Elvis goes to Westport!
– Costello on Thatcher's death
It was the night Margaret Thatcher died. My friends and I walked into a Dublin bar and looked at each other in astonishment: they were playing 'Tramp the Dirt Down'. Elvis Costello's unforgettable, venomous attack on the Iron Lady was released in 1989 on the album Spike and was the subject of much speculation on social media on the day that the former British PM died, not least as it contained such lyrics as: "When England was the whore of the world Margaret was its madam", and the final kiss-off: "When they finally put you in the ground/I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."
Many wondered on the day that was in it just what Elvis C thought of it all – but his Twitter feed gave nothing away. However, I got to ask the man himself last week when we spoke ahead of his Irish dates next month, including Cork Marquee on June 26 and the Westport Festival of Music and Food, Co Mayo, on June 30.
"For years I didn't sing it," says Elvis over the phone from his home in New York. "I had thought it was tied to the time. But I had revived it anyway recently. I came round to the idea that it wasn't really about the individual – but about what she represented and what she let loose. The song is very complicated; it doesn't have one point of view. There are a lot of contradictions in the lyrics if you read them.
"So simply singing a song as a celebratory anthem upon the demise of anyone doesn't make you feel that joyful. But every word that represents the strength of feeling that's in that song I still feel the same way about. I'm talking about the things that were tricked out of people that I don't believe were there to the same degree beforehand – they found a weakness, a wedge. It's still there. The communities are still undone. Society still doesn't exist, in their opinion.
"On a personal human level, maybe it's the Catholic altar boy in me coming out, but I still have a lot of difficulty in having two family members who died of dementia-related illnesses – of wishing that on my worst enemy.
"Maybe that makes me a better Catholic than I think I actually am. I'm not God – I can't condemn. People want you to say the glib thing: 'burn in hell'; 'here's a seat next to Stalin'. They're not equivalent crimes, no matter how bad things were.
"But not a word withdrawn about what she represents. I think I would be celebrating with everybody else if her ideas were done to death; if there was a rejection of those ideas – but the ideas are still with us."
The lady who was not for turning also inspired another of Costello's protest songs – 'Shipbuilding', written in 1982, was the more powerful J'accuse because it was less in-your-face than 'Tramp the Dirt Down' and the full horror of what it was actually about – the death and destruction wrought by the Falklands War – was revealed ever so subtly.
The Northumbrian folk/roots group The Unthanks recently performed their own spine-chilling version in Dublin. I wonder if Elvis has heard their take on it?
"I have, yeah," he says. "I thought it was beautiful. They did it in the context of a big project about shipbuilding. The song came in for a little bit of reconsideration after the anniversary of the Falklands War and people are looking into it again.
"The fact that a band like The Unthanks are playing it makes you realise that the song has something that is still worth saying and worth investigating. Of course we know from recent revelations that the British government tried to pay off the islanders to relocate – but they didn't want to go after all the bloodshed that had gone on. It's just one of many swindles that has been uncovered."
As a huge fan of the late great Chet Baker, I ask Elvis how he came to persuade the great jazz legend to play on the song.
"Chet turned up in London as we were looking for someone to play the solo on 'Shipbuilding'. I couldn't believe the good fortune that I could walk in with no intermediaries and buy him a drink at the bar and ask him 'would you play the trumpet on this song?' and for him to say 'yes'. To get to know him even a little bit – he was not an easy man to get to know – was amazing."
Elvis, of course, is a former resident of south county Dublin, where he lived when he was married to ex-Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan. And he says he is really looking forward to spending some time in Ireland again.
"I've made my debut in Prague, Bucharest and Seoul this summer. It's good to find new places to play – and Westport is another. I've been to Mayo but I've never been to Westport," he says, relishing the trip.
Something tells me he's going to have a ball.
Elvis Costello & The Imposters play Live at the Marquee, Cork, June 26; The Venue, Derry, 27; and the Westport Festival of Music, Co Mayo, June 30.