Elvis Costello – Unfaithful music & disappearing ink

“Sometimes thinking up schemes is better than actually carrying them out”. So says Elvis Costello, born Declan Macmanus. It’s the sort of sentence that can only be satisfying as a philosophy if you have in fact carried out the vast majority of your schemes.
There’s an element of absolution to any autobiography. With some memoirs this comes across as yet more attention-seeking but with Costello you get the feeling that confessions of infidelity and shortcomings as a father were noted down in a private diary somewhere never really intended for public consumption. And although the man we’re dealing with is an expert weaver of tales long and short, he appears to have left all that to one side and told it to us straight. That doesn’t mean it’s not well written and that along with Bob Dylan’s (and possibly Ray Davis’s) autobiography, stands among the few that read as a continuous whole rather than scraps of ‘on the road’ writing cobbled together years later.
Declan Macmanus grew up in a showbiz atmosphere, seeing first hand the highs and lows of life in a band – his father being the singer for The Joe Loss orchestra that was a staple of dance hall, radio and TV through the 50s and 60s. Watching his father’s failed bid for solo stardom no doubt fueled and instructed his own steps in later years as punk breathed its last and a generation of acts later to be labeled New Wave would take the energy of 75 and add some songwriting form into the mix. As Declan Macmanus he seemed doomed to play the folk clubs in a thick-knit jumper for all eternity so at his manager’s suggestion, he took on a stage name and became Elvis Costello, the angular, bespectacled, guitar wielding singer who showed there were still some lyricists around worth their salt.
I only discovered him in the late 80s once he was already well into his slicker, more USA soul-inspired period. Bowie had been there a few years earlier and as usual everyone else eventually followed. The album I heard was handed to me by a housemate. It was a cassette and as she gave it to me she said “Don’t be put off by his voice.” I wasn’t. The breathless snarl and bizarre way of breathing mid-word only added to the intrigue. I devoured “Punch the clock” and slowly worked my way back through his catalogue.
Following an artist like Costello can be as frustrating as watching sporting heroes as they stumble through off days and so-so seasons. Often bewildered by his choice of collaborations I’ve nevertheless always been impressed by his willingness to play with anyone from opera stars to string quartets to Hip-hop artists and main-stream crooners. Even when the results are less than great, the energy and enthusiasm never seems to waver. To my mind, Costello has never crossed the line into money-grabbing musical collaboration like some others of his generation – Sting, I’m looking at you.
Apart from a close-up view of his personal life, the book takes us on quite a journey through early UK and USA tours with the Attractions, across an America broken city by city with a mixture of hard work and just plain refusal to not be liked. We see through his eyes – the eyes of an awestruck English kid – collaborations with Dylan, George Jones, McCartney, Allen Toussaint and Johnny cash. Never once do any of these encounters seem run of the mill or just part of a Rock Star’s natural itinerary.
In fact his story shares an element I find in the most authentic of autobiographies; the fact that so much of his career hinges on seemingly chance encounters and that his drive to succeed is fueled by equally chance comments, such as his teacher addressing his class by saying “By the time you reach 30 years old, not all of you will be alive”.
Tragically this turns out to be true and by the end of the book I felt like I was being pulled backwards to try and pinpoint the one crucial event that I’d missed; the beginning of the thread. But then I suppose that was also what he was hoping to find by writing it.

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