‘New Yorker’ connects Elvis Costello’s use of the word ‘nigger’ 30 years ago to his recent participation in boycott of Israel

Israel/Palestine
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From Abe Foxman’s lips to the New Yorker’s ear. Nick Paumgarten profiles Elvis Costello in the new New Yorker magazine, and links the entertainer’s use of the n-word in an episode 30 years ago to his participation this year in boycott of Israel, another “mess” that Costello made for himself. Ali Gharib, who brought this to my attention, writes: “There is no mention of a positive reaction to Costello’s move (I sure saw the Facebook postings and got the blast e-mails); it is merely suggested as a racist ‘bookend’ to his career or the ‘arbitrary… singling out of Israel.'” Does the New Yorker understand the moral/political universe that Costello is operating in? In the occupation, a Palestinian is killed every other day, and inside Israel, hundreds of Jewish towns have been created in the last 60 years, and not one new Palestinian town, and meanwhile the foreign minister talks about expelling Palestinians. This is why boycott has traction. The New Yorker: 

Control is hard to come by. His feat of self-sabotage occurred during the hostile and turbulent 1979 “Armed Funk” tour of the United States. In the bar of a Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio, the Attractions and their retinue ran into Stephen Stills’s band and crew, the the two gangs began an evening of heavy drinking and sharp talk. As the provocations escalated, Costello, deriding the state of American music, called Ray Charles “a blind ignorant nigger” and James Brown “a jive-ass nigger”; his opponent in the bar debate, the white should singer Bonnie Bramlett, knocking him to the ground, touching off a mini-rumble, and then she reported the whole incident to the newspapers. The story crushed Costello’s commercial momentum; radio stations stopped playing the album, and the tour went sour. He held a press conference in new York, to explain the context of the ironic drunken instigation — and to assert, fairly, that he wasn’t a racist. Ray Chales shrugged it off, saying, “Drunken talk isn’t meant to be printed in the paper.” But the damage was done, and Costello slunk back to England, having blown a shot at being the next Bowie. Never again did he come so close to megastardom. To a certain extent, he chose that fate, bu confounding expectations, trying new things, and pursuing a stubborn kind of career. He says he never really wanted to play stadiums. Still, the chance passed him by.
 
In 2003, when he was backstage with [his wife the singer Diana] Krall at a gala performance, Ray Charles walked by, but Costello couldn’t bring himself to say anything. “There are some times when you’re just got to be smaller,” Costello told me. “You know when people get sober, and they come and tell you all the terrible things they did? You know, ‘I stole money from you once.’ ‘Well, actually I felt tine until you told me.'” He added, “You also can’t keep explaining.”
 
He has applied this principle to the latest mess he has created for himself. In May, he announced that he was pulling out of a pair of planned summer performances in Israel. He issued a statement that was as hard to decipher as some of his songs, citing the risk of his appearance there being taken the wrong way. Needless to say, he came in for some criticism and abuse; to some, his singling out of Israel seemed, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, an unsavory bookend to Columbus. “You must be aware that it was a very difficult decision to make,” he told me. “It’s quite the opposite of what people always assume about singers, that they are grandiose and they’re on a big platform and they’re asserting their own ego. I’m actually trying to be humble and say i don’t actually know the answer. I don’t have a solution with my songs.”
Gharib again: “So far as I know, Costello’s ‘latest mess’ hasn’t caused radio stations to turn against or ban him, or even take his stuff out of rotation (at least I never saw any stories on it). It makes you wonder if today’s young musician might one day have her boycott of Israel remembered as an opening “bookend” of musical career with social activism the way one might think of Bono’s contribution to the 1985 ‘won’t play Sun City’ campaign against Apartheid (whether or not you agree with Bono’s particular brand of social activism).”

 

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