Today’s Funky Friday Brought to You by The Roots and … Elvis Costello? (A Rumination on Genre Busting)

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OK, lemme ‘splain.

Anyone who’s read this blog … you know – ever – has a pretty good idea that I’m an Elvis Costello fan from way back, and there’s a good reason: I consider my discovery of Costello on par with my initiation into a musical world that included the Beatles as its foundation.

But I’ve never really explained why.

Better than why, I’ll explain when. It was 1983, and I was 15, riding with my dad in his tiny Chevy pickup truck to help him out with a rehearsal for a play he was directing at the Chapel Street Playhouse, a tiny but very active community theater in Newark, Del. As we got closer to the theater, this song came on the radio – likely longstanding Wilmington, Del., Top 40 station WSTW. Something about the opening piano chords with the bass guitar right up front grabbed me, then the singer’s falsetto kicked in, followed by a more normal register, and the sound of the female background singers.

That’s about 20 seconds into the song. And man, I was hooked. I did something I rarely did. I asked my dad to just sit there in the parking lot and leave the radio on while I listened to the rest of the song, which turned out to be about a lovelorn writer using literary imagery to explain the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

OK, I thought. You got me. I’m done. Who is this guy?

But the DJ didn’t say. Because this was the Stone Ages, when there was no handy digital display to tell you the artist if the DJ neglected to, I was in the dark. When I got home, I was doubly in the dark, because my family had no cable TV, and thus no MTV. That might have been the last time I heard it on the radio.

Sadly, even though the song was on the 1983 album Punch the Clock, it took me until 1985 to actually own the song with the release of Elvis_costello_best_1985The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1985. It contained the single I had heard – “Every Day I Write the Book” – as well as enough cuts from his back catalog to make me want to investigate further.

What I found was not a gold mine but a friggin’ platinum mine. Here’s this skinny dork (hello, 115-pound theater nerd 11th-grader) who not only rocks with this weird amalgam of new wave pop and pissed-off punk, but who is obviously literate. His songs, dense with words and metaphor and cross references, were like novellas in themselves.

Since then I’ve been a permanent fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me well is aware of this. Example: When I met up for lunch with a former college girlfriend a few years after graduation, one of her first questions as we made awkward smalltalk was, “Still like Elvis Costello?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, because he A) Didn’t break up with me, and B) Writes great brokenhearted nerd songs that helped me get over you.”

But it was more than that. I admired not only the literary quality of the songs, but the fact that his style was all over the map. One minute he was channeling pop-punk rage, while the other he was crooning a country song or paying homage to the sweet harmonies of Motown.

It was that ability to adapt and cross genres that, in the end, kept me as a fan. And, as it turns out, those same qualities are frequently what I look for in the authors I read and the ones I try to apply to my own writing.

As much as I love science fiction in books, film and TV, it’s the work that is able to admit that it’s other things that really grabs me. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore. If you’ve ever read his work, you know he’s hard to pin down as far as genre. Does he write humorous fantasy? Fantastic humor? Is it horror? Scifi? Occult? Why does he say the F-word so much?

Exactly! You never really know where he’s going – only that along the way you will be taken on an absurd and ultimately sweet adventure. Whether it’s a Pacific Island cargo cult, a pesky Native American trickster spirit or a rumination on what happened during the “lost” years in the life of Jesus, you will laugh and you will encounter elements of the weird, fantastic, science-fictional and – occasionally – the kinky and naughty.

Another example: I just watched the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, about a team of magazine writers pursuing a story about the guy behind a classified ad seeking a time travel companion.

Is it science fiction because there’s the prospect – real or imagined – of time travel? I say yes. But what makes it great is that around that conceit is a deep story of real people trying to recapture lost time or bygone days. The emotions are true and the situations believable, even if, at the center of things, is a concept that goes back to the earliest science fiction novels. The same could be said for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

So, how does this all relate back to the funk mentioned in this post’s title?

In his latest collaboration, Elvis Costello has teamed with perhaps The Best Band in the World, The Roots (hailing from my adopted metro area of Philadelphia), working together to fuse The Roots’ particular brand of neo-soul, funk, hip hop and R&B to Costello’s dense storytelling. It’s what makes me love Costello still, repackaged and re-purposed with a funky back beat, a driving horn section and a noir feel that he hasn’t inhabited in years.

There’s no fear as both he and The Roots venture into uncharted waters of creativity, and the result, as it frequently is when fear is cast aside and new frontiers are explored, are extraordinary.

 

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