Elvis Costello’s music has inspired a lot of book titles, most notably Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms. EW senior writer Anthony Breznican recently published his own novel, a dark coming-of-age thriller called Brutal Youth. Here’s his personal tribute to the album that inspired it.
21 may seem like an odd milestone to mark—but it’s the age we recognize as fully grown up. For me, Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth—released 21 years ago yesterday—was about that very subject: getting older, looking back, clinging to the savagery of those younger years until we can’t anymore.
On March 8, 1994, I was an angry, sarcastic, hopeful but needy kid, 17 years old—on my way out of high school and into the God-knows-what of adulthood and the future. Here was a tape I’d picked up for sale at the Phar-Mor by the Tarentum Bridge in my hometown of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. It was an album full of songs that were just as crankily optimistic as I was. Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth felt like a fast friend—one you could cause a lot of trouble with.
It was also the kind of friend who knew your weaknesses, one who could make you laugh with both infinitely clever wit and eye-rollingly goofy jokes. The album managed to do something useful with all that anger and love that simmers inside, unsettling the soul. It was full of rage and humor and love and disappointment and imagination. For me, it put those things within reach, like tools you could pull off the shelf when you needed them. As an inexperienced aspiring writer, I definitely needed them. Still do.
There’s a song in the middle of the album called “My Science Fiction Twin,” a bass-heavy geek-out about a doppelgänger who is everything you want to be — multiplied by a thousand. That’s what that old Brutal Youth tape meant to me: I prayed to God I could create something half as good. Something that had all these same feelings packed into it.
That’s what inspired my twisted high school defiance novel, which steals its name from Costello’s record. It may be flat-out thievery but it’s also the best tribute I could give to a collection of music that means so much to me.
The novel Brutal Youth is a dark (very dark) comedy about good kids trying to survive at a crumbling Catholic school that has become a dumping ground for delinquents, misfists, and the unwanted. It’s haven for troublemakers — both young and old, where the parish priest is stealing from the collection plate, the parents are as reckless and petulant as they think teenagers are, and the kids want to do the right thing but are learning that going bad may be the only way to get by.
It took me 20 years to get it out, but the seeds of that story were planted listening to Costello’s album when I was barely old enough to drive. The book’s ink was all the anger and laughter and love and friendship it helped me catalog in my head and heart.
I listened to that tape until it wore out and broke; then I bought the CD and listened some more.
The first track is the raucous “Pony St.,” about a once-wild parent whose daughter rebels by… being conservative and obedient. Even her boyfriends are duds:
“And when they come calling
I think it’s appalling
they’re sober and they’re polite.
They’re deeply respectful
when I would expect them
to keep her out all night.”
I’d have loved that parent. The mother of the song, a former hellraiser, also sings:
“If you need instruction
in mindless destruction
I’ll show you a thing or two.”
Please, I thought, adopt me.
The acidity of Track 14, his kiss-off song “All The Rage,” fortified the side of me that was tired of being quiet and taking other people’s crap. The other side, the weaker one—the go-along, get-along side—can sometimes spend too much time with its hands on the wheel; it needs to be told to move over. This song did that for me, but it had a sense of humor about its angst:
“So don’t try to touch my heart
it’s darker than you think.
And don’t try to read my mind
because it’s full of disappearing ink”
I fell hard for “Sulky Girl,” as I tended to do in real life. I laughed my adolescent ass off as the sardonic and rude “This Is Hell,” which posits that “heaven is hell in reverse”—where “My Favorites Things” plays on a loop, but it’s Julie Andrews’ version, not John Coltrane’s. (Sorry, Sound of Music fans.)
“20% Amnesia” screams at a public that quickly forgets the failings of a corrupt or ignorant authority. Just because people end up in charge doesn’t mean they belong there, it says. The world is full of fools with badges, bad parents, teachers walling themselves off behind dark sarcasm, and leaders who are merely manipulators.
“What is your destiny?’ the policewoman said?
The word that she wanted was destination I’m afraid
This is your future boy, this is your fate
You’re obsolete and they can’t afford to educate you.”
Of course, the album wasn’t just jihad and jeremiad. “London’s Brilliant Parade” is a nostalgic, dream-fueled stroll through Costello’s hometown, one that was far from my own of New Kensington. But in his bridges and struggling streets, there was a reflection I recognized.
“Still Too Soon To Know,” about a man who has lost his lover to another person, was also on the hopeful side. But at the same time, it’s a positive portrait of regret, a caution against failing to enjoy the things in front of you: “Blessings that don’t count / small mercies and such,” as mentioned in the album’s final song, “Favourite Hour.”
In my novel Brutal Youth, someone says to the main character, “I’m sorry for you… You always hold on to the worst things—and you lose everything else.” That was a message I was writing to myself—one I first heard in “Still Too Soon To Know”:
“When I think back
a couple of days,
if I wasn’t happy then,
I never will be.
I wonder was this
ignorance or bliss?
It’s still too soon to know.”
21 years later, Brutal Youth feels like a window into the span between generations. I realize that, at 38, Costello was about the age I am now when he was working on it. Maybe there’s something about this point in one’s life—a transition far from the shift from childhood into adulthood—that makes us especially reflective. We’re straddling that middle fulcrum of our see-saw existence, trying to stand tall upon it. It’s our last chance to see as far as we can in either direction.
Writing this, I wondered: Can I really call myself middle-aged? One grandfather, Steve Breznican, died at 60, when I was just a baby. The other, Prosper “Bert” Frerotte, was 72 when he died—a giant in my life who exited it when I was 19. It never occurred to me until now—just now, writing this—but the anniversary of his death is also March 8. I named the book after Brutal Youth; I named my first and only son after Prosper. One inspiration entered the world on that date; another departed it. Symmetry like this never feels like coincidence to me. I can only read it as a wink from the universe.
Costello’s Brutal Youth shaped me. It showed me what I could be and what I once was. It revealed what it felt like to talk back and know what you’re talking about. It echoed things I was feeling and told me others I’d have never guessed on my own. When I fell, there were times it helped me up. When I was struggling, it was my fight song. When I was on top of the world, it was my victory music.
The final song on the album, “Favourite Hour,” includes the lyric that gives both the album (and my own savage story of a teenage wasteland) a title.
“Now, there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth,
Strip and polish this unvarnished truth.”
I’ve talked about the influence of those words a lot since my book came out, trying to give credit where it’s due. That lyric meant everything to me when I was a teenager. It was another way of warning against holding on to the bad and losing the good. All that drama and high emotion and belligerence… couldn’t it have been put to better use? Or is that just the natural fallout from those explosive early times?
I had the opportunity to meet Elvis Costello briefly this past September, thanks to a backstage-pass sacrifice by my rock critic friend Edna Gundersen. I was brought to hang out in his dressing room at the Hollywood Bowl with another mutual friend, music publicist Joan Myers, who reminisced about old times with him. I didn’t say much. Definitely didn’t tell him about the book or try to foist a copy on him. When it came time to leave, I simply shook his hand and said, “I just wanted to tell you something, because it means a lot to me. ‘Favourite Hour’ is a song I carry with me, always. I just thought I’d tell you in person: Thank you.”
He smiled, pointed a finger, and said, “That is a good one.”
I’m sure I weirded him out. But that was the truth, unvarnished.