‘The Last Year of My Youth’

The phrase must have been much on Elvis Costello’s mind the summer of 2014: he was going to perform a set of solo shows at Carnegie Hall in June and he had even titled the shows “The Last Year of My Youth.” But he did not have a song with that title.

He did have a song that addressed aging, the folly and wonder of being middle-aged, a song called “45” that he debuted on The Tonight Show in the 1990s and then performed on his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel. He was around that age at that time and found for himself a wealth of metaphors to being 45, from the end of World War II in 1945 (“bells are chiming in victory”), to 45 RPM records and what rock singles meant when he was young: “Bass and treble heal every hurt.” One reviewer, also in his mid 40s, wrote that “45” hit him so hard at the time, “I was shaking at the end” of the song. When I hit 45, I understood this thought about the song and I also understood the song; I also found that I understood the song better than I had the day before, when I was still 44.

The summer of 2014, Costello was turning 60, because math happens, and that phrase—”the last year of my youth”—must have been much on his mind.

In one of those show business stories that sounds so fictional it must be true, a couple weeks before his Carnegie Hall debut, Costello received a call from The Late Show with David Letterman: could he step in as musical guest because that night’s guest, Lana Del Ray, had cancelled abruptly. He replied he would and could and that he had just written a new song, might he debut it? He said he had written the song in a cab ride in Manhattan the previous day.

Many performers would say yes to the invite, of course, and most performers would use the happily unexpected national exposure to perform a beloved classic or introduce a new song that will be on their new album, please pre-order it here. (An aside: I detest that usage, “pre-order.” The word “order” handles the situation.) Elvis Costello used the opportunity to debut a song that has not yet appeared (as of May 2016) on any recording. The video I will link to below will probably be taken down soon because YouTube and licenses do not often jibe; there is no official performance or recording of the song. Which is too bad, but it gives me one more thing to look forward to from him, like the couple-year wait between performances of “45” some 15 years ago.

He performed it solo and electric, something not many performers do. Solo and acoustic describes every open mic in every college town. Solo and electric is attention-grabbing. So are lines like: “Hold onto your fondest wish / whatever you call the truth.” The man in the song is callous and aware and aware that he is callous, has had romance in his life and doesn’t miss it except when he misses it all the time, and is surviving somehow.

He is funny, too: “my friends call again the night before

I was twenty-nine, thirty-nine, and forty
I began to lie about my age
Knock off a year or two
‘Til I woke up one day
and I was younger than you.”

Perhaps when I turn 60, this song will mean as much to me as “45” did when I discovered I was 45. Elvis Costello seems to be mapping my path.

I remember quite well how good it felt
In the last year of my youth
When girls with tantalizing eyes
Beseeched me “Please be sweet”
And fell like lovely petals at my feet
Or in my dreams they did
Most of the time they hid
To tell you the truth
In the last year of my youth
 
The night before my friends had called
And asked “Are you okay?
Are you running hot? Are you feeling cold?
Are you out of juice?
Are you calculating your temperature?
Have you checked your pulse?
Have you heard from your family doctor,
or his older friend Don Juan?
You’re going to be twenty-one,
your best days are gone.”
 
I was standing in the kitchen
With a flat iron in my hand
Straightening out the creases in my shirt
I looked into the mirror
and I saw a head full of hurt
from the night before
I went running to the church on time
I kicked open the door
and I looked about
Her friends and relations
They were filled with doubt
Their temples were exploding
Their eyes were almost crossed
They said “Will you?”, I said “I do”
And they said “No, all is lost”
 
So we ran away
and we had twelve kids
and we bought a house
‘Til I swapped my spouse for a fast little car
that was red and sporty
And my friends call again the night before
I was twenty-nine, thirty-nine, and forty
I began to lie about my age
Knock off a year or two
‘Til I woke up one day
and I was younger than you
 
Now I’m standing here before you
with a spotlight in my eyes
And I won’t confess the dark recesses of my mind
This man keeps making the same mistakes
until he finally learns
I’ll bid you a fond farewell
and many happy returns
Hold onto your fondest wish
whatever you call the truth
And if you need some further proof
It’s here and now in the last year of my youth
It’s here and now in the last year of my youth
Elvis Costello, “The Last Year of My Youth”

The appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show:

 
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