Elvis Costello, “Veronica”

Written by July 30th, 2012 at 6:00 am

Elvis Costello has had pretty good success with songs named after girls. “Alison,” off his debut album, is still one of his signature songs after all these years. And his biggest American chart success came with a song about another girl dear to his heart, albeit not in a romantic way.

“Veronica”, found on E.C’s 1989 solo album Spike, was inspired by his grandmother and her battle with Alzheimer’s disease. In the memorable video to the song, Costello gives a moving monologue about his experience with his grandmother as the disease began to rob her of her mental faculties: “Sometimes we’d just sit there, and she wouldn’t say anything, and I wouldn’t say anything, and you could try and work out what was going on in her head. But I think it’s something we don’t understand. Not yet anyway.”

A song about such a serious disease could have turned into an exercise in TV-movie sentimentality in less-skilled hands. While Costello refers to the disease’s debilitating nature at times in the song (“These days I’m afraid she’s not even sure/If her name is Veronica,”) he refuses to portray his main character as a victim.

It helps that the musical setting to the song is so fetching and energetic. Some credit goes to Elvis’ co-writer on the song, an unknown by the name of Paul McCartney. It’s Macca’s Hofner bass that propels the catchy melody, and Paul’s influence can also be found in the way that Costello’s words are more economical than one might normally expect from him.

As anyone who’s ever dealt with someone with Alzheimer’s can tell you, the second verse, in which the character’s mind seems to rocket back and forth in time, is especially trenchant. Remembering a long-ago romance, Veronica brings him right back with her into the present day: “She spoke his name out loud again.”

Notice how Costello dwells on the import of Veronica’s name. She forgets it, others get it wrong, but, in her youth, she wore that name like a badge of honor: “You can call me anything you like/But my name is Veronica.” By losing her mind, she is also slowly losing her identity, one of the disease’s most insidious side effects.

Yet Costello imagines her inner life as something rich and rewarding to which the rest of the world isn’t privy. In the refrain, he sings, “Do you suppose that, waiting hands on eyes, Veronica has gone to hide?/And all the time she laughs at those who shout her name and steal her clothes.”

One of the great perks of being a songwriter is the ability to rewrite reality and make it more palatable than it might otherwise be. Elvis Costello provides such a service on “Veronica,” a marvelous bit of wish fulfillment that grants dignity to someone suffering from a disease determined to rob it from her.

“Veronica”

Is it all in that pretty little head of yours?
What goes on in that place in the dark?
Well, I used to know a girl
And I could have sworn
That her name was Veronica
Well, she used to have
A carefree mind of her own
And a delicate look in her eye
These days, I’m afraid
She’s not even sure
If her name is Veronica

Do you suppose that waiting hands on eyes
Veronica has gone to hide?
And all the time she laughs at those
Who shout her name and steal her clothes
Veronica
Veronica
Veronica, Veronica

Did her days drag by, did the favors wane?
Did he roam down the town all the while?
Will you wake from your dream
With a wolf at the door
Reaching out for Veronica?
Well, it was all of 65 years ago
When the world was the street
Where she lived
And a young man sailed
On a ship in the sea
With a picture of Veronica

On the Empress of India
And as she closed her eyes upon the world
And picked upon the bones of last week’s news
She spoke his name out loud again

Do you suppose that waiting hands on eyes
Veronica has gone to hide?
And all the time she laughs at those
Who shout her name and steal her clothes
Veronica
Veronica
Veronica, Veronica

Veronica sits in the favorite chair
She sits very quiet and still
And they call her a name
That they never get right
And if they don’t, then nobody else will
But she used to have
A carefree mind of her own
With devilish look in her eye
Saying, “You can call me
Anything you like
But my name is Veronica”

Do you suppose that waiting hands on eyes
Veronica has gone to hide?
And all the time she laughs at those
Who shout her name and steal her clothes
Veronica
Veronica
Oh, oh
Veronica

- By Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney

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