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:)
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