Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello: his aim is true

The Irish Times: Tony Clayton-Lea: November 7th 2015.

‘If there is an apple cart, you must do your best to upset it.” True to form, Elvis Costello has written an autobiography that most musicians don’t write. There is no grandstanding, no false notes, no salacious commentary, no mean-spiritedness, no settling of old scores, and above all, no self-serving.

Rather, Costello takes the autobiographical route less travelled – that of finely wrought connectivity instead of strict chronology. He doesn’t mention the day of his birth until page 81 (“I was born in the same hospital in which Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. I apologise in advance that I have not been the same boon to mankind.”) There is a continuous sequence of time travelling from one decade to another, and a little bit of criss-crossing, but there are no obvious gaps. And if you’re looking for an index, don’t bother.

Another surprise is the depth of family and personal background he goes into; for a person who has always been reticent to talk about his private life, in this book he unveils a wealth of information that has trumped his many straw-clutching biographers down through the decades.

The book starts with the seven-year-old Declan McManus peering over the balcony at the Hammersmith Palais, as he watches his musician father, Ross McManus, rehearse with his employer, bandleader Joe Loss. From birth, music seeped into Declan’s consciousness, and forays into the world his father worked in consolidated the appeal. Factor in his status as an only child, and you have the makings of the man.

“If you are an only child,” he writes, “and you don’t have an older sibling to smother you with a pillow or keep you awake with endless speculation about a sweetheart, there’s a lot of time alone with your own imaginings. There isalways someone or something to dream about.”

Nick Lowe and Stiff

Moving from a suburb outside London to Liverpool – and then back again to London – the early story we are reasonably familiar with unfolds. A couple of musical endeavours run dry (“a steady pattern of inertia laced with a few moments of faint hope”); he plays gigs wherever and whenever he can; he bumps into the songwriter Nick Lowe; he hawks demo tapes around until a few songs are deemed fit for radio play; he signs to Stiff Records; he releases a debut album ( My Aim is True, 1977), and subsequently, in no small part due to punk rock’s affiliation with oddballs and outsiders, he turns into a reluctant pop star.

And then, via early media interviews, he gains a reputation for being “difficult”. His first interview with the New Musical Express (then the make-or-break weekly) invented, he writes, “a character that I would inhabit for the next few years. Out tumbled a mess of highly quotable exaggerations of my true feelings, while reducing my motivation and the concerns of all my songs to ‘revenge’ and ‘guilt’ . . . Bravado and alcohol made me amplify whatever was roasting my goat. I set out my stall and closed up shop at the very same time. From that moment, I just wanted to get on with my job without being interrupted.”

As the chapters and years unfold, it turns out he gets on with his job exceedingly well, writing songs that enlighten, seduce, offer solace, display anger. His work, however, was underscored by an itch that took him decades to scratch into some kind of comfort. “Once I had recognised that it was not my vocation to write a happy ending, I did my damnedest to avoid one entirely.”

The core of the book, though, is not his work as a songwriter and a musical polymath. Only in the final furlongs of this hefty tome do you get a sense Costello is trying to mention everything he has engaged with (classical, opera, television shows, and much more besides). Yet even throughout this closing-down section, he writes as you might expect: smart, sharp, incisive.

True incisiveness, however, is saved for what is at the heart of the book: father, family, love. Background detail is highly descriptive and evocative (“when I was old enough to first view the surreal dream canvases of Giorgio de Chirico, they looked just like our old backyard”.) and he writes especially moving passages about his relationships with his parents and his first wife, Galway-born Mary Burgoyne.

Trust and broken relationships

In an admirable admission of failure, Costello recalls the late 1970s as a time when he knew he “could become estranged from all that I held dear: vows I’d made, homes that had and would soon be broken, trust that I could betray, in hotel rooms in which I merely lodged, rehearsing lies to say”. His second long-term relationship (“seventeen or so years”) with former Pogues bassist, Cait O’Riordan, is described in equally honest if far more scornful terms (“I tolerated it all much longer than I should have” is one of several lacerating recollections.)

Now in his early 60s, married to musician Diana Krall, and a recent father to twins, Dexter and Frank, there is no sign he’s losing interest or slowing down (although he references his age and the tender years of his twin sons thus: “I live with the electricity of their imagination and the fear of time, air and water running out”). Indeed, this vivid, lyrical book – bound to take its place as one of rock music’s very best autobiographies – is but one step away from his next move, which could be any number of creative ventures.

“Once you peel the label off the jar,” he writes of albums, “they are all just vessels containing the entrails from experiments, the measure of ideas and feelings. It’s only music. There’s nothing to stop it.”