I first saw him late on the night of December 17, 1977, in the middle of a historically cold and blizzard-prone Cincinnati winter, one that turned the Ohio River into walkably solid ice. It was pushing midnight when the lights came up on the Saturday Night Live stage as he counted down The Attractions to the first chords of Less Than Zero. I was an impressionable 13 year old, staying up to watch this relatively new show with its irreverent comedy and obscure musical guests. The tune began and carried on for just a few short bars before the nerded-out band leader in a pale-blue sport coat put a halt to the performance. He turned to the band, waving his arm, and announced that the tune be changed to Radio, Radio, a poke in the eye to sanitized radio stations held hostage by gawdawful playlists and advertisers, where once existed independent outlets that nursed the sonic world from the teat of new and exotic artists from garages and bars as far away as Detroit, Athens, Manchester and Berlin.
He was Elvis Costello. It was simultaneously an act of rebellion against corporate record labels and commercial radio. It was an homage to Jimi Hendrix, who had a similar false start on a British program years earlier. And it was a sure-fire act of self-promotion, guaranteed to grab headlines and the attention of album- and ticket-buying Americans, like me. It worked. It worked damn well.
Tonight…forty years later...the lovely Michelle Lee and I will be in the third row of Kettering, Ohio’s Fraze Pavilion, taking in the sights, sounds, stories and sweat droplets of Elvis Costello, this time accompanied by The Imposters. The nerd is not as odd as he once appeared, and is significantly more famous and wealthy than he could have imagined when he pissed off Lorne Michaels those decades ago. His rail against the corporatization of the music and media industries was momentous, and is recalled whenever I stroll into Everybody’s Records, or back in the days when I would listen to the long-gone smorgasbord formats of public radio stations like WNKU and WVXU.
Was it Elvis that drew my attention to radio, to alternative and punk sounds? Was it he who nudged the 13-year-old me off the center line, veering ever so deftly to the leftly, planting seeds that would grow into a disdain of Corporate America, general conservatism, and hackneyed rule following? Was it simply coincidence that, five short years later, I would begin studying radio and TV production, and launch a five-year on-air stint at WVXU, playing the alternative tunes of Mr. Costello, The Clash, Devo, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Replacements and others? Is it not curious that after those experiences, I would explore the wilds of professional video before turning, ever so grudgingly, to the steady income and implied security and structure of corporate employment, only to jump ship as an independent writer and producer, a flag that I still, to this very day, fly proudly along side my full-time marketing gig?
Not sure I'd give him credit...or blame...for all of that. But it was Elvis that turned a frigid December night into something more. “What the hell is he doing,” gave way to “Well, damn!” in three short minutes.
Tonight, the punk lives on. Pump it up, people. Until you can feel it.