Book review: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Elvis Costello’s memoir of life on the road might be one best suited to hardcore fans of the second-generation Irishman says Richard Fitzpatrick.

ELVIS COSTELLO performed at the 1977 Bilzen festival in Belgium. The day after his gig, nursing a nasty, Pernod-induced hangover, he spread himself over three seats at the back of a bus en route to a ferry back to England and dozed off. He awoke to find his shoelaces on fire and his mouth full of ashes, courtesy of a couple of pranksters from The Damned.

It is one of many tales he tells against himself in his memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It’s a pleasant surprise for anyone who is only familiar with his surly, smartarse public persona to discover he is so self-effacing. He jokes about the fact that his band’s singles always seemed to go down the charts after an appearance on Top of the Pops because once the audience got a look at them, they liked ’em a lot less.

He writes, for example, about being so insecure at his appearance at the Wembley Live Aid concert in 1985 — at a moment when his band The Attractions were falling out of favour, he was sporting a shabby, out-of-fashion beard and he’d only been asked to sing one song in between sets by Spandau Ballet and Nik Kershaw — that he kept his lanyard on backstage, something he never did at his own shows, in case he was ejected for not being glamorous enough.

He is a curious man, Declan Patrick MacManus. He was born in August 1954, although it’s not the kind of detail one would glean from his autobiography, which avoids chronological order and is written — without the aid of a ghostwriter — in disjointed, dreamlike prose, jumping from episode to episode over his lifetime.

His father, Ross MacManus looms large. He was also a musician and sang for a long spell in the Joe Loss Orchestra, which played at Princess Margaret’s wedding and entertained ballroom dancers for several decades.

Costello reckons he inherited the practice of wearing suits from him. Except for an interlude in the late 1960s when he got his head turned by the hippies, grew his hair long and took to wearing crushed-velvet frock coats and a chain with a cross and a string of Nepalese beads, his dad was always turned out smartly.

Tellingly, like Costello, he too was an only child. Both, Costello admits, shared “the capacity for selfish cruelties that the solitary child can think routine and acceptable”. His dad had charm, “perhaps a little too much”, thinks Costello who lacked his ability to easily make friends, which he used to good effect in philandering. Even though he was only five foot five inches tall, he used to always try to seduce the tallest girl in a room (and failing this would pick a fight with the tallest man).

He was an intermittent presence in Costello’s childhood from about the age of seven given the demands of his touring schedule, until he split up with Costello’s mother.

“I don’t ever remember being really angry with my Dad for leaving us,” he writes, “probably because my Mam never spoke ill of him, mostly hiding any bitterness she felt until it wrecked her nerves.” Costello reckons she never stopped loving him.

Costello moved with his mother from London to Liverpool when he was 16 years old. He vividly describes life in the city at the time, of time spent cheering on Liverpool FC from Anfield’s “Kop” end and hours spent browsing among the discs at the Virgin Records counterculture store on Bold Street, which provided cushions and headphones to help punters’ in their listening habits and even a waterbed at one stage until some yobs punctured it with penknives and flooded the store.

Costello’s first foray into the music business was as part of a double act called Rusty. They played anywhere that would give them a stage, including libraries (sandwiched between poetry readings), pubs, clubs and even a Catholic girls’ school called Mary Help of Christians, known locally as “Mary Feed the Pigeons”.

Once Rusty ran out of ideas, he moved south again, knowing the real action was in London.

Within a couple of years, he was married (to Mary Burgoyne, “a stoic Galway gal”) and saddled with a child, living at one stage with his in-laws, which wasn’t ideal for a young angry man about to take the post-punk scene by storm. Things began to take off in 1977, the year he released his hit single, ‘Alison’.

Unsurprisingly, the book’s most entertaining passages deal with the heady days of The Attractions’ time together in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they surfed the New Wave so successfully, although the band’s record labels weren’t throwing much disposable cash at them.

The hotel rooms they stayed in usually had bunk beds, with a residents’ lounge if they wanted to watch TV and threadbare carpets taking them along the corridor to communal toilets.

Outside the hotels’ walls, as happened in one Welsh town, a mob of skinheads congregated and threatened to put Costello and his band members’ heads on a pike for having the audacity to come to their town. There were compensations, though, to life on the road, including a limitless supply of “blue pills” and groupies who were keen to show Costello “a whole new ‘trick bag’.”

Inevitably, Costello has spent a lot of his time drinking in hotel bars. He says that if a drinking companion doesn’t recognise who he is, he lets on that he works in the horse business, as he’s usually dressed for the part.

The namedropping in his book is relentless. Encounters with the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Martin Scorsese, Bill Murray and Tom Waits pepper the pages. Alice Cooper is “completely free of snakes” while “Bob Geldof and his pal Phil Lynott were the loudmouth Dubs that you always found in your dressing room when you came off stage at the Roundhouse. They’d tell you how shite you were and drink all your beer.”

Barack Obama greeted him with the line, “Of course your wife got here before you,” when Costello performed at the White House in 2010. The American president was referring to a performance Costello’s third wife, the Canadian jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, had made there two years beforehand.

“Presidents meet so many people that you wonder if they have a prompter for such remarks,” writes Costello. “Someone once told me that the Queen of England usually asks, ‘Have you come far?’ as it invites only a factual reply and not a prolonged conversation, although my wife told me that one of the Queen’s then unmarried sons once put the make on her at a Canadian formal occasion, with the opening conversational gambit, ‘It’s very lonely being a prince.’ You have to wonder how many times that ruse has actually worked.”

An old line springs to mind on finishing his autobiography, which touches 700 pages in length: “sorry for the letter; I didn’t have time for a postcard”.

It is overly long, and although well written with memorable, hipster turns of phrase, it is, for anyone who is not intimate with the key events of his life, annoyingly vague and offhand in passages like, for example, the description of his notorious scrap with Stephen Stills’ band in an Ohio bar in 1979.

His digressions, too, on guitars, the mechanics of recording albums, the endless deconstruction of his lyrics will please only the boffin-minded. Perhaps, to borrow a phrase often attributed to him, he should have borne in mind the maxim that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Elvis Costello

Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, €27.00


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