10 Things We Learned From Elvis Costello's New Memoir - Rolling Stone
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10 Things We Learned From Elvis Costello’s Brilliant New Memoir

Songwriter’s new book reflects on ‘SNL’ ban and infamous 1979 tirade, why he won’t reveal who Alison is

Elvis CostelloElvis Costello

HANLEY, ENGLAND - JUNE 17: Elvis Costello performs at Victoria Hall on June 17, 2015 in Hanley, England. (Photo by Tony Woolliscroft/WireImage)

Tony Woolliscroft/WireImage

It’s probably no surprise that Elvis Costello‘s memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, out today, is thoroughly engrossing. Costello’s gift for storytelling in song is without question, but like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, his book is truly remarkable in the way it presents a riveting, honest portrait of the author and the many A-listers he’s tread the boards with, while ricocheting through the years at an almost breathless pace. In an era of ghostwritten — or, worse, self-serving — memoirs by rock stars at every strata of the pecking order, the nearly 700-page Unfaithful Music is a standout.

While the book is certainly worth of a leisurely, cover-to-cover dive, an even more surprising treat is the companion audiobook, in which the author himself acts out many of his most legendary incidents, delivering spot-on impressions of Dylan and many others, and often sending up himself in the process.

Either way, even the most ardent Costello fan will come away having learned more about the man than any of us ever dared hope to discover. Here are 10 key revelations.

1. Costello’s iconic glasses are a nod to the family business.
Costello’s father, Ross McManus, a well-known singer in England when Costello was a youngster, is a constant and charismatic figure throughout Unfaithful Music. In fact, it turns out Costello’s glasses are no show-biz gimmick, but are rather a tribute to his father. Costello also deftly weaves his family history — including stories of his grandfather, Pat McManus, who performed on the White Star cruise line during the Prohibition Era — in and out of the book, showing the rich artistic thread that reached its peak with Costello’s worldwide fame.

2. Costello’s 1977 ban from Saturday Night Live is Jimi Hendrix’s fault.
As Costello describes in this superb clip from the audiobook of Unfaithful Music, when the Attractions were deputized to perform in place of the Sex Pistols on SNL, he employed a trick Jimi Hendrix had used on Lulu’s show in 1969, stopping mid-song to perform a track of his choosing, rather than one approved by Lorne Michaels or his record label.

3. Elvis talked Paul McCartney into using his Hofner bass again and got him to embrace his Beatle-ness.
Costello recounts that when he first began collaborating with Paul McCartney, the former Beatle favored a “super-hi-tech custom” bass that his wife, Linda, had given him for Christmas. It had, much to Costello’s horror, five strings. Costello inquired about the Hofner, trying not to sound too much like the Beatle geek that all of us would be in that moment. McCartney then pulled it out of storage, and has been using it as his main instrument ever since.

4. There might one day be a McCartney-Costello album.
The pair recorded a series of collaborative demos in the late Eighties. In an outtake from the book called “Sketches From Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” — included on the excellent companion album Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album  — Costello recounts a meeting he was called to about 13 years ago by McCartney in which the former Beatle wrote out identical to-do lists for each of them, which listed some tantalizing items: 1. “Listen to demos.” 2. “Edit and add to demos.” 3. “Write more songs.” 4. “Record more songs.” 5. “Release those songs.” McCartney then tucked his list in a book on the shelf of his office without another word. Costello did the same when he got home … and claims to have forgotten which book he put the list in.

5. Costello doesn’t really hate Bruce Thomas (maybe).
The bad blood between Costello and Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas is legendary, most vividly seen in Thomas’ own memoir. But throughout Unfaithful Music, Costello heaps praise on the bassist’s playing, especially in the passages recounting the early days of the group, when Thomas, a bit older and more experienced, offered the Attractions a relatively veteran view on arrangement and studio technique.

6. Costello makes no excuses about the infamous James Brown–Ray Charles incident.
Costello doesn’t flinch when recounting the potentially career-ending drunken brawl he got into at a Holiday Inn in 1979 with members of Stephen Stills’ band, in which he reportedly called James Brown and Ray Charles enough racial slurs to land him his first nationwide media coverage. Like his hero John Lennon — after his “bigger than Jesus” comment in 1966 — Costello faced the press with a ham-fisted apology. It took years for him to live down the incident, but he still carries the scars. He asks the reader if they think he’s a racist, and lists a litany of defenses — from his poor mental state at the time while on a grueling tour of the States, to his obvious admiration for and his many collaborations over the years with black artists. In the end he sums it up simply: “Never mind excuses, there are no excuses.”

7. Costello is an even deeper music head than we thought.
Throughout Unfaithful Music, Costello namechecks a litany of well-known and not-so-well-known artists that he’s drawn inspiration from over the years. In another musician’s memoir, the practice might have come across as name-dropping, but as the story unfolds we find Costello collaborating with many of those greats: Paul McCartney, George Jones, Chet Baker, Burt Bacharach and Tony Bennett, to name just a few. And with each encounter, Costello demonstrates a love of all things musical — not mere musicology but something far more personal — that confirms he was the perfect person to have scaled such lofty heights.

8. His memory is as sharp as his songwriting.
At 670 pages, Unfaithful Music is remarkably detailed, delving into Costello’s family history, the highs and lows of his career and his creative process. But what’s most remarkable is the fact that, while he clearly spent a great deal of time researching the book, he never kept any sort of journals, diaries or notes over the years. Perhaps because he’s just old enough to have some perspective, yet still young enough to remember the details of even his wildest days, Costello’s storytelling rivals Dylan’s Chronicles for putting the reader into the time and place of his tales.

9. Costello is really funny.
Two noteworthy zingers:

“I was born in the same hospital in which Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. I apologize in advance that I have not been the same boon to mankind.”

“There are many places in London that offer a sense of belonging: Camden, Stepney, Hampstead, Brixton, and even Shepherd’s Bush. Paddington is not one of these, unless you are a fictional bear.”

10. He still won’t tell us who Alison is.
Costello recounts how he’s always claimed that the subject of his best-known song, “Alison,” was a checkout girl, and later elaborates that the song was “a work of fiction, taking the sad face of a beautiful girl glimpsed by chance and imagining her life unraveling before her.” But don’t expect any answers to the many riddles laced within Costello’s songs, nor for the direct inspiration for “Alison,” if there even was one.

“A book like this might be a tempting opportunity to argue with critical opinions, right perceived wrongs, or have the last word in better forgotten arguments,” Costello writes. “I have no intention of doing any such thing.” In the end, Costello puts the subject to rest with a simple question: “Would you like a song less or would you like a song more if you knew exactly the identity of … ‘Alison’?”


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