Elvis Costello Reads Himself the Riot Act: Here Are His Memoir's Biggest Surprises

The biggest surprise in Elvis Costello's long-awaited memoir isn't the book's high quality, its wit and its unconventionality, its tender celebrations of music and family, or the way it reads at times like an extension of the autograph book into which young Costello — then Declan MacManus — pasted the signatures of the Beatles, collected for him by his father, a singer in something like a British big band. In warm and wry thumbnails, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink extends that collection of famous names, making clear once and for all that the punkish upstart always had a showbiz heart.

The biggest surprise isn't even that that most famous of names, Bob Dylan, gets all the best lines. Here's just one. In 1982, in a minivan outside a Minneapolis racetrack, Dylan razzed the young buck with “So, is that Watching the Detectives a real show?”

No, the revelation here is that in many ways Costello has written this extraordinary book before. He's always been writing it. First, he sketched out the spine of his creative life in the tens of thousands of words of liner notes he's penned for re- and re-re-releases of his albums. But more pressingly it's in the songs themselves, especially that brilliant, splenetic run of records from 1977 to 1986, which ended with the exhausted songwriter and not-quite star just north of 30 and already making his second back-to-basics roots move.

The memoir reveals that the nerved-up pop omnivore targeted himself with the cruelest of the putdowns he spat over the blast of his Attractions. The brightest, most self-aware Next Big Thing of 1977 started out as a family man with a wife, a son, and the conviction that he would have the strength not to become an adulterous rock 'n' roll cliché. His disgust at the inevitable — at the generic nature of his weakness — is right there on the tracklist of album number four: “Temptation,” “Opportunity,” “Possession,” “Riot Act.”

In the book, as on Get Happy!!, Costello keeps the specifics to himself, sometimes pointedly so, a habit he developed back in his hit-making days. He recalls monkeying with the pronouns in autobiographical lyrics to disguise his confessions, but even that was not discretion enough for him. In one wrenching passage, he writes of the shame he felt when his first wife agreed, in recent years, to catch one of his shows, only to have the spinning gameshow wheel that determined his setlist spit out eight songs in a row that were born in the pain of their breakup.

Just as that sneer at first disguised his ambitions as a polymathic tunesmith, his wordplay and harmonic dazzlements covered up a hurting more country than punk. The book adds a clarifying power even to his most familiar records: That anger now sounds like bilious anguish. He's as hard on himself in print as he has been in song, but within reason. He's apologetic in general about the way he hid behind a sneer, and in particular for having been rude to Neil Diamond and Robert Plant. (He's still cool with having been prickly to a young Geraldo Rivera.) The book's narrative, which is unbound from chronology, suggests that Costello thinks of his first decade as a performer as a rewarding prison, a source of fame and a catalog yet also of a self he could no longer bear to inhabit.

He mounts a rare defense of his younger self in a passage that strikes me as possibly disingenuous. Not long before describing that habit of shifting from first person to third in song lyrics to muddy the facts of his life, Costello carps at early critics' tendency to mistake the generalized misanthropy of his first records for a more troubling misogyny. But how were they — or anyone — to know that he detested the you rather than the girl in lines like “You want her broken with her mouth wide open 'cause she's this year's girl”? Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink ranges widely and wildly, offering beautiful passages about finding music and losing one's self, but it never clearly accounts for the prim horniness and sexual disgust of those early records, for the creative energy he invested in such brutality — and in records he now describes as “bitter little songs that only appealed to a certain kind of creep.”

For one of our greatest songwriters, Costello has often seemed a willfully unclear communicator. One of the book's pleasures is picking up the origins of some of his most riddling lyrics: “Did you ever see a stare like a Persian cat?” has a backstory worthy of the line. Richer than that is the discovery of how close the songs have always come to his true drift of mind.

Many chapters, the best and most surprising, vault freely from topic to topic, united by complexities of feeling rather than the reductive simplicity of memoir storytelling. Perhaps intuitively, these hold to a structure Costello mastered almost 30 years ago, in that warmest and most heartsick of waltzes, “American Without Tears.”

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Chapter after chapter go just like the song: He's miserable in a hotel room, so he goes to the bar, thinks about the music that's playing, and finds himself charmed by odd strangers. That stirs him to recount some social or family history, maybe to spin us a bit of fiction, and then suddenly he's back to that woeful feeling he started with, conceding his guilt, confusion, and sadness all without quite fingering its source.

The book, like the songs, offers portraiture of states of mind, laying bare not the man's every sin but what it might have felt like to be ground through them. That is, until it brightens up and gets more conventional in the final third. The late chapters devoted to his post-Attractions collaborations with Burt Bacharach, the Roots, Ann Sofie van Otter, and more stand as his happiest and most direct — although he never rages more persuasively than when recounting the devastation he observed on his trips to post-Katrina New Orleans to record with Allen Toussaint.

It's heartening to see that Costello, in starting a family with Diana Krall, seems to have found something like peace. He teased this development, with some self-laceration, in the plainspoken “My Three Sons” on his stomping 2008 album Momofuku . His most raw and moving writing here also concerns paternity. Costello relates his father's 2011 death in clear and potent prose that honors advice given to him by one of those Beatles whose autograph Ross MacManus once collected for him. As Costello writes, Paul McCartney pushed him, in a songwriting session, toward greater simplicity: “Paul said that I was in danger of shutting the listener out of what I was trying to express.” This book, while circumspect, is an invitation in.

A music fan above all else, Costello even proves a shrewder judge of his accomplishments than most critics have been: Of his recent work, he singles out ace, overlooked albums National Ransom and The Delivery Man, and he's justly proud of The Juliet Letters, the song suite he composed with the Brodsky Quartet. He's somewhat despondent discussing National Ransom's failure to seize the world's attention: The man out of time has outlived his primary medium, the LP, as well as the interest of the rock press that used to champion him. Now, in his own damn book, he's having to do the critical re-evaluation that critics never got around to. The memoir's a keeper — while reading it, maybe try some of its grown-up author's records. 


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