SONG TITLE: HOSPITAL
PERFORMER: THE MODERN LOVERS
SONGWRITER: JONATHAN RICHMAN
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1975
SONG TITLE: I WANT YOU
PERFORMER: ELVIS COSTELLO
SONGWRITER: ELVIS COSTELLO
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1986
“Hospital” is one of the most truly emotionally disturbing records in my collection. It is a guy imagining himself talking to his girlfriend who is locked up in the insane ward. He is realizing that there must be something really wrong with him for wanting to be involved with such a messed up chick. Then he proceeds to speculate at length about the “power that shows through in your eyes” and walk endlessly through her neighborhood and even her childhood home. He sounds like he is about to go over the edge himself, like seriously little Jonathan Richman for real. It’s spooky.
It is not scary and disturbing because of obvious rock and roll tricks. There are no hallucinations, no devils or demons. There is no shouting, no thunderous guitar cacophany.
It is scary because the despair in the words and the melodies and the music seem very immediate and real. The organ work from pre-Talking Head Jerry Harrison sounds like from a funeral home. It is way the prominent instrument, and the only accompaniment for almost the first minute. It is soft and politely mournful. Gradually the rest of the band comes in and works it up to a good galloping anxiety attack before dropping back – damned nice dynamics. The existential pain is absolutely straight, no metaphors or supernatural crap. It’s like punk rock Hank Williams: simple, direct, real anguish.
This recording is kind of a happy accident, the story of which helps to explain the special magic it contains. It was not considered a master recording, but a simple demo of the four man band playing live in the studio, 1972. The playing comes across as very intimate and quiet, to draw you in, and totally immediate and raw, like the guy is thinking out loud. This recording is so effective, it isn’t obvious to me what they could have done to improve it.
The band then fell apart before a proper record was made, largely because Jonathan no longer wanted anything to do with these dark nights of the soul he had written a couple of years ago. This shit is so real it scared the man himself. No wonder.
Elvis Costello is not nearly so ambivalent, he has definitely developed more of a taste for this messed-up stuff. He knows his way around a self-destructive, neurotic obsession. Hell, that’s his specialty. He’d been doing it for almost a decade by the time he came up with this deceptively quiet little vein opener.
Speaking of obsessing, check out that opening guitar riff – it’s a stalkers delight! How many ways can he twist and re-emphasize the title in slightly different ways – between gasped recitations of the woman’s sexual indiscretions and mental breakdowns? This song has what surely is the world’s greatest two note guitar solo ever.
What’s really cool about this record is the subtle hint of violence.The creepy thing is how it starts out loud, and slowly fades away with no hint of resolution. It’s like there is a gentle undertow in the guitars, pulling down and drowning the narrator’s grasp on reality. There is nothing threatening said, but after about the 50th time he insists “I wuuuuunt you,” it should occur to you that the man is way not mentally balanced. He could just as easy rip her heart out and drink her blood …or just take her out on a nice dinner date.
“I Want You” is seen by many Elvis Costello afficianados as the litmus test for would-be Elvis freaks. It is a big favorite among the Elvis hardcore. It’s not a nice little clever pop song like “Every Day I Write the Book.” It’s perfectly catchy, but emotionally pitch dark. This comes right from the center of Elvis’ personal heart of darkness. If this song sounds intriguing to you, then Elvis is probably your man.
By the way, the preferred version is the original album version from the Blood and Chocolate album, not the single edit which appears on the Girls Girls Girls collection, which cuts out the whole opening verse.
“The truth can’t hurt you; it’s just like the dark. It scares you witless, but in time you see things clear and stark.”