I discovered Elvis Costello when I was first in college, nearly a decade after his debut and likely a year or two off his heydey, although, as he reminisces in this book, his career has jumped the rails to somehow get back on to another line several times. One of my favorite concert memories was seeing him in a small Austin venue around 1986 or 1987, with Nick Lowe opening for him, and hearing him present the songs from King of America (my favorite album of his) and Blood and Chocolate on tour for the first time. With over 30 albums to his credit, I can’t say that I’ve heard all of them, but I’ve probably listed to a good majority, and at least three of them are ones that I could listen through again and again and again.
So an autobiography with details about his career should have been something that I would have loved, right? Unfortunately, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is not so much an autobiography as it is an anecdotalography. Costello (real name Declan MacManus) flits through time like a previously unknown Doctor Who taking you along as the new companion. You try and keep up, but his memory is notoriously spotty, and his mannerisms sometimes dotty, and so you just lean in and try to enjoy the ride. There are plenty of highlights here for fans, as Costello covers some of the more sordid highlights of his career and tries to put them in context (he was young, he was drunk, he was tired, he apologizes) and, really, after it all is over, you come to understand that he’s exactly right. He was doing the best he could at the time and sometimes made mistakes.
What really comes through in this hodge-podge of memories and loving tributes to family and musical mentors is Costello’s amazing encyclopediac knowledge of music–not just the “punk” or “new wave” rock that he first became known for, but a marvelous understand of dance hall, Tin Pan Alley, Grand Ol’ Opry, 50s rock and roll, ballads, orchestrial pieces, jazz, soul, New Orleans R&B, and likely any other style and type of music. I like to pride myself on my own familiarity with music, but I couldn’t even last one round with Costello in a test match. He acknowledges that his love for music is a family trait: his father was a singer and band leader; his mother was known for her ability to steer customers to just the right record when she sold jazz albums at a department store.
What also comes through is a surprising humility, a reflection back on his life and career that basically says, “Wow, have I been one lucky guy to have been able to be a part of all this.” Not just his own success, but the opportunity to have been able to meet and interact with people he admired when he was growing up, like George Jones, Oscar Peterson, and Burt Bacharach. Unlike some biographies or autobiographies, by the time you finish Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, you think that it wouldn’t be so bad to actually sit down over dinner with the subject.
So, while this isn’t the definitive story of his career that I had hoped for, it provided insight into both the subject, the music industry, and music itself to make it worthwhile.
[Finished 21 April 2018]