Elvis Costello is one of the music business's great survivors. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he wasn't a pop supernova who flamed out after just a couple of hits; nor did he melt into a drug-induced puddle. In the late 1970s he rode New Wave like a pro surfer then, when it began to crash, did what any clever entrepreneur would do: diversified.
He went through his Nashville country period in the 80s, dabbled with classical music in the 90s with the Brodsky Quartet, embraced the New Orleans sound after Hurricane Katrina, and most recently delved with the Roots into funky R&B. Through it all he has managed to keep the character of Elvis Costello — that quizzical blend of Londoner and Liverpudlian, overlain with a thick American vocal drawl — strong and consistent, so that the listener has no doubt that funky Costello and the Costello of "Pump It Up" are one and the same being.
Now he's done it again. The master of the 30-line song lyric has turned his hand to something a little wordier. To the dismay of ghostwriters everywhere, he has sat down at a computer entirely unaided and composed a thumping 670-page autobiography (a word that he doesn't entirely like, though he prefers it to "memoir," which he finds a bit poncy).
In writing an epic tome that straddles his childhood in the southern English suburbs and Merseyside all the way to his current life, aged 61, in Vancouver, Costello has clearly benefited from elephantine powers of recall. "I do have a fairly scary memory," he agrees. "I had to look up dates, and people will alight on mistakes, but that's not the important thing — the memory of how things felt is what's important. The absurdity of things. The only reason to write about a life in showbusiness is to point out the absurdity of it all, because very little is consequential."
In fact, there is plenty of consequence in the book. For a start, he recalls with absolute precision how he came to write each of his most famous songs. "Pump It Up," a paean to rock 'n' roll decadence, was scribbled on hotel notepaper on a fire escape in Newcastle; "Everyday I Write the Book" was penned "for a lark in 10 minutes"; "Alison" was composed when he was living with his first wife and infant son in the suburbs making £30 a week in a computer job.
He also recounts how some of his best-known songs came to him, almost mystically, in a flash — lyrics, music and all. He calls them "visitations." "I had six of them in one day," he says, still sounding a little startled. When he was 22, he was sitting on a train to Lime Street and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" descended on him fully formed — he had to run to his mother's house singing the song to himself manically before he could grab a guitar and get it down.
The book is called Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink — a duplicitous title, as it's evident in the reading that music has in fact been very faithful to him. "And me to it," he adds pointedly. The book bristles with details of his many encounters with such legends as Joe Strummer, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. Every page exudes his deep love and knowledge of modern music and its basic building block: the three-minute song.
You take songs incredibly seriously, I say. "Why would you not?" he replies. "You've got to take something seriously. Maybe it's the tiny bit of me that isn't English — the Irish bit — that has saved me from the affliction that everything is a joke. It's not."
We are sitting in the dining room of the Friars Club in midtown Manhattan, haunt of such comedy greats as Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. It's odd that Costello belongs to a club for comedians, and that someone formerly on the edges of the punk scene should invite me to lunch at a venue that bans jeans and sneakers and insists on jackets when the weather turns colder.
But then, consider the Elvis Costello who is sitting next to me. Today he is wearing a black waistcoat and jacket, a polka-dot tie and, of course, his ever-present horn-rimmed glasses and fedora, which he wears throughout servings of mozzarella and tomato, broccoli and double macchiato. The outfit, which has remained virtually unchanged since he devised it in the late 70s, meets the Friars Club rules and also has the virtue of being just a tad comedic, in an ironic sort of way.
When I observe that Elvis Costello, the character played by the man who was born Declan MacManus, is ironic, he grunts and says he'd rather call it "perverse." "Think of what pop stars looked like in 1976 and a whole bunch of us — myself, Ian Dury — didn't look like that. We wouldn't make it in a beauty contest with the Bay City Rollers or compete with David Essex in looks, so the only way to go was to exaggerate the difference. That's not ironic, it's expedient."
Even in the absence of alcohol — Costello no longer drinks — our conversation warms up over the course of a lunch that stretches to two and a half hours. By the end he is relaxed, funny and chatty. But in the jobbing part of our conversation, when the more sensitive bits of the book need to be discussed, he seems wary of me and slightly on the defensive. And why wouldn't he be, given the roasting — another specialism of the Friars Club — that he's been given over the years by the tabloids?
Large stretches of the book are turned over to the years from 1977 to the mid-80s when he was rocketed to stardom on the back of his first album, My Aim Is True. He quickly took on a bad-boy image — or as he describes it, he messed up his life "so I could write stupid little songs about it." There were "blue pills" and "white pills," and he alludes to a formidable number of casual sexual encounters that destroyed his first marriage to childhood sweetheart Mary Burgoyne, to his bitter regret.
Unfaithful Music — the title is also a riff on that epoch of promiscuity — is admirably honest about what I suggest to him were his years of notoriety. He grunts and corrects me a second time. "Infamy would be better," he says.
The most notorious — or infamous — of his outrages occurred in 1979 when in a drunken bar brawl he used the N-word to refer to James Brown and Ray Charles, adding "blind" and "ignorant" to Charles for good measure. In the book he makes no attempt to justify his behaviour, saying "it took just five minutes to detach my tongue from my mind and my life from the rail it was on." I remark on that lack of justification, and he says: "No, that should be clear by now. I did say that's the last word on the matter, because I have explained several times — I've never ducked it."
Then he asks me to pass the salt.
Costello is tough on himself. He writes that he was an "arrogant bastard back then," and he clearly flagellated himself about his selfish deeds for years afterwards. He berates himself for having broken the heart "of one kind girl," a reference to Burgoyne. In a searing passage in which he discusses his ensuing 17-year relationship with the Pogues bass player Cait O'Riordan, he suggests that he embarked on that eventually unhappy union because "I wanted to punish myself for the things I'd done. For my lack of gratitude. For all my vanity."
But when I suggest to him that he is his own harshest critic, he bridles. "If that's what you read, that's what's there," he says. "That's not what I set out to prove. I wasn't interested in writing a book that said, ‘Aren't I great'."
No, that's not what I was implying, I say, on the defensive myself now. Costello is leaning towards me as he speaks, his eyes unblinking behind his trademark spectacles. It's certainly a long way from the scraps he used to get into in the 70s, but there's a definite charge in the air.
"I'm not looking for pity," he says. "It's the way I see it. People who sit around honing their withering remarks have no idea how much harder on yourself you are than anybody else is. It's a failure to understand how this is even done. People who go, ‘That's all rubbish!' — you couldn't even write one of my songs, so what are you talking about? You wouldn't even know how to begin. You couldn't even write my worst song."
I'm a little taken aback. Where did that come from? It feels like we have both travelled back in time to the 70s and I have metamorphosed into one of those seedy Daily Mirror journalists in a stained mackintosh whose hostile interviews he obviously detested.
Do my questions make you uncomfortable, I ask, in an attempt to clear the air. "Are you kidding?" he says. "You're not even close." Then he giggles. And the air clears.
We move back on to safer ground — Costello's undiminished passion for songs. One of the notable qualities of his music is that several of his biggest hits were scorchingly political — "Oliver's Army" written after a visit to Belfast; "Less Than Zero" on the British fascist Oswald Mosley; and, of course, his heart-stopping lyrics evoking the contradictions of war in "Shipbuilding," the song that for many progressives summed up the Falklands War in 3min 4sec.
And yet Costello resists the label of political songwriter. "I never really thought of myself like that. I am sceptical about the realistic expectation of change through a song. I think you can delude yourself: ‘Well, I've written that now, that's that dealt with.' You could be self-satisfied, and I think there was a degree of that with the protest song."
But Shipbuilding resounds with an intense political anger, I say. "Yes, but I didn't think it was going to stop the war. I don't really want to be called political, because, you know, who is political? Politicians. How many of them do you want to call friends? Not very many."
His talk of politicians gives me an opening to ask him about his native England, which he quit for Ireland, then the US, and then Canada, where he now lives with his jazz-pianist wife, Diana Krall, and their eight-year-old twin sons, Dexter and Frank. No point beating about the bush: what does he think of David Cameron? "I try not to think about Cameron. I've just eaten!"
And Jeremy Corbyn? Costello says he's been amused by the way the rightwing press is portraying the new Labour leader as a major threat to British national security. "Corbyn can't actually change anything, even inside his own party. So what are they so afraid of, if not another opinion? He's just expressing views that are different from theirs — I thought that was democracy."
Though it's been 25 years since he left the UK, his ties at home remain strong through his eldest son, Matthew, Costello's mother, Lilian (who lives outside Liverpool) and, until his death in 2011, his father, Ross MacManus. To say that Costello was born into music is no exaggeration — his parents met over the counter of a record shop, MacManus was a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra and even Costello's grandfather, Pat, played trumpet on the White Star Line between Liverpool and New York.
Some of the most moving passages of Unfaithful Music relate to Costello's father, who taught him so much about a vocation in showbusiness. Poignantly, he notes that both his father and grandfather were in the end made redundant by technology: when Pat came off the liners he found he was made obsolete by talking pictures, and in Ross's case, his living as a live club performer was undermined by the advent of recorded backing tracks.
The world is changing even faster today, so isn't Costello fearful that technology will inflict the same fate on him? "Didn't it already do that?" he chuckles.
But let's not end on a downer. My reading of Unfaithful Music is that the pain he suffered in his early years, all that self-inflicted grief, is now behind him, and that he has learned to forgive himself. There is joy in his life now. Nice try. Not happening.
"If you're asking: am I happier now? No, I'm not happier now, because it's not a competition. Happy, yes. Grateful, yes. But it's not a contest between the reality of when I was this age and the way I am now. You can't have that. You don't get to do that. You get to live when you are living."