This week’s pick: “Dirty Rotten Shame,” released as a B-side to Secret, Profane & Sugarcane’s single “Complicated Shadows” (2009), but played live starting in the mid-’90s
Gary Stewart: Nostalgia is death, or according to this week’s selection, a slow death—and probably a more psychologically painful one. The opening line says it all: “I recall the good old days, but thankfully they’re gone.”
“Dirty Rotten Shame” made its first official appearance quite obscurely as the vinyl B-side of a single from 2009’s successful Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. But the actual song was considered for inclusion on All This Useless Beauty 15 years earlier. It never made the album because Costello gave it to his friend Ronnie Drew of Irish folk legends The Dubliners.
The “official” version sounds like a wistful lament, but listen further to the version Elvis was performing in 1994 and you’ll hear an alcoholic, bitter take on the subject of Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
The Secret, Profane track has disguised this bitter pill of a song as a lullaby. But there’s no mistaking what the singer’s getting at in this mid-’90s live version with the Attractions. By the time you get to the chorus, rage replaces resignation.
If you’ve just come back from an obligatory reunion made painful not by reopened emotional wounds but because you agree with Tony Soprano when he says, “ ‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation,” this song is for you.
David Gorman: It’s probably a bit of whiplash to write about this song after last week’s duet with Elmo from Sesame Street, but bear with us . . .
Assuming you’re of a certain age (at least 40), the difference between these two versions of “Dirty Rotten Shame” is the difference between how many drinks into the night you are. The live version, full of piss and vinegar, I’d peg at about ten o’clock: You’ve got just enough drink to put some fight in you and, more importantly, to convince you that life ain’t through with you yet. The song still feels like it’s about all those other poor bastards out there who got trapped by their own pasts.
The other take on the song is closing time. It’s defeat. It’s self-loathing. It’s the last thing you hear before the bartender throws in the towel and tells you, “Hey, buddy, maybe it’s time to go home.”
Both versions are valid, but maybe I’m just a little too young (or too delusional?) to connect with that second one. I’d also guess that the real Elvis is the man singing the live version, but for different reasons.
What struck me when listening to “Dirty Rotten Shame”—as I vacillated between my own feelings of rage and resignation about adulthood—was how Costello has escaped the curse of adulthood in rock. It’s not just that he’s continued to live a curious and creative life, but that he’s been able to grow up with his audience, creating music that intelligently and viscerally confronts our most complex adult feelings. On a personal level, this has been a profound gift. His songs have allowed me to leave the past behind, ushering me through some very adult events when the songs I used to turn to just didn’t cut it anymore. We’ve written about a few of those songs here, but we’ve never stopped to marvel (or bemoan) how Elvis remains one of the few artists creating grown-folks’ music with real insight into the hopes, fears and realities of actually being grown. He’s not rocking out in some state of suspended adolescence, he’s not dishing out nostalgia to his old fans, and he’s not desperately chasing younger ones. In that sense, he’s got nothing to do with the character singing “Dirty Rotten Shame,” except that Elvis remains aware enough to have channeled him.
Contrary to the song’s lyrics, he ain’t sharpening useless tools, which is a big reason we’re still writing about him every week.
While our last couple EC Songs-of-the-Week have been, shall we say, “unofficial,” you won’t find them on our ever-expanding playlist. But that just gives you a little time to catch up, don’t it?