David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 24: Elvis Costello (How To Be Dumb)

May 20, 2020

Plenty of books and songs made me appreciate writing from a young age.  A smaller subset of writers made me appreciate language (boy, did I love The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid). Elvis Costello made me appreciate wordplay.

After all, as a teenager/young man, is there anything more dangerous in our hands than the lyrics to Costello's "Allison?" The song's creepy chorus hid inside a lovely melody: "Allison, I know this world is killing you/Oh, Allison, my aim is true." With every subsequent Costello album (and there have been few musicians as prolific as him), I went searching for the bon mots, the double entendres, the outright puns. I remember wondering who was the target for many of his barbs, usually assuming a poor woman who got in his clutches.

That's why I was completely shocked to see that his bassist, Bruce Thomas, allowed himself to get within the sights of Costello's aim. I understand that egos get even bigger on a stage, and tension within a band must get intolerable on long tours. Thomas in an attempt to establish himself as something more than the bassist with The Attractions, released a book, The Big Wheel, in 1987 that thinly veiled a tell-all about the most scathing writer in rock and roll at the time. As Biff from Back To The Future would say, "hello, McFly, think!"

Costello reacted as one could expect with one of his most caustic songs, "How To Be Dumb" off of Mighty Like A Rose. Where does one begin to count the wounds inflicted upon Thomas? Through the first couple of verses, the attacks are erudite enough that Thomas might have been honored:

Now you've got yourself a new occupation/every fleeting thought is a pearl/

And beautiful people stampede to the doorway/of the funniest fucker in the world.///

Trapped in the house of the perpetual sucker/where bitterness always ends so pitifully/

You always had to dress up your envy/in some half-remembered philosophy.

However, the chorus clearly shows that the dressing is down, not up, twisting the sense of being dumb as savagely as "I know this world is killing you/Oh, Allison, my aim is true."

Now you know how to be dumb/are you ready to take your place

In the modern museum of mistakes?/

Don't you know how to be dumb/like a building thrown up overnight

In one of those reverse earthquakes.

And then just in case his former bassist is missing the point (after all he is dumb), Costello cuts him at the knees in the penultimate lines of the song:

Scratch your own head, stupid/count up to three/roll over on your back/repeat after me.

And then we are back to the scorching lines of the chorus, keyboards skipping along, guitars searing, saxophone flailing, organ soaring. I am sure Thomas took some small comfort in knowing that Costello had to bring in a band twice the size of the Attractions to elevate the anger volume on this track, whereas just him, Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve were only needed to pump up "Pump It Up." In fact, Pete plays drums on this track. Does he feel complicit in the emasculation of his former partner in rhythm?

I think about the basic message of this song a lot these days. I think about it when people I respect are on social media trying to sway the opinion of some jackass they barely know. More words and more volume ain't going to do it. I also think of it when I hear, inevitably, some NPR reporter ask, with all due sincerity, "what was President Trump thinking when he said X?" Looking for a traditional motivation where there is nothing traditional.  Good God, you're wasting your breath. Sweet Jesus, you're smarter than this. Don't you know how to be dumb?

"How To Be Dumb." Elvis Costello. Mighty Like A Rose. Warner Brothers. 1991. Link here.

Day 23: Beth Hart "Thankful."

Day 25: ABBA "Knowing Me, Knowing You."

See complete list here.