A Love Letter to Elvis Costello


Arts & Culture

I came to cynicism late. The others had been listening to punk rock for years, espousing anarchy on bathroom walls, wallowing in upper-middle class suburban angst. But my parents were still together, and believed in human goodness. I took their sixties idealism, cradled it until that first girl fucked my friend instead of me.

But back up a couple years. Here’s me, age twelve, brink of puberty, pale moustache coming in like dawn through a bend in the windowshade. I’m in a baseball card store, too old to be buying baseball cards. Alison’s at the counter.

“Topps?” she says. “Fleer? Upper Deck?”

“Upper Deck,” I say.

Alison turns, reaches. Blonde hair hangs almost to the small of her back. T-shirt rides up, revealing a swath of plumber’s butt. Stretch-marked handles spill over hips. This is love.

My father removes a record from its sleeve, blows dust. Dust hangs in the summer sunlight. My heart is a helium tank. I float. The man on the cover is puberty incarnate. His knees are elbows. His ankles angle inwards. He could use a new pair of glasses.

I get the first line wrong. “It’s so funny to be seeing you after so long girl.” I hear “It’s so funny to be seeing you at the salon girl.” Because this record is an artifact from the eighties. Men spent that era in hair salons. How else the Jheri curl? How else the shimmering Jew-fro my father still sports?

But I’m not looking. I’m listening. I’m picturing Alison the card shop owner, hair blow-dried into staticky orbit around her pink dome, hair photosynthesized, hair blooming like sunflower blossoms, framing her pistil face, awaiting my stamen, awaiting pollination.

Then the chorus: “Oh Alison, I know this world is killing you. Oh Alison, my aim is true.” My hometown: the median household income is $25,000. Alison: bordering on obese, breaking her back, bending for our allowance money. Alison, this world is killing you. Let me be your savior. My aim is true.

To my untrained, un-jaded ears, Elvis sounded so sincere.

But high school is a cruel carnival. Every ride ends in tears. Every game is rigged. Good prizes unattainable. All you win is some shitty stuffed walrus, sweatshop stitched. My best friend was Paul Gunzburger. People called us Wils-Burger. I rode on the back of his moped. People called us gay. I sported limp blonde locks and girlishly un-chiseled arms. People called me Hanson, like the band. Sang “Hmmbop” as I passed in the halls.

We met a girl. Sexiest unibrow you’ve ever seen. Hips like a hip-hop muse. Always had her own weed stash.

Gunzburger made up for his pustule face by borrowing his brother’s Camaro, blasting Grand Funk Railroad ad nauseum. He took our girl out to some deserted alcove, sucked her ear in the streetlamp shadows, whispered what he’d learned to whisper watching eighties movies in my basement.

My father’s record player was still around. Costello could comfort me. We were the same: jealous, lippy, terrifically underweight. I got the first line of the record right: “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired you can have anyone you have ever desired.” Her picture wasn’t in the paper. As far as I knew, I was her only rhythmic admirer. I rhythmically admired her every night, locked in the bathroom, tap running, her face superimposed over some battered Maxim centerfold’s. But our sentiment was the same. She could have anyone she desired. She let that little friend of ours take off her party dress.

Mr. Costello wasn’t going to all sentimental like those other sticky valentines. So what was he going to do? What was the correct response? I needed advice. I listened more closely to the lyrics of Alison.

Apparently, the correct response was murder.

What I’d mistaken for sincere sweetness was, in truth, nothing less than a thinly veiled death threat. He wanted to stop her from talking when he heard the silly things she said! He wanted to put out the big light! His aim was true!

Women come and go. Records become tapes become CDs become MP3s. Hair thins, falls out. Skin begins to sag. Politicians lie. Oil is spilled in the ocean. The idiots always win. Bitterness belongs to posterity. So do perfect records. Elvis, you can have your talk show, your predilection for last-stab-at-hipness men’s hats, your crossover bluegrass album. I don’t care. You were a kindred soul when I needed one the most. You will always have a rhythmic admirer.

Adam Wilson is a founding editor of The Faster Times.