London Observer, October 24, 2004

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London Observer

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Being Elvis Costello

Phil Hogan

This biography of one of our greatest rock stars will please everyone, except its subject

That this is the first attempt to offer more than a perfunctory life-in-progress of Britain's most gifted living songwriter says a lot about the task. Not only has Costello been happy to keep his pre-Elvis days a mystery — and no pop artist guarded his secrets with a greater sense of physical menace — but in the years since his gawky genius first excited the punk prophets of 1977, his career has not been one to invite simple categorisation.

Who among those early devotees could have imagined their laureate of uneasy listening smooching at the baby grand with Burt Bacharach or, more recently, labouring over his first full-length orchestral score, for an Italian ballet? This is what Elvis Costello has most recently come to, though he is still everything else, too, having long turned himself into a walking agglomeration of musical genres, a man constantly adding difficult new formulae to the sum of his parts. His new pop albums range from jazzy ballads and country laments to electronic noodling and noisy bass, piano'n'dustbin lid workouts.

Few question his sincerity or his reputation as a musical polyglot. But keeping one step ahead of his critics — not to say his fans, many of whom evaporated after his earlier, funnier albums, or his record companies, who have despaired at, rather than celebrated, his restless invention — has been an occupational hazard.

Never one to wait until he'd crossed his bridges before burning them, Costello has successfully alienated comers of all stripes in his determination to do exactly what he has wanted and sod the consequences. Where the impetus of punk faded, Costello's personal revolution shows no sign of flagging. But the thing that keeps him going — this refusal to let his achievements coalesce into a readily appraisable body of work — also tests the constancy of his admirers. "I want to be loved," he once sang, but not at just any price. He doesn't want to be loved for "Oliver's Army."

In this book, pieced together with industry and care from a wide trawl of Costello's collaborators, schoolmates, foes, old lovers and anyone else who would open the door to its author, Graeme Thomson identifies a controlling motif in Costello's militant tendency, especially in the early years. He chooses as his prologue the now infamous "Holiday Inn incident" in which, on the eve of what promised to be a triumphant US tour, Elvis engineered a drunken bar-room row with Stephen Stills, and — for the devil of it — dismissed Ray Charles as an "ignorant, blind nigger." The devil duly responded with a media frenzy, death threats and headless chickens in suits at CBS. It would be hard to plan a career sabotage so replete with options.

But where, you wonder, did the anger and obstinacy come from? Why did Elvis make it so difficult for himself? You could point to the mood of the times but why did the mood suit him so well? Signs of his trademark impatience, cussedness and blind arrogance lurk in every chapter of this chronicle, album by album, tour by tour and, yes, blow by blow.

His childhood in a west London suburb gave the young Declan Patrick MacManus no obvious grounds for complaint. True, he was thrown out of his primary school choir for singing too loud, but he could hardly have wished for more laidback parents. His father, Ross MacManus, was an accomplished jazz trumpeter and, later, lead singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra; his mother, who worked at Selfridges in the record department, filled the house with Peggy Lee and Dizzy Gillespie. Friends of the teenage Declan visiting the MacManus household might find Mrs M enthusing about Neil Young or the Grateful Dead's new album.

But Thomson sees in Elvis's peculiar single-mindedness a reaction to the sacrifice his father made in hanging up his beloved jazz trumpet for the paying work of the big band vocalist. It was this determination allied with a wholly impregnable self-belief that sustained DP Costello (as he first styled himself) through years as a bottom-of-the-bill songwriter and performer in Liverpool and London, years in which the unlimited opportunities to be overlooked, sidelined, unappreciated and misunderstood fuelled a smouldering sense of affront. By the time the world was ready to embrace him, he was ready to explode in its hands.

The crippling tour schedule that accompanied success may not have been good for Costello's sanity, but amid the fights, drugs, booze and furious sexual shenanigans (his band, the Attractions, were parodically rock 'n' roll) is a story of prodigious creativity, with Elvis writing scores of songs — on the bus, in hotel rooms, amid the mayhem, or just in the course of waiting for one or other of the band to be released from casualty or police custody (they were fined 4,000 yen in Tokyo for 'making a noise in the street').

Costello is much quieter these days. The world may still be asking the same dumb question (so, Elvis, why are you doing this sort of music when you should be doing that?), but his public responses now are characterised by patience, charm and a mission to explain, often at great length. Those who feel Costello is still overlooked (in Britain at any rate; the Americans are still busy putting him up for Emmys and Oscars and halls of greatness) will welcome this book as a substantive record of the man's energy and brilliance after nearly 30 years of standing up when we might have expected him to be falling down.

Elvis anoraks will sally forth into its blizzard of detail. The curious fan will find critical nuggets enough to return to the songs with a fresh ear. Costello will hate it, of course, but until he writes his own version of events, he shouldn't blame the rest of us too much for taking an interest.

© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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The Observer, October 24, 2004

Phil Hogan reviews Graeme Thomson's Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello.


2004-10-24 London Observer clipping 1.jpg
Clipping composite.

Photo by Tim Kent.
2004-10-24 London Observer photo 01 tk.jpg


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