This week marks the end of our year-long attempt to honor the artist who, more than any other, expanded our own musical minds and record collections. We wanted people who didn’t know Costello’s work to give him a shot, we wanted casual fans to dig deeper, and we wanted deep fans to reconsider songs they might have passed over the first time or offer some reasons to go back and listen to them differently. We hope we’ve done one of those things for all of you who checked into our little listening party each week. If you start to miss these deep-dives into Elvis Costello’s world, the good news is that we’re just a few weeks away from his memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, which will no doubt offer far deeper insights from a far more reliable source.
This week’s pick: “Just A Memory,” from Taking Liberties/Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers (1980), originally the b-side to “New Amsterdam”
Gary Stewart: When we thought about stopping our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week feature after a full year (and on EC’s birthday to boot) it seemed logical. We were evangelical about making the point that there were so many damn great songs even longtime fans were missing out on, without venturing into, “Really, you need to hear everything” fanatic/nerd terrain that would strain our credibility and your patience. But this wasn’t as easy as we thought. You’d think that a year of weekly entires would do the trick, especially if we stayed away from the hits and obvious fan favorites. But really that’s about 10% of the nearly 500 songs we had to choose from. And the difficulty of choosing a cutoff speaks to why we needed to do this in the first place. So, alas, we had to stop somewhere, hopefully with a final entry that says it all: A song that conveys everything we’ve been trying to prove here, which signifies closure and makes some kind of statement.
“Just A Memory” seems perfect. It’s about endings and loss. It’s been covered several times, though not nearly enough. This song easily could’ve come off the last Adele album or the record that Amy Winehouse would have made had she lived long enough to further explore the great American and English songbooks. Its resonance and meaning has changed over the years in Elvis Costello’s own various performances. The multiple versions we’re including here speak to how well it’s traveled and why it truly earns the all-too-easily abided label “timeless.”
Those who know “Just A Memory” caught it as a bonus track on a collector’s reissue or rarities collection and not at the center of a proper album, where it surely would’ve fared better. It was written in 1979 with Dusty Springfield in mind, who consented to cover it only after Elvis wrote her an extra verse. Elvis knew the song deserved better when he included it in his VH1 storytellers set years later (extra verse included—check it out here), which I love, but I’d still give the edge to his original. It’s so painful and the production makes you feel like you’re in a sacred place, mourning a loss—which of course you are.
Then there’s this version from a just a few months ago, which has the simplicity of the VH1 version, the sadness of the original, but with the added emotional weight, weariness, and the different understanding that comes from years of living. Three different versions or three different songs? Are you hearing this song in an empty church, at closing time in the world’s saddest saloon, or is it the centerpiece of a grand operatic performance? Those are the kind of questions we’ve been asking week after week of the songs and the artist that inspired this quest a year ago.
And “Just A Memory” packs one more prescient punch in the line “with the tempo of today and the temptation of tomorrow,” which is exactly what Elvis promised when we first heard him in 1977, and everything he’s still delivering on to this day.
He’ll never be “just” anything.
David Gorman: In many ways—ways that go back through decades of personal and professional experiences—Elvis Costello inspired this site. He’s used his stature with his fans to turn them on to the music and musicians he loves, doing what he can to guide often reluctant listeners to genres considered taboo or intimidating to most rock fans. He’s championed artists ranging from ABBA to David Ackles to Schubert to Howard Tate, shining whatever light he’s got on music we need to hear (check out his list of 500 must-have albums here). It’s no accident that we adopted that mission—expanded to include movies, video and TV shows—as our own.
For both Gary and me, Costello’s work didn’t just open up our record collections, but allowed us to experience and learn from, in real time, the creative arc of a true master—an artist whose every move promised some new surprise and challenge for us. He remains an artist prolific enough that even as we try to catch every show, absorb every album, and track down every guest appearance and collaboration, it’s still possible to miss his most moving work, hiding in plain sight.
I agree that “Just A Memory” is the perfect summary of everything we’ve been talking about for a year. Here’s a b-side from the beginning of his career that already shows off Costello’s influences, ambitions, melodic, lyrical and vocal gifts as well as his willingness to subvert expectations by absorbing and inhabiting decidedly non-punk genres like classical and Tin Pan Alley. But on a more personal level, it’s a song that drags me back to my earliest memories of that time when music first mattered to me. I did a lot of listening late at night, laying in bed with my Walkman on, usually imagining myself singing whatever tape I was playing. I was taking in a lot of different kinds of music in general, but what I listened to late at night was the sacred stuff. The stuff that I really felt. It was a lot of stuff about wanting love, a lot of stuff about losing love, and a lot of it was made before I was born by people like Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. “Just A Memory” was one of the few things I’d listen to late at night that was from a truly contemporary artist.
The song struck me hard. It sounded eerie. Like church. But not like the storefront church I heard in the soul songs I loved. “Just A Memory” sounded like a grand cathedral hosting a funeral. Costello’s open-wound singing killed me, too. His voice was breaking. He was crying. Hell, he was so alone he even had to sing his own backup. And what is more vulnerable than that leap to falsetto? But it was the lyrics that changed everything.
To a kid who couldn’t fall asleep without headphones, having a song open with with the line “laying about lying in bed . . .”—that brilliant little double-entendre that laid bare the whole deluded point of the song—meant I was going to pay a little bit more attention to the rest of the lyrics. They opened me up to what writing could be. Yeah, it’s a two-minute sad-bastard breakup song, but it’s the first time I remember hearing a song lyric and marveling at it, line for line. I always swore by music that was direct and simple. Plain truths delivered with raw emotion. I had no interest in artists who wanted to make carefully considered statements or create abstract art to be endlessly interpreted. Music wasn’t art to me. It was emotion. I wanted songs that mainlined it. This song made me rethink things. It still packed the emotional gut-punch of anything else I was listening to, but by listening and picking apart how certain lines related back to one another—how the verses reveal the ambivalence of the chorus as a total lie—I started to realize that great art can and usually is crafted by great artists with more care than I wanted to believe. And I started to see evidence of that craft even in the songs I naively thought of as spontaneous expressions of joy or pain. I started writing lyrics down and truly considering their meaning. And I think it all started here. I was certainly already a fan when I heard “Just A Memory,” but this was the song that made me realize I was in this relationship for the long haul. So I guess it makes sense that our year-long love letter/birthday present to Elvis Costello should end here. Where, at least for me, it all started.
So here it is, the complete Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist (minus the few live, out-of-print or otherwise unavailable songs not currently on Spotify). We hope you’ve enjoyed watching it grow: