Elvis Costello: Alice Arnold/Retna
Chris Willman
February 12, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

A quarter century ago, Sting and Elvis Costello were the leading rivals for the hearts of new wave fans. Today, they’re rivals for the votes of that older demographic known as Academy members — the motion picture academy, not the recording one. Both rockers have tunes from the movie ”Cold Mountain” nominated for a Best Song Oscar, but unlike the battling factions in that Civil War drama, they’re setting aside past differences and making like allies.

Costello even participated in an all-star tribute to Sting at the annual MusiCares benefit on the Sony Pictures studio lot in L.A. on Feb. 9, serenading the honoree with a ukelele-backed version of ”Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.” This, despite some jabs that a less mellow Elvis had taken at Sting in the past, playfully or otherwise. Apparently, the movie’s beating-swords-into-plowshares message really rubs off.

Says Sting, ”I’m especially happy that two songs got nominated from the movie — Elvis’ song, too, which is great.” Costello also expresses admiration for Sting’s contribution, and surprise at the nomination for his own: ”It would have seemed to be almost a little greedy [to expect] both songs to be acknowledged.” Indeed, Miramax seemed to be prepared for the possibility that the two numbers — Sting’s ”You Will Be My Ain True Love” and the Costello/T Bone Burnett collaboration ”The Scarlet Tide,” both sung by Allison Krauss on the soundtrack — would cancel each other out in the voting. The studio initially took out trade ads touting both, but after only Sting’s picked up a Golden Globe nomination, subsequent ”for your consideration” Oscar ads left out mention of Costello’s song. Academy members found both anyway.

Also nominated in this unusually eclectic category were songs from ”Lord of the Rings” (cowritten and sung by Annie Lennox), ”A Mighty Wind” (cowritten by Michael McKean), and ”The Triplets of Bellevue.” (Left out, surprisingly, were several picks from the Globes’ all-rock-star lineup, including themes from the likes of Bono, Phil Collins, and Eddie Vedder.) ”It’s not just a B.S. thing — I’m really proud to be in this company,” says Costello. ”I know Annie. [They dueted on an old Eurythmics record.] I know Sting a little bit, to say hello to — to tease.”

But is Elvis’ relationship with Sting only a ”teasing” one? In the past, he’s taken some potshots at the former Police man — first, by name, in an old song (1991’s ”Hurry Down Doomsday”), then on episodic television (a gag on ”The Larry Sanders Show”), and, more recently, in comments to the press after they both were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So some fans were a bit surprised by Costello’s seeming eagerness to sign up for the MusiCares salute. What gives?

”He asked!” says Costello. ”He wanted me to be there. I think it was a test of my Catholic soul,” he laughs. ”Or his, I’m not sure which. Listen, I’ve got no problem with him. He’s a good musician. Not all of his work is to my taste, any more than I’m sure mine is to him. But you know, somebody asked me straight out at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, ‘Were they [the Police] any good?’ I said, ‘No, they were bloody dreadful.’ And of course he’s bound to get a little riled by that. But I was speaking what I perceived as the truth, and he might have had his opinion of my performance. But you know, there are so many people in the world that deserve your disdain and contempt, and almost none of them are musicians. In fact, none of them are. People make jokes about John Tesh as being an evil force in the world, but it’s overstating something, isn’t it? There aren’t any musicians that I hate. Whereas there are actually people that are killing other humans. They’re the people that we have to hate.”

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