San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 2015

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Elvis Costello is everywhere in new memoir


Aidin Vaziri

The most remarkable thing about Elvis Costello's hefty new memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, is how much he left out.

"There are albums not even mentioned by name," the 61-year-old songwriter says, during a recent press day in New York.

That's just one of the drawbacks of trying to stuff the details of a magnificent four-decade-long music career — during which our hero burst out of the British punk and New Wave scene and went on to conquer Nashville country, classical, funk and various other genres — into a mere 700 pages.

In fact, Costello doesn't spend much time on the mechanics of his output at all. Having written extensive liner notes for reissues of his landmark albums, detailing the stories behind the scenes of titles such as 1979's Armed Forces and 1982's Imperial Bedroom, he says, freed him up to explore the other facets of his life.


A little says a lot

Like Bob Dylan's Chronicles, the author eschews chronology for a more stream-of-conscious flow, skipping through various periods of his life, from his childhood in the English suburbs to his home now in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife, the jazz singer Diana Krall, and their twin sons, Dexter and Frank.

In between, we learn about angry young Elvis, pill-popping Elvis and promiscuous Elvis.

Yet Costello has a crafty way of avoiding the most intimate details of his personal life, preferring to say a lot with just a few words.

In one section, where he covers his doomed relationship with former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, he notes, "I went inside a room, turned off all the lights, and could not find the door. For eighteen years."

"It might seem strange I don't have more to say," Costello says. "But there's no compulsion to share every incident and pull people out into the spotlight for things they didn't ask for."

In other places, Costello aims to clarify the moments that have loomed large over his career, including his rivalry with Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas (not that bad!), his ban from Saturday Night Live for switching songs mid-performance (the move was inspired by Jimi Hendrix) and the infamous Holiday Inn incident in 1979 when he drunkenly lashed out at James Brown and Ray Charles with a flurry of racial epithets ("Never mind excuses, there are no excuses").


Musician moments

Costello also recounts his encounters with many of the musicians he very clearly still adores — and in many cases ended up working with — such as Paul McCartney, Chet Baker, George Jones, Burt Bacharach and Tony Bennett.

But Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus in 1954, devotes the most substantial passages of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink to his father, Ross McManus, a popular big-band musician of Irish descent whose decline from Parkinson's disease inspired the writer to get his memories on paper.

Even though he was primarily raised by his mother, Costello says, his father served as his portal into the world of music. He was the one who performed on a BBC special alongside the Beatles, Bacharach and Marlene Dietrich. He was the one who showed up at home with an acetate of "Please Please Me." He even wore those thick horn-rimmed glasses first.

"I was reminding myself that's where I began," Costello says.

Now that the first 700 pages are done, have the literary floodgates opened for Costello?

"I don't know if I will ever write a book again," he says. "It could be a pamphlet. It could be an instructional manual for a hot air balloon."

© 2015 San Francisco Chronicle

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San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 2015


Aidin Vaziri reviews Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

This review also appeared in the Albany Times Union


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