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Happier With Amnesia
That Fatal Mailing List #4 - "Riot Act" (1980)
“All that matters is that you get to express yourself, and the audience gets something that speaks to them, even if these two things are not the same.”
If I had to pin it down, I’d credit John Lennon with inaugurating the modern wave of pop songs as confessionals. In plain-spoken language, the title track on the Beatles’ 1965 record Help! charted out the chaotic mental state of a songwriter at the center of a global cultural hurricane. There had been plenty of first-person lyrics before him, but it may have been the first time the singer of a song could be so easily identified with the emotional truths within.
For me, all pop songs exist at some point on a scale between “this is about everyone” and “this is about me.” The best songwriters take personal experience and find the universal, but there are many ways to skin that musical cat; a personal identification with a singer’s story is just as powerful as a song that creates a tent big enough for every listener to find a place inside.
If you’re reading this newsletter, it’s likely you’re familiar with the events of March 1979, when Elvis Costello had a run-in with Bonnie Bramlett, a backup singer in Stephen Stills’ band, at a Holiday Inn in Columbus, OH. Drunk and obnoxious, Costello called Ray Charles and James Brown the n-word. The fallout was explosive.
In his memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello suggests that the incident and its repercussions actually helped him.
"One thing became clear to me in time: that Ohio evening may very well have saved my sorry life. I fear an obituary might have appeared not too much later, just a few short lines lamenting my unfulfilled promise, on the occasion of a tawdry demise."
For his part, Costello has spent most of his career answering inevitable questions about that incident, his every creative move inextricably linked to a solitary moment when his performative sneer bubbled over into rancid bile. I don’t think he’s ever sought absolution for it, but I’m sure he’s grown tired of apologizing for it. As much as I love the guy, I think that’s probably the outcome he deserves.
Which brings us to today’s song, “Riot Act,” the closing track from EC’s 1980 album Get Happy!! Is it a veiled confession, in which Costello lays bare his feelings about the Bramlett incident? Or just a torrid plea to a former lover to take the singer back, and he’ll gladly swallow all the horrible things she thinks of him?
In his 2015 review of Costello’s memoir, Joe Bonomo describes EC’s songwriting as “...narrative, evocative imagery, bluff, evasion, humor, and, finally, veiled revelation.” Even when you think he’s singing about himself, he’s an unreliable narrator. In the book, Costello makes his intentions more plain.
“I don’t think it matters if you think I am the man or the woman in any of the songs I’ve written. If Johnny Cash killed a man in a song, did it make him a murderer?”
“Riot Act” is a tough listen if you choose to hear it as Costello airing out his interior monologue over the Bramlett incident. Lines like “Don’t put your heart out on your sleeve/when your remarks are off the cuff” suggest a lingering bitterness. Viewed through that lens, it’s a “poor, poor pitiful me” whine about how hard it was for the singer when he dropped an unspeakable slur for no good reason other than shocking a crowd in a bar.
But it’s not that simple, and never that simple. (As Costello puts it, “I changed every ‘I’ to ‘we,’ so as to share the blame that was entirely my own, and then changed ‘I’ to ‘he’ to further cover my tracks.”) What complicates “Riot Act” is the supplication in the singer’s voice and words, laying himself bare and practically begging to be strung up if it will help him let go of his anguish.
You can make me a matter of fact
Or a villain in a million
A slip of the tongue’s gonna keep me civilian
If he’s spent his songwriting career up to this point seeking revenge for himself and guilt for anyone too foolish to stand in his way, here Costello flips that equation; carrying the heavy burden of his own guilt, he offers himself up to the revenge of an audience betrayed.
Through it all, Bruce Thomas’ bass line provides a skeptical counterpoint that slinks through the song. It’s a rock critic trope to note a “melodic bass,” and Thomas provides plenty of bass hooks on other songs. On “Riot Act,” his performance is more intrusive and insistent. Listen to his choices under the chorus; it doesn’t sound like he’s supporting the root of the chord, but instead finding dissonant notes within it, with an effect that’s almost sinister. On the verses, he hews closely to Pete Thomas’ rhythm, like a pulse that won’t stop beating in your ears.
In 2015, Robbie Fulks covered the entire Get Happy!! album in a show at the Hideout in Chicago. This is from that night.