'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink': Elvis Costello pens his musical journey

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Robert A. Wagner: 24th January 2016.

I used to spend a lot of time studying the lives of people I wanted to be like, people who succeeded in doing what I wanted to do, seeking inspiration and confirmation that, no, I’m not wasting my life, and, yes, these silly words and poses might mean something to somebody.

Charlie Chaplin. Lennie Bruce. Phil Ochs. Marlon Brando. Patti Smith. Lou Reed. Andy Warhol. John Lennon. John Cale. William Burroughs. Jack Kerouac. Neal Cassady. Jim Carroll. Richard Wright. Bob Dylan. Ken Kesey. Ian Hunter. Hunter Thompson. Iggy Pop. Keith Richards. Bertolt Brecht. Ray Davies. Langston Hughes. Miles Davis. Picasso. Monet. David Wojnarowicz. Richard Hell. Paul Nelson. Lester Bangs. Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee Lewis. Neil Young.

But Elvis Costello? No. He didn’t really make the cut. What could he possibly have to tell me?

I recall my cousin Mickey’s dismissal of Costello’s “The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes.” With his snide pronunciation of the title, he implied: I’m disappointed with you, cousin, for being deceived; this Elvis Costello dude is clearly a lightweight. He’s a mere tunesmith with a knack for clever wordplay and nothing too important or original to say.

But the book editor who handed me a copy of Elvis Costello’s “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” for review said he’d heard it was even better than Keith Richards’ autobiography and Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles.” OK, I’ll give it a chance.

Wow. Did you ever read the opening pages of Kerouac’s “Visions of Cody”? Behind the sketches is a writer clearly in love with life on a religious level, intensely aware and elevated, conscious of the transient beauty being perpetrated all around him, and he might be the only person in the universe who sees it. If he doesn’t write it down, who will? This sacred moment must not be forgotten! Elvis Costello is desperate and driven, called upon by a higher power to moan, groan, and roll his bones alone, et cetera.

I thought I didn’t even like Elvis Costello, but here I am comparing him favorably to Jack Kerouac. I wonder what my cousin would say?

Elvis Costello, born Declan MacManus, has an almost religious love of popular music and the people behind it, and the intensity of his love informs his eye, ear, timing and choice of words. “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” is sliced into 36 chapters plus a postscript, each taking its title from a song, movie or a reference thereof. The story opens with commentary on the consequence of sharing the surname of professional wrestler Mick McManus and practicing wrestling moves in front of the television, and the postscript concludes with a brief reminiscence of “a perfect introduction to my life in show business,” young Elvis sharing the stage with his dad and miming along with the show. “I know he is happy to have me there with him, but his urgency also says. This isn’t a game, this is my work.”

As the story unfolds in a string of anecdotes and associations, Elvis Costello never loses the perspective of the wide-eyed son of a working musician, sitting in the balcony during his dad’s matinee shows. When he recounts being treated as an equal by the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, or quotes himself and relives his own creative process, Elvis Costello comes across as a guy who is thankful and conscious of the extent to which he’s been blessed.

Costello’s gazillion mentions of musicians from Chet Baker and Van Morrison to Johnny Cash and Oscar Peterson don’t feel like name-dropping. These are simply the people he’s encountered in his walk. Ideas and images presented themselves to him, and because he’d done his homework as a kid, devouring popular music like it was the most important and vital thing in the history of the world, he was prepared to recognize, capture and share them.