The Wrong Way Around

Here’s another post from the archives of my work at WNEW.com. If you’re one of those people offended by the very sight what we have euphemized as “the n-word,” you should probably stop reading right now. And also grow up a little.

In March 1979, Elvis Costello famously referred to Ray Charles as “a blind, ignorant nigger.” For years, I assumed that it was just another case of a punk rocker saying something outrageous to get noticed, and it colored my perception of Costello ever after. (I’m not alone in that—more serious critics than I have never forgiven Costello for it.) But as it turns out, there was more to the incident than I remembered.

In 1979, Costello was touring America in support of his album Armed Forces, which had become his biggest hit in the States. One night that spring, the tour reached Columbus, Ohio. It was a pretty good week for rock shows in Columbus—Stephen Stills and his band were playing at another venue and staying at the same hotel as Costello. In the hotel bar, Costello and some of the Attractions got into a discussion about music with a few of Stills’ bandmates, including backup singer Bonnie Bramlett. A 1979 People magazine story describes the substance of the conversation:

“Someone asked him what he thought of the old guys, like Buddy Holly,” reports one eyewitness. Costello replied with an obscenity. “What about Elvis Presley?” Costello snapped another obscenity. “Then he said American people are second-class white people, compared to first-class English people.”

Bramlett, a longtime paladin of rhythm-and-blues whose backup bands once included heavies like Leon Russell, Duane Allman and Rita Coolidge, kept cool until, she says, Costello “called James Brown a jive-ass nigger.” Next, according to an onlooker, “Bonnie said, ‘All right, you son of a bitch, what do you think of Ray Charles?’ He said, ‘Screw Ray Charles, he’s nothing but a blind nigger.” That did it. Bonnie backhanded him, slapped him pretty hard, because she’s a healthy chick.”

What People didn’t report, but what has been frequently noted in reports of the incident in succeeding years, is that Costello really didn’t want to talk to anybody in the hotel bar, and was trying to get rid of Bramlett and the others. In 1982, Costello told Rolling Stone that the discussion started as “joshing” and “gentle gibes,” but got nastier and nastier the more intoxicated everyone got. And finally, “I said the most outrageous thing that I could possibly say to them—that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them more than anything else.”

Walking away from the bar that night, Costello figured it was just another bar fight. He didn’t expect what happened next: Bramlett called reporters to tell them about it. Within days, Costello ended up facing the press himself amid accusations of racism. He apologized, but went only as far as saying he was sorry “if he had offended anyone,” without actually apologizing to either James Brown or Ray Charles. He received death threats and eventually required extra bodyguards. His American record deal was even in jeopardy for a while, as Columbia reportedly considered whether to drop him. They didn’t, but they also stopped promoting Armed Forces, releasing no more singles, not even “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding),” which might have become his breakthrough hit. The Armed Forces tour ended quietly, and it would be two years before Costello returned to the States.

For his part, Ray Charles was gracious, saying only: “Drunken talk isn’t meant to be printed in the paper.” In 2004, Costello told Rolling Stone that he never got the chance to speak to Charles about the incident. He insisted that he pays still a price for it:

I have to live with it, with every Afro-American musician I meet. Do they know? Do they think, “The guy’s being nice to me, but secretly I know he’s a racist”? I’ve heard people mutter it under their breath as they pass by, because they read it somewhere. What can I complain about? It happened. But if people don’t hear the respect by now, they’ve got their ears the wrong way around.

Even before he ever met Bonnie Bramlett at the Holiday Inn, Costello had been active in Britain’s Rock Against Racism movement. Some Costello fans blame Bramlett for using the incident to hype her own career. Costello’s track record in the years since that night indicates that the incident did minimal harm to his career and reputation. And so, like most everything in life, the “Columbus Incident” was a lot more complicated than it looks.

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5 responses

  1. I have always wondered why Costello didn’t just tell them all to go f–k themselves and leave him alone, or why he didn’t just leave the room.
    There *has* to be a better way to get out of an unpleasant social situation than to say something that stupid and offensive, even if you don’t mean it, or even if you don’t expect it to end up in the national media.

    1. Those were my thoughts exactly. Just leave . . .

  2. It’s refreshing to see your take on the n-word. Thank you for putting it so well.

    In ’79 I definitely was rooting for Costello, though not in this bar-room context. Costello and his ilk were eating the lunch of Bramlett, Stills et al so I’m sure that figured into their brawl. Not sure Bramlett taking it to the press was a good idea. Again their heyday was ending and Costello’s was on the rise so you have that to take that into consideration.

    1. There are some things about which Americans are remarkably stupid, and the phrase “the n word” is one of them, as if it’s so horrible we can’t even think it, let alone say it. I remember a case from years ago where public official used the word “niggardly,” which comes from some Scandinavian language and means “cheap” or “frugal.” It nevertheless set off an outcry that eventually cost the person his job.

      I wrote about a similar issue here in 2011, if anyone cares: http://jabartlett.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/that-aint-workin/

  3. you know, I almost mentioned that niggardly story in my reply. There was also someone who decided that the word “picnic” was derived from “pick a nigger” or something ridiculous like that. I’m also aghast at the cleansing of Mark Twain or any other rewriting of history.

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