Spotlit on the front of his memoir is the young Elvis Costello of legend: a speccy monochrome scoffer in a run-down motel room. Turn the book over and there is a more recent portrait, in colour and perhaps more in line with the way he sees himself today: rueful smile, tasteful decor, rounded life. The Elvis out front clasps a Fender Jazzmaster to his chest like Lee Harvey Oswald held his mail-order rifle: one man against the world. On the back, 2015 Elvis is looking up and away, as if to a cartoon thought bubble that reads: “Well, just look at me now. Happy, after all these years!”
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink – it’s an odd, clunky title. They’re both nice phrases, but together? The testament has not even begun and you’re already wondering, is something being overstressed? Ageing pop stars may have many reasons for writing a memoir: score settling, financial need, a feeling of having been misunderstood by their public. But such books also present their writers with a bind. What sells is not gentle music-biz banter or technical bumf, but personal revelation. Even if you’ve spent your entire career running from icky disclosure, you’ve still got to reveal something of your hidden life. Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (AKA Elvis Costello) says he wrote his memoir to give his sons an idea of who he used to be (“It was so much easier / when I was cruel … ”), and how he came to be the man he is now. Which is a lovely idea, but may leave him with rather a lot of explaining to do: not just his mistakes, but the fact that they were made in a completely different world. A world in which we waited all week every week for nibbles of information in the music press; a world in which we had to get local record shops to write away for any LPs we wanted to hear that weren’t in the Top 20.
Costello is more than equal to the challenge. Part of this book is a must-read account of the frenzied first years of his rise to fame. Typical itinerary: three tours of the US in six months, averaging 27 dates in 30 days. The Attractions arrive at a Texas club just two days after appearances by The Flying Burrito Brothers and Mose Allison. “It felt a little strange,” Costello notes, “after seeing your name on a poster with XTC.” Nice line, and then a few moments later you get the subtext: the punky, shrunken-suited Attractions started gigging when such groups as the Burritos, founded by the venerated Gram Parsons, were still at large.
Costello’s un-edgy portrait of the artist as mature craftsman signals: 'This is the easy-going, equable guy I am now'
Indeed, the young Declan Mac was an obsessive fan of US/Canadian acts from Parsons to Joni Mitchell to the Band. What’s telling is how the 1960s and 70s Britain that Costello recalls for us now feels as strange and distant as the down-home songs that the Band’s Robbie Robertson once performed to teenage UK rock fans. You have to remember how startling a figure Costello seemed at the time: rock stars just didn’t look like that! Costello’s gawky, Burton’s-window look was one of the reasons his fling with the model (and mother of Liv Tyler) Bebe Buell, whose previous beaus included Jimmy Page and Todd Rundgren, was so notable. Rock stars also didn’t sound like that: he sang with bared teeth rather than sturdy lungs. And rock rarely featured such great lines about the life going on around you in the streets where you lived: “My neighbour’s revving up his Vauxhall Viva”; “those daily tranquilisers”; “the mini skirt waddle”; “the boys from the Mersey & the Thames & the Tyne”.
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Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink
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In the late 1970s, the Attractions played two or three of the best gigs I ever saw. One was an angry, white-knuckle affair in a May Ball marquee set in the manicured grounds of an exclusive Cambridge University college. (I was there as an impossibly young hack.) It felt as if each member of the band had been reading Class War before they came on stage. Then a few years later, in 1980, I saw them again, promoting their LP Get Happy!!, and it was all wide-open soul and playful brio and a joyously approximate Tamla backbeat.
If there is a problem with this book it may be that, while Costello does a great job of showing us the man (or several men) he was back then, I’m not sure he comes close to explaining what was going on inside him – why he did what he did and sang what he sang. He admits to copybook blots such as the Bebe Buell affair and the incident, for which he later apologised at a press conference, when he drunkenly referred to James Brown and Ray Charles using the “n” word. While he doesn’t try to shirk responsibility, his apologia seems oddly rote. Costello now disavows his best-known old quote (“The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation for me to write all these songs, are revenge and guilt”) as a Pernod-stoked PR stunt, but you’re left with the feeling of several undefused time bombs in his basement.
Unfaithful Music has one great success and one obvious failing; or, one vivid presence and one vexatious absence. The success – and what’s essentially the glad heart of the book – is the portrait of Costello’s father, Ross MacManus: a gifted singer-mimic, studio musician and on-stage vocalist with the once hugely popular Joe Loss Orchestra. (I have a 1970 album he did of songs made famous by the other Elvis.) He was also a saloon bar Orpheus and something of a lady’s man, as we used to say, as well as a wily pragmatist, a survivor in the shark-filled tank of mid-level showbiz. Costello obviously loved (or learned to love) his father deeply, but this was a man who left his children in the lurch when the young Declan was only seven. The family business was good old-fashioned songs, properly sung; but Costello also recalls a child’s uneasiness at his dad being able to sing anything and everything with the same professional “passion” – one week Jim Reeves, the next week Pink Floyd.
Remember the words “unfaithful” and “disappearing” in the book’s title: they are at the core of the book – his father walking out on the family, and then Costello doing the same at the end of his first marriage to Mary Burgoyne. Here is a knot of music and lyrics, fathers and sons, the women they sing to and the women they hurt. The real absence here involves Costello’s second marriage of 16 years to ex-Pogue Cait O’Riordan – by default or design, it is given no more than a shaky outline. Perhaps Costello was warned off by lawyers, or is just trying to exhibit good grace (who knows?), but the reader gets a distinct impression of clenched teeth behind sealed lips. The lack of O’Riordan certainly leaves his retrospection looking lopsided.
There is a very moving section on his father’s death – beautiful writing by any standards. It is also the ideal note to finish the book on, a tying-up of various musical, familial and psychological strands. I can’t imagine why anyone involved in the publication thought it was a good idea to follow this coup with what almost amounts to a second (and far inferior) book about more recent events in Costello-land. You know those cringe-making kissy-kissy “interview” spots on Jools Holland’s TV show? Imagine them edited into a four-hour “best of”: I met Allen Toussaint and he was just lovely and we worked together; I met Burt Bacharach and he was just lovely and we worked together; I met Paul McCartney and … (The lovely Elton John and David Furnish turn up, as if on cue, to host Costello’s 2003 marriage to Diana Krall.) As Steve Martin says in Planes, Trains and Automobiles: “You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate.” Someone should have made Costello put in another few months’ work on these green-room tales, for a separate book along the lines of Donald Fagen’s marvellous Eminent Hipsters; unlike Fagen, Costello hasn’t located a handy device to link past and present, his own music and his musical influences.
Costello may have his reasons for including all this filler, to do with the arc of darkness to light. His un-edgy portrait of the artist as mature craftsman is perhaps a way of signalling: this is the easy-going, productive, equable guy I am now. The latter half of the book also features a series of ill-advised “short story” excerpts and too many overlong quotations from recent lyrics, as if he saw Auden and Larkin as his real competition, not the fripperies of modern pop music. (I still prefer his early, pun-filled stuff: “You lack lust /you’re so lacklustre.”) As with the book’s conjoined titles and two-sided cover, Costello wants it both ways. He wants to be Elvis and Declan; wants to have pop success, but then reserves the right to be snooty about it. As if the real business of pop was having private dinners with great mates such as McCartney and Bacharach, swooning together over diminished chords, and not some vulgar affair of hit singles by bonkers kids with their egos on fire.
You get the feeling Costello may almost be resentful that he is regarded as a great pop star rather than a “real” and versatile singer like his dad. But he just doesn’t have that kind of voice; when he tries to cover a classic song such as “She”, he sounds less like a rapt lover and more like a Sardinian shepherd calling in the goats. It’s also why “Shipbuilding” as sung by Robert Wyatt is more haunting than “Shipbuilding” as sung by Costello, its writer. Pop music just isn’t fair: something written in five minutes on the way to the studio, bashed out by a producer with the DTs, and aired by a singer who is a nasty little twerp on nasty accelerator drugs, can still move people 35 years later. Even today, pull together a roomful of folk of a certain age and they will bellow together as one voice: “And I would rather be anywhere else than here today … ”
One of the ironies of where Costello is today is that his way of making music appears to have jumped back to a pre-punk, almost pre-rock’n’roll world. Musicians can cruise around the world, lining up all manner of cushy “projects” with one another, and barely even bother with mass popularity. But such developments are probably inevitable in the new digital landscape; Costello hints that he thinks the days of making albums are pretty much over. Unfaithful Music is Costello’s mostly spot-on attempt to recall and explain the old ways, their logic and passion and daring. As he himself once sang, in a song called “Black and White World”: “It seemed so exciting! / There’ll never be days like that again … ”
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