Elvis Costello memoir a truthful mirror

Stuff.co.nz: Lucy Sussex: November 22nd 2015.

They called him Elvis, but he looked like Declan: a weedy four-eye, intensely vital behind his electric guitar. The talent was clear from the first fiery singles, but longevity less guaranteed. Decades later Costello is an elder statesman of song, the Cole Porter of his generation. He looks back, not with his youthful anger, over a long, fruitful career, a passage from nobody to collaborator with the greats.

Music ran in his family, like the Bachs, travelling musicians for three generations. It meant itchy feet and infidelity: he was raised by his mother, Lil, no player but with excellent musical taste. Costello's songs were all written for his singer father Ross's hearing. Otherwise, their shared experiences were scant: Lil gave him more support. Nonetheless, he found it hard to write after Ross's death.

Unfaithful Music is a songwriter's memoir, focussed on craft.  The structure is not temporal, but a life in songs. Creation is ineffable, a whole life brought to bear upon a few minutes. Thus the book flits around, the story of Shipbuilding moving from a small war museum to Chet Baker, to the Belgrano memorial, to his mother. His approach fascinates at its best, but also frustrates. When Costello concentrates, as he does in the chapter on Allen Toussaint, he can be genuinely moving, as well as being an unabashed fanboy.

One revealing encounter is when he asks Dylan how a superstar, shorn of privacy, can freely observe the tiny human interactions which inform great songs. Some of these details surface in the book, like Bebe Buell's matching luggage signalling that she meant him harm. He is a lyricist first, so novelistic insights into character are less frequent than smartarse zingers.  

It took a woman to bring me down, he writes, a line made for country music, but referring to Bonnie Bramlett's punch. He asked for it, fight-starting with racist slurs — which he says he was too drunk to recall. Now he thinks the incident saved him, from superstardom and its temptations. "Life eventually became a lot more interesting". He had his own interview show, he became a middle-aged father of twins, he seems content.

Songwriters will read this book narrowly, as will the fans. I wish an editor had. Sure, he writes well, but he needs the kind of editorial process that happens with his songs and their productions, the polishing, the perfection. Nonetheless, much to enjoy.