Elvis Costello’s autobiography doesnt seem to know when to STFU.
‘Death wears a big hat,’ Elvis Costello once sang, ‘because he’s a big bloke.’ No doubt Death would write a big memoir, too. But he’d probably stop short of the 670 pages of Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.
True, Costello is the best songwriter of his generation. But then Bob Dylan is the best songwriter of his generation, and many other generations besides, and he managed to keep Chronicles down to 300 pages.
The problem is, Costello has so many strings to his bow, and he wants to play them all.
Loving son, faithless first-time husband atoning for his sins; a pop star off his face on gin, vodka, ‘little white pills’, you name it, followed by a more abstemious ‘second act’ of ever-expanding depth (if not listenability); music fan extraordinaire, music collaborator extraordinaire; loyal second-time husband to jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall (with a 17-year relationship with ex-Pogue Cait O’Riordan in between marriages), doting father of three …
Costello needed someone to help him – or make him – see the wood for the trees. What he got instead was Penguin Books, where he follows Morrissey as beneficiary of the publisher’s besotted indulgence. Morrissey was allowed to demand Penguin Classics status for his mess of an autobiography and then to release an appalling novel, List of the Lost. Costello has been given free rein to fire off every last name-dropping anecdote in his arsenal, lurching from one to the other with all the finesse of a drunk kangaroo.
There’s a good book, possibly even two good books, trapped inside Unfaithful Music, but they’re wearing the fat suit of a third.
The first of the books is the tender evocation of Costello’s relationship with his father, Ross MacManus, old-school crooner with Britain’s Joe Loss Orchestra during the 1960s when such dance bands were enjoying their last hurrah before obsolescence as a result of the musical revolution wrought by The Beatles.
MacManus and his professional and personal worlds are in many ways the best things in Unfaithful Music, and Costello is at his best writing about them: be it his childhood glimpses of the Joe Loss Orchestra at work; MacManus’s bachelor pad after breaking up with Costello’s mother, with its bathroom papered with pages from Playboy; or MacManus’s unlikely embracing of psychedelia in his post-Joe Loss years on the cabaret circuit of northern workingmen’s clubs.
A memoir more tightly focused on MacManus would have had the charm of Ben Watt’s book about his parents, Romany and Tom.
The second book inside Unfaithful Music is Costello’s account of the first half of his career, which gives us the opportunity to finally – at least partially – decipher some of the most densely packed and cryptically worded lyrics of the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s, from that pretty much faultless run of albums My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, Trust, Imperial Bedroom, Punch the Clock, Goodbye Cruel World, King of America, Blood and Chocolate and Spike. A run that ended with 1991’s tin-eared Mighty Like a Rose and has never been recovered.
Costello proves, like Dylan, to have been a collagist, storing up lines and ideas sometimes for years before finding a home for them within a song, where they would make perfect sense even if you didn’t necessarily know what they meant.
He also proves to have been something we might not have expected: a confessional songwriter. His was not a regular and orderly life so he could be violent and original in his work – or, in his case, scathing of the moral and sexual squalor around him. That squalor was his life. The bile came from within, and was aimed at within. And all the time he was hiding in plain sight. A song like Shabby Doll on Imperial Bedroom wasn’t him putting on a mask; it was him taking one off.
Not that we can be blamed for missing this at the time. It’s not mentioned here, but in a 1981 South Bank Show about him making country standards album Almost Blue in Nashville, he was at pains to tell us all those songs of betrayal and heartbreak were being recorded by a man who was happily married.
Even in Unfaithful Music, you need your wits about you to put it all together. Costello certainly doesn’t intend to leave us under any illusions: ‘The trouble with finishing any autobiographical tome like this is that for every mildly diverting tale or precious memory, you eventually arrive at this thought: I don’t much care for the subject.’
Or: ‘Almost Blue was something of a Houdini act for me. I felt as if I’d slipped out of those tricky, bitter little songs that only appealed to a certain kind of creep.’ (A certain kind of creep? Thanks, mate.)
Or: ‘Implicit in so many of the records I brought home to play to her [his mother] was the thought Look, Ma, look at the mess I’ve made of my life. Lucky I know how to write songs about it.’
But for all his candour, Costello can be opaque, and sometimes you’ll only know what he’s getting at if you’ve read around the subject beforehand – eg, his toxic relationship with the Attractions’ bass player, Bruce Thomas (see Thomas’ 1990 roman à clef The Big Wheel), and the bleakness of his life with O’Riordan (better understood in the light of this Irish Independent interview).
While self-laceration provides Unfaithful Music with its most compelling drama, not to say psychodrama, the lack of reflection in the endless anecdotes that bulk out the book proves its undoing.
It may be a tautology to complain about a memoir being solipsistic, but this one starts to feel that way, with so many greats of the musical firmament only getting a walk-on part because of how they’ve come into Costello’s orbit and give rise to a story he can tell. It diminishes them, and him. He’s such a good writer about music (as evidenced elsewhere in the book and in those Vanity Fair pieces of his over the years), and these tired tales don’t have the capacity to show so.
One could live with the sloppy editing, the random shifts in time and place, and the tics that come and go – the indecision about naming (Charlie/Gillett/Mr Gillett); the weaving of song titles and lines into the text, accompanied by an implied knowing wink; the excerpts from hitherto unpublished stabs at fiction. (Although, given Morrissey’s List of the Lost, possibly not unpublished for much longer.)
But just as late-period Costello’s music has tended to founder on his conservative obeisance to classic forms (his 2013 album with The Roots, Wise Up Ghost, being a rare exception and cause for surprise), so his book founders on its humblebrags about hanging out with the masters of those forms.
The man who was banned from Saturday Night Live in 1977, after on air and without warning dumping the approved song and instead bursting into a seditious rendition of Radio Radio, is now clutched firmly to the bosom of the music and broadcasting establishments and not about to break ranks. Instead we get reheated witticisms and cloying chumminess.
That’s to say, we get the meat and potatoes of your bog-standard rock memoir. The fodder of the chatshow sofa. Something Unfaithful Music sets out not to be, so often isn’t, and could happily have avoided altogether.
The book could stand another mowing.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, by Elvis Costello (Penguin/Viking) is available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.