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Elvis Costello’s “Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink” Reviewed

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Elvis Costello is the Drake of pop maestros, he seems to be coming cleaning but more often than not he is just bragging. To the winners the spoils, and if he wants to smirk at what a bad boy he has been with the girls, and with his audience, that is his prerogative, but in “Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink”, it is unseemly and if not  blemish, perhaps a question mark on his fine memoir.

The book boils down to the early years of Costello’s career as an opportunity he abdicated from, the rest of his career a tussle with the very highest levels of musical scholarship, three marriages (one common law), three sons,  and somewhere in the mix an extended ode to his late father, singer Ross Macmanus. So why does it sound so arrogant? And does that really matter? Because of his tunnel vision, that not to do with his concern is dismissed as unworthy.It is a self-portrait, and when it comes together just so (a chapter, about New Orleans in the wake of Katrina is perfection, and his description of New Yorkers post 9-11 as both solemn and very considerate is more or less the last word) it   can be like a perfect song on a great album, like “You Little Fool” on Imperial Bedroom,  but when it doesn’t work, just about every thing he says abut his TV show “Revolver” , it seems to spin itself into a corner, like “Someone Took My Breath Away” on North.

Costello spins his story of a life in music, a life, following in his father’s, and to a lesser extent, his Grandfather’s, footsteps, which has a sense of the pre-ordained. And late in the book he discusses his eldest son’s love of music  and there is again a sense of music echoing through the generations. Elvis’ part in this, his story, is the documentation of the MacManus’ family through he, himself, the most successful practitioner.

The story foregoes a straight narrative to piece itself through interlocking ideas, but it isn’t married to the concept and by the end works mostly in a straight line. More importantly, Costello has a basic theme, his father’s death day, and he returns to it like a vision he can’t shake off: not as though his father is haunting him, but the moments of transition, like a musical transition, haunt him.

Opening with a pre-teen Elvis, visiting his daddy at work during a matinee performance of the Joe Loss Band, it travels to a “This Is Your Life” program about Loss, and from there, moves back and forward in time: this is some fine writing, though I am not always crazy about Costello the stylist, Costello the storyteller, manages to connect pops-stardom to pre-teenage Elvis, through the visage of his dad. The story ends up being told completely, just not in the right order.

For Costello fanatics there is plenty of backstage stuff, lots of bad manners, lots of good manners, and  regrets he had a few and some of the story, how he came to write his most popular songs, is especially illuminating. Also, lots of stargazing, Van Morrison, Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, the recently departed Allen Toussaint, Johnny Cash,  and most especially Bob Dylan, are painted  by memory for you.

Dylan is especially a revelation, as much as he can be explained, Costello explains him. Whether noting how Dylan wishes he could still be nervous about getting on stage, to reveling in a story where at a Festival Elvis was forced to go on after Dylan and Dylan had performed the set of a lifetime, and passing Elvis on the way to the exist smirked “I’ve warmed them up for you.” It’s better when you read it…

Costello has a Zeligness to him, he often finds himself where you would most want him to be, sitting next to Paul writing songs, going for a jog and running into Van the man, outside Aretha Franklin’s dressing room with Solomon Burke. It is like peeking at history. But he is almost self-effacing among his peers to the point of butt kissing  and he can be brutal, he dismisses all rock critics as hacks except for maybe six,  Peter Guralnick is namechecked,- great writer, no doubt, but really, should the rest of us hang up our typewriters in reverence?  The rest of the time he is stupendously indifferent to the rest of the world, calling his biggest fans creepy.

You come out considering the man less gnomic and more borderline autistic: everything revolves around performing music. And by the end of the book when National Ransom, an album I actively disliked, becomes a critical and commercial disaster, and Costello is badly shaken, I actually felt bad for saying so many nasty things about it: it’s as though he reached a dead end and is now left touring constantly to provide for his family.

Appearances notwithstanding, putting himself down doesn’t make Elvis quite self-aware enough, he seems too bent on myth to deal quite accurately in man: he can’t tell the difference between his A game and his B game, he merges into one larger continuum and finds him overrating his own work by a large margin more than once. His tone about the awful “April 5th” –a song with Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson,  is bizarre. It is like he is reviewing their careers and not this drab, dreary Americana he wrote. Much worse is his the Roots album. Why are we meant to be impressed about the damn Roots? They haven’t made a good album since Phrenology. He keeps on nudging us, look who I am performing with, it must be good.  But it isn’t good. I actually went to a taping of “Revolver”, the one with John Prine, and he was an awful interviewer. He stepped all over Lyle Lovett’s lines -nothing like what he writes about here, where he seems to believe being a peer abdicates him from being of service to his interviewee.

I’ve heard too many Costello horror stories to discount them, and even reading this book, there is a certain coldness to anything on the periphery of his story. That’s not a shame, it is a self-portrait, he doesn’t hide from it and if we don’t like him for it, that’s really our problem -he is an egotistical monster though that comes with the job description, as bad as Jay Z in his self-regard,  though his English sense of self-deprecation saves him from coming across too dicky. “Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink” is dedicated to his three sons (for whom he once wrote yet another terrible song ), it is both sad and the nature of life, these men and boys, this is a history, his history, his father’s history and his children’s history. It is worth writing about and it is well written -it bears witness to itself. Me,  I’d have liked to have met his dad.

Grade: B+

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