The Connective Thread of Song: Elvis Costello’s “Hoover Factory”

I am linking to Elvis Costello’s “Hoover factory” because I find it to be a catchy enjoyable short song. Plus, it has intersected throughout my life in interesting ways.

The song first came to my attention as a teenager growing up in Bethany, Oklahoma. You have to understand that the musical culture there was very homogenous. I was forced to grow up with a steady rotation of Foreigner, Styx, REO Speed-wagon and Journey as the soundtrack of my teenage youth.

I hated that music! I do not like classic rock radio today! Nevertheless, there was this wonderful new thing called MTV that actually played music videos. It was here that I was exposed to music outside of the monolithic play on OKC radio. MTV introduced me to Elvis Costello. He had two videos in frequent rotation, “Oliver’s Army” and “What’s so funny about peace love and understanding.”

When Christmas rolled around in 1984, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I knew she didn’t have much money. She was single mother trying to raise a 17 year old and a 3 year old. Earlier that year, my Grandfather, her father, who had been living with us had to be moved to a nursing home due to failing health. I didn’t want to burden her so I said what I would really like is an Elvis Costello record. There was no Internet back then so I had no idea about his music catalog. I just told her anything by him would be great. That Christmas she got “Ten bloody Mary’s & 10 how’s your fathers.” It was on that album that I was introduced to “Hoover Factory.”

It is a short jaunty song that has a feeling of indifference to it. It has always stuck with me. Fast forward to 2014, my daughter and I have developed this routine where we read a book and sing a song before bed. We have been doing it since she was born. The early songs were the traditional lullaby fare, but around the time she was 2 and half years old she had started asking me to make up new songs.

One night I improvised a lullaby and she thought that was so cool of daddy. The next night she made a similar request. This is kind of hard to do at the end of the day when you are tired. So I had this idea to sing her a song where I knew all the words. Keira wouldn’t know the difference, and thus she may come to think of pops as some kind of musical genius. This is how Elvis Costello’s “Hoover Factory” became a part of my daughter’s life. She had requested it so many times after that, she had completely learned the lyrics by the time she was 3 years old. Imagine hearing a 3 year old utter the lyrics “It doesn’t matter if I take another breath, who cares…who cares…who cares.” If that sounds awful, ask me about how I came to teach her Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Anyway, this is what I wanted to share about “Hoover Factory.” In the summer of 2014, I was given the opportunity to teach a course in Oxford. The subject was Karl Marx and his time in England. I was blessed to be able to bring Keira and my wife with me. We lived there for 4 weeks in a flat looking out at the historic Thames River. I took my students into London 5 times to show students where Marx lived and wrote. I actually took them to the pub where Marx and Engels were charged with writing what would become “The Communist Manifesto.” We took the train into London once, but I found the bus to be considerably more flexible with our times and locations. One day riding in I was sitting in isolation reflecting on how it was that this poor kid from Oklahoma ended up here in England as a university professor. Nothing in my early history would have projected this outcome. It was a light jacket sunny kind of day. As we entered into the urban outskirts of London, I stared out my window to catch a bit of the lived experience. Suddenly, this stone building with greenish teal highlights caught my eye! As we passed it I noticed that it said Hoover Factory! I thought oh my god is this is the very Hoover Factory Elvis Costello introduced me to in lyrical form when I was 17 years old? As I noted above, I have always loved this song, but I had never really thought about the actual existence of the Hoover Factory. “Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue it must’ve been wonder when it was brand-new… I’m talking about the splendor of the Hoover Factory l know that you’d agree if you had seen it too.” Son of a bitch, if I am not in the spot of that lyric. All at once my mother who had passed 4 years earlier was there with me in spirit, in that moment.

Three generations with the connective thread of a song. Wherever you are Elvis Costello, thank you for that beautiful song. For those of you reading, click the link and give it a listen.


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