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Book review - Elvis Costello

Even as it stands, sprawled out across 670 pages, the artist formerly known as the angry-one-with-glasses has delivered a beast to be proud of.

Elvis Costello


Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Blue Rider Press

If Elvis Costello had gone back to the hoover factory immediately after making My Aim is True, his debut album in 1977, this book would be a little more than half the length it is now. Which is not a condemnation; merely an observation. Because, even as it stands, sprawled out across 670 pages, the artist formerly known as the angry-one-with-glasses has delivered a beast to be proud of.

Yes, the sixth best songwriter on the old Stiff Records label… who cut the fifth most exhilarating album, the fourth greatest single, and shared the third weirdest image, has now written the second most enjoyable autobiography of any of the artists who co-starred on the roster. (Someone Costello calls a "horrible little git named Eric" wrecklessly punched that clock before him.)

Whether these statistics actually mean anything, of course, is irrelevant. Move on twelve months from his days at Stiff, and Costello turned in the third best single, second best album, and greatest live show of any of the artists on Radar. And as for his tenure on F-Beat….


The fact is, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink really is a rip-roaring ride through… let’s see. The serial infidelities of his dad. The serial infidelities of his own. A lot of Beatle-based name dropping. A teetering pile of albums which between them add up to a worthy career, if not an absolutely brilliant one. And an unhealthy fascination with “Stairway to Heaven”… unhealthy, because, the first time he mentions it, it’s midway through a story about how he almost got punched by Robert Plant. But that doesn’t stop him mentioning it again. And again. Sometimes, he even forgets to smirk.

The first half of the book is best, which might be why it actually goes on for longer than that - interspersed with sneaky fast-forward interludes to catch us off guard and, maybe, make us forget that following the sterling run of early albums that rendered Costello the only Elvis in town, he also dropped some utter clinkers.

He writes of motivation and he writes about the writing itself, and one of the things that makes this such a good read is, he can actually write very well. Too many pop star autobiographies try to capture the “author”’s actual voice, a ploy wot far too ofun leaves us muggins wot buyed it finking we’ve spent the last xx years listening to the wit and wisdom of Mister Bill Sikes. Ain’t that right, Johnny?

Costello has never been lost for words, though, as anyone who has ever tried to transcribe a few of his lyrics will tell you, and Bob Dylan once discovered to his barely-concealed mirth ("I can't believe you just used 'amanuensis' in a sentence"). And Unfaithful Music is as enthrallingly verbose as any of his better songs. Which, just to wind you up, we’ll say can largely be found on his first three albums, but were also distributed across his early b-sides, too. And if you don’t believe that, ask Elvis. Or maybe he just remembers writing and recording them more clearly. Just as he remembers the first tours, first controversies and first groupies more clearly.

Or maybe things just matter more when you’re young? Even he seems in awe at just what a powerful live machine the Attractions were in the first flush of the band’s (if not the members’) youth, an incandescent blur of snot, spite and spit that could make the Ramones sound sluggish, and Johnny Rotten sound content.

LIkewise, digging through the Elvis bootleg collection, comparing his recollections of individual shows or recordings with the evidence of your own ears illuminates far more than most pop authors ever manage - compare his description of the creation of “Chelsea” with the spectral, spare demo on your scratchy old 50,000,000 Elvis Fans boot for further elucidation.

Later, with the early days out of the way, he falls more into a sequence of (Dylan again) Chronicles-esque vignettes, leaping from studio to studio and, more pointedly, collaboration to collaboration, as the mood hits him, a chronic namedropper who himself seems staggered to realize that he’s either written, recorded or performed with more or less every (living) idol he ever had, from Chet Baker to Paul McCartney, Solomon Burke to James Burton.

At the same time, though there’s a lot he doesn’t discuss. Oft-told by others, and lightly reiterated here, his on-the-spot opinion on his (re-)christening might have been illuminating. Sundry animosities are announced but not addressed; and though he discusses the fall-out from his so-called racist outburst during a row with Steven Stills, we get a lot less explanation of what really happened than he expends, for example, on Frank Sinatra show he went to in 1980.

He also avoids explaining why, every time his catalog is reissued on CD, the bonus tracks never match up, so we’re left cradling umpteen copies of the albums we cherish, for the sake of the odd killer demo or two. But he does tell us how he became the unwitting cause of June Carter getting mighty vexed with husband Johnny Cash; about having a row with Joni Mitchell over his ill-advised use of the word “diffident”; and about the time Allen Toussaint asked him to help out with the broccoli. And discovering Elvis’s affection for the Incredible String Band is almost as gratifying as John Lydon’s confession that he loved the first 10cc album;

A few errors do creep in, as they do into every book - nothing egregious, though, so when you spot the one star review on Amazon-or-elsewhere, complaining “when I realized he doesn’t know what year the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ was released, it became clear that you can’t trust a single word out of his mouth,” you’ll know not to take it too seriously.

In, again, readable and style, it’s a fast read punctuated only by the need to put on another of his albums to croon you through the next few chapters, and you exit the final page not only with a new appreciation for what Costello has accomplished (not only can the man walk on his ankles, he was once forced to do so by a lady who otherwise refused to believe he was who he is), but also with fresh curiosity for any and all of the albums he’s made that you might have managed to avoid.

Like most artists whose careers now approach their fortieth anniversary, Costello has made a few mistakes, a few lousy albums, a few regrettable missteps, and so on and so forth. But he fesses up to a lot of them with sometimes coruscating honesty, and he also reiterates a piece of wisdom that, quite possibly, is the most memorable quotation in the book.

No, not Frank Capra dismissing modern Hollywood as “a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the patronage of deviants and masturbators,” which itself could easily be paraphrased as a summation of a lot of other present-day art forms, as well.

And not the unnamed BBC producer who once buttonholed Costello at an awards ceremony, to sternly inform him “you’d have had a lot more hits if you’d just taken out all the sevenths and minor chords.”


No, the best quote belongs to the “local hothead” who buttonholed Costello in an elevator in the Allentown Holiday Inn one day, and asserted, “you look like Billy Joel.”

Which must have made a welcome change from being told he looks like the guy from Roogalator.