. It was a photo of nothing but a blank square, with the caption … “#RIP We are devastated to announce the passing of Mr Manfred Thierry Mugler on Sunday January 23rd 2022. May his soul Rest In Peace.” The same message was repeated in French as well.

Waiting for your permission to load the Instagram Media.

No word on a cause of death, but his passing sees sudden and unexpected — as he didn’t appear to be ill or battling any known ailments.

As you can imagine, the tributes started to pour almost instantly … especially from folks in the fashion world, who knew Mugler well from his decades-long work and influence in the industry.

It goes without saying … Mugler has dressed some of the biggest names in the game, including Kim Kardashian — whom he actually graced with an outfit of his during the 2019 Met Gala, this after he’d officially retired — plus a plethora of other models and stars.

His extravagant designs have been fan-faves among celebs like Lady Gaga, Cardi B, Jerry Hall, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Rihanna, David Bowie, George Michael, Linda Evangelista, Demi Moore, Megan Fox, Miley Cyrus, Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks, Sharon Stone, Diana Ross, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Robin Wright, Bella Hadid … and many others.

All of them have donned Mugler-designed getups at one point or another, be it on the red carpet, on the runway … or on stage. The guy’s work touched at least 3 different decades of fashion — and he was absolutely beloved among Hollywood’s finest.

In addition to his clothing contributions, Mugler also left his mark in the fragrance biz … with a diverse line of perfumes that are still best sellers to this day.

He was 73.

RIP

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O.J. Simpson Hits Florida Bar to Catch NFL Playoff Game, Post-Parole

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The Juice is Loose in FL, Post-Parole …
Watching TB Get Clobbered

1/23/2022 3:04 PM PT

O.J. Simpson‘s post-parole life is starting out in the Sunshine State, it seems, because there’s been a Juice sighting in Florida … and wouldn’t you know it, the guy’s at a bar!

The disgraced NFL-er caught the Bucs-Rams matchup Sunday at a place called Bo’s Pub in Ft. Lauderdale … where he was taking in the game, and apparently some drinks too. In photos obtained by TMZ, you see O.J. chillin’ near a group of folks and having a good time.

We’re told O.J. appeared to be with these people — so he wasn’t just randomly there lone-wolfing it. And, per usual, he was getting recognized and approached for photos and the like … which eyewitnesses say he was happy to accommodate.

It actually looks like a young group of ladies might’ve been ooh-ing and ah-ing over O.J. as well — as one pic shows them near his crew, and O.J. not too far with a big grin on his face.

No shock here that O.J.’s keeping up with football — we know he likes to comment on the state of the game and standout moments during the season … including Antonio Brown‘s ungraceful exit from the Buccaneers franchise.

So yea, the fact he’s peeping a big game in public might not be too much of a news flash.

What is interesting, however, is the fact that this seems to be one of the first public outings O.J.’s had since being released early from his parole in Nevada — where he’s been confined for the better part of 5  years now … following his release from prison in 2017.

At least he’s far away from California … where we know he’s not all that welcome, especially from the Brown family.

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