Washington Post, May 30, 1999

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From punk rock to pop

Elvis Costello - A Biography / Tony Clayton-Lea

Richard Harrington

In the acknowledgments to Elvis Costello, Tony Clayton-Lea isn't kidding when he notes that "no author ever writes a book on their own." If one were to remove the extensive Costello quotations taken from assorted music magazines, this book wouldn't be a 243-page biography but a much slighter pamphlet.

Clayton-Lea did conduct interviews with Costello in 1991 and 1993, but they were for newspaper stories, hardly the stuff of biography. And he seems to have done no secondary interviews for this book, opting instead for a clip-and-paste job that's, at best, more carefully thought out than most such efforts. At least Clayton-Lea credits his sources in an endless litany of "he said in... he admitted to... he explained in..."

Costello, who according to Clayton-Lea, is "generally recognized as one of the best and most important songwriters in the vast plains of popular culture," refused to be interviewed for the book yet apparently made no effort to prevent the author from writing it. But he didn't allow Clayton-Lea to quote any lyrics, either, and that's a major drawback in what is clearly intended to be a critical, rather than a popular, biography.

That's too bad, because Clayton-Lea is squarely in his subject's corner as he traces Declan McManus's evolution into Elvis Costello, and his makeover from "pigeon-toed punk to the embodiment of musical eclecticism." The author doesn't hide his biases, either. Witness this rather wide demarcation line: "The motives of 1970s and 1980s music people were usually based on greed. Standing at the self-service counter of life, they took with both hands but gave back very little of substance. By comparison ... Costello was a role model for the integrity-fueled craftsman."

Costello's clearly a craftsman, but what has actually fueled him over an erratic, albeit prolific recording career dating to 1977 remains a mystery, perhaps as much to him as to his biographer, who never seems quite sure of his subject's commercial intentions. Early on, when Costello is still working as a computer programmer, he apparently has time "to formulate his ambitions for international success." But when that ambition begins to be realized, Clayton-Lea insists that "a pop star was the last thing [Costello] wanted to be. He resolutely defined himself as a songwriter, and not as an artist, nor indeed, as a product of the music industry."

Part of the problem was that Costello seemed caught between a craftsman's inherent privacy and a performer's public image, between his own canny pop instincts and the rawer punk aesthetic that ruled Britain in the late '70s. Costello, writes Clayton-Lea, "connected his own inherent songwriting classicism with the tenacity of punk rock, thereby making a subtle crossover from one to the other and vice versa. As a result, the under-twenties could empathize with the stance, while an older audience could appreciate the melodies and influences."

Clayton-Lea would have you think that as Costello made his transition "from suburban bibliophile and computer operator to a Buddy Holly look-alike from Generation X" it was partly a marketing plan to make him look "the identikit skinny punk rocker," but what separated Costello from many of his contemporaries was substance, not style. Costello's punk/pub rock lineage certainly explained the anger, cynicism, and emotional self-laceration that inform so much of his writing, but his first four albums — 1977's My Aim Is True, 1978's This Year's Model, 1979's Armed Forces and 1980's Get Happy — are models of ambition, accomplishment and stylistic variety.

Beyond that sterling quartet, the Costello catalog becomes more problematic, and Clayton-Lea, like Costello, places blame on several factors, including record company bungling, particularly in America; pop radio's limited playlist; Costello's war of attrition with a music media that had once found him fashionable and newsworthy; and substance abuse. And, inevitably, a "descent into the rock world's twilight zone, a cocooned and cosseted play area for adults where pretty much everything was easy to come by, especially if you happened to be one of the newest and hottest rock and roll properties around. A lifestyle imbued by emotional pornography, endless yes men and hedonism to order, weakened [Costello's] sensitivity to others."

Particularly to James Brown and Ray Charles, whose reputations were dismissed in incautiously racist terms by a very drunk Costello in a Columbus, Ohio, hotel bar in February of 1979. That convoluted incident and its consequences, particularly in terms of public perception, occupy 12 of the book's 204 pages of text, more than any other single project or event. Next are Costello's latter-day collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and minor British pop thrush Wendy James and his ill-fated album of covers — not the Costello works that most fans would want to know more about or that curious readers might want to discover for the first time.

What's made Costello interesting to many fans — and infuriating to others — is his eclecticism, his willingness to explore new territory. Sometimes it's worked, as with the lush orchestrations that belie the crushed romanticism of Imperial Bedroom and its companion confessional, King of America. More often it hasn't, as with the misfired country of Almost Blue and the ponderous Mighty Like a Rose.

Clayton-Lea breaks Costello's 23 albums down as much as he can, but lyrics clearly would have illuminated the discussion. Instead, we get mouthfuls such as "the only way someone as private as Costello can say what he thinks through a song is to sift through what is real and what is not and layer the chosen lines with enough ambiguities and verbal resonances to confuse even the most erudite listener." Or reader, for that matter.

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The Washington Post, May 30, 1999


Richard Harrington reviews Elvis Costello - A Biography by Tony Clayton-Lea.


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