In Conversation: Allen Toussaint & Elvis Costello

Dean Budnick on January 14, 2016

This story appears in the January_February issue of Relix. To subscribe, click here.

On Nov. 10, 2015, the legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint suffered a fatal heart attack at age 77 after performing a show in Spain. News of his passing elicited moving tributes from a global collective of fans, friends and collaborators, such as Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Questlove, The Rolling Stones, George Porter Jr., Aaron Neville, Jim James, Nicholas Payton, Dead & Company, and the New Orleans Saints. All expressed deep remorse at the loss of “The Southern Knight,” who left his mark as a songwriter, producer, arranger and gifted pianist.

Toussaint began his career while still a teenager, filling in on piano for Fats Domino during a recording session, and he would go on to receive the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2013, following a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction 15 years earlier. Toussaint was a singular artist of his generation, penning enduring songs like “Working in the Coal Mine,” “Southern Nights,” “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” “On Your Way Down,” “Motherin-Law,” “Fortune Teller” and even “Whipped Cream,” which became ubiquitous via Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass on The Dating Game. Working at his base of operations in New Orleans, he wrote and produced music by Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Patti LaBelle, Randy Newman, Joe Cocker, Albert King and The Meters, who also served as the house band for Toussaint on Dr. John’s In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo. He created the horn charts used by The Band on their Rock Of Ages album and appeared on Paul McCartney’s Venus And Mars record. Jerry Garcia, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Phish, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Little Feat, Robert Palmer, Aaron Neville, Warren Zevon, Glen Campbell, Widespread Panic, Devo and many others also covered his music over the years.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced Toussaint, who eventually made his way to New York City where he began performing solo concerts at Joe’s Pub. Elvis Costello, who had worked with Toussaint in New Orleans on a couple of occasions in the 1980s, took in a few of these shows. In his new memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink [Blue Rider Press, 2015], Costello recalls the first of these experiences as an audience member: “What everyone saw that day at Joe’s Pub was a master songwriter awakening to a new set of possibilities. Allen may have lost his home and his studio and seen the rich pool of musicians who he had always called on scattered to other cities of refuge, but his songbook was invulnerable.”

Costello, who describes Toussaint as “a prince in a thin disguise,” proposed that they collaborate on a new record. The resulting album, 2006’s The River in Reverse presented a number of Toussaint standards, as well as material that the pair co-wrote for the occasion.

At the time of this previously unpublished interview with both musicians, which took place in the summer of 2006, Toussaint was optimistic about the possibility of moving back into his home, which had experienced severe flood damage during Katrina. He predicted that “before the year’s out, I will be back permanently in New Orleans, when my house is livable again. On every lawn in my neighborhood, the neighbors have a trailer parked on the grass. So that means that they’re in those trailers, living in them and working on their houses. So I think we’ll all be back up and running around the same time— possibly in September but more likely in October.” It would be nearly eight more years before he was able to make a permanent return to his beloved home city.

I attended one of your solo performances at Joe’s Pub in 2005, where you mentioned it was the first time you’d ever played in such a context by yourself. That surprised me.

Allen Toussaint: Yes, that was the very first time. I don’t recall, over the years, really being invited to do so. I did go out on a songwriter’s tour [in 1993]. That was with Guy Clark, Michelle Shocked and a few other folks [including Sonny Landreth and Joe Ely]. We were out for a couple of weeks doing a songwriter’s thing, but aside from that, no, I hadn’t been onstage alone doing that, ever.

Elvis Costello: I saw Allen three or four times at Joe’s Pub. The thought of the Allen Toussaint songbook record that was the beginnings of The River in Reverse came to me during one of those concerts. Hearing Allen from show to show, maybe sing a song one week and then maybe play it instrumentally the next week, helped me hear the musical possibilities in many of those songs. Not that I necessarily really selected any songs based on that, because all of the songs are songs that I’ve loved for a long while.

“What Do You Want the Girl to Do?” is a very beautiful song that we didn’t end up including on the record, but I’ve enjoyed performing it with Allen. There’s an openness to the song, a lyricism, that’s missing from even the great hit record versions of it. [Ed. Note: Boz Scaggs, Bonnie Raitt and Lowell George all recorded it.] They sort of contain the song within a framework to carry it out to an audience—“Compromise” isn’t the right word but it’s the same kind of exchange that a songwriter has to accept. But performing it live, it’s a much freersounding song than most with a different kind of quality and potential.

It’s like if you compare the lyricism and the picture-painting and magic of Allen’s version of “Southern Nights” to a bunch of people responding en masse to Glen Campbell’s rendition of it. Glen Campbell put a beat to it, which carries the idea of the song, or one version of that melody and the sense of that song to a mass audience. But, by far, the more multidimensional version of that song is Allen’s own rendition, particularly as he’s performing it now in solo concerts. It’s a magical thing; it’s a really magical song. It has so much more in it than one would ever guess from a brief acquaintance of the same song on the radio.

Allen, you’ve described New Orleans as a garden of music. How would you characterize the various elements that comprise that garden?

AT: There’s the influence of the street parade— those brass bands and those big bass drums that don’t depend on 1-2-3-4 but a lot of syncopation and putting the accent in a different place this time and then jumping it to another place the next time. The tempo in which it operates has a certain kind of strut, which is right in line with the pace of New Orleans historically. It’s a little above medium strut, rather than speeding like the rest of the United States. It’s the New Orleans strut.

I also think the Second Line Brass Band parades have a lot to do with it—the influence of the Mardi Gras Indians, even though they really only show their stuff and their wares mostly on one day and one night a year. But they are who they are all year round, and wherever they are, that is alive in them, whether it’s being portrayed outside or not. The frenzied beat that all of the percussion instruments partake in when they celebrate—it’s quite a New Orleans thing that lives on and off.

Also the locale of New Orleans, we hold on to the old-world charm a little more than others. It took us longer to build skyscrapers than anyone anywhere else. We were afraid for a long time because our ground was so soft. And we held on to the upright bass when all of the other rockers were going to the electric bass. We were still playing with the small, twin-reverb amps when the rest of the guitar industry had gone to much larger blocks. We held on to acoustic life even, I might say, much longer than other places.

When you think of the true historic dominations of New Orleans from different periods, even though it’s always associated with the French, a lot of that ironwork and grillwork around New Orleans is Spanish. So there was a strong element of strumming guitars and trumpets and brass going on as an undercurrent for our history, so I think those elements are largely responsible for why we are who we are.

In terms of New Orleans history and your own development as a piano player, you’ve always been quite articulate in speaking about the legacy of Professor Longhair. Can you share some thoughts on him?

AT: He’s a very important pianist and artist of New Orleans, and he’s more unique in that he doesn’t sound right in line with many other genres. Even though many people have their own styles, they usually fall under one thing or another. Sometimes a blues player is known for a certain kind of slow blues. A boogie-woogie player plays variations of boogie-woogies, and they all have that muscular feeling. But there seems to be a Professor Longhair way of playing that doesn’t go in any of the other file cabinets. It’s very enjoyable and it’s very indicative of New Orleans with this kind of strut. It takes liberties and it’s just wonderful and exciting, and it has been a great inspiration to me.

EC: One of the things that made Professor Longhair so fascinating to me is that without being self-conscious or protesting about it, his pieces seem to resonate on the foundation of a world of music, which is not all laid out there and analyzed. This is probably even more true of Allen’s work because it’s embraced all of that and then some other things that have come along later.

If you take, as an example, the piece “Tiptina,” Allen’s transcription of “Tiptina,” it was like a curtain that came back and you could see into a world from a long time ago. [Ed. Note: Using Toussaint’s transcription as a starting point, Costello wrote the song “Ascension Day.”] One of the things that I find unique about New Orleans music, as distinct from every other place in America, are the layers and layers of culture that come from the unique history of the town. You hear the French and the Spanish, the street music, the Mardi Gras Indian music, the Creole music and the French opera—all mixed up. So you have this blend, and it’s hinted at in just in a phrase or two, here and there.

What sort of tension do you feel, in terms of perpetuating that legacy versus engaging new forms of music?

AT: That has been a part of my thought process—how to move it historically. I have made a deliberate effort to do that. I can recall sometimes taking on the attitude of: “Now that I have this music here, I can move it someplace else.” However, I just think that it grows naturally as evolution takes its course. I rather like it that way, without it being too much of an intellectual process. As time goes on, you grow and the world grows around you, even though New Orleans grows at a different pace and maybe not in the same direction.

The new songs that the two of you composed for this album fall within the New Orleans traditions of bearing witness and celebrating life. How conscious were you of striking that balance between explaining what happened following Katrina and just embracing the sounds of New Orleans?

AT: You can hear all of that in there. That’s a very good description. Messages in this music come through, loud and clearly, and I’m glad to say beyond Katrina. I certainly feel that it has to do with more than the magnifying glass that this catastrophic event has put on us at this time. “Us” meaning the world at large and the United States as well. So it covers a whole lot of territory. There are many stories in this album and, I must say, they’re heartfelt because of how much heart Elvis has delivered.

EC: I think when you took the lead on the writing collaboration, it opened the door to the reflections. To return to Professor Longhair, it might seem something of a presumption to write lyrics for that, but Allen’s transcription of “Tiptina” in the minor key is such a piece of music in its own right. The images of the opening lines of that song were given to me by friends who returned to the city—and those were their first impressions. They were eyewitnesses, even though they weren’t my eyes. And the final thoughts were just of something hopeful. Beyond that, a song like “International Echo” is a celebration. It’s a rare lyric on my part about the way music affects people and goes out and transforms and turns you upside down. It can also stupefy you, quite literally, if you succumb to the temptations of the life that it may offer you. There’s a bit of comedy in that song.

There’s not a huge difference in what’s being said in “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” and parts of the verses of “River In Reverse” that specifically refer to recent events: “Are your arms too weak to lift?/ Another shovel on the graveyard shift/ Here comes the flood if you catch my drift/ Where the things that they promised are not a gift.” But it’s the things that we hope that are out there for everybody in life are not a gift, they’re just simple matters of dignity and decency— something that’s possible for everybody.

That’s what I found really beautiful about Allen’s song “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” [originally recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1970]. That’s why it’s a good time to sing it now. It’s as good a time as any, but it would have been a good song on any occasion, and it’s just been brought into relief by the recent events. That’s why the record doesn’t dwell exclusively in the shadow of Katrina.

A week after Katrina, I was onstage at Bumbershoot Festival [in Seattle] and I didn’t feel I had a song to sing that spoke in any way to what everybody had been living with as their day-to-day news reality. That’s not a contradiction in terms. [Laughs.] I knew that it would be on people’s minds, and I felt that some song should address it, and the song that I chose was “Freedom for the Stallion.” Then, by the time I got the invitation from Wynton Marsalis to appear at the Rose Hall benefit [at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center] that ended up being the first in a week of benefit events, I knew that Allen was in New York. We were put in contact and he agreed to play with me. And everything else that’s happened has gone on from that first performance.

By midweek, when I was Allen’s guest at Madison Square Garden for a benefit show with his band along with a number of other singers, I performed “On Your Way Down” because “On Your Way Down” is about somebody who is moving uptown and leaving behind their true friends for the high life but, in the context, I felt it could also be about the promises that we were attempting to keep in this moment. I suppose I took the liberty of bending the song’s meaning slightly to my interpretation. On other songs, like “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?,” you don’t need to do any bending—they say exactly what you mean, but they say it with such a light wit that the seriousness of what’s being said in the last verse hits you sometime afterward.

Elvis, I’ve heard you mention that the first time the two of you worked on a session together was when you covered Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice.” What memories do you have of that particular experience?

EC: Well, it was one of the several occasions where I worked up a scam with my agent, in that I asked her to book me into New Orleans with almost certain knowledge that the concert would be cancelled due to lack of interest. I think probably because New Orleans has so much music, it’s a little difficult sometimes to get to play a concert there and draw a crowd—at least that’s been my experience.

It was a good scam on my part because then I got some days off in the city and, on this one occasion, I had the opportunity to cut a track at Sea-Saint with Allen and it was amazing. It was a really great experience. It was the most unusual song to collaborate on. We got to go to the great Sea-Saint Studios [in September 1983, which was Toussaint’s longtime recording base that closed following Katrina] and the atmosphere of it was terrific. I remember Allen being just as he is now—open to the whole new thing of it and getting to work and, in a couple of days, we had a track all mixed and ready to go.

AT: It was quite fresh and new for me. It was unlike most songs that I had been accustomed to writing in my own house, you might say. So I just instilled whatever I am into it. That was how I looked at it and I enjoyed the experience.

How did that come about? Were both of you approached independently about working together?

EC: I was approached by Yoko. Given the circumstances in which it was written and recorded by her, I felt that it was a responsibility to do it well. [Ed. Note: This was the final song recorded by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. After completing the session and returning home from the studio on Dec. 8, 1980, Lennon was shot and killed.] I knew that we needed to dig down inside it and find some other approach, musically, and one of the ideas I had was to work with somebody whose work I had admired but never perhaps had the confidence to approach, on the neutral ground of this very unusual collaboration. Then, when I went back there in ‘88 to record part of the album Spike, I invited Allen to play piano on the introduction to “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” which he did incredibly and really defined that song. And it’s really a shame but that was the last connection that we had for a number of years—until, actually, New Orleans Jazz Festival [2005] when we found ourselves on the same bill, and it was just great to see Allen again. Of course, the next time I saw him was up in New York after Katrina, and it was under much more grave circumstances. His attitude throughout this has been consistent. He’s been about the new thing that’s happening in music, and I can’t say enough about that.

Elvis, on the DVD that accompanies The River in Reverse CD, you describe Allen as “a deeply sensitive man and musician, which is uncharacteristic in the form of music in which he emerged.”

EC: Well, I must say that you picked the one remark I made there that I didn’t have a chance to qualify, and when I heard that come up, I almost asked Matthew [Buzzell, the director] to take it out of the film because I think that it suggests that other people, in the form of music that Allen emerged from, are not sensitive to anything. But there are people who carry themselves in a much rawer, rougher way—there’s no question about that—who disguise any sensitivity to music behind the bravado. That’s what I meant by it.

Sam Moore told me a great story about Wilson Pickett once. He said you could never work on a bill with Wilson Pickett because if you went on before him, he’d accuse you of upstaging him and if you went on after him, he’d have it in for you because he didn’t feel that you should have been headlining. You could never win. [Laughs.] I don’t know whether that story’s exactly an accurate picture of the man but it’s an example of somebody who’s a great artist and a terrific singer, but clearly he had the shell of an armadillo. Behind that, there might have been something entirely different going on.

Whereas, Allen—because he’s been in the studio—is attuned to other people’s sensibilities. As a producer and a songwriter, you need to have kind of the antennae up.

Allen, can you describe the experience of returning to the stage at Jazz Fest this year?

AT: It was wonderful. Glorious is a fine word as well. I loved and appreciated how the audience was so in tune. They were moving to the music, and I’m glad to say that that’s always gratifying to us. Their ears and hearts were wide open because they heard what was being said and they appreciated it.

The two of you performed together at Bonnaroo [in 2006]. Allen is sort of entwined with the DNA of the festival, having produced the album that is its namesake [Dr. John’s Desitively Bonnaroo].

EC: What was most startling about it, given that it was 95 degrees and about 100 percent humidity—that’s a good reason to lose your mind, you know—is that people were listening. You could see that, when you’re in clear daylight. We played in the afternoon, and you could see people’s concentration on the music and their engagement with the music. I could see the crowd coming from the distance, and it was quite moving to see people moving toward the sound of the music to come and check it out. And I did appreciate it as an opportunity for us to meet with a different audience than we’re used to meeting with. I really enjoyed it.

AT: Well, I didn’t know the Bonnaroo festival existed. I hadn’t been there to perform, so I was really looking forward to it. And this was a very fine first time at Bonnaroo for me. It went the very best way it could have gone for the first time, or a second time or a third time.