London Times, October 17, 2015

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Elvis Costello / Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Will Hodgkinson

The singer has some fine stories but this memoir is way too long, says Will Hodgkinson

There is an advertisement etched into the memory of anyone who grew up in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. It features a man in pyjamas creeping down the stairs at night and confessing to being a secret lemonade drinker. "I've been trying to give it up but it's one of those nights," sings the man in an Elvis Presley twang as he opens the fridge and pours a glass of R Whites lemonade. The singer (although not, contrary to popular myth, the actor) was Ross MacManus, matinee star of the Joe Loss Orchestra and father of Declan MacManus, aka Elvis Costello.

"When my father died in 2011, all the other achievements of his career were laid aside as tabloids sensitively noted his passing under the headline 'Secret Lemonade Drinker Dies'," Costello writes, with more than a touch of self-righteousness, in a memoir in which the ghost of his father hangs heavy.

Ross MacManus certainly comes across as a colourful figure. A diminutive womaniser who "would always attempt to seduce the tallest woman in the room", MacManus Sr jumped on to the hippy bandwagon by touring working men's clubs in love beads, enjoyed a sideline in judging beauty contests, and was charming enough to be forgiven for his myriad indiscretions by two ex-wives, not to mention his son. Costello, despite being a moody rock star and the author of the spiky classics "Oliver's Army" and "Watching the Detectives," cannot match up to such charisma, and the subtext to so many reminiscences on his father is that he knows it.

Unfaithful Music is better written than the average rock memoir. "Songs can be an education, a seduction, some solace in heartache, a valve for anger, a passport, your undoing, or even a lottery ticket," Costello says on why he writes. However, the book suffers from the failing of so many memoirs by so many rock stars: it is too long. Why is it that editors can rein in, stand up to, get the best out of authors known and unknown, yet they cave in when a famous musician, untrained in form, structure and leaving out more than they put in, comes along? It's a situation that benefits nobody, least of all the famous musician.

Costello's decision to eschew chronological narrative in favour of jumping backwards and forwards while loosely grouping childhood events with relevant songs and future career moments doesn't help. It makes the story difficult to follow. We face excruciating detail about everything from early days in folk clubs in the 1970s to the indignities of miming on Top of the Pops and the horrors of dealing with lesser minds. "To this day the Daily Mail persists with small-minded, prurient, xenophobic content to titillate and stoke the indignation of the impotent suburban petty fascist," he puffs, in a stoking of indignation that would do impotent suburban petty fascists proud, whoever they might be. Still, Costello has lived through interesting times and when he gets off his high horse and lightens up he has great stories to tell.

Anything revealing about the mystery wrapped in an enigma that is Bob Dylan is always fascinating and Costello's dispatches from his 2007 tour with the unknowable bard make up the book's highlight. Dylan agrees to Costello's request to do a live duet of "Tears of Rage," only to change the song half way through without telling him.

Before one concert Dylan is in an unusually jovial mood, teasing Costello about his use of the word "amanuensis", and then they take a wrong turn and find themselves standing in the car park, locked out of the venue. "A couple of guys in washed-out, well-loved Dylan-tour T-shirts squinted in our direction and kept walking, assuming we must be a couple of jokers who had come to the show in drag," Costello writes. "Not a single person spoke to us as we circled the building through the gathering crowd."

Then there was the time Costello made the mistake of being billed above Dylan at an Australian festival. Dylan is famous for frustrating his fans with obscure or unintelligible performances but this time he performed one classic after another, "Like a Rolling Stone" to "Highway 61 Revisited" included, sending the crowd into a frenzy of joy. When the set ended, Costello watched helplessly from the wings as Dylan came towards him with a jaunty skip and shuffle. "'There you go. I've softened 'em up for you,' he said as he passed."

Passages such as this remind us why Costello is one of the great songwriters of the 20th century. It's funny, observant and clear of purpose. There are other good moments in Unfaithful Music, too — the way he describes falling in love with his third wife, the Canadian singer and pianist Diana Krall, is touching and romantic, and an anecdote about meeting Jerry Lee Lewis and being instructed not to let the Killer know his name is Elvis at any cost is priceless — his rivalry with Presley was legendary — there's just too much that doesn't need to be here; too much you suspect Costello's jovial, fun-loving dad, trained to hold the attention of audiences in the working men's clubs he performed in, would have known to leave out.

Still, Unfaithful Music teaches us two important things. The first is that the 61-year-old Elvis Costello is a former computer operator turned world-famous singer who has tried and for the most part succeeded in, as he puts it, writing songs "that made both sense and magic out of our petty struggles to get on with everyday life". The second is that, from now on, editors shouldn't sign off on rock memoirs without weighing them first.


The Times, Saturday Review, October 17, 2015

Will Hodgkinson reviews Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.


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Page scan.

Photo by Chris Gabrin.
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Photo by Ross Gilmore.
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