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Welcome back to The Elvis Costello Song Of The Week®, our ongoing attempt to drive you ever deeper into the catalog of the musician who most embodies the Trunkworthy mission.
This week’s pick: “Heathen Town,” originally released as the B-side to “Everyday I Write the Book” (1983). Read the lyrics here.
Gary Stewart: Why can’t Los Angeles get any love when it comes to pop music (or any music for that matter)? There is a surplus of New York anthems like “Theme From New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind” that ooze with pride, optimism, and sometimes outright boosterism. But good luck finding their L.A. counterparts. Even the one most associated with civic pride, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” is rife with sarcasm and de-mythologizing. The best-known songs about our town—“Hotel California,” “Los Angeles,” and “Welcome to the Jungle”—are ambivalent at best and self-loathing at worst.
Into the great canon of de-mythologizing L.A. songs comes “Heathen Town.” It doesn’t mention the city by name, but it’s unmistakably about it. Inspired by Gram Parsons’ “Sin City” (itself an early downcast song about L.A. and in many ways a precursor to the more moody Eagles sides nobody pays close attention to), it’s seething with judgment, caution, and condemnation.
The song opens with an ’80s radio-friendly piano riff that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Madness record, but the good times end there as the singer starts in with his observations. By the time he gets to the chorus he’s dragged into the desperation and despair with the rest of us.
And then there’s this line: “It starts as a flirtation and ends up as an expensive habit / With one eye on her place in debtor’s prison and the other on a girl dressed as a rabbit.”
With a few words he captures desire, lust, greed, and other deadly sins and their consequences.
And in a way he gets L.A.: no other city has such a large gap between myth and reality, between shadow and light. So maybe we had it coming.
David Gorman: Yeah, L.A.’s got it rough. You’re right about how the best songs about the city are the ones that tear it apart, and the ones that attempt to celebrate it often come off as shallow as the town’s worst stereotypes. One day we may get into “The Other Side of Summer,” which I think is the ultimate evisceration of the Los Angeles myth, but I’m glad we’re talking about “Heathen Town” since so few people have actually heard it.
I’m going to go back on my usual rant about my love for big productions and my boredom with the stripped-back demo sound that most singer-songwriters seem to wear as a badge of credibility. In the case of “Heathen Town” I actually prefer Costello’s demo to the finished track, even though the production is suited to my usual tastes in such things. The demo, just sung over a tense, acoustic strum, seems to fit the sense of dread and defeat in the song’s lyric. The version with the peppy pop production is probably more appropriate if you’re mocking the thin layer of gloss that is Los Angeles, but the demo sounds like it’s coming from a man who’s been chewed up and spit out by our fair city, and the eerie addition of a backup chorus of Elvises gives it a perfect dose of schizophrenia. Having lived here for 20 years now, I’ve known enough people who woke up on the wrong side of the Valley, and this demo gets closer to the sound of that rude awakening.
Still, I get the appeal of the finished record. It does sound like a funhouse mirror reflection of the Hollywood dream: slightly woozy, almost out of tune, and just enough special effects to make you question the reality you’re witnessing. And yes, that creepy laugh at the end, bouncing on a scratched record. Be careful. That’ll haunt you.
And just like that, “Heathen Town” finds its way to our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist. Enjoy: