An Offer Like This …

According to NPR, by 1990 the city of Verona, Italy, was receiving over 6000 letters to Juliet Capulet each year. This fact has been celebrated in a book and a movie, both titled “Letters to Juliet,” so the outline of the story is well-known: Lovers who are in the middle of difficult plights or terrible loneliness write letters, detailed letters, about their storm-tossed affairs to Shakespeare’s fictional heroine.

“Only you,” many letters begin with, only you—the ghost of a character who never breathed a human breath—only Juliet Capulet can possibly understand and empathize.

Verona keeps a staff of volunteers who read and sometimes reply to the letters. (“Letters from Juliet” might be a more interesting title concept.) They call themselves “The Juliet Club,” and it only became an official office around 1990, but people have been writing letters to poor, dead (never lived), Juliet for centuries. (Here is the address: Club di Giulietta, via Galilei 3-37133, Verona, ITALY.) Verona enjoys portraying itself as the hometown of Romeo and Juliet and even has a “Romeo and Juliet tour.” (Valentine’s Day is especially important.) Shakespeare certainly did more for Verona’s economy than he did for Denmark’s.

All those letters, written without an expectation of a response, written to be written, and all about the promises, perils, compromises, heartbreaks, and hard-earned lessons of love and loneliness? (That is a year’s worth of Daily Prompts, right there.) Elvis Costello could not help himself when he encountered the idea. His first venture into music that resides somewhere between pop song and chamber music was inspired by the conceit of the ultimate “dead letter file.”

He decided to collaborate with a young and already respected string ensemble, the Brodsky Quartet, in both the writing and performing of an epistolary song cycle, which they called “The Juliet Letters.” It is a personal favorite of mine, but it takes more than one listen, as some songs sound almost too much like Elvis Costello (those songs written by the Brodskys, ironically), and others sound like half-finished chamber music. But most find a unique and satisfying spot for me. It is actually an album I return to.

One album after “Mighty Like a Rose,” a recording that Costello now refers to as an “angry” piece of work—he wanted to drop his “Elvis Costello” pseudonym and release it under his real name, but his label would have none of that, so he appeared on the cover of “Mighty Like a Rose” and in videos wearing an impressive quantity of facial hair and he sang lyrics that attacked other rock icons (“Was it a millionaire who sang ‘Imagine no possessions’?”)—and deep in the grunge period (1993), Costello gave his label a not-quite solo record with a string quartet as his backing band and a theme that is hidden in its title, “The Juliet Letters.”

The AllMusic reviewer notes, “it’s remarkable that Warner didn’t sue Elvis Costello for making deliberately noncommercial, non-representative records, the way Geffen did with Neil Young in the 1980s.”

Further, the letters are not all love-lorn and heart-tuggy, as the album is written as if Costello and the Brodskys had emptied Juliet Capulet’s mailbox, unopened for hundreds of years, and used everything for the songs, including her Pennysavers and sales fliers, along with the suicide notes, divorce deeds, and plaints of unacknowledged and undying love.

“This Offer is Unrepeatable” presents one of the pieces of junk mail, but one in which the writer has grown profoundly impatient with the absence of any reply. He can barely contain the fact that he is more desperate for someone to accept his swindle than any customer might be to buy what he is selling. Costello digs into the song like the great character actor he might have become.

This Offer is Unrepeatable—Elvis Costello, Brodsky Quartet
For fate has no price
Ignore at your peril this splendid advice
An invaluable link in an infinite chain
An offer like this will just not come again

You wish you had women to charm and bewitch
Power of life and death over the rich
Young girls will be swooning because you’re exciting them
Not only fall at your feet but be biting them

Guaranteed, guaranteed to capture your breath
Or possibly scare you to death
Sign it and seal it and send it to friends
Don’t mention my name
Don’t make any long term plans

In thirty-six hours your fortunes will change
Your best friends won’t know you and neither will strangers
Do not keep this letter, it must leave your hand
You have been selected from over five thousand

A twister and dupe will bamboozle or hoodwink you
I can’t say more, it would only confuse you
The wine they will offer will go to your head
And you’ll start to see double in fishes and bread

Guaranteed, guaranteed for a lifetime or more
Guaranteed, for this world and the next
Guaranteed, guaranteed for the world and its mother
Cherish this life as you won’t get another one

UNLESS you should take up this fabulous offer
Don’t leave it too late or you’ll be bound to suffer
Woebetide anyone so woebegone
You won’t know you’re born or about to pass on

You’ll never get tired
You’ll never get bored
By the way, I just hope you’re insured
If you’re not satisfied
If you want more
We can always provide an improved overture
Guaranteed at a price that is almost unbeatable
This offer is unrepeatable

Your troubles will vanish
Your tears will dry
Your blessings will just multiply
Guaranteed at a price that is almost unbeatable
This offer is unrepeatable

Guaranteed, guaranteed to bring fortune and favour
In a riot of colours and flavours
Guaranteed at a price that is almost unbeatable
This offer is unrepeatable

Would I lie to you?
Would I sell you a dud?
Just sign on the line
Could you possibly write it in blood?

For those with Spotify, here is the full album:

* * * *
This first appeared in February 2015.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for May 2 asks us to reflect on the word, “Music.”

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