All these years, it turns out that Elvis Costello may have been more of a persona put on by Declan McManus than the world really knew.
In an interview with ?uestlove for Okayplayer, Costello addresses his “angry young man” persona from the early years of his career as a preamble for what turns out to be his first comment in decades about the racial slurs he made in 1979 during a drunken conversation with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett.
Costello dropped a particular racial epithet conversationally about Ray Charles that was then leaked and has followed him around. The problem was compounded by use of that same racial epithet in the lyrics to a song on his then-current album, Armed Forces. His next album, Get Happy!!!, was widely seen as a love-letter to soul music and a mea culpa for his actions, although not necessarily a warmly received or reviewed one.
Costello fumbles his words a bit in the interview, recounting the events, and manages to explain that, “in my arrogant youthful — I thought was being ironic.” He goes on to say the conversation came about because he felt, at the time, that Stills and Bramlett didn’t have the same appreciation for rhythm & blues that he did, which he now disavows as “f****** stupid.”
“I heard these words come out of my mouth and there was a bar fight. It should have never gone any further than that because it was an idiotic — but it’s been in my biography ever since,” Costello said. “Despite everything else that I’ve stood for, that’s still mentioned. And some people, in the Twitter/Facebook era, are going to read that. And when you’re in a group that you don’t know, I don’t know whether you know that [gestures to ?uestlove] about me. Or whether other people in the band know that and make assumptions. ‘Oh, this guy’s actually got a white hood in his [fumbles] closet somewhere. He’s actually a secret member of the Klan.’ It’s upsetting. It’s upsetting because I can’t explain how I even got to think you could be funny about something like that. Like I said, I was 25 when that happened. I wasn’t even 25.”
Costello references the Rolling Stone cover story, the topic of ?uestlove’s collection of vintage copies of the magazine being the thing that got this conversation going, where he was given the opportunity to address the issue at the time. A reproduction of that story is still available on Costello’s official website, indicating it is a matter he still feels a need to address. As the conversation winds down, Costello finds himself wound back up and offers up what appears to be the an apology for his actions, directed to ?uestlove and addressing the conversation about his collaboration with The Roots on Wise Up Ghost.
“I’m sorry. You know? It’s about time I said it out loud,” Costello said, addressing ?uestlove. “You know what I’m saying? Because I know, I know in my heart what — people are curious, people are curious. Even now I see reactions to this record, people going, ‘Well yeah, but they don’t know that about him.’ Well, f****** ask me then.”