Deportee

Elvis Costello and The Attractions released their album Goodbye Cruel World in June 1984. To say Costello was disappointed with the album is an understatement. In the liner notes for the re-release of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello wrote:

“Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album.”

After the release of the album, Costello took stock while touring as a solo performer without the accompaniment of The Attractions. During this tour, he shared the bill with and subsequently became friends with musician, songwriter, producer, and Texan T Bone Burnett. As the friendship developed, Burnett began introducing Costello to other musicians and songwriters in America as Costello describes here:

“During my visits to Hollywood, I found myself sitting around hotel rooms late at night with other songwriters, drinking and swapping stories and songs. This was entirely new to someone who had started out in the rather more insular and competitive London scene.”

It’s evident that the camaraderie with his songwriter peers allowed Costello to not feel so artistically alone and also must have provided a morale boost after the indifferent and negative feedback to Goodbye Cruel World. Everyone needs a support system! As part of the re-evaluation process of performing by himself and sharing his work with other songwriters, Costello began to, in his words, “reclaim several old tunes that had got lost in the studio.” One of the results of this reclamation project is “Deportee”:

The song starts with the strumming of a lone acoustic guitar which invokes an atavistic feeling as it is one of the oldest sounds in recorded music. Immediately in this recording, Costello seeks out and claims a musical space which is not only familiar and comfortable but is also one in which he is in control. Costello begins to sing:

In the Arrivederci Roma nightclub, bar and grill
Standing in the fiberglass ruins watching time stand still.

Costello’s vocals have a slight echo along with a hint of reverb on the acoustic guitar sound. Otherwise, this is a stripped down solo performance. Singing with a touch of regret, these opening lines demonstrate Costello’s aptitude for capturing the absurdity of a physical environment. Only Costello can describe the abject tackiness of the “Arrivederci Roma nightclub, bar and grill” as a “fiberglass ruin.” This combination of gaudy shabbiness forces the narrator to recognize that he is “watching time stand still” and feel the need to unburden himself — “All your troubles you confess.” But who is the narrator’s companion? “Another faceless, backless dress.” It’s not someone he can even bring himself to name, but the latest in a long line of beautiful women who mean nothing to him. This woman is simply a tool for him to unburden himself with confessions that will disappear into the background of the “fiberglass ruin” surrounding them. When confronted with these realizations, the narrator yearns for the forced confidence of alcohol:

Schnapps, chianti, porter and ouzo
Pernod, vodka, sambuca–I love you so.

A declaration of love for the social lubricant of booze is not a healthy place to find oneself. Immediately, Costello sings the one-word title of the song: “deportee.” Defined as a person who has been expelled from a country, Costello is returning once again to the theme of exile in his writing as seen before in his previous song “New Amsterdam.” This place of endless liquor and meaningless sex is one of self destruction as reflected in the decor. The narrator himself is becoming a “fiberglass ruin.” It is all the more depressing for the narrator as he realizes that he belongs to this place now. As a deportee, it is home. 

The second verse opens with a beautifully written couplet:

There’s a tatty beauty talking in riddles
Rome burns down and everybody fiddles.

This new home for the deportee includes more descriptions of destruction as there is another neglected, shabby woman who has seen better days. The line “Rome burns down and everybody fiddles” demonstrates the helplessness of this situation. Everyone in the place knows that destruction is happening all around them, but does nothing to reverse it. Costello sings the word “deportee” again. As he does, his voice cracks, betraying the emotion with which he sings these words. It’s not something he could have planned, but this performance is special because of this imperfection. The second verse continues:

But a thousand dollars won’t buy you a Yankee wife, alas
There’s a thousand years of history ground in this chaser glass
And how I wish that she was mine
I could have been the King in Six Eight Time
Deportee.

The line that stands out is “I could have been the King in Six Eight Time.” There is a lurid sense to these words with obvious sexual connotations. Furthermore, 6/8 time is a reference to a musical time signature, and one of the most famous songs in popular music that utilizes a this time signature is “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” by The Beatles:

Detailing a one-off sexual encounter in which the woman leaves the narrator alone in her apartment the morning after, and he imagines setting fire to her “good Norwegian Wood.” Costello was a first generation Beatles fan, so he knows John Lennon’s song quite well. “Norwegian Wood” is a potent mixture of sex, disappointment, destruction, and self-pity which aligns well with the themes Costello is expressing in “Deportee.”

Costello moves to a quick bridge, playing a minor chord and continues singing carefully in a small voice:

Oh, it’s a brittle charm, but she’s had enough
Still she wrote her name upon his paper cuff.

This is a clever bit of writing in that the woman in this instance sees through the narrator’s “brittle charm” and is quite worn out by him, but she does bestow upon him a gift by providing her name to him. The bridge leads into the emotional core of the song as Costello sings:

And you don’t where to start or where to stop
All this pillow talk is nothing more than finally talking shop.

This is a devastating and revelatory confession from the narrator about the meaningless of these encounters; the same moves leading to the same results. He is lost in a maze of self-pity and nihilism, forced to live in a land of ill-gotten money, senseless sex, and celebrity. Costello provides the deathblow for the narrator in the final verse:

When I came here tonight my pockets were overflowing
They took my return ticket without me even knowing
Well, I pray to the saints and all the martyrs
For the secret life of Frank Sinatra
But none of these things have come to pass
In America the law is a piece of ass.

Costello wrote that this last verse is all about “disappointment and personal detachment.” It’s a crass assessment for sure — “In America the law is a piece of ass” — but worthy nonetheless, especially when one’s expectations and desires have been completely removed. Costello underlines the sense of permanent exile for the narrator: “They took my return ticket without me even knowing.” Costello then repeats the devotion to booze from the beginning of the song again and finally sings the word “deportee” over and over again to close the song. There’s a tremendous amount of the narrator feeling sorry for himself as he drowns himself in drink in America, the land of contradiction.

“Deportee” is a beautifully compelling performance by Costello. It’s especially fascinating considering that it is a reworking of an old song, the result of Costello spending time with his new hospitable songwriter friends. The song originally appeared as “The Deportees Club” on Goodbye Cruel World only one year before it was transformed into “Deportee”:

“The Deportees Club” starts with a distinctive 1980s keyboard sound. Costello counts out the rhythm for The Attractions to enter the song which is answered by a clamoring din of sound. The music is obnoxious with a false-sounding brass section and strange screaming in the background. Costello isn’t really singing a melody and is instead yelling monotonously throughout the song. It’s no wonder that Costello yearned to connect again with the idea to the song underneath all of this as even though “Deportee” and “The Deportees Club” utilize the same set of lyrics, there’s no sensitivity at all to this performance. At the end of “The Deportees Club,” Costello repeats the litany of liquor available to him — “Schnapps, chianti, porter and ouzo, Pernod, vodka, sambuca” — as if he is getting off on saying their names as much as possible. The song ends with Costello yelling, “I’m a deportee” with so much glee that it appears self-congratulatory. What listener wants to hear this music, especially from a guy bragging about meaningless sex and liquor?

In the performance of “The Deportees Club,” Costello represents the idea of the “egotistical sublime.” Coined by John Keats about the older William Wordsworth, the egotistical sublime was originally a critique of Wordsworth’s poetry saying that it illustrates Wordworth’s own narrow, fixed personal perspective and mistakes this limited view for universality. In Costello’s case, he takes up the idea of a deportee and is only able to express that theme through his own, completely subjective point of view. This is in contrast to Woody Guthrie, who also writes about the same subject in the song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” (as performed here by Guthrie’s old friend Cisco Houston). The song is a statement of protest by Guthrie, angry that news reports of an airplane crash merely described the victims as “deportees” instead of giving them the humane treatment of a proper identification. Guthrie’s song is a universal plea for empathy and respect. In contrast, Costello’s performance of “The Deportees Club” comes off as lacking any curiosity about the state of others who might describe themselves as a deportee, except to bask in his own self congratulatory whining.

As Costello went through his self evaluation after the release of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello wrote that the transformation of “The Deportees Club” to “Deportee” was a process of “stripping off the over-wrought racket [and finding] a tune more in keeping with an exile’s lament.” He also wrote that “The Deportees Club’  was simply the wrong music for the right words.” Costello’s move towards a solo acoustic sound is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks which features his own re-embrace of personal storytelling within a quieter, acoustic musical accompaniment. Costello’s “Deportee” is similar in perspective and sound to Dylan’s song “If You See Her, Say Hello,” especially the solo acoustic version of the song released years after the original record, explored previously on Recliner Notes

With the transformed and reclaimed “Deportee,” Costello is able to merge the point view of the lyrical content with a suitable and fitting melody. It yields a performance that provides an opening for understanding, acceptance, and sympathy by the audience for the narrator of the song. Though “Deportee” was not made commercially available until 10 years after its metamorphosis, its reclamation was a valuable lesson for Costello. “Deportee” is the sound of an artist taking stock of himself. What’s important to me? What am I made of? In the renewal from “The Deportees Club” to “Deportee,” Costello is able to recover and restore his musical voice and perspective. This leads the way to King of America, Costello’s next album, in which he takes up many of the same themes of exile and home as in “Deportee.”

2 thoughts on “Deportee

  1. Deportee was the standout for me from EC’s solo set before the Spinning Wheel mayhem at the Edinburgh Playhouse in the dying weeks of 1986. Thankfully, the Ryko GCW version captures the brittle, rueful tone of that performance. Still a thing of beauty; still deeply moving. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

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