Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2016 Jan-Feb Contents Elvis Costello, or Declan MacManus as he was born, has
come a long way since his humble birth in West Kensington
in 1954. Even today, I have trouble associating the slightly
arrogant and ‘spiky’ young Elvis, composer of immortal new
wave hits like ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘Watching The Detectives’,
with the thoroughly respectable present-day Elvis, who
mingles comfortably with music royalty, performs opera with
Sting, and who is married to jazz pianist Dianna Krall.
For a singer who first made his name with concise three-
minute songs, it comes as a surprise to pick up the sheer
heft of this 670-page memoir. More impressively, it has been
written by Costello himself, unlike the many ghost-written
‘autobiographies’ that hit the shelves each week.
Costello’s book shuns strict chronology, preferring to flit
around ceaselessly, jumping back and forth from decade
to decade, theme to theme, riffing on a childhood moment
one minute, a recent performance the next. While some
may find this frustrating, it strikes me as analogous to how
memory works – life, after all, is anything but a singular
road, even more so in Costello’s case. Most telling are the
pages devoted to his father, a trumpeter and singer whose
death a few years appears to have triggered many of these
memories. It is uncanny how alike Costello and his dad
looked at the same age, and Ross MacManus’s peripatetic
life, singing in dance bands and country clubs, plays out in stark contrast to his son’s fame. Costello’s book goes
some way to paying the musical debt he owes his dad.
While Costello is hard on himself throughout, blaming some of his early bad behaviour on social ineptness,
‘chemicals’ or drink, he is surprisingly generous to the many musicians he has worked with; in fact, he barely has
a bad word to say. While frustratingly protective when it comes to ‘no go’ zones of his personal life, particularly
his marriages and relationships – first wife Mary and long-term partner Caitlin O’Riordin are alluded to only
briefly – he is alternatively unstoppable when it comes to his life-long relationship with music, beginning with
a childhood moment in 1963 when he first overheard his dad trying to learn the lyrics to The Beatles ‘Please,
Please Me’, and continuing up until last year ’s Lost On The River sessions. In fact, the litany of names parading
through his book is nothing short of gob-smacking, from Attractions alumni Steve Nieve and producer Nick
Lowe, through to Springsteen, Dylan, McCartney, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Chet Baker, Solomon Burke,
Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Allen Toussaint, Tony Bennett, Emmylou Harris, Burt Bacharach, and many more.
Despite his fame, Costello remains pretty much in awe of the company he keeps, as if he can’t quite believe his
I did find myself wondering how Costello would deal with that incident; and it is not until half-way though
the book that he confronts head-on the train-wreck of a meeting between the Attractions and Stephen Stills’
entourage at the Holiday Inn bar in Columbus, Ohio in 1979. As Costello says, “It took just five minutes to
detach my tongue from my mind and my life from the rail it was on.” He proffers a range of possibilities for what
occurred; but in the end, he can find no single explanation, and his book is “almost my last word on the matter”.
Stupid maybe, but in fairness, nothing in his life or music could lead one to paint him as a bigot.
Costello is candid about his many influences, citing hard work, rather than inspiration, as the basis of his prolific
songwriting. The musical idea behind ‘Alison’ was the Linda Creed-Thom Bell song ‘Ghetto Child’; the melody
of ‘Chelsea’ was borrowed from The Who; ‘Living In Paradise’ was founded on a guitar riff off Van Morrison’s
‘Domino’. On their early albums, The Attractions were ‘sampling’ music before the technology invented it.
Costello recounts particular recordings in great detail; others are briefly skated over. The same goes for his
many tours and projects; though there can be no doubt that collaborations with musical heroes like Burt
Bacharach and Allen Toussaint have been genuine career highlights. So too were the two series of his television
show Spectacle. As for sitting in a room writing songs with Paul McCartney – could the nine-year old Declan,
upon first hearing ‘Please, Please Me’, ever have dreamed of such a likelihood?
Costello’s book is exhaustive and exhausting. There is more about his parents and his Irish ancestors than I
ever needed to know; and the occasional break-out stories about a hapless musician named Inch come across
as an attempt to transfer the blame for bad behaviour onto someone else. A hundred pages trimmed off the
lot would not have gone astray. However, it is churlish to quibble. Unfaithful Music is Elvis Costello’s day in the
sun, a generous record of his life to date, a paean to his father and mother, and to the many musicians he has
worked with; but, most of all, it is a hymn to his muse – music – that has nurtured and fed him and kept him alive
from childhood to this day.
UNFAITHFUL MUSIC & DISAPPEARING INK
BY ELVIS COSTELLO
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