Elvis Costello: My Life in 10 Songs - Rolling Stone
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Elvis Costello: My Life in 10 Songs

How Bruce Springsteen and Margaret Thatcher — plus a little revenge and guilt — inspired some of Costello’s greatest work

Elvis Costello

1977, UK --- Original caption: Elvis Costello, 1977. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

"I was asked to write an autobiography when I was 24," says Elvis Costello, 61, on the day he receives his first hard-bound copy of his revelatory, evocatively crafted, highly entertaining new memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. "I said, 'Could I just live some life?'"

Back then, Costello (born Declan MacManus), the son of a big-band vocalist, blew through rock & roll like a bespectacled tornado, fusing punk, American-roots music and slashing, literary candor on 1977's My Aim Is True and 1978's This Year's Model, the latter with his feral combo the Attractions.

Early on, he famously said that all of his songwriting was driven by revenge and guilt, an image-making quote he now laughs off. "That was never all that it was about," he says. "It just became a nice tagline to put next to my name. Even when I said it, I was daring people to go, 'Of course that's not true.' Unfortunately, some people are literal-minded."

Costello has since unleashed a torrent of songwriting across more than two dozen albums, collaborating with artists including Paul McCartney ("As his last co-written hit had been with Michael Jackson, I wondered whether I should be taking some dancing lessons," Costello writes in one of the book's best chapters), Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint and the Roots — not to mention a still-in-progress album with Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash.

He's also explored an array of styles, from country to classical, that reflect his ever-broadening taste. "When you hear stuff and it leaves you cold, it passes you by, it is not the fault of the music," says Costello. "You weren't ready." He claims that he's not as prolific as he seems, that his "big curse is indolence." But he also acknowledges that even as he finished his book, he was working on 40 new songs. "That is not somebody who is slowing down," he says.

Elvis Costello

1977, UK --- Original caption: Elvis Costello, 1977. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

“The Puppet Has Cut His Strings” (2013)

It was at the end of the very long process of making Wise Up Ghost. It was these strange chords. Most of the songs on that album are outward-looking bulletins. I don't know why the music made me go there, but that night I wrote an account of my father's last days and hours. I wrote the lyrics in one draft and sang it in one take, into my computer on the kitchen counter. It's described in a way as clear as I can — the way music was my father's companion to his last breath. It's a somber conclusion. But why be afraid of it?

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