Elvis Costello may have sung “I’m Not Angry” at the very outset of his career in 1977, but his delivery sounded so inherently laden with invective that it took decades for him to convince us it was really true. He explains some of his early, aggrieved image away in his new memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, by writing: “It seems that the space between my two front teeth, which made Jane Birkin, Ray Davies, and Jerry Lewis so appealing, has had the effect of making half of what I say sound like a provocation or insult.”
But as we learn in this beautifully written autobiography, published this week, the anger of those early days wasn’t entirely illusory, although there was just as much alcohol-fueled impishness and star-machinery confusion, along with a reckless shortage of “High Fidelity.” By the 1990s, he’d settled into a far more statesman-like role that gave him ambassadorial entry into every form of music, whether he was collaborating with the greatest legends of pop, country, soul, and classical or interviewing them for his celebrated Spectacle talk show. A 2003 wedding to Diana Krall brought some personal stability after a dark patch he’d quietly suffered in the preceding years. But the prolific work, if less so the life, still has mischief afoot.
That’s clear from the droll prose in the new book, which, for all its emotional or musically incisive passages, contains at least one laugh-out-loud aside on nearly every one of its 672 pages. On the eve of its release, Costello spoke with Yahoo Music about the memoir, discussing everything from why he favors women over men, as a gender, to why he’s currently favoring touring — and writing a musical with Burt Bacharach — over new records.
YAHOO MUSIC: In the early 2000s, when Rhino was issuing deluxe versions of your early records, you wrote long essays for each album. Slate even called the accumulation of those liner notes “one of the best rock-star memoirs of the last decade,” although they were never collected into book form. Did writing prose for all those CD booklets help prime the pump for thinking about a memoir?
COSTELLO: Not really, because those were written, obviously, in episodes. But I suppose if you assembled them, you would have some sort of telling of the making of the records. What it did do was, I assumed that some people who might read this book have perhaps read those already, so I wouldn’t need to repeat some of that again. Those were really to tell how the thing is made practically, not so much about the emotions and the life that leads up to that moment — which, you see in the book, is a lot to do with how I started hearing music as a child, and how you stumble into one kind of music and take the cue from something that you hear, and it might be 20 years later before you work anything out from that experience.
British readers may know that your father, Ross MacManus, was a familiar figure to several generations over there, singing with a big band and eventually releasing a lot of cover songs under a variety of pseudonyms. To Americans, it may be a surprise that you’re the scion in a showbiz dynasty.
People of a certain age would remember him on the radio, or some people will tell me, “I used to go to the dance hall and see your dad.” The difference between us is that he didn’t have so many recordings to make the bigger jump. He had one hit record in the ‘70s, but he mostly had a radio and live work career.
Much of the book is about your father, although you concede that most of your memories of him have to do with music, whether it was watching him on the bandstand or taking an interest as he brought home the new hit records that he had to learn… like the day he brought home an acetate of “Please Please Me” by this new group that changed your life.
I would have written more about my mum, but it would be saying the same things as everybody’s mum says, like “Button up your coat” or “Did you get in trouble?” My mum really raised me. But some of the lessons I got from my dad gave me that unusual relationship with the physical record, learning songs due to the fact that they were playing in the house. Whereas most of my friends had parents who were listening to terribly different music, my dad’s job was to learn things from the hit parade, so he was obliged to listen to the same songs I was listening to, whether or not he liked it. Fortunately, he liked most of the music he sang, so he wasn’t doing it reluctantly.
And that’s where a lot of the stylistic diversity in your music came from.
And also the change-your-name. I could have been Frank Bacon and the Baconeers! [That’s one cheeky nom de plume Costello’s father recorded under.]
Were there any pitfalls of the typical musical memoir you took pains to avoid?
I didn’t particularly want to fight a load of old battles. You’ll notice that I name only a couple of record company people, and they’re only in passing in the tale. I didn’t go into contracts. Some of that stuff was covered in my liner notes, because that was the story of how that particular record came to be. And there are whole records of mine I barely mention.
That might seem strange, if I give more time to some other songs that are not even on record. Some of those come from a time before we started, where I can show what I was learning. Some come from a period particularly about 15 years ago, where I felt more comfortable giving some of my darker thoughts over to other people to sing, because I wasn’t needing to make a great display of some of the despair that might have been within the words. It felt better to me to make something beautiful out of them and have somebody sing them in a different way, like a June Tabor or an Anne Sofie von Otter. And then I came out of that period and started making very specific records again, singing for myself. But I thought for a while that I wanted to move away from writing words altogether.
It’s interesting reading about that time in your life, before you met your wife, and how dark it was for you, since not very many fans were aware of that at the time. You do touch on the dissolution of your previous marriage. Knowing what a private person you are, I didn’t know if you’d want to go into relationships at all. It feels like you struck an artful balance between answering most of the personal questions people might be curious about without dwelling on anything too long or, certainly, too luridly.
Well, I wasn’t writing a memoir about the dissection of relationships, only as it came out in the songs. I didn’t go into every little detail: “And then she said this to me” and “Then she threw that drink at me” or “I stormed out.” And I didn’t even really go into the dissolution of working relationships. It’s all been worried over and theorized and vented and fantasized about at great length — in a number of very obscure books, but they do exist. And I thought, “Well, why would I enter into that dialogue?” One of the reasons to write the book is that I am leaving an account for my younger sons, at some point. If my memory should fail me, as was the case with my father [who died of Parkinson’s disease] and my grandmother [who had dementia, as detailed in “Veronica”], if that should be handed to me in later life, I will be glad that I remembered all these things — some of them joyfully and a few of them regretfully — and wrote them down in a book so they won’t have to take anybody else’s word for it, particularly liars and fantasists.
You write at one point, “This was pop music, not confession,” in response to people wanting to learn the autobiography behind every song. But yet over the course of the book it becomes clear how personal a lot, if not most, of these songs were to you, in ways we couldn’t have guessed until now, even if they don’t count as confession.
Mm-hm. But the assumptions about some of them are… I think it was an opportunity to go, “Well, this song is not quite what you thought it was, and this song that might have seemed like an academic exercise is actually more personal than those songs that you think are personal.” And it doesn’t really matter in the long run whether the songs are founded in painful or joyful personal experience. Because once you sing them out into the world, the whole point of sharing them in the first place is not to make them as a revelation or a confession but for other people to see a likeness of their own experience.
You address some misassumptions over the years, like the one that had some people believing the early songs were misogynistic, even though you say that, to the contrary, there was a romantic idealism and even “a Puritan streak” that got overlooked amid the fury. Embedded in the lyrics was a disappointment over how men and women behave, often especially directed at men who betray women…
Mostly how men looked at women, really. I think I’ve always had a higher opinion of women than men. What a surprise! I was raised by my mother and not my father. I think men are mostly dreadful. Obviously not every man is. When I say they’re dreadful, I really mean they’re just big babies. These are just generalizations. I’m making light of it. I mean, your question is a serious one. I don’t feel I was necessarily saying something definitive about men or women. They were just ideas that were coming through my head at the age of 22, 23, the way I saw it then — the way I saw fashion, the way I saw attraction, the way I saw desire, the way I saw my own weakness, or my own lack of confidence. It all had a part in the way I portrayed myself, perhaps being aggressive to clear ground away from myself so people couldn’t get up close and see whether I was actually that confident or not.
Some of the image choices were purposeful, some more by chance. You describe the record company giving you that particular choice of glasses and how it was like “Superman in reverse.” The walking on your ankles in the “Pump It Up” video was something you’d learned when a doctor was trying to treat you for being flat-footed.
Part of it was obviously deflecting any sense that I would ever think of myself as conventionally good-looking… I didn’t really ever trade on my appearance, although obviously the cartoonish nature of the way I appeared on those first few records represented an alternative to what came into your head when you said “rock ‘n’ roll singer” in 1977, just as much as Elvis Presley was a shock to the way people thought a “singer” was when he appeared in wearing pink and black and had a big quaff, while the other guys were in tightly tailored suits.
The discussion of whether an artist’s behavior or morality in his private life should affect whether or not we appreciate the art always comes up. Even in the past few days, we’ve seen stories about a new and unflattering biography of Lou Reed, which the author admits paints his subject as “a monster.” But you’re one of the few artists of any magnitude about whom perceptions have really changed over the decades. Some of the early perception of you was based on a few adversarial press interviews, but you do use the word “insolence” to describe your attitude at one point in your career. In more recent years, you’ve been known for being gentlemanly. Not many artists manage that switch without a religious conversion being involved. You own up to a lot of bad behavior in your book, having to do with alcohol and/or infidelity…
Yeah, but I also say — truthfully, if not very nobly — I was peculiarly decorous about some of it. I wrote some very romantic songs out of quite unworthy circumstances. I say that it was perhaps not the most noble thing to be just simply provoking misery, which obviously involves other people, so that you’ve got something to write about. There’s a few times in the book where I say that if I’m really truthful, as I tried to be in writing this, I doubted my (faithful) nature quite young. And then there was a later period, after I had gone on the road and I had really got into these misadventures, that I started to doubt whether I wasn’t doing it just literally so I had something to write about. And that was even more unpleasant. You know, that’s not a good thing to find within yourself. I snapped out of that, and then, later, I got to the point where I emerged from a long period of darkness, during which the only real light was the work I did. I fortunately found my way into a life where things are less fraught with those particular fears and insecurities, and they’re replaced by different ones that are appropriate for the time of life I’m in. You’re closer to the end than the beginning, and all of those sorts of thoughts come to mind. So there are still things to feel deeply about; they’re just not tracing around the same patterns of behavior as I did when I was 23.
It’s funny you mention Lou Reed. I had the opportunity to interview him [for the TV series Spectacle], and one of the things I really found upsetting about the way a certain type of writer regarded him was that they just couldn’t get over the impact of those first songs with the Velvet Underground, They wouldn’t accept the Lou who wrote [2001’s mortality-themed] Magic and Loss as being authentically the same person, but a person in a different time of life who had the power to describe some of these harder things to face.
At one point, when you’re at the peak of your early stardom and feel things going off the rails personally, you remember or your manager Jake Rivera, “I think it’s time for a motorcycle accident” [referring to the incident that took Bob Dylan out of the limelight in the 1960s]. And after you go over the Columbus incident [where Costello was alleged to have used racial epithets in a bar fight with Bonnie Bramlett], you say, “It may have saved my sorry life.” How do you mean that?
I think that’s very true. For the people who came up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, there wasn’t a lot of self-analysis [in relation to previous generations of stars]. By the end of the ‘60s and through the ‘70s, there was a lot of self-analysis, called for because the writing got more kind of internal — both the practitioners of songwriting and the people who commented on it. There was a period where it was unbearably like that. To some degree, the beginning of my professional career was trying to get out of all that sort of navel-gazing. But now, all this time later, I can see we were much more aware of the history of rock ‘n’ roll and pop music. I don’t actually remember whether it was Jake or me who said, “Time for a motorcycle accident.” But it was that sense that we were heading toward some sort of catastrophe. If we didn’t take ourselves of the continuum for a while, it was going to end in tears. And then it did end in tears, but not in the kind of tears I expected it to.
I mean, I had no idea of how in the world I could have said the things I’m alleged to have said in Columbus. I’ve taken a lot of care in the way I wrote about it in the book, not because I have anything to hide or evade. Quite the opposite — I’m very specific, and that’s why I’m reluctant even in interviews now to try and expand on it. I trust you would write it truthfully, but in most cases when people have asked me to refer to that chapter, even, I’ll say, “Read the chapter, because that is the account as I see it.” There are things about it that are still inexplicable to me, most of all that what I’m alleged to have said was so contrary to my most deeply held convictions. There’s a picture right at the beginning of the chapter [of Costello playing a Rock Against Racism benefit in 1978] that locates me where my efforts were, to face down those kinds of attitudes. So the notion of talking nonsense and ironic humor, if that’s the right word for it, until you literally tumble out into exactly the reverse of what you believe is quite frightening. But I wouldn’t be the first person that that happened to. If you want to actually debate actual hatred and prejudice, you won’t have to look so terribly far to find it. You can see it up on a podium right now, somewhere. You won’t go looking for it right now on my stage, anyway.
Much closer to the present day, you talk about writing with Burt Bacharach for the album Painted From Memory , which were largely about that darkness you felt at the time, and then North , which started off in that kind of despair and then ended in hope as you wrote songs about your later-to-be wife. You even say that, after having written some unambiguous love songs about Diana for that album, you came to the realization that “it was OK to be ridiculous” in song.
I thought that those particular songs were very aligned to personal experience. I still would hold that they’re not a direct recitation of what happened. But [on North] they’re very unashamedly romantic songs without any of the tricks that I brought to bear. But I was more guarded. I unambiguously love my wife. At that point, though, she wasn’t my wife. She was somebody I thought unattainable. I read recently that with “Skylark,” the lyrics were written by Johnny Mercer about an unrequited love for Judy Garland. Or they had had an affair, but it was in the wake of them not being together. So you can write really remarkable songs out of a then-unrealized desire, because you’re trying to make it come to life. And just the same way as I wrote songs with dread in them earlier in my career that were very vivid to me and contained my fears of not being able to stay within the life I’d vowed to be within…
I’ve always been writing predominantly emotionally driven songs, with the exceptions being songs like “Pills and Soap” and “Tramp the Dirt Down” and “Bedlam” and all of [2013’s politically conscious] Wise Up Ghost — except this one song on that one which is an almost moment-by-moment recitation of my father’s passing, which I never would have imagined would have come out of working with the Roots. I’ve been very lucky to find myself in so much rich company with the musical companions for all of the different needs I’ve had to talk about my grandmother, who I loved dearly, and her loss of reason in “Veronica,” and to talk about her funeral [in “That Day Is Done”], and to get to write those songs with Paul McCartney — how would I ever know that was going to happen? To write about the bleakness that I was feeling around the time I worked with Burt Bacharach, and not have to say, “This is me.” But because I was writing with Burt, I could write truthfully and authentically in the voice as desolate as you hear in “In the Darkest Place,” “This House Is Empty Now,” and “What’s Her Name Today?” and then have the elegance of Burt’s music to keep it from being the same exact music as “I Want You.” I needed it to be that far away from the body, because that’s sharp material to be handling.
You write about how when you’re onstage, you’re not thinking about the exact origins behind the songs each time you sing them. But when you’re singing a wrenching song like “I Want You,” people believe that you’re still emotionally connected even to that earlier material.
There are different ways you can enter those songs. One was to put them up on the Spectacular Spinning Songbook [a wheel that audience members spin on occasional tours] and have them delivered to me in the moment where I don’t have time to think and they aren’t looming up on the set list three songs ahead. The other is to do what I’m doing now, which is a tour where I have a plot aligned through songs written over a 40-year span and decide from night to night which route I’m going to take through them. Certain things remain in the same places. Other songs change because the narrative of the show changes from show to show. I’m very fortunate to have this at my disposal, because I’m creating something which is an alternative to recorded music. I’m sure I’m creating something that comes before recorded music as well, which is a show you share with people you’re sitting in that space with. Which is why I like to play attractive theaters with some ghosts in them, not bleachers next to a parking lot on the edge of town. My choice is to play somewhere with some mystery and some shadows, out of which you can make a story that’s original. Even though the pieces of the story are familiar to people, the way they accumulate emotionally are different from night to night.
How are things going with the stage musicals you’ve mentioned working on with Bacharach?
Well, we’ve worked on two musicals in the last couple years, one of which is —temporarily, I hope — in abeyance. The other is the Painted From Memory musical. And I don’t want to give away the scenario. But I will say that obviously, when you plot a line through an existing repertoire, you have two or three choices. There’s the Buddy Holly Story route, where it’s basically the story of the writer’s life, and these songs pop up logically, or a fantasy like Mamma Mia. And this is neither of those things. It’s a story which is ingeniously being woven into several of the songs from the original record. Not all of them could be made to agree with that storyline, which obliged Burt and I to write more songs, which was great news for me, because I got to work with him again. The bulk of the songs obviously are collaborations in music between us, and words that serve the needs of the story and bring the characters hopefully to life. And if we see the curtain go up, I hope we don’t see it come down too quickly.
So Painted From Memory is the project we’re likely to see first?
I think that one, but there’s always another thing. I’ve been involved in various stages of development of maybe five musicals now, and some of them just get as far as an outline and maybe one sketched song, and others get 10 or 15 songs in before something happens and they don’t come to fruition. So [in the theater] you have to be prepared to work with no reward. Except, of course, when you’re working with Burt Bacharach. I mean, if the songs were never seen or heard… I played one last year on the stage, and it’s like a whole drama in itself. So, who knows what the future will bring with that material. I don’t know. But as Mort Sahl said, the future lies ahead.