Every day I write the book

The Sunday Times: Dan Cairns: 11th October 2015. Photo By James O'Mara.

Scathing, lachrymose and impassioned, Elvis Costello’s memoirs shine some light

The west London eating hole where I met Elvis Costello two weeks ago has long been a favourite of his. In the days when it was a regular haunt, before he moved full-time to America, the restaurant was something of a rock-royalty hotspot. On one occasion, part of its ceiling collapsed after a day of torrential rain. Costello remembers the incident well. “I may have got this wrong, but I think some of it actually fell on Bryan Ferry,” he chuckles, “when you’d think, given my life, that it would have landed on me.”

Costello does this — chuckles, with the occasional twinkle thrown in — a lot. It takes a while to acclimatise, as it would, you suspect, for anyone who remembers him as a surly, curled-lipped pugilist, forever in a grump. I tried to avoid interviewing him for years on the basis of that apprehension.

This tricksy reputation is one of the many topics the 61-year-old addresses in Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. Completed without the aid of a ghostwriter, the memoir is by turns scathing, lachrymose, self-flagellating and impassioned. Unsurprisingly, it is beautifully written. It is also often extraordinarily moving. At its centre, of course, is the man born Declan MacManus. But the book is haunted by another presence, to the point where it could just as accurately have been titled A Voyage Round My Father, had it not been taken.

Ross MacManus, a jazz musician who switched to singing, bagged a job with the Joe Loss Orchestra and spent pretty much his entire life on the road, comes across as a larger-than-life character: a ladies’ man, boulevardier and mischief-maker, certainly, but also a person dedicated to, and utterly immersed in, life as a professional musician.

The book opens with his seven-year-old son sitting in on a rehearsal at Hammersmith Palais, alone in the darkness up on the balcony, clutching a lemonade, as Joe Loss leads the band in a run-through before the matinee performance.

“My father wore a dark lounge suit for the matinees,” Costello writes, “and evening dress when the occasion demanded it. The idea that you wore a suit to go to work became so instilled in me that, to this day, the temperature must soar well above 100 degrees before I will remove my jacket.” Across the restaurant table, the man who wrote those words is wearing — on an unseasonably hot day — a three-piece suit. And a tie.

Yet Costello’s is not a dewy-eyed portrait (although the section about his father’s death, and the records he would play to him in the hospital room as he faded in and out of consciousness, is hair-raisingly vivid). He addresses the multiple infidelities, his own as well as his father’s, and the chaos and hurt these caused; and the collapse of his parents’ marriage in 1969, when Ross left his mother for another woman. But it is clear how devoted Costello was to him, as he is to his mother, whom Ross met across the counter of the Liverpool music shop where she worked.

“I was angry with him for about three weeks when I was in my mid-teens, when I was full of teenage self-righteousness,” the singer says. “Then I got over myself. The minute I was an adult, and particularly after I’d started to make similar mistakes, it put it into context. I take complete responsibility for my own mistakes, I don’t blame him. It’s not one of those cases of, ‘Well, my childhood was like that, so I was inevitably bound to do those things.’ I was just a selfish young man who didn’t work some things out, and caused my first wife and our son a lot of pain because of that. I can’t change that now, but I can acknowledge it.”

As with Keith Richards’s autobiography, the sections of Unfaithful Music that deal with Costello’s early life are by far the most evocative. But the real momentum comes from his decision to structure the memoir connectively rather than chronologically. In another’s hands, this might have resulted in a disjointed experience. In Costello’s, it produces a powerful sense of every event and experience in his personal and professional life being a cause or a consequence of something else. “I said to my publishers, ‘Can we please not have an index?’ It’s not a reference book. If people can’t be bothered to read it, they can’t be bothered to read it.”

Ross MacManus’s father was also a musician, playing the trumpet in the orchestra on White Star Line cruise ships. Does Costello, the father of twin sons with his third wife, the pianist and singer Diana Krall, ever wonder if his children will continue the tradition?

“Well, I never felt destined or obligated to do this because of my father and grandfather. It would be for them to decide for themselves. I know they love music. Sometimes I hear sounds coming from the basement, and it sounds like we have Depeche Mode down there. When you put music on, sometimes they’ll go, ‘Play that again.’ And it’s Miles Davis. But the next time, they’ll want Donald Where’s Your Troosers?”

Unfaithful Music may skip between time zones, but it covers all the bases — his childhood in Twickenham and Liverpool; his musical apprenticeship and eventual breakthrough; the riotous early tours with the Attractions; and his later incarnation as a musical sage, collaborating with everyone from Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach to Allen Toussaint and the Brodsky Quartet — a fan would expect. Including the surliness. His prickly reputation was cemented on his first day of press interviews, when he had a debilitating attack of vertigo and turned up to meet various splendidly seedy-sounding hacks feeling nauseous.

“Lots of coincidental events helped assemble that personality, or persona. And part of that was the attack of vertigo, which meant I was incredibly grumpy when I met them. The fact that I didn’t just cancel, that that was how much it meant to me — that’s how tenuous it all felt. So that character was an accident, to a certain degree, a combination of the people who were writing about me and it being a convenient firewall around what I was actually doing. If it kept people away from me, that was good. They didn’t ask questions.”

Still seemingly unable to turn down a commission, Costello says writing the book has allowed him to plan for the future. “In the period I’ve been writing this, I’ve failed to complete an opera I was commissioned to write, I’ve written another ballet, worked on five musicals in various stages of development, written a lot of songs, performed with two different bands and solo, revived the Spectacular Spinning Songbook and Detour. And made Wise Up Ghost with the Roots, and taken part in the New Basement Tapes project [setting unused Dylan lyrics to music]. I’m an impresario. I’m the new Bernard Delfont.”

So he has mellowed, then, and reached an accommodation with himself? A rare scowl. “I don’t think you can ever be the finished article, and I wouldn’t want to be. I’ve moved all of this stuff from my head onto the page. I’m not still carrying it all around in there. So that’s good. There’s space to do other things now.”

And with that he is gone, a straw trilby now perched dapperly on his head. The pugilist has turned into a dandy. His father would surely approve. And you sense he’d have loved the book.

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is out on Tuesday (Viking £25).