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Elvis Costello, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” – Book Review




When I was in my late teens, I thought that Elvis Costello was the most important and gifted songwriter of his generation. He had a combination of venom, tunefulness, and musical sophistication that made even his lesser songs seem to have more gravitas than some of the best work of his peers. I am quite possibly the only person in history that cruised rural Arkansas on weekend nights blasting Imperial Bedroom in my car. I rooted for Costello’s commercial prospects throughout the 1980s, but as the decade wore on, I grew less interested in his work. By the 1990s, I stopped listening altogether. My problem was that I always heard two versions of Costello during his performance. One Costello was doing the actual singing. A second version of the man was having a running dialogue with me, “Just listen to how passionate my vocal is here? Did you catch that chord change coming out of the bridge? That’s a pretty deep lyric, don’t you think?” It all became a bit too wearisome for me.

Still, I retained enough interest in the man and his career that I purchased his recently released autobiography. “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” is no light read, day at the beach kind of book. The Kindle version is 674 pages or about the length of a typical Pulitzer Prize winning Presidential memoir. Costello’s primary influence as an author appears to have been Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional character Billy Pilgrim from the book “Slaughterhouse-Five”. Like Pilgrim, Costello is “unstuck in time.” There are jarring jumps in chronology both between and within chapters. It’s not stream of consciousness, because Costello is always precise with his language, but the lack of a meaningful structure in terms of either a timeline or a specific narrative path often makes the book seem like more of a string of unrelated anecdotes than a cohesive whole.

It is a long sometimes difficult read but not one without value. Costello provides substantial depth on his upbringing and the lives of his parents and grandparents. He was obviously enamored with his father, who sang in big band and seemed to have an insatiable appetite for wine, women, and song. His mother provided stability in his life and took care of his practical concerns. However, who wouldn’t be more enthralled with a man that came home from a television gig with a complete set of autographs by the Beatles for a budding music fan. Without clearly stating it, Costello obviously viewed his father’s life as a combination of adventure and danger, or perhaps better stated, mischievousness that had to be much more appealing than being a computer operator.

Costello obviously has a substantial ego, however, the best parts of the book for me was when he describes collaborating with men that he considered his idols in the music business. Allen Toussaint, Paul McCartney, and Burt Bacharach are all described as having the combination of grace and brilliance that we would like to believe all of our musical heroes would have. For a man that gained fame with bad manners, he only takes a shot at a few colleagues – Wreckless Eric gets a minor putdown, he notes his low opinion of Willy Deville more than once (I did like the phrase “cartoon junkie melodrama”), and he compares former Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas to Mike Love of the Beach Boys. Could there be any more damning insult to a true music fan?

Throughout the book, Costello punctuates his thoughts with his own song lyrics. While at one level, the lyrics are a reflection of whatever emotional upheaval or sentiment he was trying to express, it also comes across as a show of self-importance (“Look, I wrote something really deep here”). He discusses his touring with Dylan often and while not having the hubris to call himself an equal, he does state, “I saw that rhyme register in Bob’s eye like a glancing glove.” My ultimate take away is in his songwriting, as in this book, Costello doesn’t have the self-discipline to harness his enormous talents into consistent greatness. There’s no simple emotion or statement that can’t be made more verbose or complicated. His aim may be true, but his weaponry screams with grandiloquence.

Grade – B

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