Elvis Costello: “Veronica”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For my sister, Julia Burrows, in honor of her birthday

It was my sister, Julia, who recently pointed out to me that Elvis Costello’s “Veronica” is not just a light-hearted pop song. I had never paid the song much mind, and I had assumed Costello was singing about a girl, the object of his desire.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Written by Costello in collaboration with Paul McCartney, “Veronica” – Costello’s first big hit in the United States – is actually the story of his grandmother’s slide into Alzheimer’s. In interviews, Costello – a British rocker known for other hits, such as “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives” – has described spending time with his ailing grandmother and wondering what was happening for her in her mind as he was visiting with her.

If you read the song’s lyrics closely, you’ll see that he captures his grandmother at various stages in her life, including her youth 65 years prior to the song. In an interview with the BBC, Costello said,

I wanted to write a song about this old person sitting there and appearing to be completely gone, as we say, but really coming and going and sometimes being completely lucid — but not making it a sentimental song. I wanted it to be sort of defiant and happy, as if it was about a very young girl who was just starting out her life. I really took a lot of it from when I was talking with my grandmother, when I went to visit her during the last few years of her life. It’s like a love song in a way for her, but written as if it’s about a young girl. The pop music thing bears that up — people will hear the song and maybe say, “Oh yeah, it’s about this young girl Veronica,” and then maybe listen a little bit more. I’m not making any big point, it’s just a little bit of hope and a love song from me.

Several commentators point out that, given the topic, the lyrics could easily have been maudlin or sad – but instead they seem to me to stay life-affirming. I have always thought that our names, how we prefer to be known to the world, are precious, something to be cherished, used by others as a kind of talisman when they want to engage us. Elvis Costello captures this so beautifully at the end of the song: “You can call me anything you like, / But my name is Veronica.” I understand this completely. I am Linda, and my sister is Julia.

There’s a Paul McCartney story song that does devolve into the maudlin. I know many people love the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby,” but it has always seemed to me to be overdone, too full of pity. But in “Veronica,” Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello get it just right. Though the dementia is there, though we see a once-vibrant woman in decline, there is also a celebration of her life, her Veronica-ness The upbeat music certainly underscores the life-affirming nature of the song. You can learn even more about the song at the “American Songwriter” website.

Costello released “Veronica” on his 1989 album, Spike. I also love Costello’s 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True, and of course, you can’t go wrong with Best of Elvis Costello. To go even further in your exploration of Elvis Costello, you’ll want to read his new memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, and listen to the companion two-CD set, Unfaithful Music (which includes “Veronica”).

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Watch:Watch Elvis Costello’s award-winning video for “Veronica.” It begins with a monologue from Costello about his grandmother. The clip runs 4 minutes.

Image Credit: Elvis Costello, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elvis_Costello_2012.JPG