5 Complaints about Elvis Costello's Excellent Memoir

One Track Mine: MC Krispy E: 28th October 2015

As a young man with questionable morals I stole cassettes from the cardboard standee at the pharmacy where I worked. I used the fact that we never sold any of these bargain bin albums to justify pocketing Frank Sinatra Swings 1940-1953, The Best of Jethro Tull, and Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy by The Who. I even gave myself the five fingered discount on an unlistenable Mel Torme tape after seeing him on Night Court. The Velvet Fog ended up tossed from my car window as I turned left from Richmond Avenue onto Hylan Boulevard, back when I also thought littering was acceptable. My moral compass seemed to always point to “go ahead, no one’s looking.”

One day, after swigging intermittently from secretly stashed bottles of Coke syrup and equally delicious Grape Dimetapp, I picked up Elvis Costello’s This Year's Model from the rack and it became one of my favorite tapes to listen to while delivering overpriced pharmaceuticals to old ladies. Since the standee only had that one Costello album, I had to pick up the rest of his catalog at the Staten Island Mall.

“Excuse me,” I might ask, “do you have ‘Blood and Chocolate’ by Elvis Costello?”

“A box of chocolates by Elvis Presley?” the oblivious cashier might reply.

I caught Costello on tour in ’89 in support of Spike and have seen him nearly every year since, loving every step into pop, beat, chamber, electronic music, you name it. There’s a handful of folks that couldn’t make a bad record if they tried. For me, Costello is at the top of that list. When I heard he was finally writing a memoir, I was sure it would best some of my favorites, like Chronicles Volume One by Bob Dylan and This Wheel’s on Fire by Levon Helm, though I was certain it couldn’t be as good as my favorite; Beneath the Underdog by Charlie Mingus.

A few hundred pages into Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink I was convinced Costello’s grasp of language translated swimmingly into prose, like I knew it would. A lot has already been written about this book, which is why I won’t repeat that stuff here. Suffice it to say, my favorite parts expose the mechanics of writing songs with Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, and The Roots. Hardcore fans will find those passages hard to put down.

Elvis is the same great storyteller he is in song, though the terrain is markedly different. On record Costello may crowbar five different viewpoints into three minutes. On paper he’s gotta be way more linear over the course of nearly 700 pages, which reveals the first of my five complaints about this excellent new memoir.

1. Chronology

… a device that works well in films like Pulp Fiction, for example, but
one that makes Costello’s history harder to follow.

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink travels back and forth through time,
a device that works well in films like Pulp Fiction, for example, but
one that makes Costello’s history harder to follow.It’s not that I can’t
keep up, it’s that I would prefer chronological order. It’s just how my
mind works, and perhaps the reason Musee Picasso, the Paris museum where Pablo’s works are mostly chronological, is one of my favorites. As
readers, we mentally catalog prerequisites as we read them, something
writers take advantage of to build tension. Throwing that device out the
window can be jarring. For example, hearing about Costello’s first son
Mathew in one paragraph, only to revert back to the pregnancy in the
next takes some getting used to. So chapters including details
on playing Live Aid or singing Penny Lane for President Obama are
followed by chapters that expound on the early days before his first
record.

2. Proper Nouns

If specificity is your bag, you’ll find more proper nouns here than within all the begats in the Book of Genesis.
Every second or third sentence introduces the unique name of a person,
place or thing that quickly fills up your short term memory banks. There
are 86 counties in Great Britain and Costello seems hellbent on
name-checking them all. He remembers every street, venue, ancillary
character, instrument, machine and brand that ever crossed his field of
vision. Perhaps Costello wants to prove that all that Turpentine he
drank didn’t result in an unreliable narrator. At some point it becomes
a little self-serving, like me telling you that Mel Torme cassette wound
up on Hylan Boulevard after turning left from Richmond Avenue.

Honestly, this rears its head more in the first third of the book, and for avid
readers it won’t be a problem at all. Perhaps I’m not as smart as I
thought I was.

3. Photos

Why no captions, Elvis? Did you use up your quota of proper nouns?

This one is a bit confounding. At nearly 700 pages,
there’s definitely room for more full sized photos. No joke, some
pics take up a sixteenth of the page. Sometimes are so small you can’t
even make out the details. Why no captions, Elvis? Did you use up your
quota of proper nouns? Early versions of lyrics are uselessly small.
Group photos are even harder to decipher, which wouldn’t be a problem
had their been captions.  Perhaps readers of the eBook can pinch and zoom,
but that doesn’t work with the hardcover, try as I might. Also, all the
pictures are black and white, like the book was published a hundred
years ago. I assume this was a cost saving measure and not an artistic
choice.

4. Typeface

Wow, I’m really nitpicking now, but I would swear the
text isn’t black but a dark grey. Or maybe it’s because the pages seem
kinda thin and you can see through a little to the text on the
underside. Or, perhaps, this alludes to the titular disappearing ink.
Maybe one day I’ll open this book to find 700 blank pages. While that
would be genius, I live in the present, and like many of Costello’s
fans, my eyesight ain’t what it used to be. Once again, eBook readers,
and anyone enjoying the audio book, won’t have this gripe. The rest of
us may need an electron microscope and an arc lamp as we read into the
night.

5. Dirt

Give me some of that vitriol you were famous for in the
seventies.

I’m a gossip. I know this. If I’m talking to a friend, I
want gossip about who we know in common. Is someone shagging someone
they shouldn’t? That’s none of my business, so please tell me
everything and don’t leave out any details. It’s the same reason I want
to see so many of of the people I know naked (you know who you
are). While Costello does throw a few sexy bones our way, they’re almost
always of the regrettable variety. He cops to his own multiple
infidelities, for sure, but would it be in bad taste for a married man
with children to tell me how Bebe Buell was in the sack? I’m asking for
a friend. We hear a lot about musicians Costello admires, but I want to
hear who he can’t stand. I’m a fan, so I already know he loves The Band
and Bob Dylan. I wanna hear him obliterate Bon Jovi. Sure, he mentions
that he couldn’t sit through a Pink Floyd record, and that The Doobie
Brothers couldn’t follow Little Feat in concert, but it’s all handled a
little too politely. Give me some of that vitriol you were famous for in
the seventies. At least we get a glimpse of the dark side. We hear a
lot about the drinking and pills that helped fuel his more aggressive
lyrics, performances and bumblings. Dylan hardly cops to taking an
aspirin in his book and we know he introduced the Beatles to the “jazz
cigarettes” that ferried them from I Wanna Hold Your Hand to Lucy in the
Sky With Diamonds.

Ultimately, these are more quibbles than complaints, but that’s totally in my wheelhouse. You’d hate going to the movies with me.

I’m actually thrilled Elvis finally put his thoughts down on paper. It’s a very satisfying read – even the parts Bruce Thomas tried to tell you first. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into. Costello’s honesty is refreshing, his memory is photographic, and his pencil is sharp.

Won’t be long before I give the audio book a listen, which I know will be imbued with his late breaking elder statesman charm, as opposed to the thinly veiled sarcasm of his youth.

Growing up looks good on him.