Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint talk about their collaboration -- How Hurricane Katrina helped create ''The River in Reverse''

By Whitney Pastorek
Updated June 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The River in Reverse

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The genre-hopping rocker and the legendary New Orleans songwriter discuss Hurricane Katrina and The River in Reverse — the surprisingly celebratory collaboration it inspired.

EC My idea of the record began as an Allen Toussaint songbook. I rang [producer] Joe Henry to find out if he had heard from Allen after Katrina. There were a lot of wild rumors about what had happened to different personalities from New Orleans. Joe heard that Allen was in New York.

AT A day before the storm hit, I checked into the Crowne Plaza for as long as it took the water to rise. Three days. That’s when I knew that I wouldn’t be going back home.

EC The next I knew, there was a message on my phone and it was Allen’s voice. Our first conversation was just me asking, ”How are you doing?” I remember exactly the words that Allen said — if you don’t mind me saying, Allen — you just said, ”Well, it was a biggie.” I thought that was the greatest understatement of all time.

AT Well, it was a biggie! ‘Cause I’ve seen them all. I’ve been in New Orleans for every hurricane that’s ever been there. So I had my methods down pat — my boards are numbered for what window they go on — but I was accustomed to, a day or so later, business as usual. Not this time.

EC Wynton Marsalis had invited my wife [Diana Krall] and me to perform at what became the Higher Ground benefit, and I said, ”Allen Toussaint is in New York. I’ve just performed [Toussaint’s] ‘Freedom for the Stallion,’ maybe he and I can do it together.”

AT A large part of everything that happened from there to now has to do with Elvis. It’s as if he grabbed one’s hand and said, ”Meet my world.” The time couldn’t have been better.

EC The first day we went in to record, we cut ”The Greatest Love,” ”Nearer to You,” and ”Wonder Woman” in 25 minutes.

AT You always wish that something like that would happen. One time Elvis started ”The River in Reverse,” and nothing had been discussed — he just started playing it. And the others started playing it. That was one of those times when it wasn’t ”One, two, ready, play.” That was quite nice.

EC We were setting up an electric piano in the booth, and [drummer] Pete Thomas started playing the rhythm, and I started playing along on guitar. If you play the raw tape, you hear me going, ”Turn on the tape recorder!” We should have left that on the record. Then the second voice entered, as Allen came in with these horn figures. It’s really a duet. [Joe Henry and I] just looked at each other and knew what it was and what we felt. But Allen’s right. He said, ”We should make a song, not a speech.” ”The River in Reverse” isn’t speaking about a river…

AT Yes.

EC …it’s speaking about a flow to a way of living which is wrong, in which we betray our worst impulses.

AT I don’t think [this record] will always be tied to Katrina. That had a large part to do with the timing and all, but from what Elvis has said, he thought it was a good idea to do anyway. We may have done the same songs, but not with the meaning that they took on because of Katrina. But this music will far outlast Katrina, because Katrina isn’t forever. This is.

The River in Reverse

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