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2002 E.C.

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It’s one of the music business’ biggest nights, and Elvis Costello is headed down the red carpet…the wrong way. As the stars amble into the Beverly Hills Hotel for J Records mogul Clive Davis’ annual all-star pre-Grammy dinner, a few more discerning party reporters and paparazzi recognize the underdressed rocker headed upstream and converge, hopeful he’ll be good for a pithier sound bite than Britney’s or Puffy’s. But Costello’s just an unwitting hotel guest scouting the flashbulb-filled horizon for a valet. ”Sorry, I’m actually headed out for the evening,” apologizes the scruff in the brown leather jacket and thermal slippers, gamely posing for a few pictures before an attendant pulls up with his rented sports car. Moments later, Elvis has left the gilding.

Swinging out onto Sunset Boulevard, Costello asks whom he might have run into at the party, since he will be pictured as attending. Well, recent J Records signee Rod Stewart would surely be there…. It turns out Costello almost produced an album for him a few years back. ”Rod’s got a great voice and should be singing the really good songs,” he says. ”It’s great to pass the time with him, talking about old records. But I guess the life you lead when you get out here is a bit different. I’d be fixing to go to a meeting, and his assistant would call up and say, ‘Mr. Stewart’s got to take the dog to the psychiatrist’ or something. There’d always be some excuse not to work.” Another guest, we mention, would’ve been J signatory Luther Vandross. ”He’s another one that sings s — – songs. But, God, he was amazing at that Burt Bacharach tribute we both did in New York. Luther should just record all the songs off Painted From Memory” — Costello’s 1998 collaboration with Bacharach — ”because he would sing them with such ease. Obviously they’re almost at the edge of my ability.”

The car slows to a halt just shy of the West Hollywood border. ”Maybe,” he proposes, ”we should go back to the party and pitch that idea?”

There’ll be no turning back. He’s got his hands full enough these days pitching another idea, a fairly novel one at this stage of his quarter-century career: an actual Elvis Costello rock & roll record. Somehow, in the midst of collaborating with jazz combos and classical mezzo-sopranos, and writing everything from TV comedy pilots to orchestral scores for ballet companies (not to mention a virtual autobiography in the serialized form of liner notes for Rhino’s ongoing and ambitious repackaging of Costello’s back catalog), pop’s Renaissance man carved out time to make When I Was Cruel, his most universally praised effort since his ’80s salad days with the Attractions, and a return to wanton ferocity, if not cruelty.

Some fans — yearning for the early, funny stuff, as it were — called all this genre-crossing extracurricular activity ”Elvis Costello and the distractions.” Others relished getting four or five major artists for the price of one. ”I took every sojourn and unpaved path he was interested in going on,” enthuses filmmaker Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), who plans to score the upcoming film adaptation of his play The Shape of Things solely with existing Costello songs. ”I was as big a fan of The Juliet Letters [Costello’s 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet] as Armed Forces. The breadth of his career is staggering, that it’s just one guy. You have to weigh him next to the Beatles and Dylan, and even somebody like Springsteen pales when you get to the diversity. No one else, even McCartney, has, on a single, solitary level, provided that range.”

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