#168: Elvis Costello, "My Aim is True" (1977)

168 My Aim is True.jpg

Declan Patrick McManus is an angry young man. That’s what everyone says about him. He looks like the new intern at some father’s accounting firm (not surprisingly, he worked an office job at a cosmetics company and later worked as a computer operator in Bootle), but it is the seventies, and he is angry. He is not angry the way that men will be angry in 1999—those men will implore each other to break stuff. Declan Patrick McManus isn’t interested in breaking stuff. No, Declan Patrick McManus is a different type of angry young man.

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Declan Patrick McManus says in the mirror, “I am not angry.” A tiny voice inside of him says, “You are nothing but anger.” McManus says, “I’m a musician. I work day jobs. I do ok.” The voice inside of him says, “Look around. You are an absorbent paper towel sopping up the world around you and letting it rot inside you.” McManus says, “You are part of me. You must be right.”

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So, Declan Patrick McManus stopped being Declan Patrick McManus. First, he traded his true last name, inherited from his father, for Costello, a pseudonym used by that same father for a 1970 cover of the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road.” A little later, he traded his first name for Elvis Aaron Presley’s, the King of rock and roll. Elvis Costello has no middle name. I don’t know if he took his look from Buddy Holly, or if he just always looked that way, but still, when he kicked off his career in the UK as Elvis Costello with the single “Less Than Zero,” he looked like Buddy Holly.

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Elvis Costello says to Declan Patrick McManus, “Is my middle name Declan?” McManus says, “You have no middle name.” Elvis Costello says, “Why not?” McManus says, “You’re not real.” Elvis Costello says, “Of course I’m real. I am everything.” Then, after a beat, Costello says, “Who needs a middle name, anyway?”

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Now, in 1977, Elvis Costello is an angry young man. Maybe Declan Patrick McManus never was that angry? Who are we to speculate. But it is 1977, and Elvis Costello sings songs about emasculation and failed relationships and government corruption and greedy tax men and obsession. Those songs are collected on a record called My Aim is True. He sings, “Once upon a time, I had a little money / Government burglars took it long / before I could mail it to you.” He sings, “And I'm doing everything just tryin' to please her, / even crawling around on all fours.” He sings, “Oh I know that she / has made a fool of him.” He sings, “They think that I've got no respect / but everything means less than zero.” He sings, “I’m not angry.”

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Declan Patrick McManus know that when Elvis Costello sings “I’m not angry,” he is clearly lying. The song seethes, a whispered voice repeats the word “angry” through the verses, and Costello’s vocals smolder. McManus says, “You’re a liar. You’re angry.” Costello says, “Of course I’m angry. I’m using irony.” McManus says, “Oh.” McManus says, “You seem really angry though. At all of those women and government officials, I mean.” Costello says, “Don’t be a dolt.”

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And then Declan Patrick McManus begins to notice something else about Costello’s lyrics. He notices lines like, “He's such a drag / He's not insane / It's just that everybody / has to feel his pain,” describing the emasculated protagonist of “No Dancing,” and “I think I've lived a little too long / on the outskirts of town / I think I'm going insane / from talking to myself for so long,” from the point of view of the broke, anti-tax narrator of “Blame it on Cain,” and “I tried so hard just to be myself / but I keep on fading away / and then the lights went out, I didn't know what to do / if I could fool myself, then maybe I'd fool you.” McManus says, “What are you really angry at?” Elvis Costello says, “Like you need to ask.” McManus says, “What do you mean when you say, ‘I keep on fading away’?” Costello says, “Don’t you know?” McManus says, “…” Costello says, “You know. I know you know.” McManus says,

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In the years to come, Elvis Costello would get banned from Saturday Night Live for changing songs, cutting off his band during “Less Than Zero,” and sliding into “Radio, Radio.”. This was before My Aim is True was even available for sale in the States, and before This Year’s Model was available anywhere. Lorne Michaels reportedly gave Costello the finger for the duration of the performance. Two years later, during an argument with Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills, he referred to James Brown and Ray Charles as a “jive-arsed…” and “blind, ignorant…”, respectively, with the ellipses standing in for that most loathsome of racial slurs. He hadn’t heard from Declan Patrick McManus for quite some time, but as a brawl broke out in the bar that night, Elvis Costello thought he heard McManus’s faint voice say something that he couldn’t quite make out.

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Regarding the incident with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, in a 2013 interview with ?uestlove, Elvis Costello said, “I heard these words come out of my mouth and there was a bar fight. It should have never gone any further than that because it was an idiotic—but it’s been in my biography ever since….Despite everything else that I’ve stood for, that’s still mentioned. And some people, in the Twitter/Facebook era, are going to read that. And when you’re in a group that you don’t know, I don’t know whether you know that about me. Or whether other people in the band know that and make assumptions. ‘Oh, this guy’s actually got a white hood in his closet somewhere. He’s actually a secret member of the Klan.’ It’s upsetting. It’s upsetting because I can’t explain how I even got to think you could be funny about something like that. Like I said, I was 25 when that happened. I wasn’t even 25….I’m sorry. You know? It’s about time I said it out loud. You know what I’m saying? Because I know, I know in my heart what—people are curious, people are curious. Even now I see reactions to this record, people going, ‘Well yeah, but they don’t know that about him.’ Well, fucking ask me then.” There’s that anger, still. At least he apologized.

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Of course, Angry Young Men can’t be Angry Young Men forever. Some grow into Angry Old Men, and some mellow. Elvis Costello landed somewhere in between. In 1998 he released an album of orchestral pop songs co-written with Burt Bacharach, But even that album’s final song, detailing the end of a relationship for reasons unknown, includes the repeated line, “I want him to hurt.” There’s that anger, bubbling up from the album’s strings and horns. But who is the anger directed at? There is no other “he” in the song? Is it a man who the song’s persona’s love interested ran to? Or is it the speaker himself? More of that self loathing. Or is it someone else entirely? Is it Declan Patrick McManus? Where is he, after all of these years? In public life, there is only Elvis Costello, still angry, but more quietly so. And Declan Patrick McManus, what has become of him? Maybe he’s still a name on tax documents, an abstract idea of a man listed on a passport, a distant memory on a birth certificate and on medical records. But otherwise, he’s gone. But Elvis Costello, he is forever, as is his anger.

—James Brubaker