Singer-songwriter Elvis Costello was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Boston’s New England Conservatory last week.
The ceremony at Jordan Hall, almost 50 years to the day after Bob Dylan gave a concert there, took place after Costello spent the morning in a workshop for singers and songwriters at the institution. This was followed by an almost two-hour interview conducted by the Boston Globe’s Sarah Rodman, in which the former “angry young man” was as eloquent, humorous, engaging, intelligent, insightful, self-deprecating, and tender as his own songs.
During the brief presentation of the honor, the denim-jacketed Costello was lauded for avoiding being pigeonholed, collaborating with a diverse roster of artists, and “challenging ourselves beyond the way things are.”
After having his new sash adjusted, Costello addressed the audience:
Thank you very much for your welcome, it is very generous indeed, I blush at the extraordinary words I just heard. Of course it’s most appropriate I receive this honor from the New England Conservatory, being as the old one chased me out of there some time ago ... (After attending the workshop) I’m very glad that I managed to sneak up here in this October afternoon, and not join an occasion where properly qualified people would be ennobled, and let an interloper like myself come in.
Rodman went over various periods of Costello’s career, with audio excerpts played for context, which clearly discomforted the musician except in two instances: A live version of “Accidents Can Happen” from 1979, and a track sung by his wife, Diana Krall. The former, recorded at Hollywood High just days after the song had been composed, was played to focus on longtime keyboard player Steve Nieve’s harmonics. Costello admitted that, despite it having been officially released on two separate occasions, he had never really paid attention to what Nieve was playing before. Costello also told the backstory to Krall’s album, recorded after the death of her mother. The experience, he revealed, helped transport her from “darkness” into the “light.”
There were plenty of other memorable comments from Costello, and I’ll relay a few of them here.
Costello said his version of his friend and producer Nick Lowe’s ironic anthem, “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” was originally written as a parody of the Tin Pan Alley version of the “peace and love” songs “the kids” were into at in the early 1970s, replacing former teen crazes like the hula hoop. He said that his own version was his attempt to sound like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. “Just add a sax solo and a key change,” Costello added.
Elvis also gave credit to Linda Rondstadt for the popularization of his most famous song, “Alison,” after his original version flopped as a single. He also apologized for his harsh criticisms of her interpretation at the time, especially since she is longer able to sing due to Parkinson’s Disease. While still was not a fan of her arrangement, Costello said it took him some time to realize not everyone would interpret his songs the same way he did, and was now able to accept that others may get something completely unexpected from his compositions.
The big news Costello revealed was that on October 11, he and Burt Bacharach sat around a piano and knocked out a dozen songs to be added to the original material released on their previous collaboration, “Painted From Memory,” for an upcoming, theatrical collaboration with Chuck Lorre (of “Three and a Half Men” and “Big Bang Theory” fame). Despite Lorre’s success in the sitcom world, this Broadway-bound production will not be a comedy, Costello assured the crowd.
Once again, he is challenging not only himself, but his fans as well. Well done, Dr. Costello.
You can hear what Elvis had to say about his collaborations with Paul McCartney, following an except from his recording of their collaboration “Veronica,” in the embedded video above.
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