"New Amsterdam" / Elvis Costello and the Attractions
I saw Elvis last Friday night, at a dress rehearsal for Prairie Home Companion (c'mon, you didn't think Elvis could resist, once he discovered that his pal Nick Lowe had charmed Prairie Home's listeners not once but twice in the past year or so?) Elvis was at his cuddly teddy-bear best, agreeably mugging along with Garrison Keillor and the gang in various skits and flogging several songs off of a new album (due in early June), Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, which he cranked out one afternoon in Nashville recently. Really, has the man no Off button?
On my way to the show, I wondered what Elvis would sing. The one song I guessed was the only older number he performed -- "Indoor Fireworks," from King of America, which has been in my Top Ten Elvis Songs for just about forever. I even heard him sing it in duet with Nick about a year ago, which as you can imagine was a moment of sheer fangirl transcendence for me.
But ever since, oddly enough, I've been humming this song, which Elvis didn't sing at all on Friday. True, it's a natural default for me to dial into Get Happy!, probably my favoritest EC LP ever. But why this one, and not, say, "Motel Matches" or "Riot Act" or "Five Gears in Reverse" or "B Movie"? I suspect it was triggered by an interview I read recently, in which Elvis scoffed about his youthful addiction to puns and word play. I thought to myself, "Yes, you're right, Declan" (in my head I'm always on a real-name basis with EC), "you really were a fool for the word play back then." But who am I kidding? The word play is what I LOVE about this track.
He simply can't resist. "You're sending me tulips mistaken for lilies," he begins with that knee-jerk Dutch tulip image, then twists it into "You give me your lip after punching me silly." This makes no sense at all, outside of the pun, does it? And he follows it up with another grotesque physical image: "You turned my head till it rolled down the brain drain / If I had any sense now I wouldn't want it back again." It's awful, isn't it? And yet he's speeding through it all with such reckless abandon, I can't help but love it.
The deal is, this song is a waltz -- I don't just mean it's in 3/4 time, it actually whirls and dips like a waltz, with a funny sort of coked-up musicbox quality. Steve Nieve's calliope-like organ doesn't surface until the end, but it's pattering away underneath the whole time, and no matter how many words Elvis stuffs into this carnival tune, all you really hear is the stressed first beat of nearly every measure, which generally is also the highest note, cascading downward after that. It's like a horror film fun house, like a merry-go-round Elvis can't jump off of. And somehow that makes all those grotesque images fit right in.
New Amsterdam is code, I guess, for New York, or so the chorus suggests: "New Amsterdam it's become much too much / Till I have the possession of everything she touches." Yeah, that sense of excess is 1980 NYC all right. And he follows it up with a real groaner of a couplet: "Till I step on the brakes to get out of her clutches / Till I speak double dutch to a real double duchess." Beyond the car puns and the snarky play on "double" (morphing innocent double-dutch ghetto jump-ropers with Eurotrash hypocrisy), there's an absolutely vertiginous sense of danger and distrust, which with 1980s Elvis was pretty much par for the course. (Check out the end of verse two, where he fires off one of his more jaundiced insults, "Everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written" -- ouch!)
But then the bridge is oddly poignant: "Back in London they'll take you to heart after a little while / Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile." Wait, is it London or New York where he feels like an exile? I'm betting both, actually. Funny that he lives here in New York now, but then again, today he's a hobnobber par excellence, no longer an angry young man. It doesn't matter where he actually lives, he's always inside that celebrity bubble now.
He carries on in that lonely, winsome vein in the last verse: "Somehow I found myself down at the dockside / Thinking of the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe / The transparent people who live on the other side / Living a life that is almost like suicide." I'm not sure whether the "other" side is the past he's left behind, or the new fake plastic people he's forced to hang out with. Either way, he hates 'em. Ahh, vintage Elvis.
New Amsterdam video