Elvis Costello Countdown #24: “How To Be Dumb”

Full disclosure: I have never read The Big Wheel, Attractions’ bassist Bruce Thomas’ thinly-veiled account of the life of a rock star on the road, so I can’t speak to its merits. The only thing I can be sure of is that Elvis Costello didn’t like it too much. I don’t know if it was because Thomas was breaking some sort of rock star omerta or if he told tales that weren’t true or if he just painted an unflattering picture of the man he referred to in the book only as “the singer.” At least it inspired “How To Be Dumb,” which, while not a particularly good thing for Thomas, is certainly a good  thing for Elvis’ fans.

“How To Be Dumb” might be the most vituperative song on an album, Mighty Like A Rose, that’s full of venom. Indeed, it’s all the more potent for being an intensely personal attack. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it before: Never cheese off an eloquent songwriter, because they’ll always get the last word in on a record and it will usually be the definitive stroke of the back-and-forth argument.

The interesting thing is that Costello marries the song to a very Attractions-like arrangement, almost circus-like in its ebullience. Larry Knechtel plays the Steve Nieve role, adding frenetic piano fills, while Pete Thomas plays the Pete Thomas role, beating the tar of the drums. Most fetching of all is the little saxophone riff, played by Roger Lewis, that really brings the chorus to life. The music is triumphant, as if Elvis is signalling that he’s coming out on top of this tete-a-tete.

Costello paints Thomas as someone who is enjoying the kudos he’s receiving for his “brand new occupation” (and, it should be noted, the book did get some good reviews.) “And beautiful people stampede to the doorway,” he sings, “Of the funniest f*#!er in the world.” Yet he also makes it clear what he thinks of Thomas’ authenticity: “There’s a bright future/For all you professional liars.”

As the song goes on, the attacks get nastier. When you parse through all of Costello’s verbiage, you find out that he essentially calls his nemesis a gutless, jealous poseur. In the final lines, he sounds almost gleeful as he dehumanizes his former bassist: “Scratch your own head, stupid/Count up to three/Roll over on your back/Repeat after me/Don’t you know how to be dumb?” That might be the most damning insult of all, as Elvis insinuates that his longtime bandmate can’t even get stupidity right.

It’s too bad that things had to go down this way, but the two patched things up enough to play together again for a few albums before the separation became permanent, so that’s something. Hey, sometimes people don’t get along, and sometimes it deteriorates pretty badly. It’s just that, as public figures, this personal disagreement played out in front of the reading and listening audience at large.

This song sounds like it was cathartic for Elvis, and, as a listener, you can substitute your own personal enemies and get that same kind of satisfying jolt of musical revenge. “How To Be Dumb” turns out to be just the opposite of “You’re So Vain,” in that nobody would want this song to be about them.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)


(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #70: “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4”

Considering that it came on the heels of it and had the same adventurous approach to assembling musicians and recording, 1991’s Mighty Like The Rose often gets compared unfavorably to 1989’s Spike, which received almost universal acclaim. I think this is because Mighty is a darker record, both in sound and content. Even though Spike had some downbeat material, it generally consisted of bright sounds and punchy rhythms. The follow-up has a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of feel to it, and that can be tough for some people to sit through.

As someone who tends to be drawn to depressive types of music, however, I feel like Mighty Like A Rose is way overlooked. Those people who only know the anthologized stuff like “The Other Side Of Summer” or “So Like Candy” are missing out on some great album cuts, including this track which closes out the album in fascinating fashion. Elvis clearly thinks highly of it, as he often performs it in concert by singing it to the crowd without the benefit of a microphone, a show-stopper every time.

On Mighty Like A Rose, the song takes on a circus quality, aided by the woozy horns of Marc Ribot and Jerry Scheff and the colorful keyboards of Heartbreaker Benmont Tench. Jim Keltner keeps a staggering waltz beat, while Elvis bangs away at a toy piano to boost the surreality of it all. Upon this interesting bed of music he hangs a set of lyrics about the age-old conundrum of figuring out how to fully enjoy life when we are burdened with the knowledge of our eventual death.

The first-verse story of the girl expecting some sort of divine reunion with her dead father might be mocked by some, but the “lucky goon” narrator warns that a time will come for us all when faith in a higher power might be the only way to combat the gnawing fear of losing loved ones. The final two lines are as profound as it gets: “Please don’t let me fear anything I cannot explain/I can’t believe, I’ll never believe in anything again.” They speak to the difficulty of maintaining faith while not letting irrational notions dominate your life.

At least that’s my take. I know there are probably others, because “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4” is the kind of a song that doesn’t provide easy answers, that makes you think. In that way it’s the poster child for the underrated charms to be found all over the difficult but rewarding Mighty Like A Rose.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)


(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)