Listen to this track by bespectacled beloved entertainer Declan Patrick MacManus, AKA Elvis Costello. It’s “Veronica”, a hit single from 1989’s Spike. This is one of a number of songs Costello wrote with Paul McCartney by the end of the 1980s, in the beginning of his post-Attractions phase. Several of these songs would appear on the records of both men from the late eighties into the early-to-mid nineties. In this case, McCartney plays his trademark and iconic Hofner bass on the track. Also, this tune was arguably the most personal track they wrote together, and among the most personal songs in Costello’s catalogue on the whole.
The song was inspired by Costello’s grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, with a vibrant life, a carefree mind of her own (and a devilish look in her eye) behind her that could only be recalled by her in brief moments of lucidity. In some ways, McCartney was the perfect collaborator on a song like this, having a solid track record even when he was in The Beatles in writing songs about women and the pressures and stresses they must endure.
As far as Costello’s part, and beyond the disease aspect of what inspired this tune, there is a series of wider themes that are served by it; human dignity, vulnerability, memory, the nature of old age, and of identity itself.
Typically, rock ‘n’ roll songwriting hadn’t really dealt with the theme of aging too extensively beyond the standard “hope I die before I get old” kinds of sentiments. This song adds to a short stack of rock and pop songs that treat getting older with a notable level of compassion, instead of one of contempt or fear.
But, it should be said that the nature of Alzheimer’s disease, which inspired this song, isn’t necessarily limited to the very old. And as such, “Veronica” isn’t, either. This song hits right at the heart of human experience, no matter what the age. In its narrative, it brings up some weighty issues to that effect. What is the essence of your life? What if you couldn’t remember living it, or couldn’t maintain your self-awareness in the present enough to feel it’s really yours? What would the implications of all of that be when it came to attaching meaning to your own existence? How would other people treat you? Would your humanity be fully acknowledged? Or would your disease eclipse the person suffering from it even in the eyes of your loved ones?
These are important questions for a hit single to raise, which might be unexpected to some who know Costello primarily through “Pump It Up”. Even its title, “Veronica” isn’t your standard “girl’s name” song. So, this is a long way from “Alison”, too. Because instead of being about romance or failed romance, this woman’s name (that they never get right) is an assertion of identity as made by a loved one on her behalf, because she can’t always claim it herself. “Veronica” is a reclamation of all of the events in a life that have shaped the person at the center of it. The repetition of her name in the lyrics of this song is purposeful to that end.
The big takeaway with this song for me has always been about how important our personal stories are to us, and how important it is to tell those stories, and be told the stories of others. It is here that the most meaning can be found, and where our identities are best anchored. I believe it’s one of the main reasons we make art, all of the forms of which can be boiled down to the simple act of telling stories to each other in order to bring our lives into focus for ourselves and for those to whom we tell them.
In this particular song, we feel sympathy for Veronica in this story of her life, told by one who loves her. But, this is partially because we fear to go to the cruel and unjust place where she is, robbed of the only treasures in life that really matter; our identities, our connections, our memories.
You can learn more about Alzheimer’s disease here at Alz.org.
Elvis Costello is an active musician and songwriter today. Check out his latest movements at elviscostello.com. Among those movements of course is his new autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink that covers his career and some of the stories behind the songs (including “Veronica”). You can read more about it right here.
[Update, December 2015: here’s another link that talks about how Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney formed their fruitful-if-brief songwriting partnership which produced this hit single, and other songs to boot.]