In 2001, Rhino Records began reissuing Elvis Costello’s back catalog, packaging each album with an additional disc of live material, demos, and outtakes. In some instances the number of tracks on the bonus discs eclipsed the original albums, and the effect was like looking into an alternate world where things felt both familiar and yet vastly different.
To add another layer of context to the music, Costello wrote extensive liner notes for these reissues. Read in order they form a 60,000 word examination of the man’s career as a performer and, if only peripherally, the person buried behind the pop. Writing in Slate in 2012, John Lingan called these assembled liner notes one of the best rockstar memoirs ever, and he’s not far off the mark.
Costello’s new book, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, is a sequel of sorts to those liner notes, and it occasionally even reaches the same heights as its predecessor. It’s nearly 700 pages of Costello on Costello, a joy for those already in the cult and another arrow in the quiver for those who think he should just shut up already. Of course he’s been saying a lot over the last four decades: he’s released 30 albums, a handful of live recordings, and several compilations in that time, including a two-disc companion to this book.
Costello is both a crafty lyricist and talk show raconteur, and those talents translate well to page. Of course the requisite biographical data is here: he was born in London, lived in Liverpool, his father was a singer in a radio orchestra, his mother worked in a record shop. He did data entry at an Elizabeth Arden factory before filtering an infinite variety of influences through the lens of British pub rock and punk rock with the help of Nick Lowe on My Aim Is True. There are also stories of being teased on tour by the Clash and writing songs with Paul McCartney, as well as allusions to the self-destructive and emotionally devastating effects of the rock ‘n’ roll life.
While Costello is the primary star of his liner notes, here he often shares the spotlight with his father, Ross MacManus. Costello is at his most unguarded when talking about his father, a man who looms large over both his life and career. The stories of Costello watching his father from the balcony of the Hammersmith Palais, or watching him on TV on the same show as the Beatles, are vivid and compelling. The contrast of Costello’s career with his father’s shows the work of a musician as both an indulgence in the creative impulse as well as simply a job, a view not often shared in your average rock ‘n’ roll memoir.
Costello talks about his own work with both clarity and deception, detailing song origins, inspirations, and meanings without fully revealing the man behind the curtain. In what’s perhaps the book’s most telling line, he writes of his early experiences as an interview subject, ““I was inclined to be talkative, yet confidential.” The book’s length is a testament to the former.
Those confidential instincts lead to a number of passages about “holding another man’s daughter” in his arms, or sly digs at former Attraction Bruce Thomas, but Costello is anything but reserved when covering the most infamous incident of his career. The details are well known: in March, 1979, Costello and his band were in Columbus, Ohio, where they butted heads with another group of touring musicians, including Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett. After tensions between the groups reached a fever pitch, Costello used racial epithets to denigrate two giants of American music: James Brown and Ray Charles.
There’ve been plenty of excuses and reasons given for this behavior over the years, both from Costello and even Ray Charles, who chalked it up to “drunken talk”. Here, nearly 37 years later, Costello wonders if every person he meets knows about the incident, that if years of apology and explanation can ever erase the stain. His performance at a Rock Against Racism concert the previous year and a peek inside his record collection offer only a superficial glimpse of what’s in the man’s heart, so in an attempt to atone he puts those feelings on the page.
Early in the book Costello recalls going to see the Band play and hopes they’ll play his favorite song, “The Unfaithful Servant”, but doubting they will. He writes that it’s the fan’s right to hope a band will play a favorite song, but the performer’s prerogative to play whatever they please. That’s another way of saying the work speaks for itself, and that creator and creation don’t always share the same point of view.
In any memoir there’s deception and sleight of hand. For Costello, there’s the frequent insistence that the “I” in a song is not necessarily a “me”. As a result, the picture of the man isn’t always as clear as the picture of the artist. It’s not as if those are two completely separate beings, but for a public person, even a celebrity with sub-Kardashian tabloid wattage like Costello, it’s an important distinction.