Kitty Empire enjoys a long-awaited typically idiosyncratic memoir by the singer-songwriter
You learn to dread the autobiographies of our most literate pop stars; to read them tensed for the letdown. The last major beast of the lyrical jungle to publish an autobiography through Penguin — Morrissey — came out with writing that was both purple and petulant. Maybe the succinctness of the three-minute pop song serves some wits better than the long form.
At 688 pages, the life work of Elvis Costello is a whopper — written elliptically, episodically, beautifully and infuriatingly by turns. "The first time ever he saw my face, Ewan MacColl promptly fell asleep," is a typical pose. Never particularly given to straight answers where five densely allusive stanzas on the next album will do, Costello probably thinks chronology is for pedants. He's not born until chapter six. He's born again, in chapter 25, and not in the Christian sense. As with his beloved grandmother — laid low by Alzheimer's, immortalised in his 1989 collaboration with Paul McCartney, "Veronica" — the near past and distant past are a continuum here. We start in 1961, we jump to 1980, then back to 1972.
On the one hand, this flitting about could be seen as bloody-minded — typical of the irritant "Elvis Costello" persona created in the crucible of the late 1970s music press, a process the man born Declan MacManus documents persuasively. His very first interviews traditionally found him combative and high on self-belief (actually stricken by vertigo and Pemod, he says now).
On the other hand, this chronology follows the musician's temporal logic, travelling through the wormhole of one song to its situational source material, to another song on the subject; Costello is generous with the explanations. There is no index, so anyone active in Costello's timeline out-of-favour bandmates, mistresses like Bebe Buell, former Melody Maker editors, Ray Charles — wishing to look themselves up will have to work at it. The cameos are dizzying. Here Costello is, suggesting octave bass fills to McCartney, watching June Carter Cash dust, roping his neighbour, Van Morrison, into doing something on TV. (Only Shane MacGowan is "contemptuous of him".)
It is a shame that Costello isn't held in greater regard by today's hip young things; a geek-chic revival has come and gone without the rehabilitation of the bespectacled former computer programmer. But then, it is hard to reconcile the latter-day Costello — smug wearer of jazz hats, buddy of greats, prone to composing opera scores starring Sting with the quasi-punk, 1980s-cusp Costello, who lent his song titles to books by Nick Homby (High Fidelity) and Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero)
Back then, a Dominion theatre billboard of him towered over the centre of the universe (well, the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road); Stiff Records label boss Jake Riviera (strangely smaller than life here) dreamed up publicity stunts and toured him relentlessly, while Costello necked the pills and gin that came with the job.
The deranged surliness of the era dovetailed with Costello's own vitriolic disillusionment with love; the Thatcher era and the Falklands war with Costello's own, partly ancestral, suspicion of entrenched power, rendered in magnificent fashion in songs such as "Shipbuilding" (written for Robert Wyatt) and "Tramp the Dirt Down."
The son of a big band singer, Ross MacManus, and the grandson of a musician who performed on the White Star liners, Pat MacManus, Costello positions himself here in a line of Scouse-Irish griots — one so musical his very birth was announced in the NME (the cutting is reproduced).
There is no begrudging Costello his floor in the tower of song: the man's knowledge is breathtaking. But pages are given over to who played bass on collaborations with Burt Bacharach or Allen Toussaint; a musician giving other musicians their due but his readers eye strain.
"The only two things that motivate me... are revenge and guilt," Costello once said; it is unfair to hold him to it 40 years later. But that's the grist of most autobiographies. There is surprisingly little score-settling here, and a decent amount of self-flagellation at having destroyed relationships, echoing his father's own philandering. For all his contrition, though, Costello sometimes writes of his emotional life with a rueful, writerly distance; feeling implied, not stated. "I held another man's daughter in my arms," he says. Contrast this with the invective he hurls at the betrayal of New Orleans (see also The River in Reverse), or the time he loses his precious notebook.
He tackles the right incident head-on Just as David Bowie's Sieg Heil kept printing presses running for months, the time in 1979 when a drunken Costello got into a bar fight and referred to Ray Charles in words that cannot be reprinted here tainted Costello's reputation for many years. He offers a chapter of context and chagrin. He's particularly good on the irony of being punched that night by a woman singer — Bonnie Bramlett — given the gendered bitterness of his own songwriting. Costello can't understand being called a misogynist, either, when he is just documenting how people hurt each other in so many ways. But in Costello's own, potent words, he did try "to find the corridor between the bedchamber and the war rooms". In this autobiography. that tension is now moot, overridden by a greater sense of compassion.
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