Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
MICHAEL JOSEPH, $34.99
"The trouble with finishing any autobiographical tome like this," Elvis Costello writes somewhere around the too-long part, "is that for every mildly diverting tale or precious memory you eventually arrive at this thought: 'I don't much care for the subject'."
Whether he's speaking for himself or his reader, it's the kind of truth only an unflinching student of human nature would think aloud. From withering new wave sneerer to overreaching musical polymath, this one has emerged with a reflection perhaps best described as glass-half-full of itself.
The word "unfaithful" is key to a self-loathing aspect of his character that propels the fiery first half of his career. Where most old rock dogs' memoirs fail to disguise a smirk, Costello's tales of hard drinking and routine cheating on his first wife, Mary, ache with only Catholic guilt.
His affair with serial rock consort Bebe Buell is dismissed with cruel haste. Eighteen years with one-time Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan comprise a self-flagellating term in purgatory under a storm cloud of alcohol. "It took me 10 years to finish writing about the misery I provoked," he reflects from the far end of the mess.
The parallel with his deeply loved but similarly philandering father, big-band singer Ross MacManus, shadows the length of the book's nearly 700 pages. All ears and short pants, young Declan (Elvis) avidly follows his enigmatic old man's small victories through grand theatres and stacks of record publishers' acetates as fashion morphs from Glenn Miller to the Beatles.
Ross looms large at the end too, his harrowing decline into dementia leavened with his son's virtually encyclopaedic and always joyous memories of music, music and more music.
Indeed, the story jump cuts in leaps that might seem tenuous to any but the most obsessive record collector. Chains of names, tunes, venues and studios spanning the century can grow dense, and the songwriter's penchant for what he recognises as "speaking in code" can render his prose almost as cryptic.
Then again, that discipline also ensures a lyrical turn of phrase and self-deprecating wit. His first band, Flip City, was "a steady pattern of inertia laced with a few moments of faint hope". Of his infamous racial slur in a drunken brawl with Stephen Stills' band, Costello writes, "it took just five minutes to detach my tongue from my mind and my life from the rail it was on".
There's a filmic quality, too, in his way of framing one good story within another. One chapter starts at the White House with Paul McCartney and Barack Obama, then uses the song that he sang for them, Penny Lane, as a portal into his grandfather's hard road from Liverpool to the Kaiser's prisons of World War I.
These deep forays into the past can be harder going, of course, than his hell-for-leather on-the-road tales with the Attractions‚ which their self-sabotaging ringleader paints in funny and vicious detail. With a flair for continuity that trumps chronology, Costello manages to compress backstage encounters with Dylan, Bowie and Springsteen into virtually adjacent pages while painting portraits that are both unfailingly respectful and unusually revealing.
As his musical vocabulary expands to collaborations with George Jones, the Brodsky Quartet, Chet Baker, Allen Toussaint; and invitations to countless all-star tribute projects to various legends pile up over the past 25 years, so the rabbit-holes of music history and craft begin to boggle the mortal mind.
Among the most instructive revelations in that area is that neither McCartney nor Burt Bacharach will tolerate even a one-syllable disruption in a lyric once a melody has been set. While Costello will defer to such unassailable wisdom in collaboration, he admits he'll think nothing of adding half a bar to accommodate a clever rhyme when he's calling the shots.
Half a lifetime since his last hit, in the thick of a mostly impenetrable and frankly unloveable run of albums, some might say that that compulsion to prioritise wordplay over toe-tapping has been his undoing. In the later chapters here, the fact that he increasingly lapses into tangential passages of lyrics to drive a point home suggests that he's simply grown bored or dissatisfied with the kind of storytelling simple folk favour.
Still, as he signs off from a far, far happier place than his life as a pop idol ever afforded, the depth of his passion for music is no more deniable than the heights of his intellect. Besides, as he only half-jokingly disclaims, "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."