Book Blurbs is a series of quick-hitting reviews in which our staff dissect and critique music-related books fresh off the presses.
Following in the footsteps of freshly minted authors Patti Smith, Keith Richards, and Questlove, Elvis Costello decided to pen a 674-page music memoir with the goal of showcasing the “absurdity…of show business.” Costello’s behemoth of a book spans the English singer-songwriter’s entire life, from watching his dad play afternoon gigs at The Hammersmith Palais in ‘61 to jamming with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon as Lindsay Lohan looked on. Relying on his impeccable memory, Costello leads us on a romp through half a century of songwriting, recording, and performing as seen through the lenses of his black-framed Buddy Holly glasses.
About the Author
Thanks to his overwhelming oeuvre and copious collaborations, Elvis Costello is a household name. He’s released more than 25 studio albums, won a Grammy and an Oscar, and performed at the White House for President Obama. No stranger to sharing the spotlight, Costello has partnered with Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, Richard Harvey, Jenny Lewis, and a plethora of others on a diverse range of projects.
But who the hell is Declan Patrick MacManus? Trick question – he’s the same guy. Declan MacManus adopted the alias Elvis Costello in the mid-’70s by grafting Elvis Presley’s first name onto his father’s stage name (Day Costello). The moniker stuck, MacManus spontaneously combusted, and from his ashes rose a new Elvis.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink isn’t your typical music memoir. For starters, Costello’s book doesn’t adhere to a linear chronology. Instead, chapters are presented as a series of colorful episodes, with the author jumping between decades and themes with little loyalty to a traditional timeline. You can flip to almost any chapter, read at random, and jump right into the narrative. Every time you crack open the book, it’s like you’re at a London pub listening to some eccentric geezer spin a scarcely believable yarn over a pint of warm, flat ale.
Then there’s the length: it’s 100 pages thicker than Keith Richard’s Life and more than twice the size of Patti Smith’s Just Kids. At the rate attention spans are dwindling these days, could Costello be asking a bit much from his fans? Perhaps, but it’s tough to say what could’ve been cut. The man has led a really remarkable life, and nearly every page touts some animated incident, enlightening revelation, or witty jab.
Right out of the gate, Costello treats us to touching, hilarious, and unguarded glimpses of what it was like to grow up in ’60s England. From the blokes in Liverpool who could “insert five ‘fucks’ into a three-syllable word if they’ve got a point to make” to young Costello’s preference for movies over books (“if you could sneak into the cinema, you could write your essay based on the film”), we get a detailed look at the characters and impulses that shaped his formative years. Especially enjoyable is the imagery he invokes to describe Liverpool Stadium: “a dank boxing venue that didn’t always have the blood washed off the seats.”
Costello also shares a very personal account of his decision to pursue a career in music. After one of his schoolmates was killed in a freak accident, he quickly concluded that he was put on this earth to write and perform songs. “Suddenly everything but music seemed like a waste of precious time,” he reflects. On the subject of songwriting, Costello delivers some resonating remarks about the merits of borrowing from one’s influences (“a lot of pop music has come out of people trying to copy their model and accidentally creating something new”) and whether poets are superior to lyricists (spoiler: absolutely not).
Like all great music memoirs, there’s plenty of overlap with other rock icons. The Clash, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Queen, Alice Cooper, Bob Dylan, T Bone Burnett, Neil Diamond, Nick Lowe, and Carl Perkins, among many, many others, make juicy appearances. There are plenty of highlights, but Costello is at his best when describing the rivalry between English bands in the ’70s: “encountering another outfit was like a prelude to a gunfight in a western, all preening and posturing.”
There’s no denying that Costello takes a big risk in presenting his life out of chronological order. While he often succeeds, there are certainly sections when his story gets jumbled and confusing. Especially if you’re not familiar with Costello’s career trajectory, the book can be a bit hard to follow.
As far as music memoirs go, Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is in the upper echelon. It’s got it all: snide humor, tear-jerking tragedy, and plenty of dirty details about all your favorite rock immortals. Don’t let the 674-page bulk deter you; it’s a fluid, fun read. Still, if you’ve got a bad back, you ought to opt for a Kindle copy.