Pop Music, Not Confession
By Joe BonomoOctober 11, 2015
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
“THE ONLY BOOK I can write,” Elvis Costello says in the 2014 documentary Mystery Train, “is the one that nobody else can know but me.” I can’t help but wonder if Costello said this with his sprawling, kaleidoscopic memoir in mind. Weighing in at a hefty 670 pages, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is an impressively detailed, career-spanning narrative. Though burdened in its second half by the author’s tendency to trade reflection for an exhaustive cataloging of stage and television appearances, songwriting collaborations, and star-mingling, the account is often as incisive, affecting, and rich as his best songs.
A restless, deeply curious artist, Costello discovered early that his love of music was often indistinguishable from his own messy egomania, and the years before and during the first rush of his fame are where his writing gains the most traction. Recollections of early musical influences (The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jesse Winchester, The Band, among them) dovetail with stories of his having grown up in London, the only child of Ross and Lillian MacManus. The book opens as Costello evocatively recalls visiting the Hammersmith Palais in 1961, trailing his father, who was a singer in the Joe Loss Orchestra, a popular dance band. “This was my father’s place of employment. His office. His factory,” Costello writes, marveling a half-century later at the view afforded a shy seven-year-old of show business and its lures and romance:
There was nobody else up in the balcony except the women who checked coats and another who sold refreshments at the kiosk. I think my Dad charged one of them with checking on me from time to time, to make sure I hadn’t wandered off.
She needn’t have worried. My eyes were fixed on the bandstand.
Costello’s father was instrumental in introducing popular music to his son, in the form of 45 singles and acetates he’d bring home to study and learn for work; suddenly, Costello “had ten times the records that my pocket money would have bought me.” Among his fondest memories are listening to his father practice these and older standards in the front parlor of their home in Twickenham, and imagining him going off to perform onstage under the lights in front of dancing, tipsy crowds.
Costello’s parents would eventually divorce, and in 1971 he moved with his mother to Liverpool. He recalls that the split wasn’t overly dramatic, though over time he came to realize the corrosive effects of his charming father’s decades-long philandering. The lesson wasn’t lost on the son, though it wasn’t fully absorbed, either. “I knew I hadn’t been born with the good looks and confidence necessary for popular success,” Costello writes. “I also held to some sort of youthful idealism that music was above mere commerce, but deep down within me pushed the knowledge that the temptations offered to my father for standing in the spotlight had pulled my parents apart.” He adds:
I don’t ever remember being really angry with my Dad for leaving us, probably because my Mam never spoke ill of him, mostly hiding any bitterness she felt until it wrecked her nerves … I don’t think she ever stopped loving him.
These complications evoke the narratives of many of Costello’s best songs: the intricacies of domestic politics, where lust begets love begets betrayal begets bitterness, in “the corridor between the bedchamber and the war room.” Ross MacManus remains a crucial presence in the book, appearing as a far-flung father, a middle-aged man with new wife and mod haircut, and a tragic figure suffering from and ultimately succumbing to Parkinson’s disease. Costello’s depictions of his father’s anguishes late in life, of his once-virile body confounding him, and of hospital room hallucinations in front of family are honest and brutal; and his reckoning with his father’s influence, both professionally and temperamentally, makes for some of the most affecting moments in the book.
Also absorbing are Costello’s stories about his paternal grandfather, Pat McManus (Costello’s father added the “a” to the family surname), the subject of a full chapter titled “American Without Tears.” Using a photo album as a kind of storyboard, and filling in the blanks as best he can, Costello narrates the life of a man who arrived at Ellis Island in 1924 after recuperating from severe chest and abdomen wounds suffered while fighting in the First World War for the Royal Irish Regiment. Having been educated at the Royal Military School of Music, and on the search for gainful employment to support his wife and son, Pat McManus eventually signed up with the White Star Line ocean liner, playing in orchestras for luxury cruises crisscrossing the Atlantic. Costello recreates his grandfather’s performances for the rich and famous, including Duke Ellington, whom he finds an irresistible character:
Ellington famously had a phobia about traveling on water, and reportedly spent a wakeful crossing, composing and pacing the decks into the night. It is the one romantic fantasy that I will allow myself that Pat may have approached Duke on one such early-morning patrol.
Costello relishes the opportunity to talk about his “Papa”; he describes the old photographs with tenderness and a historian’s eye for detail and context. They amount to a secret, romantic history of a man he remembers only vaguely, and about whom his father and grandmother spoke without generous detail.
Ross MacManus appears in those photos, too, and the chapter’s most moving passages entwine the lives of the three MacManus men — one lost to time, one to dementia, one in the middle — tracing family history and making tenuous connections. “These were the last few months in which I was able to talk with my Dad about his life,” Costello laments, adding, “Sometimes I played him music in the hope that it might trigger happy or consoling memories.”
That afternoon in May, the two of us sat listening together. I was watching my father’s face as I had always done, his eyes closed, me waiting for some harmony to delight him or some vocal or instrumental phrase to register on his face as if a delightful draft was being swallowed. The recognition of beauty was less evident than before but my Dad’s face was not yet a mask of vacancy that only became mobile in response to unseen terrors as his Parkinson’s advanced.
Pat McManus’s third wife was named Molly, and after Costello and his ailing father listen together to “My Blue Heaven” — the standard that contains the line “Just Molly and me and baby make three” — Costello asks his father if his grandfather liked the song.
“Of course,” my father replied. As his big eyes met mine, they seemed suddenly clear and connected to the thought that he had never before spoken out loud.
So Costello writes powerfully of family bonds and the power of music to express the inexpressible. But Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink benefits not only from this legacy and connection, but also from Costello’s self-deprecating sense of humor and one-liners like these:
I was born in the same hospital in which Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. I apologize in advance that I have not been the same boon to mankind.
Then they handed me a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and said, “Put these on.” It was like Superman in reverse.
Our hotel rooms in the French Quarter had doors that had been kicked in more times than they had been locked.
Then, too, Costello has prodigious recall, and his memories are startlingly etched. His early crushes and sexual experiences are vivid and melancholy; the sketches of his extended family and of neighbors with shadowy pasts and dysfunction are haunting. He reveals that he attended the infamous Beatles show at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre in 1963 where John Lennon urged the wealthy patrons to “rattle your jewelry.” (Ross MacManus was lower on the bill.) Costello’s accounts of his nascent and then breakthrough songwriting, his early hustling for gigs in Liverpool and London and inking a contract with Stiff Records, the frantically played and inspired shows by his various kinetic bands (especially his first, the Attractions, and, since 2002, the Imposters), visits to sprawling America for the first time, anonymous diners and tawdry hotel rooms, reckless amphetamine and alcohol use, and ill-fated and successful recording sessions are drawn evocatively, spiked with striking details. Of his first songs, written late at night while his wife and infant son slept: “They were sung in a furious whisper, approximating the sound of someone spitting out the tale over an electric band I could only imagine in my head.” After a particularly grueling overnight drive from Nashville to St. Louis while on tour in 1978, Costello and the Attractions checked into a Holiday Inn. He recalls, “I awoke in the afternoon with a trembling, lip-glossed soap actress looking tearfully down at me from a television set playing at full volume.” One can’t help but wonder if this arresting image eventually found its way into one of those early songs. Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is a very real pleasure to read on this level alone.
As for his interior life, Costello seems to have decided, with some exceptions, to transpose the strategies of his songwriting to the art of memoir. More often than not, the prismatic Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink reads like an Elvis Costello song: narrative, evocative imagery, bluff, evasion, humor, and, finally, veiled revelation. The charge of the memoirist, whether he’s famous or not, is to self-interrogate, to sift experience for form, meaning, and value. Often — perhaps due to the mammoth scope of the book as well as to his own reserve — Costello remains on the surface of things, implicating himself in louche, sometimes destructive behavior but pulling back from larger reflection. Instead, lines from his songs are peppered, Hazlitt-like throughout the book, and the generally short paragraphs suggest that he is, in fact, inclined to write verse, chorus, and bridge, rather than extended commentary.
I can’t help but feel disappointed by his tendency to punt on promising moments for insight and reflection. Costello is resistant to delve too deeply into the origins of his songs, and that’s fair enough; they’re his, and what confessions does he owe his readers? Instead, observations about his desire to balance privacy and expression amount to a Costellovian theory of autobiography:
I changed every “I” to “we,” so as to share the blame that was entirely my own, and then changed “I” to “he” to further cover my tracks.
For all the appearances that these songs were a diary or a confession, I’d say that real life was much more harrowing and happens in slower motion than its dramatized form in song.
I don’t think it matters if you think I am the man or the woman in any of the songs I’ve written. If Johnny Cash killed a man in a song, did it make him a murderer?
But while defending the filter between life and art, Costello misses an opportunity to explore the possibilities and implications of transmuting raw experience in this more expansive genre — of mining the material of his life to create a narrative that’s as emblematic of the human condition as his best songs. He’s a very smart guy who’s interested in language; he could’ve gone there more deeply.
Understandably, his numerous dalliances on the road are for the most part narrated in decorous silhouette; he’s likely protecting the privacy and dignity of women whom, by his own admission, he treated shabbily. But even his ex-wives — Mary, with whom he has a son, Matt, born in 1975, and Cait — remain mostly flat and under-drawn. (Perhaps not surprisingly, his longtime band mates and road companions, keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, are characterized more roundly.) Singer Diana Krall also fares better as a dimensional figure, due in part, no doubt, to the fact that she and Costello are happily married and the parents of twin sons born in 2006.
Costello does offer a slightly nuanced portrait of moments in his first marriage; some happy, most unhappy, as his admitted philandering and deceits created an impossible climate of mistrust. In 1984, the marriage in its final days, his career at a crossroads, he was writing songs, “convincing myself that what I was doing was in pursuit of love, and not just good old-fashioned lust and greed and a couple of the other remaining deadly sins.” He continues:
And yet, incredibly, there was still one, brief thrilling moment in that final year when Mary and I stared into each other’s eyes and we might have tumbled back in, but I was too much of a coward and too proud to beg her to take me back, to take me down or even to take me in.
And he slows his pace while exploring two of the more notorious aspects of his career — the fallout from a 1979 incident at a Holiday Inn bar in Columbus, Ohio, where, drunk and sloppy, he publicly made a racial slur against Ray Charles, and the career-spanning charge of misogyny leveled against his lyrics, and by extension, himself.
Of the 1979 incident, Costello is wearily defensive, devoting a brief chapter (wittily titled “What Do I Have to Do to Make You Love Me?”) to its aftermath. At one point he asks,
Does anything else that I’ve done in the other 59 years and 525,550 minutes suggest that I harbor suppressed racial beliefs? You tell me. My family knows. My friends know. My children will all know, in time.
This is persuasive; despite demonstrative evidence that he’d spoken impulsively and out of character (though Costello admits that he curated a sharp-tongued persona in the early years, a result of anger and anxiety, and as a drunken defense against shyness), the incident and its seamy retellings have followed him for years. He pointedly includes a photograph at the front of the chapter showing his band playing the Rock Against Racism benefit seven months before the Holiday Inn incident, and he admits that when he saw Charles at a recent benefit gala, he bowed his head “and let him walk by. He didn’t need to see my pity or self-regarding guilt to add to all the other slights and insults he might have suffered in his life.” Ultimately, Costello acknowledges that the ugly incident might have redeemed him:
One thing became clear to me in time: that Ohio evening may very well have saved my sorry life. I fear an obituary might have appeared not too much later, just a few short lines lamenting my unfulfilled promise, on the occasion of a tawdry demise … the emptiness that I was already feeling and my ferocious pursuit of oblivion.
Fighting the label of misogynist, a charge to which he takes particular, wounded offense, Costello puts on mock trial his lyrics for “This Year’s Girl,” “Lipstick Vogue,” “Party Girl,” “High Fidelity,” “Stranger in the House,” and “Alison,” the latter arguably his most famous song and one in which, in some quarters, violence against the eponymous woman has long been interpreted. He responds to this accusation with exasperation: “I look at all the words in the refrain and I still find it remarkable that many people have failed to understand what is being sung after a thousand or more repetitions.” Costello deeply regrets an infamous comment he made early in his career that all of his songs were about “revenge and guilt,” a statement made “while drinking to a degree that seemed to sharpen my answers into a mythic précis of my true feelings.” If anything, he observes,
there was an improbably romantic idealism in these songs, along with a nasty little self-righteous, Puritan streak that I quickly realized was very inconvenient when tempted. It was impossible to live up to while traveling at speed or on speed.
Believing himself permanently marked by these accusations in such a way that he could never be forgiven, Costello “sought ever more despairingly and irrationally for the first thrill of desire, however tarnished the circumstances.” What some identified as misogyny in his more biting lyrics Costello sees as a realistic recognition of the often compromised place women find themselves in in sexual situations, and of the messiness of boy-men playing at romance, colliding with others and with the worst aspects of themselves inside of “that conflicted place between reason and impulse that people call the heart.” Finally, Costello calls out those who accuse him:
Yet even at the time of first singing these songs, I could sense there were some people out there who perhaps really did harbor misogynistic feelings. Some of them had notebooks in their hands. Perhaps they saw me as some kind of mouthpiece for their own, uglier feelings. They just weren’t listening very hard.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is a loosely structured mosaic, front-loaded with its conflict and struggle. By the time Costello gets to writing about bumping into Van Morrison on the street, or hanging out at home on Thanksgiving, drinking with Tony Bennett, or writing songs with Paul McCartney, or singing at the White House for an intimate few including the president, or duetting with Madeleine Albright, the personal and professional skirmishes that enlivened his early career and private life have all but vanished, and the narrative — not much more than a list of impressive and fortunate accomplishments — goes slack.
This isn’t Costello’s fault, of course, or even his problem — but it may be the fault of his memoir, which would’ve benefited from a selectively episodic structure, allowing, as I say, more room for reflection. His accounts of touring New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and subsequently collaborating with Allen Toussaint, of visiting Johnny and June Carter Cash at their storied homestead, and of being locked out of a concert venue with Bob Dylan are equal parts moving, touching, and hilarious, but they get lost in the calendar-book entries of the last third of the book. This is too bad, since his current life, as he writes it — privileged, contented, settled — does not make for a particularly engrossing read. Elvis Costello is a fascinating, potently gifted artist whose best songs are troubled but ultimately generous portraits of complicated, conflicted adults. If only in this ambitious memoir he’d edited out some of the verses that don’t matter as much.
Joe Bonomo is an essayist and rock and roll writer. His most recent books are This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (essays) and Conversations With Greil Marcus. He teaches at Northern Illinois University.
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