London Sun, November 6, 2015
I used to say inflammatory things…
In 1977, there was a real buzz around the sharp-dressed singer with the black horn-rims and a head full of attitude.
Punk had come kicking and screaming on to the scene but single-minded Elvis Costello didn't consider himself part of any movement.
"Only the really bad groups aligned themselves," he says today. "They did it instead of having an idea.
"All the original people had singular ideals . . . The Clash for sure, even The Jam.
"Joe Strummer was great and, whenever our paths crossed, I knew he was made of the right stuff.
"The first time I saw Paul Weller, I thought, ‘He's completely one of a kind'."
Costello, of course, is another true one-off and thanks to his dad and grandad, both singers, all kinds of music are embedded in his DNA.
Back then, however, it felt like the arrival of a classic "angry young man" armed with pithy lyrics and an uncompromising sound.
Even his bitter love song I'm Not Angry from debut album My Aim Is True was actually pretty, ahem, angry.
"I was angry about everything," he admits. "I was emphatic about what I was saying and I still am."
Beneath the surface, the man born Declan Patrick MacManus was a thoughtful, multidimensional artist.
Now he's happy to shed light on his younger self: "They were not all just ‘I'm angry about this or that' songs. They have a lot more tenderness or a lot more complexity.
"Read the lyrics, read them," he implores me before rattling off lines from This Year's Girl, a song from his second album, 1978's This Year's Model, the first with The Attractions.
"See her picture in a thousand places, 'cause she's this year's girl.'
He pauses before continuing: "Forget your fancy manners, forget your English grammar, 'cause you don't really give a damn."
Costello says: "That's not hatred. That's pointing at someone and saying to them, ‘You're looking at her like that, the problem's just in your head.
"But you want to hear angry? Listen to Mighty Like A Rose (his dark 13th studio album from 1991), that's an angry record. It's all in the lyrics though."
I'm sitting with 61-year-old Costello in a small coffee shop not far from the main drag of Knightsbridge in West London.
We're thousands of miles from his home in Vancouver, Canada, where he lives with his wife, the jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, and their twin sons Dexter and Frank.
The trademark hat and glasses are present and correct. Up close, across a small table, it feels as if the years have been kind to this music titan.
The purpose of our rendezvous is to discuss his rollicking autobiography, a weighty tome of 670 pages, called Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.
For an hour, I get the chance to peel away the layers of an artist with one of the longest and most varied careers in music.
We get on to the subject of his "angry" early image because there's a hilarious description in the book of Costello's encounter with a seedy Red Top reporter (not from The Sun, I hasten to add).
All the writer cares about is "the girrrls" that might be throwing themselves in front of the budding pop star. "He was really like a Paul Whitehouse character," says Costello. "I was fairly naive and, at 22, hadn't been out in the world enough to have these lurid experiences. It was just farcical to ask me that stuff.
"I learned quickly though. I started saying a bunch of inflammatory things. I thought, ‘Wow! That works. What, they really bought that? That's unbelievable! Let's do some more of that. Maybe this could be the smokescreen behind which I can work'.
"Though I had perfectly good songs, I realised I needed to speak up a bit more and not assume I'd get people's attention.
"Most of the musicians I liked had won themselves an audience. Randy Newman would do these funny little asides and people were there hanging on his every word.
"I hadn't won the right to expect that yet, even if all the songs I wrote were imagining his kind of audience.
"Some songs I sing now in my concerts are the ones I wrote immediately before (debut album) My Aim Is True and there's a couple that require me to have an audience who are prepared to listen."
Over the decades, music chameleon Costello has gone way beyond the constraints of bog standard pop and rock.
A mere four years after his debut album, he wrote a country music album, Almost Blue.
In the late Nineties, he made a fine record with the great American songwriter Burt Bacharach called Painted From Memory, and there's more to come from that partnership.
Then there's his work with classical ensemble The Brodsky Quartet, his ballet score Il Sogno, and his album with New Orleans jazz pianist Allen Toussaint.
His latest offering even finds him collaborating with Questlove of hip-hop outfit The Roots.
A key reason for such wide variation springs from Costello's upbringing, first in humble rented accommodation in Olympia and then at a more salubrious maisonette in Hounslow under the Heathrow flight path.
His beloved dad Ross MacManus, vocalist and trumpet player with the Joe Loss Orchestra in the Fifties and Sixties, would practise in front of the young Declan.
In his book, Costello vividly describes how he was more likely to hear emotionally wrought songs by Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra than Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock, which left him "cold".
He tells me: "My folks weren't that well-off but my dad made a decent income. The records my parents listened to for pleasure were just on in the house and became as familiar as a chair or a pattern on the curtains.
"I didn't ponder them or understand them when I was a child but they stuck inside me.
"I was familiar with The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning but only when you've lived the life that's in the song, you go, ‘Oh that's what it's about.' Maybe I was a little precocious, emotionally. I was innocent like any other kid but I'm lucky I got a glimpse of that music and I didn't see any fear in different types of music.
"Oddly enough I didn't know any rock 'n' roll until The Beatles because my folks just didn't listen to it . . . they just listened to jazz."
With he caught the music bug, Costello resorted to making a cardboard guitar.
"It was all part of the learning," he says. "I learned the idiotic jumping around while pretending to play it. That actually stood me in good stead.
"You'll notice lip-synching crops up a lot in the book because I did years of it on Top Of The Pops before people heard my actual voice at Live Aid."
But it was a day in 1963 that proved most pivotal . . . the day Declan MacManus heard his dad practising Beatles' song Please Please Me. He was blown away and asked if he could keep the Parlophone promo copy.
"When I try to describe that scene now, a couple of things spring to mind," he reports. "One is the physicality of hearing my dad's voice vibrate the glass in the front room window.
"And the other is that I might have asked for a different record he was learning, which was by folk singer John Leyton.
"With all due respect to John Leyton, it would have been a very different career if my obsession had been a corny folk song."
There are fascinating chapters where readers get a chance to find out all the music Costello loved in the years before his recording career.
For instance, he was obsessed with Joni Mitchell's album Blue and saved up precious pennies to see Little Feat's intoxicating brand of Southern soul-rock.
We learn how important Bob Dylan's seminal double album Blonde On Blonde was to him . . . and hear of subsequent, enigmatic encounters with the great man.
You get a glimpse of what Costello's life might have been like had he not followed his father into music, including jobs for the Midland Bank (later taken over by HSBC) and cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden. It charts his time in Liverpool where he moved with mum Lilian after his parents split up and how he became a lifelong fan of the Reds.
Not only did he find himself in the birthplace of his heroes, The Beatles, one day he also wrote songs with Paul McCartney.
"That is weird but when you think about it, it was just a coincidence," he says. "I'm not downplaying writing with Paul McCartney — it's nice to know we wrote a couple of hit records.
"Working with Paul stands out as a unique experience but it's not like I need a lot of help to write a song. I've had lots of collaborations and they've taken on different forms.
"Some have been the music, others the odd word added to a song. Some have been where I've appeared on people's records. They all matter to me."
And what's his take on living with a stage name? "I didn't have time to think about it. One day, I came in and Dave Robertson from Stiff Records was having a go at making a name that looked better on a play bill.
"I was adopting the family name Costello so it didn't feel like I was denying my origins.
"The Elvis thing on the other hand, I thought, ‘Are you out of your mind?'
"But then it was the same era as Johnny Rotten . . . not that unusual? Or Lightnin' Hopkins and Count Basie from way before."
I ask Costello if he ever thought he was losing his way. "Definitely . . . lots of times!" he answers.
"Not ever musically but there were different times where I thought, ‘This has got to stop, I've got to get out of here'. Some were more dramatic than others, some more personal.
"If you write about things you might be proud of, you've also got to take responsibility for things that are painful."
Costello writes movingly about the passing of his father in 2011 and says: "It's difficult to say goodbye to anyone you love, in any circumstances.
"But my dad had a great life and although I've described his last days painfully, a song The Birds Will Still Be Singing (from the Brodsky album), which was his favourite of mine, is a source of comfort."
He says that his elderly mum is enjoying his book.
"She's reading and listening to me reading it. It's nice for her because she can hear me say it to her. Her eyesight's not that good.
"Some things will probably make her sad. Like I say, she doesn't like I Want To Vanish because it was written in a bleak period of my life.
"When I look at the songs I wrote around the end of Nineties now, it's very clear what was on my mind even if I didn't say it out loud. Just read the titles — In the Darkest Place, My Dark Life . . . you don't have to be a genius to work out what's going on."
And how much did meeting Diana help?
"She lost her mum at 16 and that's very hard for a young woman to get through, so maybe I understood some things and we were together at the right moment.
"We work hard. We are not together as a family much right now because she got poorly last year and cancelled lots of dates.
"This year has been a very difficult year with our schedules not being lined up. But there's lots of working people who go to work as their kids are getting up and they come home after their kids are asleep.
"So if I'm away for three weeks or four weeks, the rest of the time I'm with my kids the whole time, which is something, to my shame, I couldn't manage with the others.
"I've tried to learn from all of my mistakes and there's two of us trying get things right."
It's a heartfelt way for Costello to bring our chat to a close and I'm left with an over-riding thought.
There are people who have "lives in music". And there's Elvis Costello.
The Sun, November, 2015
Simon Cosyns profiles Elvis Costello.