First impressions die hard. In the late '70s, Elvis Costello tattooed himself on the consciousness of a group of teenagers huddled in front of a foot-high stage in a bad Milwaukee neighborhood. He looked even nerdier than the audience, with his black horn-rimmed glasses, skinny tie and cheap suit. After about 20 minutes, sweat poured from his sleeves and the oversized glasses fogged, but Costello never even loosened his collar button. He twitched and jerked as if trying to free himself from an invisible straitjacket.
The multi-syllable words poured out in a torrent — I'd never heard anyone use the word "quisling" in a song before, and have never heard anyone use it since. The music seethed and the tempos surged, forcing the words into ever-tighter spaces. Accusations melded into anguish: "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor / You've got to cut it out."
In his memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the singer born Declan MacManus speculates that he needed "the armor of a new identity and maybe even the jolt of chemicals to scare … (me) into the spotlight."
So was it all an act that night in Milwaukee? Not exactly. It was more like a drive-by for an artist who saw music as a moving target. To stand still was death. In Elvis Costello, Declan MacManus found a persona that could not be satisfied.
As in most rock 'n' roll tales, pills and booze play a role, but unlike, say, fellow memoir writers Keith Richards or Eric Clapton, Costello doesn't blank out huge portions of his life because he was too out of it to remember. If anything, he remembers too much — the casual fan might easily be daunted by this tome's 600-plus pages of reminiscence and recrimination, analysis and confession.
The writing is occasionally overwrought, and the abundant analysis of his lyrics sometimes dry. But when he's good, he's excellent, as when he describes a post-Katrina New Orleans encounter with the unflappable Allen Toussaint or the staggering influence of George Jones and other country stalwarts on his songwriting. The story unfolds like a movie that jumps across time, more thematic than chronological, as boyhood anecdotes and obsessions intersect with mature songs and adult reckoning.
Costello's dad, Ross, was a crooner and jazz trumpeter who expanded his repertoire by listening to an endless stream of records, and young Declan absorbed everything from be-bop and Tin Pan Alley standards to the pop, R&B and rock 'n' roll songs that his father usually dismissed. He struggled to find his voice and when he finally did, as he famously told one interviewer, it was to express emotions defined by "guilt and revenge."
He got lumped in with punk and new wave as a token "angry young man," but the label didn't stick. Costello loved songs — even early tracks such as "Watching the Detectives" and "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" brimmed with sharp images and turns of phrase. As his natural curiosity led him to explore outside the new-wave margins, his fan base began to waver. The 1981 Almost Blue album embraced songs written by country artists such as Charlie Rich and Merle Haggard. In between more rock-oriented projects, he also released collaborations with a classical string section (the Brodsky Quartet), a hip-hop crew (the Roots), a jazz pianist (Marian McPartland) and an art-pop songwriter (Burt Bacharach).
"If you intend to build a career in show business, it is necessary to drive people away from time to time, so they can remember why they miss you," he writes.
For Costello, washing off the poison that coated his terrific early albums with country tonic was like a personal cleansing. "I felt as if I'd slipped out of those tricky, bitter little songs that only appealed to a certain kind of creep."
To hear Costello tell it, that creep was often staring back at him from the bathroom mirror. He confronts his misbehaviors and failures, whether they be two collapsed marriages or the infamous, alcohol-fueled bar fight in 1979 in which singer Bonnie Bramlett slapped him for racial insults about Ray Charles and James Brown.
Costello was mortified and deeply apologetic afterward, especially given his love of both artists' music, but he remains thin-skinned about how the incident was handled by the media. A press conference in which he addressed his mistake was populated by "hysterical and indignant liberal journalists … howling for my contrition, if not my blood. What they knew of my heart and soul, let alone music itself, could be written on the head of a pin."
And yet a few pages later Costello complains that a bungled publicity stunt his manager engineered in Japan to promote a new album "merited a news item no bigger than a postage stamp." The media, it seems, just never got Elvis, and the feeling is mutual.
Even amid these petty complaints, though, Costello's enthusiasm for the music that has enriched and educated him remains undimmed. Even his copious name-dropping is less about pop-star preening than a fan's affectionate awe. The book doubles as a selective mini-history of 20th century music, as told by a discerning guide. He addresses artists both towering (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash) and relatively unheralded (David Ackles, Robert Wyatt) with a fan's affection and music scholar's insight.
The most obscure — and likely most important — influence is his father, a traveling musician who played two or three gigs a night in rooms that often came equipped with dodgy sound systems, indifferent backing bands and hostile audiences. One night, a teenage Declan accompanies him, and realizes what's at stake. His father glances at his charge just as they are about to take the stage together: "This isn't a game, this is my work."