Elvis & Me: Just Plain Costello

The first time I laid eyes on Elvis Costello he was playing a 12-string Fender behind a wall of glass in a London recording studio. It was November 1977. Nick Lowe was at the control board. Various Attractions looked on. Elvis was halfway through the recording of his second album, This Year’s Model. 

I took Elvis’s picture in the studio that night at the request of his manager, Jake Riviera. I continued to photograph Elvis off and on over the next few years, until my departure from the music business in 1981. Throughout the nine years I have known him, we have remained friends. 

The conversations I had with Elvis had nothing to do with his career. I didn’t ask him, “Is it lonely at the top?” It was more, “Where did you get your shoes?” 

When I met Elvis, I really didn’t have an idea who he was as a celebrity. When we’d go out, we’d do our best to go where no one knew him. We’d just go to some Irish bar and talk to the bartender. Go to Carty’s on 21st Street and discuss the Meaning of Life until eight in the morning. 

The decision of Elvis’s management to keep people from photographing him was simply good marketing. They wanted a certain image of Elvis to go out. It was very carefully orchestrated. For the first five years of Elvis’s career, no picture of him smiling was ever published—except, accidently, one of mine. For which I nearly lost my life! 

Elvis didn’t give many interviews for the same reason: to create a mystique, to get more interest. Who’s more interesting than Greta Garbo? How much does anyone have to say? Frankly, since Elvis started giving interviews again, you can’t shut him up. 

If you’re English you think you’re going to come over and break America. It’s very exciting: It’s this huge country, you’re in an alien land. When Elvis came to America, things got a little out of control. Something was bound to happen, and what happened was the Bonnie Bramlett incident. 

I remember that very clearly, hearing about it from Elvis, the next day. He described it as a simple bar brawl, an insult match. He just said, “I had a fight in the bar last night with these obnoxious people.” No big deal. The next day Bonnie Bramlett was calling every magazine in the country to give interviews about how Elvis Costello was a racist. It was absurd. Anyone who ever met him would know that’s just the most absurd thing anybody could say. But the journalists came out of the woodwork. Elvis did a press conference right after that, and Richard Goldstein and Chet Flippo said, “It’s true, you’re a racist, right?” It was like the old question. “Do you still beat your wife?” Elvis just said, “You’re not getting it.” He didn’t give interviews, and everyone was so ready to get something on him that when that incident happened, they jumped.

At the end of the tour he had two armed bodyguards with him 24 hours a day. He was getting death-threat letters. There were two guys with guns with him at all times. A car would backfire, and everyone would hit the floor. It really was that bad. 


When Elvis played at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, in 1978, we went to the bar next door between shows to get out of the club. The place was filled with jersey kids who were coming up to Elvis, wanting his autograph. More than that, it was, “Hey, man, can I buy you a drink?” These were undoubtedly kids who used to come to the Stone Pony to see Springsteen and probably at one time bought the Boss a drink. So now they were coming up to Elvis—there was a pretty big buzz on him as the “next big thing”—so they wanted to buy him a drink or maybe shake his hand just in case he ever became big. Maybe they did that to anyone who ever played the Stone Pony, I don’t know. 

Later, onstage, Elvis committed the ultimate mistake. He introduced his bass player, Bruce Thomas, as “the other Bruce,” joking on the idea of Bruce. People came backstage after the show, really incensed, saying, “Man, don’t cut the Boss,” and, “We’re gonna whip your ass if you don’t apologize,” stuff like that. In Asbury Park, they’re serious about the Boss. 


The picture used for publicity for the Armed Forces tour was taken at CBGB’s. Richard Hell and the Voidoids were playing a benefit for St. Mark’s Church. I think it was a poetry benefit. Elvis went up and did about three songs with Richard: a couple of Richard’s songs and “Shattered” by the Rolling Stones. Richard read the lyrics off a piece of paper. No one expected Elvis Costello to be at CBGB’s.

Afterwards, Elvis, Richard, Sylvia Morales (who now is married to Lou Reed), and I left CBGB’s and walked back across St. Mark’s Place. Peter Wolf was waiting on the block, in a particularly crazed mood. He was with his friend Jim Donnelly, a 6′ 4″ Irishman, and they had a car. 

We went to the Centre Pub. It was already pretty late, but it was also the day that they turn the clocks back for daylight savings time, so the bar was actually closing at five AM instead of four. Wolf just kept ordering drinks. He’d order one round and then immediately order another before anyone had time to even have a sip of their first. So we’re all sitting there with three or four beers in front of us, but nobody’s even had a drink. 

All of a sudden it’s five in the morning, and the bartender says we have to leave. We took our beers with us and decided to find the Kiwi Club, an infamous after-hours place between Avenues B and C. A real sleazy place, not a trendy after-hours club by any means. Everyone in there looked like they were carrying weapons. Sylvia and I were the only women there. Wolf ended up getting in a fight with some guy who was trying to talk to me. Suddenly it’s “OK, let’s go outside and settle this.” I was just thinking, “Oh, no: ‘J. Geils Singer Never Seen Again.’”— Luckily, Jim Donnelly convinced us it was time to leave. 

All this time Elvis was leaning on the bar, looking a little…pale. Richard had gotten bored petty early and left. He saw these things every night; he didn’t get easily excited. But Elvis, he’s observing all this, taking notes in his head. I got the feeling that everything that happened, everything he saw, he’d turn into a song. 

We finally got into the convertible and drove up First Avenue at about 75 miles an hour, going through every red light. Jim Donnelly’s foot never left the accelerator. He had a Jimi Hendrix tape on the tape deck, playing “Purple Haze” at full volume and screaming “JIMI’ very loud as we drove up First Avenue. 

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