Deep into his droll, hefty new autobiography, the British songwriter who long ago dubbed himself Elvis Costello recalls a chance mid-'80s meeting on a New York City fire escape with Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band, one of his favorite groups.
"Dumbstruck in their presence, [I was] running off at the mouth," he recalls, "the way people sometimes do when they are excited."
When it comes to music — virtually any kind of music, from pop and punk to honky-tonk, jazz balladry and art song — Costello is never not excited. For interviewers, squeezing a single question into his stream of music-history consciousness can be as elusive as a glimpse of the dapper entertainer without a hat on.
On the crowded shelf of musicians' memoirs, Costello's Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink claims the same kind of real estate as does his long, confounding catalog of records. It stubbornly refuses to conform to convention, toying with sequence like the targets in a shooting gallery. It's chatty, in an ostentatious way: One of the many laugh-out-loud moments comes when the singer recalls Bob Dylan's reaction when Costello casually drops the word "amanuensis" in conversation. It takes sudden detours into unexpected styles, drifting into disjointed reverie and quoting chunks of the author's short fiction.
Unfaithful Music is often exasperating, but then so is its subject. The trouble with writing autobiographically, Costello writes, "is that for every mildly diverting tale or precious memory, you eventually arrive at this thought: I don't much care for the subject."
Ah, but that's where he redeems himself. Just when it seems as though the incomparably talented, undeniably egotistical Costello has worn out his welcome, he draws the reader back in with one of his patented bouts of self-loathing. It's a charming trick that has served his exquisitely barbed music especially well over his four-plus decades in the business.
Costello is not the sort of recording artist who attracts many fair-weather fans, but for those who know "Alison" and "Everyday I Write the Book" and not much else, the rudiments are mostly here: his rise from Britain's punk and pub-rock scenes as the razor-witted wordsmith who made some memorable mischief on an early episode of Saturday Night Live; the restless stylist who collaborated with George Jones, Chet Baker, the Brodsky Quartet and many more; the encyclopedic raconteur who hosted the highly touted television series Spectacle and once subbed for David Letterman.
He recalls the first time he put on his iconic thick glasses, "like Superman in reverse." He recounts some of the production work he did in the service of other acts (such as the Pogues: "I produced the only good and truthful-sounding record they ever made"), and a long visit as a guest DJ at KSAN, where he and Bonnie Simmons stayed on the air so long "that people thought we were stoned or in love."
Befitting a consummate lyricist — this is, after all, the man who once rhymed "America" with "hysterical" — the writing in Unfaithful Music often soars high above the typical rock 'n' roll rehash. Recalling a boyhood trip to Spain, Costello riffs on the fragmentary nature of holiday memories: "The sky as seen on a certain day through a viewfinder; the taste of seawater swallowed by accident … my Irish complexion turning tight and pink, then angry red."
The book has some touching words for Costello's father, Ross MacManus, a well-known big-band singer in England (from whose stage name the younger performer takes the back end of his own alter ego), his longtime accompanist Steve Nieve, and his third wife, the pianist and jazz singer Diana Krall. It also contains what the author claims will be "almost my last word" on an ugly, widely publicized incident in the early 1980s, when he capped a drunken argument with some ill-chosen, racially charged language that has stalked him ever since.
About another matter entirely, the 1981 country-covers album Almost Blue, Costello's first real departure from his spiky new-wave image, he writes, "If you intend to have a long career in show business, it is necessary to drive people away from time to time, so they can remember why they miss you." It's been his MO ever since, God bless him.
If he's hopscotched from nightclub grottoes to grand concert halls over the years, he's always retained one premise: "If there is an applecart, you must do your best to upset it."
There's evidently only one thing sacred in this upsetter's life, and that is the church of the music. "Songs can be many things," he muses: "an education, a seduction, some solace in heartache, a valve for anger, a passport, your undoing, or even a lottery ticket."
If you're a fan of Costello's kind of pop savvy, his book features at least a few bars of each of those things.