Suit of Lights

“The suit doesn’t make the man, but it highlights him and gives him a different air.”

So says Luis Miguel Calvo, a banderillero and former matador, in a 2005 New York Times article about the clothing worn by bullfighters in the ring and the methods and techniques used to create this finery. The most commonly known piece of clothing worn by the bullfighter is the traje de luces, or “suit of lights.” The suit of lights is embellished with goldwork embroidery or silver metal threads and further illuminated with rhinestones, sequins, and beads to make it reflect off the sun while the bullfighter is in the arena. As master tailor Antonio Lopez Fuentes was quoted as saying in this 2014 Boston Globe story,

“The bullfighter for each small town was considered like a king…In a certain time, they compared the torero in the same standing as God, not because they venerated him, but because they dressed him with gold.”

These quotes are fascinating reflections when considering Elvis Costello’s song “Suit of Lights”:

The song was the second-to-last track on Costello’s 1986 album King of America. For the 2005 expanded release of the album, Costello looked back on the composition of the song:

“A dense lyric written from the jaundiced performer’s perspective about mob instinct and how one man’s amusement is another man’s job of work. The song was written after watching my father, Ross, sing of experience and tenderness to an uncomprehending rabble of karaoke-trained dullards.”

Ross McManus was a jazz trumpeter and singer who, while never a star, had a steady career as a working musician well into his later years. Costello expanded on the night that inspired “Suit of Lights” in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:

“Early in 1985, I’d gone to a shabby social club in Harlesden to see my Dad perform. He didn’t often play in London, and I was initially glad that he had a gig so close to home, as he was putting in the same amount of miles behind the wheel as a long-distance lorry driver. I hadn’t seen him sing for a while, but he was still in full and wonderful voice. What had changed was the degree of respect that the audience felt they should pay any performer. They were pretty loud and medieval. Although my Dad did enough to win them over, it broke my heart to see him playing for people who barely knew the difference between actual singing and karaoke…I carried a bitter feeling away from that night and wrote a song about the blood-sport aspect of the performing life.”

The performance of “Suit of Lights” from King of America starts with Costello singing accompanied only by his own acoustic song with the following opening line: “While Nat King Cole sings ‘Welcome To My World.’” “Welcome to My World” was a hit song for Jim Reeves in the U.K. in 1963 before being released as a single in the U.S. Referencing “Welcome to My World” in the opening lines to a song is clever since that song itself opens with the line: “Welcome to my world / Won’t you come on in?” Costello won’t start his own song with a welcome, but has to cite a different song that does indeed welcome the listener in. Curiously, Nat King Cole, who Costello says is singing the song, never actually recorded “Welcome to My World.” It’s a standard and has been played by many performers, including Dean Martin and Ray Price. Either Costello is mistaken and thinks Cole recorded the song when he didn’t — not likely — or knows of a Cole performance of “Welcome to My World” that the rest of us don’t. The most reasonable explanation is that Costello inserts this anachronism on purpose. Perhaps he wants us to know that everything about the setting of the song “Suit Lights” is wrong, intentionally so. The next line is:

You request some song you hate you sentimental fool.

The narrator addresses this line to someone at a concert, perhaps one of the “uncomprehending rabble of karaoke-trained dullards” assembled at Costello’s father’s performance. It’s also possible that the narrator is calling himself a “sentimental fool” by purposefully requesting a song specifically because he hates the song. There’s a lot of enmity in this one line, either directed outward or a healthy amount of self-hatred.

The band kicks in with the second line. The musicians accompanying Costello for this song is his old backing band The Attractions, the only song that they perform on for King of America. More on that decision later in the post, but Steve Nieve’s gorgeous piano is the dominant musical voice supporting Costello’s vocals in the first section of the song. The next lines in the opening verse are:

And it’s the force of habit
If it moves then you fuck it
If it doesn’t move you stab it.

These words may be directed at the type of individual Costello witnessed at the unfortunate performance. Or, once again, these lines could be a reflection on the narrator himself as he reveals his predatory “force of habit” to try to bed every woman he sees and kill everyone not contributing to his world. The verse continues:

And I thought I heard “The Working Man’s Blues”
He went out to work that night and wasted his breath
Outside there was a public execution
Inside he died a thousand deaths.

Though the song was inspired by Costello watching his father perform to a beyond indifferent audience, Costello seems to be thinking about his own experience as a performer and public figure. The words “public execution” used in this way reveal Costello’s own feelings about his experience a few years before the writing of “Suit of Lights” when he was met with media outrage as a result of an accusation that Costello used racially-charged language. No matter how much Costello tried to explain the context of the incident and insinuate that the allegations against him were not true, Costello felt that the media purposefully built the story up further as a way to knock him down. So in these lines, he is connecting his own experience of being subjected to an “execution” in the court of public opinion while his own father was dying “a thousand deaths” for every moment he sang to an “uncomprehending rabble of karaoke-trained dullards.” The song speaks to the linkage between the two, both as father and son as well as men who share the same calling as musicians, but with different relationships to their respective audiences. This understanding leads into the remarkable chorus of “Suit of Lights”:

And they pulled him out of the cold cold ground
And they pulled him out of the cold cold ground
And they pulled him out of the cold cold ground
And they put him in a suit of lights.

Costello is saying that since both men are performers, they have no agency in their own lives as they are completely beholden to an audience. Even in death — “the cold cold ground” — the performer is still pulled up onstage to meet audience expectations. In Ross McManus’s case, it was the assumption that he would keep singing before the disinterested audience; whereas Costello has to live with the words he may or may not have said but still expected to perform as he always does to his fans. Going back to the opening quotations of this piece, the bullfighter in his suit of lights is treated in the “same standing as God, not because they venerated him, but because they dressed him with gold.” The suit of lights doesn’t make the man but gives “a different air”; a symbol that Costello seizes upon to express the adoration an audience brings to a performer, creating unreachable standards that a performer can never achieve. 

After the chorus, there’s a beautiful pairing between guitar and piano before Costello returns with the second verse:

In the perforated first editions
Where they advocate the hangman’s noose
Then tell the sorry tale of the spent Princess
Her uncouth escort looking down her dress

Anyway they say that she wears the trousers
And learnt everything that she does
And doesn’t know if she should tell him yes
Or let him go.

Costello is singing of the media’s mistreatment of a new public figure, in this case a Princess, moving between extremes such as advocating for “the hangman’s noose” and then telling a “sorry tale.” They bring unwanted attention and over-analyze this subject to the point that they don’t even know what they are criticizing her for anymore. This court of public opinion has no idea what the ultimate judgment of the Princess should be, only that she deserves a judgment of some kind or another. Costello and The Attractions move into the bridge as Nieve provides a big, overdubbed organ part kicking up the energy of the song. After the bridge, Costello sings:

For goodness sake as you cry and shake
Let’s keep you face down in the dirt where you belong
And think of all the pleasure that it brings
Though you know that it’s wrong.

With these words, Costello continues expressing the emotions of the forced attention that the performer is subjected to. Even if he can’t breathe to the point of crying and shaking, it doesn’t matter to the media or the audience. Costello only hears them respond, “Think of all the pleasure it brings,” the blessings of success and the privilege of fame. This contention drives him to equate his feelings to being “face down in the dirt” and being dug up from the “cold cold ground.” Dark thoughts indeed, but Costello goes even darker as he sings:

And there’s still life in your body
But most of it’s leaving
Can’t you give us all a break
Can’t you stop breathing.

With these lines, Costello has the audience saying, “We’re done with him. We don’t want to hear from him anymore, so time for him to go away. Time to die.” The performer is used up until he can’t give anymore and he is discarded to make room for the next one. From the utter depths of this abasement and degradation, Costello sings the last verse and repeats two lines:

And I thought I heard “The Working Man’s Blues”
I went to work that night and wasted my breath.

This is a repetition from the first verse, but there’s a shift of perspectives as the pronouns are changed from “he” to “I.” Now, Costello replaces his father’s experience with own; no longer witnessing his father wasting his breath, but instead seeing himself up on that stage. Any separation between the songwriter and the performer in the song is removed. Costello is singing directly from his point of view. He finishes the last verse of the song: 

Outside they’re painting tar on somebody
It’s the closest to a work of art that they will ever be.

Costello provides one last pronouncement on the media and the blood-lust of the general public, the building up of public figures only to tear them down once again. There’s no secret message that Costello is hiding in code-like lyrics. He is speaking directly as he sings, “What do they know about true art anyway?” It’s a devastating yet brilliant line demonstrating Costello’s extreme bitterness which, at this point, may be all Costello has to rely on for self-preservation. 

From here, Costello closes out the song by singing the chorus once again:

And they pulled him out of the cold cold ground
And they pulled him out of the cold cold ground
And they pulled him out of the cold cold ground
And they put him in a suit of lights
And they put him in a suit of lights.

It’s a big ending as Costello gives it his all with his vocal delivery. Costello reflects on “Suit of Lights” further in Unfaithful Music that the song is “all about bitterness and obsolescence,” yet the rousing chorus at the end makes a listener want to join in and sing along. There’s a twinge of irony in this as the “they” in these words refer to the desires and expectations of an artist to his audience. When the song is performed in concert, the audience all sings along with Costello as he performs his role and punches the clock in his own suit of lights. 

The buoyancy of the song is in no small part because of the musical accompaniment of The Attractions. The original plan for the King of America sessions was that Costello would record half of an album with bands assembled by producer T Bone Burnett  and the other half would feature songs performed by Costello and The Attractions. As Costello wrote later:

“By the time The Attractions arrived in Hollywood there was more than half an album’s worth of material in the can. This meant that our sessions had a doomed air of suspicion and resentment.”

When King of America was released, “Suit of Lights” was the only song on the album that featured The Attractions. This resentment that Costello refers to in the above quotation would build further and the doom that Costello mentions would only grow. The musicians channeled those emotions into their work as Costello recalled:

“I believe that something of those pent up frustrations went into making this one of the most passionate recordings with The Attractions.”

Their collective performance on “Suit of Lights” is exemplary. It’s truly a song soaked in bitterness, one in which the writer/performer spews loathing at anyone within shouting distance, reserving an equal measure of disgust with himself. The act of writing, performing, and recording “Suit of Lights” is also an act of purification. Costello is able to live through the fire and emerge on the other side with his dignity intact. It allows him to gain a healthy amount of self awareness about his own place in the world as an artist and performer. He knows he needs to wear the suit of lights. He understands what it represents for the media and his audience, recognizing that it is not necessarily even himself that they are applauding or jeering, but rather the image of the suit of lights itself. It’s a suit that he can put on and take off by his own choosing. The song itself becomes a lesson for Costello as he moves forward in this world as an artist and a public figure. The suit of lights does not make the man. 

Image: C. Quijano Garrido, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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