A teeny bit more about The Lady Eve

Where does hyper-literate punker Elvis Costello get his vicious, intricate hyper-literacy? Why, from Preston Sturges, of course. There is a line from his 1981 song “White Knuckles” (from the album Trust) that had always baffled me, and, before Al Gore invented the internet, it was impossible to verify just what the hell he was singing, what with his strangled delivery and the clattering racket behind him. The song is about (what else) a couple with marital problems and for years I could have sworn there was a line in the bridge that went “She needs a lock, the ass needs a turn-key,” which seemed to make enough sense, even though it seemed like kind of a lame line from such a, you know, hyper-literate lyricist.

So, as The Lady Eve unspooled last night, imagine my surprise when, out of nowhere, the great Barbara Stanwyck suddenly announces, regarding Henry Fonda, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey,” which Costello adapted (slightly) to “He needs her like the axe needs a turkey.”  And yet another mystery of my youth was solved.

Is this a common phrase that Costello picked up, or was he inspired to thieve from Sturges?  A cursory Google search could unearth no other occurrence of the phrase, and I can imagine the young Costello at a revival house somewhere in London, or camped out in front of the telly, watching The Lady Eve with a pen and paper in his lap, furiously scribbling down the dense wit that flies thick and fast in Sturges’s masterpiece.

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4 Responses to “A teeny bit more about The Lady Eve”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    Congratulations. This page is now the top Google result for “axe needs the turkey”.

  2. inkboy says:

    I just saw “Guys and Dolls” for the first time and my ears twitched when I heard the lyrics, “And the devil will drag you under
    By the sharp lapel of your checkered coat” during the song “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”

    In Elvis’ song “Heathen Town”, he sings the line “the devil will drag you under by the sharp tailfin of your checkered cab”. At least, according to this site – http://www.elviscostello.info/lyrics/oooi.html#heathen_town. Personally, I always thought it was “check account” – rhymes better with “town”.

    • Todd says:

      In his defense, Costello has always acknowledged the debt “Heathen Town” owes to “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” And while I appreciate him twisting the cliche into a new line, “sharp tail-fin of your checkered cab” is nowhere near as succinct as “sharp lapel of your checkered coat.”

      Frank Loesser: 1
      Elvis Costello: 0