Interview with Bruce Thomas about his new book: "Rough Notes"
Bruce Thomas has worked with Paul Rodgers (of Free), Suzanne Vega, Paul McCartney, Billy Bragg, The Pretenders, Madness, jammed with Fleetwood Mac, been asked to join Pink Floyd etc but, whatever he does, he will always be best known as the guy who played bass in Elvis Costello & The Attractions.
In my opinion Elvis, Bruce and keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas made 2 slightly dodgy albums called "Goodbye Cruel World" (1984) and "All This Useless Beauty" (1996) and 9 brilliant records! I love "This Year's Model" (1978), "Armed Forces" (1979), "Get Happy" (1980), "Trust" (1981), "Almost Blue" (1981), "Imperial Bedroom" (1982), "Punch The Clock" (1983), "Blood & Chocolate" (1986) and "Brutal Youth" (1994) and I've played them all millions of times. Although Elv & The Attractions enjoyed some chart success in the late 1970s and early 1980s, received rave reviews from Rolling Stone magazine, had sell out tours all over the world and were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 - to my mind, it's not said often enough: Elvis Costello & The Attractions were one of the best bands there has ever been.
The first book Bruce Thomas wrote was called "The Big Wheel." Among those to sing it's praises were Q Magazine who said Mr Thomas was: "A top notch anecdotalist who can time a twist to make you laugh out loud." Since then Bruce has written a best selling book on Martial Arts legend Bruce Lee. His latest effort "Rough Notes" is about his days as a music fan and being in The Attractions.
The book made me laugh a lot but I must say I was surprised how well written it was and how touching some sections were. You don't have to be a fan of Elvis Costello and The Attractions to enjoy Bruce's book (but I guess it helps). If you're interested in popular music post Sinatra then this insightful book is well worth snapping up as there are fascinating sections on everyone from the Man in Black to The Fab Four to King of Pop. And from jazz greats such as Chet Baker to loathsome losers like Jimmy Saville. There are funny stories about the legendary managers who started Stiff Records and members of lovable pub rock bands such as The Rumour and The Blockheads. The tales Mr Thomas has to tell about Pete, Steve and The Beloved Entertainer are a pleasure to read. What follows is a recent interview conducted via e-mail.
1) I remember The Big Wheel had a lot of rave reviews when it was published, but in your new book you don't seem very proud of it. In what ways is Rough Notes a better book than the first one?
It’s not that I’m not proud of The Big Wheel — it was the right book at the time and has a few good one-liners (which I probably stole). But in Rough Notes I wanted people to know the rather more complex aspects about my relationship with EC than have so far been aired. I wanted people to have a less knockabout version of the story and to realize, first of all, that we were actually friends — despite what’s been said on both sides over the years. I also wanted to (re)tell the story for the benefit of those who appear to think they know better than I do —chipping in on Wikipedia and their blogs with their character assessments of me, but without it having been within 10,000 miles of the situation.
The Big Wheel was never the cause of any fallout with EC— even though I was always happy to encourage the myth to boost sales. It was actually his treatment of Steve Nieve, when Steve was in a very vulnerable state, that cause the first split. I’ve had to wait for enough time to pass before I felt it appropriate to tell the story. As it turned out, Steve forgave him long before I did.
Rough Notes is equally factual about the circumstances of the second irrevocable break-up. In my opinion (and it is only my opinion)that was helped along by someone behind the scenes who had aspirations of becoming EC’s manager. I think ‘they’ wanted to create problems that they could then resolve and so insert themselves into the loop. I wanted people to know how and why the situation became unresolvable. And I thought I’d better tell the story while anyone who gives a shit is still around.
The Big Wheel was my first attempt at writing, and I think it still just about holds up. Rough Notes is a far better written book, and a better read, and I think that shows up in the odd places where the two books overlap to describe the same event.
2) Elvis Costello said in one interview that the only issue he had with The Big Wheel is that he thought it was sad you hadn't had as much fun being in the band as he had. However, he then wrote an absolutely furious song about a "professional liar" who has found a "brand new occupation" and now has beautiful people making a stampede to his house because they think he's the "funniest fucker in the world" and that if there were any justice in this world he would instead be placed in "a modern museum of mistakes." This song (How To Be Dumb) is probably the most angry song that Pop's Mr Angry has recorded but does the song seem genuine to you? Do you think that as a song or performance it's as good as Lennon's How Do You Sleep? or Dylan's Positively 4th Street?
That’s more than a little ironic. I never thought of Elvis as someone who was having fun. If he was, he never let on! You have to realize that The Big Wheel was written while I was still a little pissed off for the reason referred to in the first question, and described more fully in Rough Notes, which occurred after a long period of ‘alienating’ the Attractions, which bordered on insulting. It wasn’t just me who was unhappy with the course of events. Steve actually got drunk and went and harangued Elvis very publicly at one of his solo gigs. I took it more philosophically and wrote a sarcastic book.
I think it’s clear in Rough Notes that I’m at pains to correct the impression that I never enjoyed being in the band. As I say, for a time it was the best ‘beat group’ in the world — and I wouldn’t have missed that for anything. But I believe that EC always had the long game in mind — even as far back as his solo version of My Funny Valentine which was done when the band had been together for barely a few months.
The ‘Dumb’ song never really got to me. It makes me laugh, if anything. ‘It’s all sound and fury, signifying…’As I point out in Rough Notes, after having done three years of intensive martial art training by then, it was like being attacked by Bambi. The only ones who really hang on to the song are the kind of Elvis fan boys who’d happily frame one of EC’s Tesco shopping lists and hang it on their wall, as if it contained pearls of wisdom. As a song, I’ve never considered ‘Dumb’ alongside the ones you cite — it’s more like Jilted John’s Gordon is a Moron, eh? Ha-ha. And I think even Lennon might’ve ended up embarrassed about How Do You Sleep. It’s got a good riff’n all, but anyone who’s ever heard National Lampoon’s musical send-up of Lennon’s Rolling Stone interview will know what I’m talking about. …By coincidence, last night I saw a later interview with Lennon in which he said that songs like Hey Jude and Eleanor Rigby would last for generations — so I guess he mellowed a bit, after all. As the saying goes, ‘Time wounds all heels’.
3) Did you send an advance copy of Rough Notes to either Pete Thomas or your ex-wife before bringing the book out? You're very honest and don't seem to hold back - which is good, but I just wondered were there any instances where you'd send Pete an e-mail saying: "How would you feel if I tell the story about what you said when we met up and..." Or was it a case of publish and be damned?
I did send my ex-wife, Suzanne, a copy of the book, just after publication, and awaited her response with a little trepidation wondering whether I should’ve done as you suggest. So imagine my surprise when I got a phone call from her one morning during which she could hardly speak for crying …with laughter! — saying she couldn’t read any more because of the tears rolling down her face. …But also adding that she was moved that I remembered so much about things. It was typical of her spirit and reminded me, not of why we’re no longer together, but of why I married her in the first place. It was the best conversation we’d had in 20 years.
As regards Pete, I’ve been variously accused of ‘throwing him under the bus’ and ‘lapsing into sentimentality’ — so you can never please everyone. As regards quoting so many details of the conversation I had with Pete outside the Polly Tea Rooms in Marlborough, I simply went straight home and wrote the whole thing down verbatim. I later took a few things out — and in retrospect I should probably have taken out the information about his health complaints, which was unnecessarily included.
While I wasn’t interested in making his life more difficult, or ramping up any old tension and friction —neither was I going to paint a false picture. I was determined to leave that in Pete’s remarks on Elvis’ grumpiness having improved slightly in recent years, or the fact that the band still find ways to dodge going in his car with him and having to listen to his latest ‘solo’ project. I was always the ‘shop steward’ for the Attractions and had to speak up about many things — like getting billing on our tours and albums. So I wanted Pete’s honest opinion aired for once, not just heard in private—even if it meant giving him no choice about it.
However, I recall that, on the last tour I ever did with the band, even when Pete was once caught making a disparaging remark about Elvis, I still got shit for it. ‘But I said it!’ Pete said to EC. ‘Yeah, but it’s the sort of thing he would say, said Elvis, glaring at me. So doubtless my conversation with Pete will be spin-doctored, and construed as make-believe on my part, and things will carry on.
In the final analysis, just as I ended up remembering why I married Suzanne in the first place, I wanted Rough Notes to be about why the band actually played together for 20 years, on and off, rather than why we fell out. That’s why I mentioned EC’s generosity and recall some of the better shows we did. I didn’t want to look at it through rose-tinted lenses, but I hope you’ll agree that there’s no bitterness or resentment in the book, because there isn’t.
4) You mention George Martin casting an eye on Steve Nieve's orchestral score. Martin once said that he'd have given "his eye teeth" to have worked with Costello around the time of Imperial Bedroom. If George had been in the producer's chair for Goodbye Cruel World it would have been a better record?
I wasn’t aware of that George Martin quote, it would’ve been interesting for sure — but I think the clue here is in the phrase ‘working with’— whereas EC might’ve been thinking more along the lines of him ‘working for’—as he did with Geoff Emerick. As for Goodbye Cruel World, the problem with that record wasn’t the production values but the lack of substantial material. Even by his own admission EC knows it was a pretty weak batch of songs coupled with the fact that he didn’t really want to work with us anymore. It was, in every sense of the expression, ‘end music’.
5) The Attractions albums have been re-issued with bonus tracks. Are there any rarities or recordings that are still in the vaults? And has Elvis dug out any stuff you were pleased to hear again - (Leave My Kitten Alone from the B&C sessions, the slow version of I Can't Stand Up, the Merseybeat version of Everyday, the reggae version of New Lace Sleeves).
I’ve no idea what’s in the vaults, but I can’t imagine that there’s anything left to be unearthed at this point. I can’t really answer the question, as I never listen to anything I did with the band — other than the odd track that comes up from time to time on TV or radio.
6) In the book you're very clear on Costello being fair about things, giving the band percentages of album sales, lending you money so you could get on the property ladder etc however, ultimately, you seem to fall out over quite petty things. Could you have arranged a meeting in which you'd brought a few things to his attention and said look, "I still haven't been paid for this and I don't think it was fair you said this..." Could your leaving have been avoided or had mutual trust, respect and the ability to communicate just corroded away?
As for falling out over petty things… at the end of the day relationships don’t end because of big gulfs in opinion on politics, religion or philosophy — but because someone keeps leaving the top off the toothpaste…
But you don’t imagine that we bumbled along for 20 years and never thought for a second about what was going on, at any given time? You’ve got to remember that each one of us was sacked, or resigned, or retired, almost on a weekly rota.Band meetings were called on a regular basis and things aired — apart from the fact that we shared buses, hotel rooms, dressing rooms (not to mention other things). How many times over the years do you think we had ‘meetings’?—It was one long permanent meeting. As far as going to him about one thing or another to be straightened out, I had the DVD, the T-shirt, the Access-All-Areas pass, the Frequent Flyer points, Long-Service clock, Blue Peter badge and Crackerjack pencil. …Though I do admit that we never asked Jim to Fix It for us.
You also have to remember that even after the ‘Big Wheel / How to be Dumb’ spat, things were resolved, and we got together again very productively and enjoyably for a while. The final split was never to do with my trust in, or respect for him, but the ‘fact’ someone else muddied the waters. I also got annoyed with his comments about there only being room for one star on the stage — and saying I was being ‘unprofessional’ for expressing myself musically.
The other thing to bear in mind — to paraphrase Princess Di’s comment about there being ‘three in the marriage’ — is that, by this point, there were ‘five in the band’. In the latter years, we travelled separately as three (the Attractions) plus two (Elvis and Cait). Even backstage in the dressing rooms it was the same, by that point we only ever saw him on stage— and so it was more difficult to ‘arrange a meeting’. Even the Beatles didn’t manage to overcome the ‘Yoko factor’. And if the Beatles couldn’t manage it, it’s hard to see how we could’ve.
But after all of that, a couple of years later, while I was living in Henley, I got a call from Pete. ‘How’s it going,’ I said, ‘what’re you up to?’ ‘We’re looking for a bass player,’ he said. Taking him at face value, I simply replied, ‘Good Luck.’ It was only some time later that I wondered if he’d been dropping a hint that I’d been too dumb to pick up on— just as (as I recount in Rough Notes) I once failed to recognize that I was being offered a job with Pink Floyd! During my conversation with Pete in Marlborough High Street, I asked him if this was the case. He seemed a bit uncomfortable, and said, ‘I don’t know.’ …So it’s probably best left as a mystery.
7) In 1996, when All This Useless Beauty was released on Warners a critic in Q magazine began his review with the words: "Do you remember the days when Costello releasing a new album was a big deal?" Although the tours sell out and New Yorkers loved his TV show - the albums that followed rarely troubled the charts and none received 5-star reviews. In your opinion what's gone wrong, and what can make it right again?
Well it’s not for me to say what, or if anything, has indeed gone wrong. So I can’t say what it would take to put it right. All I can observe is that, of the top 25 iTunes downloads of his entire catalogue, I play on (I think) 22 of them. I recently read a comment on a fan blog which said something along the lines of, ‘If Costello’s upcoming book is anything like his recording career, then the first three chapters will be short, exciting and creative, and the rest will become ever more self-indulgent’. I’m not saying that my going was the sole factor in any perceived change. But suffice to say then that it’s not the same band—if he ever wanted to be in a band, as such.
8) Burt Bacharach's collaboration with Hal David produced many a magic moment. Were you impressed by the Painted from Memory album, and would it be good if El and Burt worked on a follow up?
I’ve never heard Painted from Memory either, so I can’t answer your questions. …Though I do recall the time that El and Burt were working together on a song called God Give Me Strength(aptly-named). Anyone who saw the recent Cilla docudrama will know that Burt made our Cilla do nearly thirty takes of Alfie before he was satisfied. Why she didn’t whack him upside the head, I’ll never know. Burt is a pernickety and fastidious man — always turned out in immaculate white slacks and cashmere jersey. I think he gave EC a similarly torrid time, only this time it was via endless e-mails and phone calls, over constant changes to the arrangements.
9) What next for Mr Thomas? Previously you've written books about metaphysics and martial arts are there any other subjects you've considered writing about?
I’ve just written a new Bruce Lee book of completely original material, which I’m very happy with, after incubating it for about 10 years— but I’m not going to give any more away about it at the moment. I’m also working on a book about music from the point of view of the physics of sound, probably to be accompanied CD or download. I may write a follow-up to Rough Notes about what I did, in between the tours and recordings, which to me is maybe the more interesting half — but which could overlap in places with my musical career, as a reference point, and with further relevant anecdotes.
10) In your book you talk about working with arrangers and producers who helped make classic albums by Nick Drake, The Beatles and various other heroes and also meeting various major stars such as Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash and so on. Looking back what was the biggest thrill for you? Was there a particular moment when you had to pinch yourself because it all seemed too good to be true?
In away, the whole of Rough Notes is a compilation of ‘pinch myself’ moments of varying degrees of intensity and triviality — like Stevie Wonder playing the piano on Elton’s jet, or seeing Elvis Presley live. But the one that sticks with me is doing the session where Booker T played organ —bearing in mind that the first riff I ever learned to play was Green Onions. Another good memory is that, when Pete Townshend was working as an editor at Faber & Faber, I sent him some of my writing. He sent me a lovely handwritten letter back expressing his ‘profound empathy’ with it. Other than that, I tend to get as much of a kick out of meeting footballers and sportsmen. I remember shaking Neil Young’s hand at the Hall of Fame jolly-up in New York — only to turn round and stand face-to-ace with John McEnroe. I think that’s the only time I’ve felt really star-struck.
11) Elvis is about to bring out his autobiography. Can you imagine Nick Lowe or Jake Rivera bringing out their biogs? Who, from that era, would you most like to read their version of events?
I await EC’s memoirs… no doubt someone will tell me what’s in them. I don’t mind being called a liar, a pasty-face dilettante, or the funniest fucker in the world, or anything else. But if he persists with the slur about me being unprofessional, or playing badly to piss him off on the final tour, then I may just have to get cross all over again. At this point— and I have to use the world ALLEGEDLY very prominently —I have it from a reliable source (not Pete Thomas) that Elvis’ memoirs were ghosted, and that he simply dictated them. I have to emphasise that I have no firm evidence of this, only what I consider to be reliable information. But if it is true, then it brings new meaning to ‘Wise Up, Ghost.’
I don’t know if Nick Lowe would consider writing anything. He was always very kind about The Big Wheel though — as most people were in private — he said my writing, ‘walked off the page’.But bear in mind that songwriters don’t always make the best prose writers. Surprisingly, while writing Rough Notes I found myself remembering Jake a lot more fondly than I felt about him at the time. Yes, he could be a bit of a bully and a pain, but he had a real entrepreneur’s spirit, and a maverick flair — and he was a fellow cyclist. Jake has never had anything whatsoever to do with EC after he was fired,understandably, but I think he might have a good book in him. At least he’d be good value for a long leisurely lunch. John Cooper Clarkey’s would be the book I’d want to read — he could write a cracker, and it would certainly have some great jokes in it. Other than that, I’m not sure about anyone else from that era. I think the most interesting rock memoirs around are Pete Townshend’s.
12) In your book we learn about how Jimmy Saville "fixed it" for a young lad to be a roadie for The Attractions. You've travelled the world and played on great records but are there any dreams that haven't come true? What ambitions do you have left?
My main ambition is to get out of life, alive —I may have said that before. But in the meantime I’ll take another world tour, another great album …and another best seller or two. Other than that, waking up is better than dreams.
For more info on Rough Notes visit: http://www.brucethomas.co.uk