Dallas Morning News, October 17, 2015

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Memoir review:
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink


Thor Christensen

Elvis Costello's autobiography can be every bit as witty, snarky and poignant as his lyrics. But it rarely packs the same punch as one of his 3-minute songs.

Tipping the scales at 688 pages, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is the equivalent of a 15-CD box set larded with enough outtakes to test the patience of even the biggest Elvis fanatic.

Written entirely by Costello, with an editor nowhere in sight, the former Declan McManus jumps back and forth in time while detailing what seems like every LP he purchased, every musician he met and every last childhood memory. Some of the family history is fascinating, like his recollections of his grandmother and how her struggles with Alzheimer's inspired his 1989 hit "Veronica."

But he goes overboard, barricading the reader in a room piled dangerously high with family mementos. Long stretches of the book seem less like an autobiography than an unabridged Costello family history — especially the overly lengthy passages devoted to his dad, Ross, a jazz musician whose philandering broke up the Costello home when Elvis was a lad.

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink improves whenever the spotlight returns to Elvis' unpredictable career. After quitting his job as data-entry clerk, he casts himself as one of London's angry young punks, and in 1977 releases My Aim Is True, a stunning debut fueled by dazzling wordplay, jittery punk tunes and the soulful ballad "Alison."

"My career went off like a Roman candle and blew my life to smithereens," he writes, admitting the carnage wasn't fate, per se, but a deliberate effort on his part to "mess up my life so I could write stupid little songs about it."

As the tunes pour out of him, he goes on an endless bender of vodka and pills, culminating in the infamous 1979 hotel bar argument with Stephen Stills' touring party in which a plastered Elvis used the N-word to disparage Ray Charles. All these years later, he handles the incident with aplomb, never excusing his idiotic behavior but admitting that the whole ugly chapter actually prompted him to slow down his "potentially fatal orbit."

Given the book's length and all the boozy early passages, it's surprising that he refuses to talk about — or even acknowledge, really — giving up alcohol and drugs in the '90s, or about how sobriety has affected his life since then. But he's full of candor on other topics, like his affairs that broke up his first marriage to Mary Burgoyne and his problems with his second wife, Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, whom he says was, at times, "completely insufferable … I tolerated it all much longer than I should have."

At 61, Costello is still the same caustic punk he was in his early 20s, slinging darts at everyone from Cat Stevens to Led Zeppelin to Geraldo Rivera. But he's just as hard on himself: "The trouble with finishing any autobiographical tome like this is that for every mildly diverting tale or precious memory, you eventually arrive at this thought: I don't much care for the subject," he writes.

Luckily, he's got diverting tales by the truckload. He writes vividly about the 1977 publicity stunt that got him arrested in London and the performance that same year that got him banned from Saturday Night Live (turns out he got the idea for abruptly stopping one tune and starting another from Jimi Hendrix).

And he spins one colorful tale after the next about collaborating with what seems like half the members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry. This is when Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink really comes alive, as Elvis combines his fanatical passion with his musicologist's knowledge to describe what it's like to write songs with Paul McCartney, trade lyrics with Bob Dylan and try not to get blown off the stage by Aretha Franklin.

Yet when he's describing his own music, he goes a bit too far. For every great story about the genesis of "Watching the Detectives" or "(Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," there's way too much navel-gazing at his own lyrics, which never quite leap off the printed page the way they do with his records.

Early on, he dismisses them as "a stack of show-off rhymes and quips," but the longer the book goes, the more hellbent he is on quoting and analyzing his rhymes to remind everyone what a brilliant lyricist he is. Even more annoying is the way he keeps dropping short-story-like vignettes into the book, as if he's trying to secretly launch a new career as a fiction writer.

For all his immense talent and ego, Costello is admirably quick to credit the many musicians who helped make his career shine, especially Nick Lowe and Fort Worth's T Bone Burnett, two first-rate producers who sharpened and edited his best albums.

It's too bad he didn't ask them to do the same with Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.

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Dallas Morning News, October 17, 2015


Thor Christensen reviews Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.


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