A Tribute To Elvis Costello's 'Brutal Youth,' Released 21 Years Ago Today
March 9, 2015
We all have pieces of pop culture that stand as more than just songs, movies or TV shows. They become part of us, and we carry them within us everywhere we go. For me, one of them is Elvis Costello's 1994 album Brutal Youth, released 21 years ago today. That collection of 15 songs became so vital to me that I named my debut novel after it. That’s the equivalent of naming your first-born child after someone.
Twenty-one is an odd milestone to mark, but it’s the age at which we are recognized as fully grown up, isn’t it? For me, Costello’s album, recorded with both Nick Lowe and The Attractions (keyboardist Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas on bass, and drummer Pete Thomas) was about that very subject: growing up, looking back, clinging to the savagery of those younger years until we can’t anymore. So, 21 years. That actually seems like an appropriate anniversary to celebrate.
On March 8, 1994, I was an angry, sarcastic, hopeful but needy kid, 17 years old and 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 Pharx-Mor by the Tarentum Bridge in my hometown, an album full of songs that were just as crankily optimistic as I was. Talk about music that makes you feel less alone in the world. Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth felt like a 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 dumb jokes. It 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. It put those things on a shelf, like tools you could pull off when you needed them. There's a song on it called "My Science Fiction Twin," a bass-heavy geek-out about a doppelgänger who's everything you want to be times 10,000 – and that's what that Brutal Youth tape meant to me. I wished I could create something that had all these same feelings packed into it.
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 is rebelliously . . . conservative and obedient. Even the 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, tired of having others step on my hopes and dreams and shove me backward. There's another side within us, a weaker side, the go-along, get-along side, that 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”
The felt like the perfect description of the storms that brew inside us – as well as a perfect mockery of it.
I fell hard for "Sulky Girl," as I tended to do in real life. I laughed my ass off as the sardonic and rude "This Is Hell,” which posits that “heaven is hell in reverse,” where “My Favorite Things” plays on a loop, but it’s Julie Andrews’ version, not John Coltrane’s. (Sorry Sound of Music fans.)
“20% Amnesia” is a scream 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. 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, Pa. But in his bridges and struggling streets there was a reflection I recognized.
Also on the hopeful side, “Still Too Soon To Know” was about a man who has lost his lover to another person. But it’s also 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, 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 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.”
Even at 17, and every year I’ve aged since, I hear those lyrics and think about the times I’ve been frustrated or sad, how I’ve been angry at myself, or bitter toward outside powers outside my control. I’m no longer thinking back “a couple of days,” but over the four decades of a lifetime. I still let happy times slip through fingers that are clenched into fists. So … I keep listening. Keep trying.
Twenty-one 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 that shift from childhood into adulthood, that makes us especially reflective. We're straddling that middle fulcrum of our see-saw existence and 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 today, March 8. It has been 19 years now. Another middle fulcrum.
I named my first book after Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth. I named my first and only son after Pap. One inspiration entered the world on this date; another departed it. Symmetry like this never feels like coincidence to me. I can only read it as a wink from the universe.
But this album, a collection of music by a stranger, it also meant something integral to my life. Not the same, of course. Not by a logn shot. But music is a language we use to decode the things that can’t be said any other way, things that would destroy us if they went unspoken.
Brutal Youth shaped me. It showed me what I could be and what I once was. I revealed what it felt like to talk back and know what you’re talking about. It echoed things I was feeling and told me some 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 is “Favourite Hour,” and it includes the lyric that gives both the album (and my twisted little coming-of-age novel) 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. (Although it rips a hole in my heart every time I notice in the acknowledgements that some proofreader changed the spelling of the song to “Favorite Hour,” without my knowledge. UGH. Humiliating. The paperback will be fixed.)
That lyric meant everything to me when I was 17. It was another way of warning against holding on to the bad and losing the good. All that drama and high emotion and belligerence of that age . . . Couldn’t it have been put to better use?
I had the opportunity to meet Elvis Costello briefly this past September. I hung out in his dressing room at the Hollywood Bowl with a mutual friend who reminisced about old times with him. When it came time to leave, I just 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 wanted to 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.
Happy Birthday, Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth. Now you’re old enough to buy a drink. If you were a person, I’d buy one for you.
Both of us are still brutal, I hope, even if we aren’t so youthful anymore.