Elvis Costello’s reputation for wordiness is so notorious that he even recalls Bob Dylan teasing his “highfalutin language”. “I can’t believe you used 'amanuensis’ in a sentence,” is Dylan’s sardonic response to Costello’s suggestion he hire a transcriber. “You could ask 20 people and they wouldn’t know what 'amanuensis’ meant.”
Costello fans will be impressed but perhaps a little daunted to learn that no amanuensis was used in the creation of this book. Following the example of such other notable lyricists as Morrissey, Neil Young and Dylan himself, Costello has composed his own hefty autobiographical tome, taking the kind of meandering, self-indulgent and idiosyncratic path through his affairs that would see a ghostwriter sacked on the spot and leave editors weeping.
Both fascinating and frustrating, the result is, at least, utterly authentic and reveals much about Britain’s most brilliant songwriter of the post-punk era.
Costello, real name Declan Patrick McManus, tacks backwards and forwards through his life. Yet the bones of another, earlier draft remain confusingly visible in the form of excerpts from short stories featuring an unappetising pop star named Percy Inch. It is an audacious approach that gives Costello scope for fascinating digression, but also leaves room for evasion.
Why he might crave this wriggle room soon becomes apparent. Sex and drugs are the titillating backbone of many a rock and roll tale but I don’t think I have ever read a pop autobiography quite so riven by guilt, shame and self-reproach. The musician, who has been married three times and is the father of three sons, remains mortified at the way he sabotaged his first marriage. His peculiar affair with groupie Bebe Buell is alluded to elliptically while he can’t even bring himself to repeat the words that led to his American stardom crashing in 1982, when he drunkenly slandered Ray Charles as “a blind, ignorant n----r”, which he blames on, “too much time talking chemically altered nonsense and laughing at my own jokes”.
“The trouble with finishing any autobiographical tome,” Costello acknowledges, “is that for every mildly diverting tale or precious memory, you eventually arrive at this thought: I don’t much care for the subject.” It is a danger implicit in any genuinely honest biography, flawed creatures that we are, yet Costello ultimately emerges as a clever, compassionate, self-aware man, brave enough to acknowledge his faults and fortunate enough to have overcome the worst of them.