Across the nearly 700 pages of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello delivers an impeccably detailed autobiography. He’s often as brilliant at turning a phrase in prose as he is in his lyrics.
The book opens with Costello’s boyhood memories of Saturday afternoons hanging around London’s Hammersmith Palais, where his father performed as a singer in the Joe Loss Orchestra. Costello and The Attractions played in the same venue, an overcrowded and overheated rock club years later, and area cabbies told Costello his father “was a better bloody singer than you’ll ever be.”
Costello explains that his passion centered entirely on music as a late teen, hardly a surprise for an only child whose parents met across the counter at a record shop. “Suddenly everything but music seemed like a waste of precious time,” he writes. But the knowledge of his father’s career—and the off-stage temptations that ultimately ruined his parents’ marriage—stood as more of a deterrent than anything: “For all that music meant to me, it still didn’t seem a likely or inviting occupation.”
However unlikely or uninviting, Costello’s career in music took an ascendant arc that he neatly describes: his debut record My Aim Is True was cut in a total of 24 hours; its follow-up, This Year’s Model, took 11 days; his seventh album Imperial Bedroom was booked for 12 weeks of studio time, with famed Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick producing.
Costello first heard the Beatles when his father learned to sing “Please Please Me” by playing the single over and over. Soon, his father would share a bill on the Royal Command Performance with the Beatles, bringing their autographs back to his son. Unfaithful Music then jumps to 1999, when Costello is singing harmony with Paul McCartney at the tribute concert for his late wife, Linda McCartney.
That jump perfectly encapsulates the amazement and gratitude that shadow Costello’s recollections, sensations that never diminish despite his Hall of Fame credentials. “I know I never expected to meet half the people who I’ve encountered down these years and across these pages,” he writes in the final chapter. “I thought they were just names on record jackets, reputations spelled out in the light bulbs of a marquee, or consoling voices in the dark, but that’s not the way it has turned out.”
Costello’s reflective final passages aside, the book sparkles most during the pre-fame portion of his life. He looks fondly on his childhood, remembering family car trips to Spain and France and saving cereal box lids to get a Zorro sword. His first band was an imagined one, The Meteors, at seven years old, playing with cardboard guitars and wooden spoon drumsticks. Later, he’d spend hours at the “magnificent cave” of his local Liverpool record store, where he bought his first acoustic guitar on installment at age 14.
The writing that covers those years is full of wonder, and as his artistic identity begins to emerge, the reader is witness to the epiphanies that built upon each other to mold the Elvis Costello we now know.
Costello first heard himself on the radio after he’d passed a demo tape to a BBC disc jokey who devoted a part of his show to homegrown releases: “My voice sounded lower and older than I’d imagined, but I was still finding a way to sing, and the performance was still full of strange affectations, just not all of the strange affectations with which I’d eventually make my name.”
Broke and struggling, Costello road the bus past a Hoover factory every day on his way to work, penning lines inspired by Jonathan Richman’s wry, everyday observations. “When I wrote those lyrics, I was through the door to a different, less ingratiating way of speaking,” he writes. “My gentle, sometimes heartfelt, sometimes trite little songs were not going to command a room, much less the fickle attentions of ratio listeners. I needed a new vocabulary and a different music.”
That different music would be created in a two-year blitz that saw three acclaimed albums and many of Costello’s most well-known songs: “Alison,” “Pump It Up,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Radio, Radio,” “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”
“Back then in pop music, you started out trying to copy something exactly and accidently came up with your own sound while getting it completely wrong … The difference was The Attractions could play rings around everybody else. I just had to stand in the middle and sing.”
In a particularly poignant scene, Costello recalls a trip back to London from a Manchester gig, parking at 3 a.m. to eat at a roadside stop, running into his father making the way back from his own performance. Costello relates the story without commentary, but it’s vivid enough to leave the impression that as much as anything else that happened, that moment signaled his arrival as a career musician.
Costello writes richly of his first American tour (and the two that followed mere months later). He spent days digging through record store bins (“I did thirty years of listening in the first nine months of visiting America”) and nights on stage with the Talking Heads and Eddie Money (proving that Columbia Records wasn’t quite sure what to make of British new-wavers). He met Tom Waits at the Tropicana in Los Angeles, Bob Dylan backstage at the Universal Amphitheatre and traded “polite, shy” questions with Bruce Springsteen after a show in New Jersey.
After Costello’s rock ‘n’ roll burst with The Attractions, he struggled in the mid 1980s, when the prevailing trends pushed pop music toward a slick, saccharine and synthetic realm. “I tried to go along with the plan for a while, but I felt like a blacksmith in a glass factory.” His songwriting in those years was unable to escape the “tarnished, exhausted views of love” brought on by his failures in marriage. “It took me nearly another ten years to finish writing about the misery I provoked and the darkness that could envelope two people once so brightly in love.”
In 1987, Costello began a songwriting collaboration with McCartney and joined the band for Roy Orbison’s HBO special A Black and White Night. Those projects drove him to seek more collaborations, eager to write, produce or record for an unexpected range of creative partners. Costello describes working with Burt Bacharach, T Bone Burnett, Allen Toussaint, the Brodsky Quartet and The Roots, among others.
Aware that his “songs sounded like puzzles to people who were used to more straightforward sentiments,” Costello doesn’t bend to simplicity in this endeavor either. Unfaithful Music contains a web of tangents and muddled chronology, with ventures into family history that bog down an already lengthy book.
But those are minor inconveniences, like a track to skip on an otherwise entertaining album. Much like his musical career, Costello’s Unfaithful Music is dense, multifaceted, singular and slightly unwieldy. Though not everyone will get it, the book certainly rewards the patience of those eager to take the plunge.