Wholly "Toledo"! My Long Drive To Find the 1998 Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach Classic
From radio instrumental to original vocal recording to karaoke. My roadmap to "Toledo" was circuitous, but obsessive...and rewarding.
The cement road from Houston, TX to Toledo, OH (I-57, as it happens) is 1,241 miles long, taking 18 1/2 bladder-pushing hours to traverse. My tuneful trip, though, from Texas to the “Toledo” in song made famous by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach took me 16 years.
I was in on Elvis Costello from the beginning. Working at a large Houston record store at the time his debut LP on Columbia Records, My Aim is True, was released (July 1977), I remember setting up an eye-catching display on an end-cap (no other employee gave a rip about “this new wave thing”).
Holey Toledo! Is That MY Shirt?
I even managed to score a yellow, localized CBS promo MAIT t-shirt. In fact, this may actually be it, selling currently on an auction site with a $500 price tag, none of which, apparently, is to reimburse for any laundering costs.
I sold mine around the turn of the century on the same auction site (for nowhere near that bloated total), and it was identical to this one (minus the dirt and small hole, seen on the lower part of the “M”). This one (as mine did) has, in small letters, “CBS Records—Houston” above “My Aim is True,” and just below the photo, and “Elvis is King” atop the photo.
I was an ardent Elvis fan for several years and albums, but lost track of his output around the time of his 1983 Punch the Clock album release, having re-entered college at 28 for a career shift. Then, like a shoulder-tap from an old friend, thirty years later….
The Rented Room and That Haunting Acoustic Guitar
A bumpy life-road around 2013/14 led me to renting a room in a lady’s townhome. Listening to internet radio helped pass the time while I spent several days a week visiting my mom in a nearby nursing home.
One day, while picking up KNCT-FM in Killeen (near Waco), they played this instrumental:
What struck me immediately was the playing of the main melody, first by acoustic guitar, then again, this time by piano. Gorgeous, evocative, and finally, heart-tugging, and in the most beautiful, painful way.
It took another couple of airings over the next few days before I finally decided I had to do something. This one couldn’t get away. I noticed the station’s website had a field to write them for song identification (they never announced or back-ID-ed, their songs).
After citing the day and time I heard it, they wrote back, saying, “Burt Bacharach, ‘Toledo’,” (from his 1999 Bacharach! The Instrumental Side album). Of course it was! Who else could be responsible for such a haunting melody that permanently tattooed its aching angst right on your heart without even requesting permission?
Needless to say, more research was required, so I hit the ‘net. I thought I was fairly familiar with Bacharach’s legendary oeuvre. Turns out this “Toledo” was originally a 1998 collaboration between Bacharach and good ole Elvis Costello, who sang lyrics to this song I only knew as an instrumental!
How could this have words, and what the hell could they possibly have to say that wouldn’t clutter that gorgeous melody? Album notes assert that “Toledo” was a true collab, with music and lyrics contributed by both Costello and Bacharach.
But, with Costello’s typically emotive vocal, the futility and desperation of our hero is made clear, as is the familiar-to-Elvis self-awareness (if not self-loathing):
“But it's no use saying that I love you,
And how that girl really didn't mean a thing to me;
For if anyone should look into your eyes
It's not forgiveness they're gonna see.
You hear her voice, how could you do that?
So I walked outside in the bright sunshine,
And lovers pass by smiling and joking,
But they don't know the fool I was.”
A visitor (Damon) to Morrissey’s website in 2001 left this insight: “‘Toledo’ is magic. Its melody borrows from a kind of '60's/jazz fusion that really works well.”
“There’s also a tension between the melodramatic sweep of a torrid affair, and the tawdry details of what’s actually happening: He’s really a liar and a cheat…”
Digging deeper into the lyrics, Matt Springer of That Fatal Mailing List: A Newsletter About Elvis Costello, unearths these nuggets:
“Painted From Memory (Mercury Records, 1998) is an album about small, broken people, and the wreckage of their failed relationships. ‘Toledo’ takes this dynamic and finds a similar metaphor in the simple fact of city names. Toledo is the city in Ohio, but it’s also the grand ‘Spanish citadel’ of imperial Spain.
“There’s a tension between the hope and reality of the singer’s romantic life, which he’s brought on himself through betrayal.
“But, there’s also a tension between the melodramatic sweep of a torrid affair, and the tawdry details of what’s actually happening. The singer stares at the message light blinking on the phone, and he knows without listening what he’s going to hear.
“There’s no mystery or intrigue behind the results of his actions, regardless of how much he’s allowed himself to be swept up in it. He may have once believed he was a conquering conquistador in Toledo, Spain, gathering women up in his arms.
“He’s really a liar and a cheat in Toledo, Ohio, stuck in the unforgiving light of day with a promise he’s broken and a lie he can’t shake.”
Imagine This Between Endless “Royals” and Journey Yawners
By this time, now (2014/15), I was firmly entrenched into the karaoke scene at a couple of local clubs, and would go almost nightly to one of them. I discovered one of them had a database that included “Toledo,” and I set about attempting to learn it, not an easy task.
Memorizing lyrics wasn’t the problem (karaoke projects song lyrics onto a monitor while you’re singing). It was memorizing the twists and turns of the catchy, yet sophisticated melody. Blessed with darn good musical memory, listening to the song was necessary (and of course, pleasurable)!
And, with its sophistication, it didn’t seem to follow standard, and more simplistic pop songwriting form (verse/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/out), and from these two giants, nor would you expect it to.
But, while unable to read music, I “broke down” the song on paper in a way I could understand, marking the places the song noticeably changed direction.
Holy Toledo! This Ain’t Easy!
I counted four “sections” that I identified as helping me learn the song’s flow and melody: 1) The “All through the night” section 2) “But if I call” and following 3) “But do people” and 4) “You hear her voice,” and repeat.
I know I tried it a couple times to about an 80% or so success rate. But, I went back home, listened to it a few more times, and onward I went. Being an ardent lover of the songwriting craft (as well as being an identified OCD carrier!), I wasn’t about to give anything less than 100% to this song.
It (and its brilliant creators) deserve nothing less.
By the way, for all things Elvis, you’ll want to read and subscribe to Matt Springer’s Substack article stream, “That Fatal Mailing List: A Newsletter About Elvis Costello.” I do, happily. Bright, clever, and articulate about the Costello canon, Matt’s your accommodating host welcoming you past the rope line and into Clubland:
Wow!! What a great account of your travels and the backstory to the Bacharach/Costello (MacMaunus!) collab! Love your song analysis! Terrific post - thanks!
Terrific piece! does any audio or video exist of this karaoke performance...? Please say yes...