When I Was Cruel is full of great, off-kilter songs, from the title track (which samples a vocal snippet from a French song in a loop), ‘My Little Blue Window’ (a track I’d call country only to be loudly contradicted by regular readers of this blog) and the blistering ‘Daddy Can I Turn This?,’ which got its title from the purported final words heard on the black box recording from a crashed plane in which the pilot’s child was accompanying him in the cockpit.
One of the oddest, and best, songs on When I Was Cruel is the late-album spoken-word diatribe ‘Episode of Blonde.’ Costello rips into this beauty like a beat poet on open-mic night, spewing the verses like acid.
But the chorus is something else entirely, classic and yearning. “It’s such a shame you had to break the heart you could have counted on,” Costello croons, before slipping back into sinister carnival barker mode.
This song’s juxtapositions and mad vitality make it one of my favorites. It’s one of many highlights on an under-appreciated album.
All the scandals of each vain monstrosity
I gossip and I pry and I insinuate
If the failure is great
Then it tends to fascinate
A tornado dropped a funnel cloud with twenty tons of rain
Though she had the attention span of warm cellophane
Her lovers fell like skittles in a 10-pin bowling lane
But nothing could compare with the explosion of fame
So you jumped back with alarm
Every Elvis has his army
Every rattlesnake his charm
Can you still hear me?
Am I coming through just fine?
Your memory was buried in simple box of pine
Did her green eyes seduce you and make you get so weak?
Was there fire engine red that she left upon your cheek?
It’s such a shame you had to break the heart
You could have counted on but the last thing you need is another
Episode of blonde
Revolving like a jeweller’s figure on a music box
Spangled curtain parted and night-club scene unlocks
Pinned and fixed and fastened in a follow spot
Arms thrown out to everyone, she’s giving all she’s got
To the last gasp of a wounded bandeon
Tiny man imploring to the ceiling fan
This stolen feeling
Amplified up through a busted speaker
Blaring, blasting, advertising, distorted beyond reason
Into the street where petty crime-coats shadow panic drunkards,
Half out of the taxi cab the barker seized my elbow
He thought I was another lonely, likely pilgrim looking for St. Telmo
I tried to keep a straight face but you know it never pays
He would stare into those eyes and then vacation in her gaze
She was a cute little ruin that he pulled out of the rubble
Now they are both living in a soft soap bubble
The film producer’s contemplating, entertaining suicide
The picture crumpled in his fist, his runaway child bride
The timepiece stretched across his wrist
She couldn’t care less cast aside
The scent that so repelled him that he swore: insecticide
And there’s farewell note to mother
That will conclude your loving Son
Oh, tell your other children not to do as I have done
So an artist drags a toothbrush across the first thing that he sees
And names the painting Christ’s Last Exit into Purgatory
Receiving secret messages from an alien intelligence
Paying off his stalker it’s a legitimate expense
So paste up pictures of those shrill and hollow girls
With puckered lips
She’s a trophy on your arm
A magnet for your money clip
The moral of this story is the sorry tale to say
They’re pieced with links of chains so they can never run away
I’ve never heard this before today. It certainly is a standout. Between this song and your description of some of the other notable songs on the album, I’m thinking I’ve really missed out by not paying more attention to When I Was Cruel.
Continuing the discussion from yesterday, it’s just fascinating to wonder what in his previous collaborations led him to write and perform a song like this one, which certainly sounds like “old” Costello, while at the same time being entirely new. Just loving this song! Thanks for sharing it.
One of the things I particularly like about this song is how it fades out with EC continuing to rant on and on…as if he could just go on forever raving but the producers just said, okay, enough is enough.
Anyway, I agree that this is an under-appreciated album. It easily would be among my top 10 favorites of his records.
(Oh, and “My Little Blue Window” isn’t country, but it is one of my favorites on this album:))