Like a handful of rock stars I have encountered along the way, among them Townshend, Bowie and Zappa, Elvis Costello would have made a first-rate rock critic. I suspect he knows it too, which perhaps explains why he has adopted a rather disdainful attitude towards us for much of his career, especially when he started out, or at least when Declan McManus, the folkie-country-pub-rocker, became Elvis Costello, the cutthroat singer songwriter masquerading as a bandy-legged punk.
So over and above the captivating walk-on parts by just about every musician of note you care to name, of which much more later, this absorbing, entertaining and very literate book is about music; the music that Declan/Elvis heard as a boy, the music that has inspired him, the music that he loves and the music that he has pilfered to enhance his own songs. By the end of its 670 pages I came away with the feeling that Elvis Costello is a walking encyclopaedia of popular music, a true child of Tin Pan Alley – his birth notice appeared in NME and is reproduced on page 406 – suckled by a music-loving family until he became so absorbed in it that absolutely nothing else would ever matter to him.
It’s also apparent that he has immaculate taste, ticking off all the right boxes in the music he adores, all top-quality stuff, not necessarily commercial but which always hits the right spot with connoisseurs, present company included. I lost count of the times I found myself nodding in agreement at his opinions, and from the outset realised I was tuning in to the thoughts of a deeply scholastic musicologist whose way with words was that of a great lyricist. After all, only someone steeped in it would write a paragraph like, “By the time we got to Phoenix, it had started to dawn on me that we could be driving up and down the road from Tucson to Tucumcari for years and never break on through to America. So we headed for California with the intention of going back to high school or at least making some Do Re Mi.”
Elvis tends not to dwell on that which he doesn’t much like – though Led Zeppelin are sneeringly dismissed as a “hot air balloon” – and instead moves from the music his father Ross performed with the Joe Loss Orchestra through to rock’n’roll, The Beatles, R&B, soul, country, singer songwriters, ska and everything of merit you’d expect, avoiding the flash and sticking to what’s honest, always music of integrity and authenticity.
Not necessarily in that order though. Unfaithful Music... is not a linear autobiography by any means, more a cherry-picked flight of the bumble-bee that lurches back and forth so that moving episodes about impoverished Irish ancestors are slipped into tales of working with the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. Somehow he makes it work, and at times it’s a bit like a roller coaster, moving slowly uphill as he painstakingly illuminates the craft of song writing, with particular attention to his lyrics, then tumbling downhill fast as he bemoans the seamier side of his profession, the pros and cons of having a confrontational image, and falls in and out of love with The Attractions and a handful of women who pierced the armour and, like the very best music, touched his surprisingly susceptible heart.
Elvis writes tenderly and with a sense of regret about Mary, his first wife and the mother of his son, a school sweetheart with whom he later became reconnected. “We lost everything to each other that summer,” he writes. “In time we lay in the half-light, listening to ‘Tenderness’, a song by Paul Simon that we both loved.” Music invariably brings back poignant memories recalled throughout, though I was a bit surprised that we had to wait until page 512 for Cait O’Riordan to make an entrance, while his relationship with the musician Diana Krall, whom Elvis married in 2003, is mentioned only sparingly, in a few pages towards the end. He also writes movingly about his close relationship with his father Ross, not least in the passage about his heartbreaking decline into dementia that erased the wonderful memories of a life in music that his son has now rescued.
There is plenty of droll humour. A memory of the Australian outback soap opera Whiplash, broadcast before Clint Eastwood’s starring cowboy series Rawhide, elicits the comment, “a combination that would nowadays suggest an entirely different form of entertainment”, which made me chuckle, while his description of the Daily Mail as having “small-minded, prurient, xenophobic content to titillate and stoke the indignation of the impotent petty fascist” is about as accurate a description of that loathsome rag as I have read anywhere.
Elvis’ legendary cussedness seems to have been caused by reviewers’ constant misinterpretation of his lyrics, being misidentified in a photograph of his dad that appeared in NME not long after he became Elvis, and having had the misfortune to suffer an attack of vertigo on the day he was scheduled to do a number of interviews to promote My Aim Is True, his debut album on Stiff. This rendered him disinclined to answer questions from anyone, especially the Daily Mirror man who wanted to know about “the girls” and a more penetrating interrogation from NME’s Nick Kent, unnamed but clearly identifiable from the description. “By accident or through collusion, this conversation effectively invented a character that I would inhabit for the new few years,” he writes.
The regrettable racist outburst in Columbus Ohio is put down to an excess of alcohol coupled with extreme road weariness and, though inexcusable, Elvis is not just contrite but asks reasonably whether “anything else that I’ve done in the other 59 years and 525,550 minutes suggest I harbour racist beliefs.” I forgive him, though I’m not sure Mary did when, on the night his son was born, Elvis chose to attend a Little Feat concert at the Rainbow Theatre that had been eagerly anticipated by both of them. In the event Matthew arrived a bit late, allowing Elvis to arrive at the hospital with hours to spare.
An admiration for Little Feat, and The Band, and John Prine, and Allan Toussaint and many many more from the worlds of country, jazz and classics, illuminates the book throughout. Elvis is rightly troubled by the phrase ‘Great American Songbook’ which excludes many genres that he loves, and anyone reading the book will surely be charmed by the delight that he takes in having the opportunity to record alongside the band that used to back the other Elvis: Ron Tutt on drums, bassist Jerry Scheff, guitar maestro James Burton and keyboard player Glen D. Hardin. This same crew, along with Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis and others gathered to back up Roy Orbison for the now well-known 1987 Black & White Night tribute show that can be found on YouTube. Elvis describes the event in loving detail and I think this remains the highlight of his life. Or maybe it was duetting with Ray Charles, or playing with Springsteen in a tribute to Joe Strummer at the Grammy Awards, or shooting the breeze with Bob Dylan, or getting Chet Baker to contribute that moving trumpet part to ‘Shipbuilding’, or breakfasting with Van Morrison who turns out be as laconic as you would expect, or chauffeuring Joni Mitchell to one of his concerts, an anecdote saved until almost the end of the book. Then again it might have been the time he performed ‘Penny Lane’, the piccolo trumpet solo courtesy of a uniformed US guardsman, in front of Barrack Obama and its composer at the White House on the occasion when Macca won the Gershwin Prize. Extraordinary encounters like this litter Unfaithful Music... like the autumn leaves on the lawn in my back garden; castles in the air for folk singing, music-mad teenager Declan McManus in his chunky striped sweater, seen entertaining a seemingly unimpressed audience of middle-aged matrons on page 116.
The book is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs from Elvis’ private collection, including many of his close family, but it lacks an index, which, for a book of this length, is an oversight in my opinion. But this is a minor quibble for a memoir that stands alongside Keith Richards’ Life as an example of how a rock memoir should be both written and produced. The big difference, of course, is that Richards had a ghost writer but this is all Costello's own work.
I only ever met Elvis Costello once, one evening in 1980 at a flat in Dalling Road in Shepherds Bush that was occupied by my friend Glen who was Elvis’ PR at the time. He’d sublet it from Bruce Thomas, The Attractions’ bass player, and I was staying there temporarily at the time, dossing down on a mattress on the living room floor. Elvis sat disconsolately in the corner strumming my Gibson acoustic guitar while a pretty girl of my acquaintance who worked for Columbia Records in New York, name of Sheri*, made eyes at him that suggested a sexual advance wouldn’t be rebuffed. Elvis was probably unaware that the room we were in was my bedroom and that this was the reason I stuck around, thereby inhibiting his congress with Sheri. In the circumstances I suppose it was not unreasonable for him to be vexed but I still thought that his image as a bit of a moody bugger was spot on, an opinion now much alleviated by having read his book. At least I now know how it came about in the first place.