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Elvis Costello is a singer in search of a song, says Andrew Calcutt

No particular place to go

At school in Birkenhead, recalled a 40-year old Elvis Costello, the battle lines were drawn between 'boys who liked soul who were the thugs, and the ones who wanted to go to university who liked the Soft Machine'. Elvis was reminiscing during the course of a recent celebrity interview at the National Film Theatre (NFT) at London's South Bank, where he was musical director and main attraction of the 1995 Meltdown festival.

The festival was as diverse as its director's record collection, including performances of Costello's Overture by the London Philharmonic Orchestra alongside guest appearances from exBlondie Debbie Harry, guitarist Bill Frisell and retro-jazzers ReBirth Brass Band. Presiding over such a prestigious event completed Costello's transformation from punk rocker and King of the Nerds into an influential arbiter of good taste. More than 20 years after leaving school, it is as if Costello has been appointed the nation's music prefect, whose job is to liaise between the soul boys, the indie kids, and all the other factions which comprise today's musical playground.

Elvis seems to relish his new role. At the NFT he revelled in the combination of self-effacing jocularity and commanding intelligence, knowing as he does the pitfalls of appearing too po-faced. He said he changed his name from Declan McManus because 'on the telephone, McManus sounds like someone twanging an elastic band'. I thought I heard a note of genuine regret when he admitted that 'many people in pop are very photogenic - I'm not, obviously'. He explained how his lyrics have been affected by a liking for films: 'If you haven't got any resources you miniaturise things in songs. When I wrote 'Watching the Detectives' I didn't have the money for a video so I made the video inside the song'. And he sounded almost nostalgic when describing the New York avant garde pop scene in the seventies, where 'the Talking Heads and the Ramones used to drink together in CBGBs, and they weren't afraid to mention that they had been to college'.

Elvis was suggesting that this sort of atmosphere was unknown in Britain. But the New York scene of the seventies was partly inspired by the image of Swinging London in the sixties. In Revolt into Style, singer and critic George Melly described how Swinging London was both popular and avant garde at the same time. Declan McManus, who was approaching his early teens when Pete Townshend went Dada and started smashing up guitars, must have missed out on it by a matter of months.

Although I'm a year younger than Elvis, I was lucky enough to have caught a glimpse of sixties pop at its most avant garde. In 1968, Jimi Hendrix topped the bill of the first concert I ever went to. It was probably the last moment at which teenyboppers and art school students could enjoy the same music without one or the other of them having to be heavily ironic. I distinctly remember that the sweet little sixteen sitting next to me had the kind of hard Mod haircut which would soon develop into the Skinhead Girl crop (short on top with long, straggly bits at the back). A couple of years on and she would never have been in the same time-zone as the hippies at a Hendrix concert - unless she had come mob-handed to beat them up. But on the night I heard him play, you could not hear the join between pop, jazz and blues; and for that moment, the audience was almost as seamless. By the time Hendrix died, choking on his own vomit 25 years ago this month, various elements were already separating out into the opposing factions mentioned by Costello. This segregation process has continued ever since, and no single individual can overcome it, even if he is as gifted as Elvis.

Today's attempts to mix'n'match musical styles are much more deliberate, but the result is less of a melting pot and more like a cold salad in which the ingredients retain their separate identities. When I asked Elvis whether, as Meltdown director, he was taking on more than anyone in today's circumstances could be expected to chew, he sounded a little miffed: 'I don't feel the need to make a ragout, to continue your metaphor. Some people will enjoy the proximity [of the different musical ingredients], others won't.' He pointed out that the title of the festival was a hangover from previous years, before he became involved, adding, 'I think the idea that there is one absolute way to view anything is dangerous, particularly in music'.

Elvis is as good as his word. A few minutes later, I overheard someone asking whether his song 'After the Fall' was inspired by Arthur Miller's play of the same name. Costello said he had not even heard of the play, but 'I think that's wonderful if you dreamt that'.

Was this plain daft, or a model of courtesy to a devoted fan? Or does Elvis really believe that anybody's interpretation of his music is as good as his own? I tend to think that Elvis Costello meant what he said. The unwillingness to view anything with absolute certainty - even his own output - is entirely in character for a consummate artist of our times. We are living through a period in which the available forms of expression seem to have shrunk, leaving someone like Elvis Costello with a full tank of creativity and no particular place to go.

Since the release of Almost Blue in 1981, Elvis has wandered through a succession of genres and a wardrobe of matching identities: country and western, r'n'b, jazz (King of America, 1985), cabaret (appearing with Tony Bennett) and 'classical' (collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and the Composers' Ensemble). Performing with Debbie Harry and the Jazz Passengers on the opening night of Meltdown, he could almost have been mistaken for his ballad-singing father Ross McManus, who performed with the Joe Loss dance band in the radio days of the BBC Light Programme.

As an eclectic compilation of various musical genres, the Meltdown festival reprised Costello's career since the early eighties. For me, the effect was akin to Costello's own description of Straight to Hell, the Alex Cox film which he referred to as 'a pastiche of a parody'. Debbie Harry seemed to confirm this with the opening line from her first song: 'this is an imitation kiss'.

So where does this leave us? Meltdown was highly enjoyable and sometimes exciting. But it should not be mistaken for the expression of a dynamic, inclusive musical culture. The audience for this hybrid was extremely exclusive. At the events I attended, it resembled the readership of Q magazine: thirtysomething, fairly well-off, largely white, mostly male, with a few of their own kids in tow. Nothing like the mixed bag of pop-pickers who spilled out of the Coventry Theatre on a frosty February night in 1968, and could never be put back together again - at least, not by music alone.

Opponents of Lottery funding for opera are snobs and philistines, says Louis Ryan

What grander stage for a lottery winner?

The furore was predictable. Even before the official announcement of a £55m grant from the National Lottery to the Royal Opera House, a chorus of indignation, ranging from Tory backwoodsman Terry Dicks to trendy Blairite Tony Banks, from the Sun and the Mirror to the Times and the Spectator, was assailing the decision. Opera apparently is only for the toffs who can afford to pay for their own entertainment. Lottery money should go to genuine good causes from community arts to the local hospital.

Opponents of the Opera House's windfall fall into two groups. On the one hand there are the vulgar populists who deride high art while flattering philistine tastes - like the Sun which, after a night at the opera, decided it was nothing more than an 'expensive earache'. On the other, there are the snobs who flatter great artistic achievement while deriding the unappreciative plebs. What they share is the elitist belief that opera and ordinary people do not mix.

But even a cursory knowledge of operatic history shows its populist roots. In Italy, its birthplace, opera developed into the popular art par excellence of the nineteenth century. It became a vital medium through which the Italian people expressed their yearning for political unity and for freedom from clerical and foreign domination. The great arias of Verdi's operas became popular tunes within hours of their first performances. More recently, in the 1970s, students and workers occupied the famous La Scala opera house in Milan, protesting against rises in ticket prices which threatened to make their beloved music a preserve of the rich.

Throughout Latin America, opera has been a focus of popular enthusiasm for over a century. Visits from the great European tenors and sopranos have always been events of national importance. Nor has this kind of enthusiasm been limited to Latin countries. You only have to read James Joyce to appreciate how opera was woven into the lives and sensibilities of ordinary Dubliners at the turn of the century. These were the people who continued for decades afterwards to throng to the shabby Gaiety Theatre, where a young Italian tenor named Luciano Pavarotti enjoyed his first stage triumph in 1964.

Opera, it is true, is an unavoidably expensive art form. Even the most modest productions require an orchestra, a choir, several soloists, costumes and sets. Compared to the vast sums required for a stadium rock extravaganza, of course, the outlay is modest, but it can never be recouped by ticket sales alone. Opera is too intimately wedded to a human relationship with its audience to allow for the economies of scale which keep the likes of Mick Jagger and their accountants on such good terms with each other.

Seat prices at Covent Garden range from £7 in the gods to £121 for the dress circle, rising to £267 for certain prestigious performances. Royal Opera House policy is to subsidise the lower priced tickets with revenue from the more expensive seating. Even so, the rapture (or the disappointment) does not come cheap. Yet a performance at Covent Garden need be no more expensive than a ticket to a Premiership match. I suspect that anyone who stood outside Old Trafford on a Saturday afternoon taunting the fans for their extravagance would be given as short a shrift as Eric Cantona gave Matthew Simmons.

What do the critics want Lottery money to be spent on? The Labour Party favours 'community arts' - a catch-all term for second-rate productions with little merit apart from the fact that they take place at the local community centre and are therefore deemed to be worthy. People are no longer credited with either the desire or the capacity to rise above their immediate circumstances. Instead they are encouraged to grub around in their own backyards and to celebrate what they find there.

Others want the money to be given to medical charities or the NHS. Not only is this demeaning the value of art in our lives, but it absolves the government of its responsibility for funding health and welfare services. And that really is a scandal.

Those who disapprove of Lottery funding for opera have much in common with the killjoys who want to limit the top prize money. One set think we can't appreciate sublime art, the other that we can't cope with vulgar riches. The real problem is that we don't have enough of either. Personally, if I won the Lottery, I would begin by block booking the front row at Covent Garden. Then I'd get the champagne in.

Moral gore

Michael Fitzpatrick on the message of postmodern medical dramas

TV medical dramas used to be all bedpans and soap. From Emergency Ward Ten to Casualty, the low budgets, tacky productions, poor acting and hackneyed scripts had more in common with the Queen Vic than with Quentin Tarantino. But no more. Suddenly medical dramas have become seriously sexy. The credits for the top-rated American show ER boast not only Michael 'Jurassic Park' Crighton and other veterans from classic TV shows such as Hill Street Blues and LA Law but, in a much-hyped recent episode, Tarantino himself as guest director. Like the new breed of cop shows, such as NYPD Blue, Homicide and Law and Order, the new medical dramas feature all the clichs of postmodern television drama - the restless, handheld camera, jump cuts, multiple story lines, ironic wit and a cast of characters more at home in Hollywood than Holby City.

Yet for all the technical innovations and Hollywood glamour, ER and its ilk continue to follow the traditional conventions of medical drama. The hospital itself is the central character - a fortress of humanity and reason in an irrational world filled with weak, irresponsible characters. Indeed much hospital drama is filmed at night to highlight the contrast between the light within and the darkness without. The doctors remain handsome and heroic, but occasionally flawed. And, above all, there remains the blood-and-guts medical jargon - which viewer cannot now recite the litany 'CBC, Chem 7 and EKG' which seems to accompany every stretcher case sweeping through the floppy doors in ER? Even in the Tarantino episode, apart from a few self-conscious references to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and even more gore than usual, it was difficult to see much difference from earlier episodes.

The novelty of the new medical dramas lies less in the programmes themselves than in the changed relationship between medicine and society over the past 20 years. In her fascinating account Doctoring the Media: The Reporting of Health and Medicine, Anne Karpf comments on the popularity of Doctor Kildare, Marcus Welby MD and Doctor Finlay in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when traditional values were being widely questioned:

'The medical drama provided a wise man to mediate family relationships and restore harmony. And while dominant values were being contested, and chasms of difference opening up between black and white, between men and women, the doctor shows reasserted social hope and stability.'

'The tele-doctor', Karpf writes, 'made good the damage, healed the hurt' at a time of social upheaval.

In the 1990s the prevailing perception is of a world in which traditional values have disintegrated as the established sources of authority in society have lost popular legitimacy and respect. In this unstable and insecure world, medicine is increasingly called upon to provide the basis of a secular morality. Doctors no longer merely offer to cure bodily ills (indeed they seem to have less and less interest in such mundane activities), but seek to extend medical regulation over problems of everyday life. While doctors define rules of behaviour governing diet, exercise, sex, smoking, drinking, parenting and much else besides, debates about medical ethics take the place of the theological disputes of the past.

Today's medical dramas provide a public forum for ventilating anxieties about health and for popularising the new medical morality. The line between doctor and patient, as much as that between detective and villain in cop shows, creates the tension between right and wrong, the moral and the immoral. The bedside ethical debates, dramatised in the heat of the crisis encounter between doctor and patient, help to clarify the new moral code.

This moralising discourse is more explicit in the less dramatically successful shows - Chicago Hope, Casualty - where the dead hand of expert health promotion advisers is apparent in pompous and predictable story lines about child protection or Aids awareness. In ER, which concentrates more on high-tension hi-tech medical intervention and on the fraught personal relationships of its team, the moral message is more subtly communicated in asides and subsidiary themes. Yet, like the wonderful pauses that provide such a relief from its relentless pace, this makes for both more successful drama and more effective propaganda.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 82, September 1995

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