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Book Reviews Review: Elvis Costello trades stage for page with memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Recording artist Elvis Costello has released a memoir entitled “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.”

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Title
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
Author
Elvis Costello
Publisher
Blue Rider Press
Pages
674
Price
$36

In 1982, Elvis Costello – born Declan MacManus in London in 1954 – sat down with Rolling Stone magazine. During the interview, Costello mentioned his secondary-schooling in Liverpool, and then of meeting Nick Lowe, who would become a hero to him first and later a collaborator. When interviewer Greil Marcus asked the musician about his life as a music fan, Costello neither mentioned Lowe nor Bob Dylan nor any other player or songwriter you would know. Instead, he talked about his father, Ross MacManus, a trumpet-playing crooner who sang with an orchestra led by Joe Loss – "the English Glenn Miller," Costello supposed.

Costello's long, idiosyncratic, behind-the-song memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, also begins with a story about his father – more specifically, his dad's workplace, the Hammersmith Palais ballroom in London, where the young boy soaked up showbiz during matinee performances. "I still had a child's uncritical ear for the corny bell effect created by the horns on Wheels Cha Cha," writes Costello, 61, who remembers that his dad might only get one or two spotlights a show. "I became impatient for those moments, kicking my leg against the balcony wall and picking idly at a swivel lid mounted on the tabletop …"

Costello would later hire the deserted ballroom in order to stage a photograph for the album sleeve to 1981's Trust. By that time, Costello had made it – a rock star with a peculiar voice, with hits Alison, Accidents Will Happen and Pump it Up to his credit. But sitting for the Hammersmith photograph, Costello was "just my father's son."

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Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is an oddly sequenced memoir, a love letter to his father that is too lightly edited. Costello's narrative is twisty and laden with songs and lyrics; he's a bit gabby, and at times I found myself wishing he'd just shut up. Or, better yet, hire a proper biographer – more context is craved.

We learn about a backstage meeting with Bruce Springsteen in Nashville. The Born to Run icon was gracious and "laughed like a drain" when he saw Costello and his first wife Mary in cowboy clothes. I'm not sure what Mary's laugh sounded like – Costello doesn't write about her all that much, and his second wife (of 16 years) gets even less ink. (Third wife, the British Columbia jazz star Diana Krall, is more properly represented)

In her own autobiography (Rebel Heart), seventies rock and roll consort Bebe Buell declared Costello both the love of her life and a fantastic lay. In his own book, Costello gives their affair a steam-free paragraph that ends studiously: "We took to our task enthusiastically and with little concern for anyone else's opinion." Oh, behave!

When it comes to collaborations of a musical sort, Costello dishes richer (if occasionally tediously). He has wonderful stories about Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt and many others. Costello is clearly a fan of music and musicians – the opposite of the "I just picked up a guitar for the girls" post-Beatles dude. He'd be happy to talk tunes all day.

What he struggles to talk about is the infamous 1979 North American tour with his backing band the Attractions. In those days, promo photos often had a squint-eyed Costello in an affected pigeon-toed pose; his venomous punk-rock demeanour was perhaps just as mannered. An uneasy chapter is given to the tour's infamous incident, involving racial slurs made to American musicians Bonnie Bramlett and members of the Stephen Stills band about Ray Charles and James Brown that were ugly enough to make Mel Gibson blush. Costello's explanation is not coherent, but his distress over the event reads as sincere.

Books written by musicians often exhibit an enjoyable rhythm, a cadence that Costello unfortunately has not mastered. Enough with the one-sentence paragraphs. His chapters end with a dramatic, suggestive flair, but the tension-creating trick never seems to deliver on its promise in the following pages. Funny that Costello brings up the sneering question that the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten once asked his audience: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

Then again, Costello, like Dylan, has a made a career of not giving people what they expect. The results – a prodigious, careening and admirable discography that covers varying knacks, styles and genres – speak well of him. He is a generous live performer, and his turn as a television host (with the short-lived Spectacle) was a hit with critics.

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But Dylan is better at being enigmatic, and with a truer aim.

Costello writes of following Dylan at a 2008 festival in Australia, where the Tangled Up in Blue singer gave an especially brilliant show. "There you go, I've softened 'em up for you," said Dylan, a gunslinger making a point. Compare Dylan's quirky and remarkable Chronicles: Volume One memoir with Costello's much less charismatic tome. There is no contest. "Everyday I write the book," Costello sang many years ago, but there's a better bio on him still to be written.

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