New Musical Express, July 26, 1986

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Elvis Costello: An Illustrated Biography / Mick St Michael

Adrian Thrills

There is a fascinating book to be written about the wonderfully chequered musical career of Declan Patrick MacManus. But, while the man's alter ego Elvis Costello has reigned practically unchallenged as Britain's most consistently brilliant songwriter for the past ten years, his history has never been satisfactorily chronicled.

And, for all its claims to be the "first major study of Costello's life and music," this paperback effort by one Mick St Michael — edited by former PR and freelance journalist Chris Charlesworth — stops short of being the definitive tome.

An obvious member of the "old school," the author bases far too many of his views on a "greasy spoon" perspective, continually refering to erstwhile Costello contemporaries like Graham Parker, "the Brinsleys" and those wacky folk at Stiff Records. So, while the early chapters do throw some new light on the singer's days as leader of country-folksters Flip City and a subsequent stint as DP Costello, an acoustic bard in the Bragg mould, they are also ludicrously over-awed by the pub-rock myths and mentalities of then Stiff supremos Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera. One of Costello's greatest virtues has always been his steadfast refusal to be so readily compartmentalised.

The author's critical faculties also seem frequently askew. Though he rightly selects the magnificent Trust as an often-neglected highpoint and pinpoints the glossy Armed Forces as a rare artistic nadir, the dismissal of the awesome Imperial Bedroom set is positively alarming.

As an "unauthorised" biog, a book like this is never going to give the fan any real insight into the artist's deeper motivations and St Michael's anecdotal and heavily factual approach does tend to leave the reader frustrated and eager to know more about how Costello himself actually felt at various points.

Perhaps the book's most interesting and revealing sections concern EC's Stateside forays. Right from the release of My Aim Is True in 1977, Elvis and manager Riviera were anxious for American success and their attempts to gain it—usually with mixed results— are captured in considerable detail here. Overshadowing all else is the infamous Ohio bar-room brawl with hippy refugee Steven Stills and white soul veteran Bonnie Bramlett, where a drunken Costello was alleged to have called Ray Charles "an ignorant blind nigger." Elvis later claimed that he was merely playing devil's advocate to get rid of two unwelcome drinking chums.

Though he was publicly forgiven by Charles himself and was later to apologise for the incident in a Rolling Stone "Elvis Repents" interview, the incident left a blemish on his career in the States. The American media were outraged and Costello hounded to the point where a New York club gig was picketed by Rock Against Racism activists.

Other American anecdotes are more light-hearted. The best is the story of Riviera, annoyed at the lack of support from the US record company, sending a vanload of shovels around to their offices with the message "if you really want to bury my act, I thought you could do with a little help!"

A few references to his former wife Mary Costello, Bebe Buell and Cait O'Riordan aside, the private life of this sensitive and secretive man is wisely left well alone. But it is not through the subsequent lack of any scam or scandal that this book falls down. It is the absence of that personal touch that renders it no more than a worthy but ultimately too distant account of a brilliant career.

There is a fascinating book to be written about the music of Elvis Costello, but it may well take the pen of Declan Patrick MacManus to do it.

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New Musical Express, July 26, 1986

Adrian Thrills reviews Elvis Costello: An Illustrated Biography.


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