I’ve just finished reading Elvis Costello’s autobiography, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink”. The book got mixed reviews when it came out. Good in parts, seemed to be a theme. Some critics objected to the length, the detail, the supposed name-dropping.
None of those things matter a damn to me. In fact I welcomed all three.
I think this is the best musical autobiography I have yet read, though I have high hopes that Bruce Springsteen’s, which comes out in September, will surpass it.
Elvis has always been generous in describing how his songs came about. The sleeve notes for his reissued CDs a while back were brilliant. So full of insight. The book is the same.
I’ll admit I’m biased. I love Elvis Costello’s music. I have since the very first time I heard “Less than Zero” in 1977. Elvis has the distinction of being the only artist whose music I’ve followed avidly from his first record right through to the present. Even Bruce doesn’t meet that criterion, because I only really discovered him big time with the release of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in 1978. I admit I haven’t always bought some of the most recent records straightaway, but I still always catch up in the end. And I’m always glad I did.
“Unfaithful Music” is a sprawling, wayward book. It doesn’t follow a chronological narrative, although his early life is mostly covered in the first third, and likewise the latter end of his career. I think that had it been chronological, it could have been an even better read. It would have been easier to make the connection between his personal development (and his troubles) and the music he was making at the time. But it only takes a bit of imagination to do the work yourself. And I can see how some of the reflections are easier to make and fit in with the more random approach.
Elvis writes with passion and wistfulness about his grandparents, especially his “Papa’s” experience of the First World War, his life as a musician on the transatlantic cruise ships, and how the talkie movies as well as recession, began to undercut his career afterwards. He writes with even more passion and insight about his father, singer and trumpeter Ross McManus, who played a leading role in the Joe Loss Orchestra for many years. Ross was not faithful to Elvis’s mother, and they split when Elvis was still young. But they remained close. So much of what Elvis distils in his own music was learnt from his father.
Music runs through his family. His mother was extremely knowledgeable about music and worked in record stores in Liverpool and London. Jazz was her speciality.
Every aspect of Elvis’s musical journey is covered in the jagged narrative. Of course I loved the descriptions of the making of the early classics, which are especially important to me; but as I’ve stayed with him, it is all fascinating. I’m interested in which guitars he used at different times and what sort of sound he was trying to achieve. I enjoy learning how the lyrics came together. It’s enlightening to learn of his experiences working with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan (live), George Jones, Burt Bacharach and so many others.
Elvis is also nothing if not self-critical – not only about his music, but his personal life. He is bitingly honest about how he let the women he loved down so often, how he came close to messing his life up completely at the height of his success. He now seems at ease with the world, married to jazz singer Diana Krall with two young sons. I suppose it’s called growing up! It makes it easier to write about all the mistakes of the past I guess.
If you aren’t an Elvis Costello fan, you might struggle a bit with the book because of the lack of that time narrative and the sheer detail that he goes into about the music at times. If you are a fan, then that detail is fantastic!
There are so many quotable passages, from his memories of his first confession in the Catholic Church, how no type of music is superior to any other (I so agree), the creation of the great song “Shipbuilding”, to the wonder of working with the musical genius of Burt Bacharach. I’ll just leave you with one, from near the end of the book:
The danger of regarding any point in the past as the golden age is that you forget there were just as many crooks, crackpots and idiots around then, and just as many terrible records.
We only recall the ones we love.