It comes as no surprise that one of the finest lyricists in British pop history can muster 673 pages of well-appointed words for his autobiography. Just as Elvis Costello’s songs are riddled with adventurous wordplay, puns and complex metaphors, so too his writing on all things Costello is consistently sharp and engaging, not to mention revealing.
“I am here to tell you that, among his many talents, David Bowie is very good at party games.” So opens Chapter 19, in which Costello unveils the Thin White Duke’s expertise in matters of 1980s pop trivia, while also relating how the two men first encountered each other as the only patrons in a New York Indian restaurant in 1978.
Bowie is a recurring presence in this mammoth tome, not least as the soundtrack, through his Berlin albums Low and Heroes to Costello’s early tours of Europe and the US, where the singer rode shotgun in the bus or station wagon with his bag of cassettes at the ready.
Much of the first half of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is dedicated to this voyage of discovery. Declan Patrick McManus, a London lad of Liverpool Irish lineage, is one of the few English artists who were able to ride the tidal wave of punk rock in the late 1970s and turn it into a 40-year-career.
With his first band, the Attractions, Costello adorned the charts regularly and was adored by critics, a distinctive singer and songwriter who could craft exquisite singles such as Alison, Watching the Detectives, Pump it Up and (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea, but was clearly a songwriter’s songwriter for whom the album was an equally fulfilling realisation of his art.
Here is a fascinating glimpse behind some of those great songs and into the multifaceted career that unfolded afterwards, one in which a who’s who of superstars, from Johnny Cash to Burt Bacharach, Bowie to Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn to Joni Mitchell, saunter into Costello’s orbit. Other than actual working collaborations, there are many chance meetings with famous folk that the singer documents with humility and no little wit.
“I was summoned to the balcony after a show at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, and was introduced to an unassuming man in a bandanna who looked as if he might have arrived directly from fixing a motorcycle. He laughed like steam escaping from a radiator.” Nice to meet you, Mr Springsteen.
Costello is the son of singer and musician Ross McManus, who spent many years as a member of the Joe Loss Orchestra, one of the most successful British dance bands of the post-World War II era. The younger McManus’s earliest taste of life as a muso was in such dance halls, hanging around in dressing rooms or in the stalls while his father played a matinee show. From the many passages about his father’s work and about other musicians he has encountered, it’s clear Costello has a passion for music, for its history and its many forms, from jazz to country to rock ’n’ roll. This willingness to learn and to absorb has informed his own music, but it also colours and adds sparkle to his writing in this book. He traces elegantly and powerfully his family history, growing up in London and Liverpool, working in a bank as his fledgling career gets under way, and digs deep into his Irish roots through the stories of his ancestors, including his grandfather, who also found some success as a musician, mainly working on cruise ships.
As one would expect of a 40-year life on the road, there are war stories aplenty, although Costello is coy about his on-the-road dalliances and quieter still about his first two marriages, to Mary Burgoyne when he was 20, and to Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. He’s more forthcoming and romantic about meeting his current wife, singer Diana Krall, and writes in some detail about their tentative courtship.
He addresses also two of the more sensational events of his life and career: the first his on/off relationship, partly during his first marriage, with American singer and fashion model Bebe Buell, who later claimed to have inspired many of Costello’s songs, something he has repeatedly dismissed. Mention of her is brief. “I should have known right then and there she meant to do me harm,” he notes, retelling her arrival on his doorstep with a full complement of luggage. He writes also of the death threats and career derailing in the US following his use of the N-word to describe James Brown and Ray Charles during a drunken brawl with members of American singer Stephen Stills’s band in Columbus, Ohio in 1979. “It took just five minutes to detach my tongue from my mind and my life from the rail it was on,” he writes.
Elsewhere Unfaithful Music is awash with great musical moments as Costello trailblazes through the US, Europe and Australia with the Attractions, on his own, with a variety of collaborators and later with his most recent outfit, the Imposters. He touches also on his flirtation with television journalism on his show Spectacle in the noughties, where he interviewed Lou Reed and Bono, among others. Throughout, Costello revels in the retelling of his life, as well he might. He is one of the most prolific and intelligent songwriters of his generation. His wisdom, wit and passion for his calling leap from almost every page here. “No animals or musicians were harmed during the writing of this book,” he writes in the acknowledgments.
Certainly, Unfaithful Music will do no harm to his reputation as an entertainer.
Iain Shedden is The Australian’s music writer.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
By Elvis Costello
Viking, 673pp, $34.99