Written by Elvis Costello
Audiobook read by Elvis Costello
Published by Blue Rider Press on October 13th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Entertainment & Performing Arts, Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Source: purchased, public library via Overdrive
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Born Declan Patrick MacManus, Elvis Costello was raised in London and Liverpool, grandson of a trumpet player on the White Star Line and son of a jazz musician who became a successful radio dance band vocalist. Costello went into the family business and had taken the popular music world by storm before he was twenty-four.
Costello continues to add to one of the most intriguing and extensive songbooks of the day. His performances have taken him from a cardboard guitar in his front room to fronting a rock and roll band on your television screen and performing in the world’s greatest concert halls in a wild variety of company. “Unfaithful Music” describes how Costello’s career has somehow endured for almost four decades through a combination of dumb luck and animal cunning, even managing the occasional absurd episode of pop stardom.
The memoir, written entirely by Costello himself, offers his unique view of his unlikely and sometimes comical rise to international success, with diversions through the previously undocumented emotional foundations of some of his best known songs and the hits of tomorrow. The book contains many stories and observations about his renowned co-writers and co-conspirators, though Costello also pauses along the way for considerations on the less appealing side of infamy.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is destined to be a classic--the idiosyncratic memoir of a singular man.
Music can be the most intimate art form, particularly when it’s performed or presented by the same artist who wrote it. Those of us who grew up with the music of the late 20th century have had a lot of exposure to singer/songwriters, and we’re aware that many of them mine their own lives and emotions for song material. Because we hear their own words in their own voices, we may feel like we know these musicians as people…but we’re wrong. We know the work. We can forget that songwriters are storytellers as much as novelists or screenwriters are, and those stories aren’t necessarily revealing to us who they are as people. There may be truth in them, but it’s usually more likely to be emotional rather than factual truth, and that’s where the sense of intimacy resides. I think one reason I’m intrigued by the memoirs of musicians is that they offer more of the literal truth–that’s where the real stories are.
I’ve been a fan of Elvis Costello and his music for nearly four decades. At times, I’ve been just about the only Elvis Costello fan I know.(And during the decade that I lived in Memphis, Tennessee, I was clearly a fan of the wrong Elvis.) However, I really haven’t known all that much about Costello himself, beyond the music (and his real name, Declan McManus) until very recently, The man who wrote “Everyday I Write the Book” wrote a book, and read it himself as an audiobook. I checked it out of the library, and when I hadn’t finished it by the time my download was due to expire, I bought it from Audible to finish it. It was absolutely worth it.Click To Tweet
Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is Elvis Costello’s autobiography–it’s not a tell-all, but it tells an awful lot. Costello’s place in the third generation of a musical family made his early years pretty interesting, while a desire to distance himself from that heritage was a factor in his choosing to start his own career under an assumed name (Costello was his mother’s maiden name, while Elvis comes from exactly the source you’d expect). He’s candid about the challenges and temptations that can confront successful young musicians, and about the fact that he didn’t always handle them well.
Costello doesn’t get into the gory details of some of the more problematic parts of his past–the breakups of his first marriage and his first band, the Attractions, for example–and that’s certainly his right, but he doesn’t gloss over them, and he owns up to the role his own failings played in them. (On the other hand, his seventeen-year-long second marriage is apparently something Costello prefers not to discuss much…and that’s certainly his right as well.)
Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is also a memoir of an artist and his work, in which Costello shares the stories behind many of his songs and albums. He talks about inspirations, sources, and what a particular lyric means–or, in some cases, doesn’t–and recounts the creation stories of some of his most significant albums. While he’s still best known as one of the signature artists of the post-punk/New Wave era, Costello’s musical interests are restless and eclectic, and he discusses his explorations of a variety of musical genres–country, jazz, classical, traditional pop and R&B–with some unexpected collaborators; he’s worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to Burt Bacharach to his third wife, jazz musician Diana Krall. If you’re interested in “the process”–and I am–these portions of the book are particularly fascinating and satisfying.
While listening to Costello read Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink to me, I got a feeling that he’d been working on the book–and working through his story—for a very long time. That may be one reason it’s a very long book; I opted out of an opportunity to review the nearly 700-page print edition in favor of almost 19 hours with the audiobook. But it was well worth the time–Costello is both an engaging and engaged writer, and I also got the feeling that he’s got plenty more story to tell, should he ever decide he wants to. Until then, I’ve got a lot more of his music to explore.
From Chapter One
“I think it was my love of wrestling that first took me to the dance hall.
“There was barely a week of my childhood in which I did not have the following dialogue with a stranger:
–Beg your pardon?
–You know? Any relation to the wrestler?
“My mother might wearily manage an indulgent laugh, as if to say, You know, I’ve never heard that before in my life.
“I just felt awkward.
“Though, I suspected I might indeed be a distant relation of Mick McManus, a professional wrestler who was a fixture on the Saturday-afternoon televised bouts.”