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KEVIN DAVIS: I was seventeen years old in the fall of 2000, so over the next eight years I grew pretty accustomed to popular songs of varying quality devoted to the defamation of George W. Bush’s character, but from memory I can’t think of any songs that specifically wished him dead (quick Google search for journalistic integrity – apparently Eminem made one). However, replace Bush with Margaret Thatcher and off the top of my head—despite the fact that I know virtually nil about British politics—I can think of three: Morrissey’s “Margaret on the Guillotine,” Pink Floyd’s “The Fletcher Memorial Home” (which fantasizes about applying “the final solution” to her), and Costello’s “Tramp the Dirt Down,” from 1989’s Spike (best known to the general public for producing Elvis’s highest-charting single to date, “Veronica”). The song essentially brings a litany of charges against Thatcher prior to appropriating Bob Dylan’s famous parting sentiment from “Masters of War”: “I’ll stand o’er your grave till I’m sure that you’re dead.” Costello repeats this nigh-on verbatim, only minus the broad scope of address (Dylan’s song was aimed at all unjust warmongers; Costello’s thoughts were specifically closer to home). “Tramp the Dirt Down” reached number 79 on iTunes when Thatcher died in 2013; apparently the song’s lyrics were vicariously cathartic for more than a few Thatcher detractors who identified with Costello’s symbolic act of grave-stomping.
The decade and the land mass are different, but it’s difficult to hear this in 2017 and not recognize shades of present-day relevance
Musically, “Tramp the Dirt Down” is a lovely, pastoral-sounding ballad comprised of eclectic Celtic instrumentation running the gamut from an arpeggiated bouzouki to a wistful Uilleann pipe to an assortment of other oddities (producer Mitchell Froom plays something called an “Indian harmonium,” while Marc Ribot—who I didn’t even realize played on Spike—is credited simply with having contributed “distant sound”). It’s not an angry song, despite the venomous lyrics, and it’s not even really a political song, despite its unmistakable target; it’s a downright sad song, vocalizing the collective sorrow of a corrupt world where millions suffer their own individual horrors at the hands of a greedy few. The song explores the underlying humanity that motivates political dissent, and examines the complex relationship between compassion and anger; two seemingly distant, incompatible emotions that nonetheless egg each other on toward the finale throughout the course of the song. Indeed, its final build (beginning at about 2:44) is the musical equivalent of the welling up of tears, of a lump forming in the throat, as Costello grows more and more indignant in sympathy with those to whom the song attempts to give voice: “And now the cynical ones say that it all ends the same in the long run/Try telling that to the father who just squeezed the life from his only son.” It’s difficult to hear those lyrics in 2017 and not recognize shades of present-day relevance. The decade and the land mass are different, but for some reason we still haven’t figured out how to keep self-aggrandizing politicians with humanitarian deficiencies out of office.
So much protest music comes off as smug and self-righteous: Despite its ultimate truth, it’s often difficult to shake the feeling that the driving force isn’t the singer’s sympathy with the offended but rather his or her superiority over the offender. That in mind, I’ve always felt that EC managed something deeply artful with “Tramp the Dirt Down,” which is to dually convey both seething bitterness and deep compassion while still managing to give the illusion (despite the song ultimately hinging upon a first person promise to desecrate the subject’s burial site) that the grievances in the song aren’t his own. In the middle of the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink experimentalism that is Spike, it’s a moment of deeply focused sincerity, and a foreshadowing of the political themes that would dominate Spike’s follow-up, Mighty Like a Rose.
JORGE FARAH: When Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013, people all over Argentina were downright jubilant. There were impromptu celebrations in the streets of Buenos Aires, and my Facebook feed changed abruptly from adorable pet photos and Buzzfeed listicles to uncharacteristically-long posts expressing the deepest glee over the death of this woman; footage was shown on the evening news of groups of families congregating around city circles, joyful tears streaming down their faces, talking about how much they’ve longed for this day. As an expat who has had a relatively easy adjustment experience, it’s times like these when I am reminded most vividly of my own foreignness, as I tried to make sense of the national reaction to a person’s death. The scars of the 1982 Falklands War run deep among the Argentine population, to the point where children are still taught in school that the islands are part of Argentina, and the British are widely derided as piratas. “¡Las Malvinas son Argentinas!” is a chant that can be heard at just about any political rally, even ones that have nothing to do with maritime borders. The conflict is perceived as a great national failure, but not one to learn and grow from; rather, the public sentiment is that this is a wrong to be righted. Tensions around the sovereignty dispute were still bubbling up until the end of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s second presidential term.
In this sharply divided time of civil unrest and Nazi-punching, “Tramp the Dirt Down” re-emerges a uniquely powerful song
As Kevin mentioned, “Tramp the Dirt Down” masterfully straddles the line between compassion and contempt. Some lyrical sections are as disdainful as anything Elvis has ever written, but the mournful, elegiac melody speaks to a deeper truth beyond the specifics of any one regime’s injustices. Much like the earlier “Shipbuilding”, the core of this song is a profound sadness for the dead left in the wreckage of political conflict, like so much human confetti. This is what I struggled to understand in the wake of Thatcher’s death: this pent-up righteous anger was not directed at one specific person, but at the pointless conflict that resulted in the loss of so much innocent life. In this context, Thatcher’s passing was a symbolic vindication. I had to grapple with the underlying ugliness of celebrating the death of a human being—a human being who, by that point, had long been stripped of any power that made her any kind of threat to Argentina, Britain, or the world in general. This wasn’t a sitting dictator who’d just been dethroned. This was someone who’d lived past the point of relevancy and head-first into the indignities of old age. Celebrating the death of a senile old lady struck me as petty and undignified, but moralistic finger-wagging wasn’t going to do any good. Listening to “Tramp the Dirt Down” illuminated something for me: in war there are no clear-cut victories, the arbitrary “good guy” vs. “bad guy” designations are the stuff of comic book movies and fantastical thinking, and the complexities of human morality meant that seemingly wrongheaded actions can be born out of something righteous: grieving for the fallen, compassion towards each other, and protesting injustices. All of this rings especially true in the apparent political dystopia of 2017.
All of this was underlined by Elvis’s 2013 performance of this song at the Glastonbury festival, just a couple of months after Thatcher’s passing. Now older and wiser, it feels as though he had some hesitation about bringing the song back into rotation, now that Thatcher’s passing was a concrete reality and not just some abstract possibility in the far-off future. He introduced the song with a story about how he lost his own father to dementia, and how it’s a horrible way to go, one he wouldn’t wish to his worst enemy. And he reframed the song as celebrating not the death of a person, but rather wishing for the death of a political idea that is still alive and prevalent and destroying lives every day. This shift in perspective shed a light on the track’s virtues: The exquisite and well-orchestrated arrangement, the twisting melody, and Elvis’ impassioned performance. In this sharply divided time of civil unrest and Nazi-punching, “Tramp the Dirt Down” re-emerges a uniquely powerful song in Elvis’s body of work.
BONUS CUT: This excerpt from a TV special about the making of Spike includes an interview with Costello discussing “Tramp The Dirt Down” and a powerful solo performance of the song.
Give a listen to this and (almost) every other Elvis Costello Song Of The Week on our handy, ongoing playlist: