THERE are 672 pages in Elvis Costello’s autobiography. Every day he wrote that book…
Chapter One: We didn’t really get along.
Chapter Two: I think I fell in love with you.
And chapter 30 onwards, I meet lots of famous people and waffle on about how great they are, and how lovely my life is now. And my wife. Did I tell you about my wife?
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is a brilliant book in parts and a frustrating one, too. I was given the hefty hardback as a birthday present (thanks, Charles) and finally reached page 672 during a sleepless interlude last night.
Perhaps that cumbersome title gives the game away. It seems to be too elaborate, an over-statement – a settling of obscure scores, although mostly with himself.
Costello says that he wrote the book in part to give his three sons an idea of who he used to be (“It was so much easier/when I was cruel…”) and to explain how he came to be the man he is now.
This is a sweet idea and it works up to a point – usually the point where Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus withdraws from personal difficulties, such as his second marriage to former Pogue Cait O’Riordan – 16 years given only a few cautious strokes of his pen, leaving an awkward confessional vacuum in a book which often tells you far more than you need to know (usually along the lines of, ‘And then I met Paul McCartney…’).
The unfaithful music lies in sorry refrains about fathers and sons: Costello’s own father left, and he leaves twice too, ending his first marriage to Mary Burgoyne, and eventually leaving his barely mentioned second before his happy marital conclusion with the jazz musician Diana Krall.
Two great strengths lift this book: Costello writes beautifully about the early ‘cruel’ years, and he writes with equal touching eloquence about his father, the big band singer Ross MacManus, who inspires deep love, even though he left when young Declan was only seven. His account of his father’s death is a properly fine piece of writing, and is as good and sad a farewell as you could wish to read.
Aside from that rich seam of fathers and sons, Costello’s frenzied rise to fame is totally compelling, listing the endless days and nights on the road, with three tours of the US in three months, averaging 27 days in 30 days.
The youthful hurtle is recalled with a vivid sense of late-adolescent anger and bitter brilliance, and includes an unfaithful interlude during one of those tours, a sexual encounter summoned up in an alcoholic haze of shabby shame.
Writing about happiness is always harder to pull off, and Costello loses his way when recounting how he has ended the man he is today.
I don’t know much about the genesis of this book, but it reads as if has mostly be edited by the writer himself. That ‘disappearing ink’ of the title is replaced by acres of ‘appearing ink’ that an unbending editor would have removed. Also, and perhaps it’s a small thing, but the spelling is an annoying mix of American and English, and this at times creates a sense of international statelessness. And the structure is challenging, too – a sort of anecdotal wander that ignores the usual biographic straight pathway, choosing instead to bump along its own random corridors.
But the good parts are fantastic and there is much here for the fan to enjoy. I reckon to have seen Costello three times: once in York, once in Harrogate and long ago at the Albany Empire in Deptford, South East London. I scoured those 672 pages looking for a mention of the Deptford gig but sadly there wasn’t a single word.
Jools Hollands left Squeeze that night and a party was held at the crumbling Empire, which was due to close and move around the corner. Sometimes I have wondered if that night really happened, even though I have a firm memory of Costello turning up as one of the many guests.
It was 1980 and 1980 was modern back in its day. Sometimes it still feels that way to me even how. Online I found a review by Ian Pye, who confirms that the night did happen, and that Costello was there. Pye rites: “Slow Down is delivered with the panache that exudes effortlessly from Costello’s magnificent soul-pop band along with I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea, Accidents Will Happen, Watching The Detectives and Pump It Up.
“Assured of his crown, Elvis remarks: ‘This one takes just a little less time to perform than it takes to read Dexy’s press statements’ prior to a sublime rendering of New Amsterdam. The real soul rebels leave the stage refusing to come back, making way for some classic pop on the disco.”
That was back when Costello was prickly.
And then Squeeze played out young Jools, who grew into the three-piece-suit-wearing band leader and purveyor of sugary waffle interview we know and sometimes love today. Jools and Elvis have something in common there.