“A lot of people have got spoilt and ruined by sudden success and pushing too hard. I thought I was an exception but I wasn’t as smart or in control as I pretended to be.”
This is Elvis Costello, writing in his memoir “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” in a style that permeates the remarkable book – confident, assured, but self-deprecating and self-aware, almost to a fault.
Costello made it as punk gave way to the more artistic new wave in the U.K. of the late-70s. Yet he was never punk or new wave, really. Rather he acted as an interloper – a balladeer with a deep strain of music-hall and a family history that included big band jazz and swing; a man who once claimed, disingenuously, that all of his songs were motivated by revenge and guilt, when they were really more inclined to ruminate on the more complicated shadows cast by love; a married man with a deep romantic streak who failed to maintain his self-image as a faithful partner impervious to the allures of the rock ’n’ roll touring life; an intellectual who worked a “straight” job as a computer programmer in the daytime, and indulged in alcoholic excess by night.
Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus in 1954 and raised in London and Liverpool, writes eloquently of his life in music, but he spares no one, including himself, from his unflinching critical eye. Costello has his failures, and he asks no one to gloss over them. Lord knows he has no intention of doing so himself.
The man who wrote “Every Day I Write the Book” finally got around to writing his own, despite being one of the most-likely-to-do-so among his generation for decades. Unsurprisingly, it’s a wordy, erudite, passionate and hypercritical affair - touched by humor, striving for something resembling grace, and eager to set the record straight. It’s not at all unlike a great Costello song, then.
Though “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” does indeed trace the arc of Costello’s remarkable – and remarkably consistent – career, it is in many ways also a tribute to the author’s father, Ross MacManus, a jazz trumpeter and unabashed Lothario, who left Costello’s mother when the boy was still young, after carrying on one affair too many. The elder MacManus hangs above the proceedings like the ghost of Hamlet’s father – though for much of Costello’s life, he is but an intermittent presence, it is clear that his figure looms large. Costello, though he never states as much explicitly, seems to judge his musical capabilities in terms of his father’s. Despite the pain caused him (and his mother) by his father’s unfaithfulness, he ends up repeating many of his old man’s mistakes, and enjoying none of them.
In this age of rampant anti-intellectualism and “get to the point in 140 characters or less” mania, some might find Costello’s gorgeously verbose scribblings infuriating. He writes like a man who loves language and is in no hurry to get to the point or to make things easy for the reader. He suffers no fools, particularly when he’s the one being the fool. The infamous incident that involved a hyper-inebriated and pill-laden young Costello mumbling racial slurs in a hotel bar is dealt with head-on and, it must be said, brutally. (A sober and mature Costello took full responsibility for this one-off display of racial insensitivity in a 2013 interview with Questlove.)
Far more thrilling are the moments when Costello’s disdainful eye is turned toward more deserving targets. The BBC that was an unavoidable reality for anyone climbing the pop music ladder when Costello first did is skewered in a delightful and wordy fashion that is typical of “Unfaithful Music”.
“To the BBC we were just a bunch of glove puppets… Their contempt and their ignorance was fairly transparent, and it’s not as if it got better with time. In 1995, I was attending the Performing Rights Society event at which I received an Ivor Novello Award in the company of Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan and (‘Diamonds are Forever’ and ‘To Sir, With Love’) lyricist Don Black… A senior BBC music programmer smarmed up to me and took this opportunity to remind me of my diminished status in his petty universe, ‘Of course, you’d have had a lot more hits if you’d just taken out all the sevenths and minor chords.’
“ I suppose I would have had even more, if I’d only taken out all of the music entirely and most of the words, too.”
This is vintage Costello, full of bemused contempt and able to settle scores without having to try too particularly hard, as long as he’s the one with the pen in his hand.
But this Costello is not the one who controls “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.” For the past decade-plus, Costello has been married to the jazz pianist and vocalist Diana Krall, and the couple has two sons of their own to add to the brood that includes another son from Costello’s first marriage. Healthy and enduring love, sobriety and fatherhood have done wonders for Costello, as his recent song “My Three Sons” makes plain. (“Day is closing/Old men and infants are dozing/That’s the kind of life I’ve chosen/Just see what I’ve become/The humble father of my three sons,” the song’s lyrics read, in part.)
It’s this version of the man who gets the final word in “Unfaithful Music,” and that’s fitting, for he is the best writer of the bunch. Finding a small epiphany in the realization that his young sons are displaying an aptitude for music, making them potentially the fourth generation of MacManus men to do so, Costello revels in a succinctness of prose.
“The distance between us is now closed by the very same gadgetry that dismantled the record business and keeps me out on the road and away from my family with the fondness of the absent heart and anticipating the thrill of every rendezvous.
“This is what I do.
“There is no way to prove that this disposition for music must run in the blood, except for all the evidence.”