Bonnie Bramlett was deliberate in her watchfulness of him, this incarnation of the latest thing, this critics darling, as he swaggered to their table. Once there, he went straight to the bottle. Her faced beamed like a flop-house blub, I am not impressed, not that he knew who she was (he most likely didn’t) and not that either one of them cared (his giant horn rimmed glasses, tight stovepipe pants and late 70s cropped hair said he did, just not about her.)
She contemplated him as she had so many others: talented, indeed, this sour drunk with a brogue thick tongue, dripping condescension as hot as his breath, so quick with the turn of a phrase. He smelled of dry-cleaned sweat. Nothing of America pleased him…and she was newly sober.
How dare he say Buddy Holly wasn’t worth a damn when he emulated him?
What unmitigated gall calling Elvis a joke when he had co-opted his name…
“What about Ray Charles then? And James Brown?” she asked.
“What about them,” he smirked. “James Brown is a jive assed nigger. And Ray Charles is a blind, ignorant nigger.”
This proved too much for the former “Ikette”–in fact, then, the only “white Ikette”–the Tina Turner worshiping-Ike Turner apologist, partisan of Stax recording studios, half of the blue-eyed soul duo Delaney & Bonnie, friend of George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and, at one time, herself a critic’s darling. She hauled off and smacked him–openhanded, but hard. He fell off his barstool onto the Holiday Inn’s carpeted floor where Stephen Still’s roadies attacked him.
A skirmish between the entourages ensued. The bartender came out swinging a miniature bat.
Later, he limped to his room, defeated, with a dislocated shoulder.
Bonnie Bramlett, on the other hand, was long gone. But her mission had just begun.
Amid death threats, concert boycotts and a seething press corps that relentlessly stalked him, Elvis Costello decided to, finally, confront the ugly racist remarks he had made to Bonnie Bramlett in Columbus Ohio on March 16, 1979 while touring for his Armed Forces album. On the morning of Friday, March 30 invitations went out to the New York rock press, asking them to meet Costello at Columbia’s Manhattan offices.
Here is a record of that press conference, as reported by Uncut magazine and writer, Allan Jones, in the June, 1997 issue.
“I never… ever… thought I’d be in this position…hey — I tell you what…do you think you could lay off the flashes until I finish talking, yeah? I don’t mind if you take pictures when I finish speaking…”
“It seems that it’s necessary for me to come here today to make just one statement, which is that I am not a racist. Now, in Wednesday’s Voice, I believe it was, there was a report of an incident which occurred in Columbus, Ohio … an argument, or a brawl, whatever you want to call it … between me and another artist, a group of artists. And the details of it were somewhat confused, understandably, and I was misquoted out of context in it. I don’t really want to get into a trivial feud with another act, but I think it’s necessary to point out in what context these remarks, which, although they weren’t strictly correctly reported, were made …”
“In the course of this argument, it became necessary for me to outrage these people with about the most obnoxious and… offensive… remarks that I could muster, to bring the argument to a swift conclusion and rid myself of their presence. It worked pretty good. It started a fight.”
“And that was the main thing,and it was at that point I did say some things. which, quoted out of context, appear really offensive towards the people, you know, whose names I was taking, I suppose you might say, in vain …”
“What was the context?”
“The context…Well, let me just finish what I’m saying first of all…” And he begins again. “These people now seem to have chosen to seek publicity at my expense by making it a gossip item. And it’s getting understandably confused and I expect it will get misquoted even further out of context as time goes on. And it worries me that people are gonna pick up on words that have been said and presume that is my opinion. It was in a context of an argument that I used certain words, and that is not my opinion and that’s what I’ve come to say today.
“I mean, as I said before, I don’t want to get into a trivial feud with other acts. At the same time… I am sure… that if any of the artists who were mentioned in the Voice article ever read about this, they might wonder what the hell was going on, because I’m sure everybody shares the high esteem towards Ray Charles and James Brown and anybody else that might be added to the list, which I’m sure there will be as it gets more and more out of hand.
“And also… I’m sorry. If people got needlessly… uh, angry… about it. And I’m sure there have been, because there’s been already some picketing and phone calls to the clubs we’ll be playing in the next couple of days.
“Really, I’ve just come here to kill it stone dead now, and say that I’m NOT a racist, and if anybody wants to ask any questions or wants me to clarify it any further, that’s all I can say…”
Costello barely has space to catch his breath after making this final point before the entire room is in uproar. Everyone has a question and someone is shrieking, “MISTER COSTELLO, MISTER COSTELLO!” Obviously, he wasn’t off the hook yet.
“Hang on, hang on,” Costello pleads, asking for some order here.
“Can you be a little bit more specific about the circumstances that made it necessary for you to say something so outrageous?” he is asked.
“Yeah… I’m sure…Uh… these cameras are really bugging me,” he snaps. “After a couple of reels, it all looks the same… yeah, I’m sure that everybody’s had occasion to go to absolute extremes… in order to, you know… even to say things that you don’t believe, you know. Ask Lenny Bruce.”
“MISTER COSTELLO. I haven’t heard the album Armed Forces but, according to the Soho News and the music review there, they’re talking about your album Armed Forces, and you refer to ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, ‘itchy triggers’, ‘white niggers’, ‘Palestine’, ‘Johannesburg’, ‘darkies’. Things like that. Is that in your record? I haven’t heard it.”
“Yeah…but in the context of the lyrics…once again, those words have been taken totally out of context. That’s what I’m saying… if you use emotive words in a song or in conversation, if you’re then quoted out of context, it can make you look anything from an angel to… you know… Adolf Hitler.”
“But, then, you have a history of saying this. If you say it in a record, it just comes out naturally.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t make me offensive,” Costello counters.
“But you have said it on a record?”
“I haven’t heard Armed Forces.”
“What’s your point?” Costello asks, sharply.
“I said you have a history. This isn’t something that just came up. You have a history of referring to ‘niggers’ and ‘Johannesburg darkies’.“
“I have a history of referring to lots of things,” Costello says, and you can feel him starting to seethe. “I think that’s really irrelevant.”
“That’s all I wanted to know. Thank you.”
“So far,” someone else observes, “you’ve said that you’ve been quoted out of context. You have not yet told us what the context is.”
“It was basically just to make them mad. I chose the one thing that I thought would be the most offensive thing I could say to them.”
“What happened to cause the fight?”
“Basically, it worked,” Costello spits, and he’s beginning to sound abrasive, worked up. “I just wanted to get rid of them.”
“What happened to cause the fight? What caused the argument?”
The argument,” Costello says, exasperated “was just being in the bar with the people…”
“Were you drunk?“
“We all were… had… were drinking…”
“So you were drunk?”
“I’m sure we were. I’m sure they were as well,” he goes on. “Judging from the way they reported what I said, I know they don’t have it any clearer than I did.”
“I talked to Bonnie Bramlett,” someone announces, and Costello’s heart must have sunk at the mention of her name, “who does not drink, and she said that basically everything that has been reported was true.”
“Well, I dispute that,” Costello offers, unconvincingly.
“Well, that’s what she told me. I have not yet finished with my question…I still would like to know what was said, why, and to whom. Because you are asking us to discredit or not pay any regard to something that was in the Voice, and that’s fine, but I would like to see the other side of it so I can make a valid decision.”
“I don’t quite understand what you mean. What I’m saying is, I made remarks… if they’d been art fans, if I’d said Toulouse Lautrec was a dwarf, you know, just to piss them off — do you understand me now? Am I making myself clear enough?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Costello says, annoyed and showing it. “I can’t make it very much clearer than that.”
“How is that word used, if not to piss people off?” they want to know. “What would be a legitimate context to use that word?”
“I don’t think it has a legitimate context,” Costello explains, carefully, patiently, wanting this to be made clear. “That’s the whole point.”
“But isn’t that what you’re claiming? That the context makes it legitimate?”
“No… no,” Costello huffs wearily. “I’m not going to argue semantics with you.”
“Isn’t it a racist word whenever it’s used?”
“Haven’t you made racist remarks?”
“NO. I’d dispute that.”
“What made you so angry that night?”
“Well, there’s plenty of things that make me angry about America.”
“But that particular night?”
“It was just in the course of a conversation.”
“Could you have got up and left?”
“I suppose you can ‘always get up and leave, but they didn’t leave,” Costello says, sounding bitter, harsh. “But when you’re involved in an argument… I never expected that they would start talking to the press and making a big deal out of it. It was an argument between them and me. They are the ones who have chosen to make an incident out of it.”
“What was the original argument about?”
“I suppose we were just talking about conflicting opinions, about music and about the way we work,” Costello says, “usual bar room talk, you know. I’m not saying it was a profound conversation. That’s why I’m saying that it’s so ridiculous that you’re all here, and I’m answering questions about this thing. Which was basically just a conversation that went on in a bar in Columbus, Ohio. I can’t think of anything more ludicrous.”
“Do you have a low view of America?”
“No, I have American friends. I don’t have an overall low view of Americans,” he struggles on. “There’s a lot wrong with America, there’s a lot wrong with England. There’s a lot wrong with the world.”
“Could you give us a couple of specifics?”
“NO,” Costello snaps, angry, temper on the blink, seeing red, “because I’m not here to criticise America. I’ve come here to explain these things because it’s getting out of hand…”
“There’s a quote here saying, ‘We hate you.’ referring to Americans, ‘we just come here for the money.’ Now is that TRUE?”
“It can be true one minute, and not true the next, can’t it?”
“I don’t know. CAN it?”
“Well. yeah.” Costello says, not backing down. “It can.”
“In what respect? When do you hate Americans, when don’t you?”
“When I’m made to feel that I’m only here for the money.” Costello answers. “Some days you feel great, and others you don’t.”
“Excuse me.” and this is yet another voice, “in an interview in the New Musical Express, you said you were not — I’m going to quote you exactly–but then again. I’d agree with them, you know — ‘I’m not a balanced, mature person as far as I’m concerned.'”
“Yeah,” Costello is quick to point out, “but nobody says that to make records you have to have a certificate that says you’re a nice and wonderful person.”
“Yeah, but there’s being nice and wonderful and being balanced and there’s working with a full deck of cards.”
“All right, I’ll just go home, then. WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
“Were you crazed when you made this statement?”
“I think I’m crazed all the time.”
“How does the band feel about this?”
“The Attractions? Well, they’re disturbed that our gigs here are going to be placed in jeopardy. I mean, we’re just here, doing a job.”
“If you wanted to make somebody mad, couldn’t you find some other way besides insulting artists like James Brown and Ray Charles?”
“I just told you, at the height of the argument I picked the most offensive thing I could think of to say to them.”
“Wouldn’t that be offensive to you, too. if you heard somebody say that?”
“Plenty of horrible stuff is written about me, the same as it is about everybody else. I’m sure much worse has been said about people like that, and much more seriously. I mean, I’ve seen films of people talking about the nigger music, and all that. And those people in the Fifties, in Alabama, they meant it.”
“What would you say to Americans to make amends for what you said?”
“I’m not trying to make amends. I’m not making amends. I’m not apologizing to anybody other than somebody who might misunderstand the context of what I said. I’m interested in clarifying it. It’s a personal statement: I am not a racist.”
“And you’re not apologizing?”
“As I’m not a racist, why do I have to apologize?”
“What would you say in order to change the image that you think has been created?”
“Well, I would have thought that’s up to you. It’s how you write it up now. It’s whether you think I’m telling the truth or not. That I said these things purely for the effect on that person… if I’d called the press conference now and said, ‘Look. all those things are in the Voice,’ and I’d said, ‘Look, this is what I want to say about black people today…’ and then read that out, then I’d be a racist. Because then I’d have called you all in here specifically to say that that’s what I wanted to say to you…”
“What is the purpose of this conference? Are you covering your own behind?”
“Listen, I don’t really care all that much, you know. I can leave right now.”
“I’m just asking the purpose of the news conference. Why did you call it? Are you apologizing?”
“I don’t want people out there, hearing things third-hand from friends, misquoted even further out of context.”
“You weren’t available for comment. I tried for hours to reach you.”
“Can you just shut up for a second.” Costello barks, “while I answer this?”
“We tried for hours to reach you,” he barks back. “You were unavailable for comment.”
“I’M ON TOUR!” Costello shouts.
“You were not. You were in a place in Vermont. We were not given your number. We tried endlessly to reach you for comment. You made yourself unavailable for comment.”
“No. I did not.”
“Your entourage made you unavailable.”
“Well… that’s not my responsibility.”
“Nothing evidently is.”
“The quotations in the Voice this week are in essence accurate, but taken out of context. Is that true?”
“Certainly…Uh… well, not verbatim… cos there’s all bits chopped out of it. I mean that you don’t remember, you know…”
“That’s all Ray Charles is, an ignorant, blind nigger,’ you did say. Either in context or out of context.”
“I’ve no idea whether I said those exact words. Like I said, I tried to pick the most offensive thing I could think to say to them…”
“Do you believe,” another voice asks, “in the saying that a drunken mind reveals what a sober mind conceals?”
“No… no, I don’t,” Costello answers quickly. “But that was a good try.”
“Even if one accepted your explanation, which I’m in some ways inclined to do, one is left with the notion of the intensity of the hostility in this thing, and your anger. And, throughout your career, there have been innumerable reports of hostility. If that is true… to some extent true… does it bother you about yourself, your own self image, that there’s so much anger?”
“Well, no. Because the press are not infallible, and nor am I. So I understand there’s a certain amount of misinterpretation … that’s why… I mean, anybody here — I don’t honestly know you all by name, I know some of your faces — but anybody in the music press, at least here, pretty much knows our history with the music press is one of pretty much not talking to you, for very good reasons. You must understand that it seems important enough for me to want to come here myself and not make a press statement that could then be misinterpreted again. That’s why I’m here, so you can ask me questions about it.”
“That’s not what I was talking about.”
“It is the point because any hostility towards the press has usually been because of misunderstandings or misinterpretations of things I’ve said, or doing interviews and then getting them in print and it not being anything that I’ve said.”
“It seems to me that there’s a misunderstanding here, that maybe could be clarified. What you don’t seem to understand is that by saying, ‘I am not a racist,’ you’re not going to convince many people in this room, especially the black people, that you are not a racist. That is not what constitutes not being a racist. But it does seem to me that, although you don’t want to apologize, because that’s not your style…”
“No, no… no,” Costello interrupts, “you’re missing the point, man, you’re missing the point…”
“OK, let me finish. You have in fact said that you do not believe the things you were quoted as saying, even though you did say them. Is that right?”
“Yeahhhh! How many times have I got to say this?“
“Well, you never did actually come out and say that.”
“OK, well…I’m saying it now. All right? Have you got it down now? Have you? I didn’t say those things because they are my beliefs. How much clearer can I make it? I said them for the effect of the words on the people I said them to. It was not a statement to the world in general. Who cares what I think, you know? It’s only when people get offended by it being written in the press, when it was only intended to offend somebody in a bar.”
“I was called down here to find out your side of the story,” pipes up another correspondent. “You called this press conference obviously to explain what your intentions were, even if it was out of context, no matter what you say it was about, it’s still out of context to me personally, because I wasn’t there… maybe it’s trivial to describe the circumstances, but maybe you have to. Because I have to understand exactly what you meant when you said those things. so I can believe you…”
“What do you want me to do?” he asks, fuming. “Recite the entire conversation as far as I can remember it?”
“That would do it.”
“That would make it all right for you?” he leers. “Well, I’m sorry, I can’t remember every single word.”
“Why were you so angry at Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett? We haven’t been told …”
“We just became entangled in an argument. It started off quite trivially. It escalated. And escalated. Until it became more serious.”
“Couldn’t you have found something that nasty to say about a white artist?”
“I found numerous things to say about white artists before that.”
“They weren’t quoted.”
“That’s not my fault,” Costello almost screams. “That’s not my fault, because it doesn’t make good copy.”
“And you were not available to comment when we tried to reach you! You made yourself unavailable!”
“No. I did not make myself unavailable.”
“Don’t blame it on the press, which you’ve been doing all afternoon here. It’s not the press, IT’S YOU! YOU said it, and you were unavailable to clarify it!”
“I’m here now,” Costello snarls back, threateningly, like he’s squaring up for a fight. “TAKE ME!”
“Would you be offended under other circumstances if somebody insulted Ray Charles like that to your face? Would you take umbrage at that?”
“I would probably defend them, yes, of course,” Costello replies, tired, but still simmering, “That was the thing. That’s precisely the point. If somebody said that to me and I thought they meant it… that’s the whole point. I was just trying to shake them up… if somebody said those same things to me about anybody like that, that I admired, I’d defend them or get angry…”
“What if someone called you a sawed-off limey poseur? What would you say?”
“I think that was something that was said that night, actually … I think there were several things along those lines …”
“Would you insult Frank Sinatra like that?”
“I might do,” Costello says.
“If you did, I don’t think you’d be here right now.”
“No… I probably wouldn’t. Like you said before, the lady down the end there, the things that have been printed are only the things about the black artists because they were the things that really annoyed them most of all. That makes good copy, right? That makes good copy. They didn’t print the things I said about Crosby, Stills And Nash …”
“What did you say about them?”
“I‘ve said enough.” He can’t, however, stop himself having one last dig at Bonnie Bramlett. “And they didn’t,” he snipes, “print the things where Bonnie said that all limeys are lousy fucks and couldn’t get it up anymore.”
“How would she know?”
“I dunno,” Costello laughs. “Anybody got any last questions?”
“How much damage do you suppose this has done to your career? Has it done any damage?”
“I would say it has.” Costello admits. “I mean, if the gigs are in jeopardy and if things get awkward enough — I don’t want to have a million bodyguards and stuff if threats start coming in and things like that…”
“How many threats have you had?”
“I dunno,” Costello says. “Listen… I’ve had them before and over much more trivial things. That’s why it’s so important to come here today and try and make people see that this is not something worth getting excited about…”
“Is that the real reason for this press conference?”
“Yes…it is. No…no,” Costello protests. “It’s to prove the point. I told you what my point was. I AM NOT A RACIST. It’s to apologize. I’m not afraid of using that word ‘apologize’ to Ray Charles or James Brown. To anybody that might read what I said and presume that was my opinion of them. Because I don’t want them ta think that’s the truth. Because it ain’t the truth. And to anybody that has got unnecessarily wound up, anybody that’s kicked in the TV or burned their copy of the Village Voice in anger, it’s unnecessary. Because it ain’t the truth. And that’s all I’m gonna say.”
“The petty sniping over a few cocktails soon escalated from snide remarks to unspeakable slanders. I’ll have to take the word of witnesses that I really used such despicable racial slurs (about) two of the greatest musicians who ever lived. It took just five minutes to detach my tongue from my mind and my life from the rail it was on.” Elvis Costello–Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
“Drunken talk isn’t meant to be printed in the paper.” Ray Charles