God’s Comic / Elvis Costello
Song Forensics by Dr. Wu
Greetings. Once again the doctor is in. Time will of course testify that no matter how styles change or trends dictate, the Doctor will always be in… but for our discussion today, I refer to my being here for yet another forensic look at song lyrics. The song we'll be discussing is God’s Comic, by Elvis Costello.
The boldly, cheekily monikered Mr. McManus burst onto the musical scene in 1977 with his first release, “My Aim is True,” showing himself to be an accomplished and knowledgeable musician, as well as an erudite lyricist, in the midst of the more cro-magnon offerings of early punk. A record collector friend of mine once said that an example of the best of Costello’s wordsmithing was found in the song Alison, with its lines –
I don’t know if you were loving some body,
I only know it isn’t mine
Rather devilishly clever, this couplet captures a great deal in a few words – the narrator’s love/lust for the song’s subject, Alison, his looking back at their shared past, with the conviction that whoever she’s loving, it’s merely sexual and not on the deeper level his love is on – as he declares, 'my aim is true,' which also has the double meaning of him hunting her romantically, and if you want, a double entendre meaning of the sexual act.
Now, many critics have noted that Elvis developed a kind of ‘too much of a smarty pants for his own good’ tendency in his later years. There certainly is an argument for this, as seen, for example, in his 1996 song, The Other End of the Telescope. (It should be noted that this song was co-written with Aimee Mann, but the Doctor would bet his PhD that Aimee had little to do with the following lines)
I know it don’t make a difference to you
But oh! It sure made a difference to me
Cause late in the evening as I sit here moping
With a bamboo needle on a shellac of Chopin
And the cast-iron heart that you failed to tear open
I won’t be delving into the preciously problematic nature of these lyrics, for it would undoubtedly depress
Rather, I’d like to turn our attention of one his songs from 1989, God’s Comic, which, though very wordy and fiendishly clever, is Elvis at his biting, sarcastic, truthful best. Rolling Stone reviewer David Wild called it, “a song that Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht would be proud to call their own,” high praise indeed.
The narrator who starts the song, (there will be another narrator later) is a bawdy, drunken comedian whose character is a priest, a kind of Falstaffian servant of the Lord. Costello presents him thus –
I wish you'd known me when I was alive,
I was a funny fella
The crowd would hoot and holler for more
I wore a drunk's red nose for applause
Oh yes I was a comical priest
"With a joke for the flock and a hand up your fleece"
Drooling the drink and the lipstick and greasepaint
Down the cardboard front of my dirty dog-collar
Whether or not this is a broad critique of the Catholic Church and their sometimes dubious representatives of Christ on earth, (priests start their day every day drinking wine at mass, after all) we get the picture. A drunken clown priest, which gives the listener a pretty clear idea of Costello’s feelings for the institution.
So the narrator, now dead, is caught in the conundrum of sizing up his chances, eternity-wise. He’s hoping God heard of him along the way, and appreciated his comic act, hoping God got it.
Now I'm dead, now I'm dead, now I'm dead,
now I'm dead, now I'm dead
And I'm going on to meet my reward
I was scared, I was scared, I was scared, I was scared
He might of never heard God's Comic
In the next verse, he meets up with God, in a less that heavenly setting.
So there he was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette, listening to
Andrew Lloyd-Webber's "Requiem"
He said, before it had really begun,
"I prefer the one about my son"
"I've been wading through all this unbelievable
junk and wondering if I should have given
the world to the monkeys"
God, sitting in the midst of the worst of the crassness of the world, (note Costello’s succinct and biting critique of Andrew Lloyd Webber) muses on the wisdom of having let human beings become the high rung of the evolutionary ladder. He tosses off an aside about his plans to 'take a little trip down paradise's endless shore,'
where his mind will become so broadened he won't be apt to leave paradise for the like of these mere mortals.
Next, our priest narrator, having met God, still wondering how it will all pan out, leaves the scene, and God becomes the narrator.
I'm sitting here on the top of the world
I hang around in the longest night
Until each beast has gone bed and then I say
"God bless" and turn out the light
While you lie in the dark, afraid to breathe and
you beg and you promise
And you bargain and you plead
Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus
It's the big white beard I suppose
I'm going up to the pole, where you folks die of cold
I might be gone for a while if you need me
So, because of Friedrich Nietzsche, or because nobody believes, or because those who do pathetically cajole him to solve the problems they’ve created for themselves, or if the turns of fate and circumstance are things we just can’t handle but he honestly doesn’t care, or he never really did anything for humanity in the first place, take your pick – in Costello’s tale, God abdicates all responsibility, and basically says, to quote Bob Dylan, ‘From now I’ll be busy.’
He then neatly leaves, putting our lives in the hands of… us.
Now I'm dead, now I'm dead, now I'm dead,
now I'm dead, now I'm dead and you're all
going on to meet your reward
Are you scared? Are you scared? Are you scared?
Are you scared?
You might have never heard, but God's comic
The final line is Costello’s brilliantly witty tying up of the whole song. The word comic becomes not a noun but an adverb, You might have never heard but God is comic – he’s funny, he’s a hoot, you never know what he’s gonna do next.
As perfect and cynically succinct a critique of irreconcilable Judeo-Christian beliefs as there has ever been created in a single song. The Doctor tips his hat to you, Declan.
So, there we have, it, the last word on God and his comic (or shall we say ridiculous) nature, as beautifully presented in Elvis Costello’s singular masterpiece of a tune.
Till the next examination,