You may know that I like that fella above quite a lot. I've seen him in concerts once or twice. This is up there in my top 5, maybe top 3 of his songs
I can't pretend I know exactly what the song is about and perhaps thats why it continues to fascinate me. I know that the 'composed this tune by birds arranged on the high wire' is from something that the US TV chat show host and genius Steve Allen used to do where he's get people to send in photos of birds on telephone wires and he would make tunes from the position of each bird on the wire. Was probably a planned bit of course. An arresting image I'm sure you'll agree.
I love the mystery of the piece - for some reason I see this taking place in the drawing room of an crumbling country house. The roaring fire, the portraits dotted around the walls. The protagonist or the focus of their ire with a drink in one hand staring into the fire and seeing those 'terrible faces' of people dead and gone. Its heavy with dread, guilt, death and fear.
Its the final two lines that get me and again its open to interpretation what Elvis means by them. I think its a dedication to a belief in the darkness and light of the human spirit rather than anything more supernatural. The tapping at the window and the glimpsed faces. The narrator is rattled and disappointed by life and those around them but despite that still holds on to the hope that their faith in something will be restored. Yet sometimes I think its a rejection of faith, of belief, of religion, of superstition, of humanity in all its forms. Its how you hear it on any given day I guess.
So its always been a favourite but it was never going to be a song that would be an obvious choice to play live. The album it closes is not a darling of critics and fans alike -its too dense, disparate, intricate and over produced for its own good. All cobblers obviously but other opinions are available. However wrong those opinions may be you have access to them. So I don't think I'd ever heard him play it previous to the 1999 tour with Steve Nieve.
The one I clearly remember is the 10th December show at the Royal Festival Hall. London ( I saw him do it in Nottingham earlier in the year too but it doesn't resonate like this one) in a lengthy gig where we'd already had unreleased songs and rarities a plenty alongside an unbilled appearance by the Brodsky Quartet. Some still unreleased - seriously, who write a superb song with Carole King and then doesn't record it? Same bloke who has unreleased co-written songs with a Beatle I guess.)
Anyhoo, we reach the encores and Elvis announces they are going to turn off the PA and just sing accompanied by Steve on piano. Its a performance that has said with me. I think I was about 5th row and he came right to the edge of the stage. He starts singing and as he walks the lip of the stage you can hear his shoes creaking, the floorboards squeak. And he's not belting it out to the back row, there are great moments of stillness. The lack of a PA has made it sound even quieter than normal as if the whole place is holding its breath in fear of making a noise that will break the spell. As ever, Steve Nieve is making the piano sing with mad little runs and heart stopping silences that heighten the tension. The room feels like a fight is about to kick off - its excitement, nerves, a realization that this is a bit bloody special - all wrapped up in this communal quietness.
If I'm honest getting us to sing along at the end broke the spell but thats his dad's 'all round entertainer' side of him coming out. After that the Brodskys came back on and they performed 'Favourite Hour' the same way but I was done by then. I had no more nervous excitement to give.
The clip below doesn't quite capture what it was like as being a TV show they can't have a echoey vocal and muted piano causing everyone at home to think their TV has bust - but it gives you some idea.
For audio evidence of the above seek out 'A Class Act' (Doberman Records 2000) RFH London 1999
or 'On the Road Again' an excellent pre FM tape from Massey Hall, Toronto on the 1999 tourhttp://www.elviscostello.info/wiki/index.php/Bootleg:_On_The_Road_Again