Saturday, April 23, 2016

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Hi everyone,

When I saw last year that Elvis Costello was on a book tour in support his new memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, I bought my ticket for his D.C. stop immediately. I can't claim to be his biggest fan, but I love some of his music, and I always find him entertaining. Elvis Costello first got my attention in 1989 when he released Spike, an album that includes some songs co-written with Paul McCartney. One of its singles, "Veronica," became a big hit on the radio and MTV, which I thought was impressive considering it's a happy tune about someone with Alzheimer's disease. My other favorite song on Spike is called "Tramp the Dirt Down," an unfriendly commentary on Margaret Thatcher. I guess I was that kind of kid.

I saw Elvis Costello perform a live set once in person, when he opened for Sting, but I mostly catch him randomly on TV. I remember when he showed up on "Frasier" in the '90s, playing a musician who just got hired to perform daily at Cafe Nervosa, ruining the Crane Brothers' peaceful coffee-shop hangout. And, I tuned in that night in 2003 when he filled in for David Letterman as host of "The Late Show." (Why do I remember these things?) Also, over the years, Elvis Costello showed up on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," always game to do something fun.

My favorite thing that Elvis Costello has ever done, though, is "Spectacle," a music-filled talk show, which he hosted. He interviewed musicians and other famous faces about music and performed related songs with his guests. The show aired from 2008 to 2010, but I didn't see it until last year when I finally got around to renting the DVDs through Netflix. Elvis Costello is so knowledgeable about music, having played with so many different musicians of different genres. Through this show, I learned about artists I love as well as ones I'd never heard of before. This show was a perfect combination of friendly, informative conversation and wonderful performances in a relaxed setting in front of a small audience. It should still be on the air and required viewing in schools!

But I'll get off that soapbox and sum up my admiration for Elvis Costello by saying this: with his fantastic songwriting abilities already established – Listen to "Alison," "Beyond Belief," "God Give Me Strength" or the rowdier "Pump It Up" and "Oliver's Army," just to name a few. – Elvis Costello always tells interesting stories, whether he's singing or talking. So, I had a good feeling about him writing a book. When I picked this book up at Sixth & I Synagogue last October and realized that it was 672 pages, I may have questioned my logic a bit, but I still kept the faith.

Before the author even appeared on stage, I noticed that Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink includes no index, and the photos are sprinkled throughout the text without any captions. The first thing Elvis Costello said to us about the book was that we might notice it includes no index and the photos aren't captioned or stuck in the middle on a cluster of special paper. He explained, "I'm telling a story. If you read the book, you'll know who that person is in the picture." I couldn't wait to get started.

This book is great! It reads really fast because, as we know, Elvis Costello weaves good tales. It was an interesting read because, since I'm not overly familiar with his vast body of work, I rolled right past the specific details and lyrics about various unfamiliar songs that I'm sure his superfans would study more fiercely. After reading the book, I learned that a companion CD exists, which probably includes many of the songs the author refers to in his story. I wish I had known about this helpful resource while I was reading.

I favored learning about Declan MacManus before he became Elvis Costello – the boy who went to work with his dad (Ross MacManus, a popular singer and musician in his own day), hanging around in the back rows of dance halls, watching him and the other musicians rehearse, fostering his growing love for music. This book covers a good amount of family history with wonderful details about his grand and great-grand relatives as well as his own upbringing. It was exciting to following his determined move from office jobs to rock-and-roller. Feeling the passion and drive he had to share his craft is inspiring.

I've known about Elvis Costello's rise on the new wave/punk music scene and his early reputation as an angry young man, but the one I've come to know better is the Elvis Costello of now – the proper British gentleman, who always wears a suit and hat and is quick to joke, explain music history, and play with varied musicians, like Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples. For me, his exploits with his old bandmates, The Attractions, at the height of their fame are more side notes to the richer life he's led, learning and honing his musicianship – always moving forward to the next thing, sticking by his family, and eventually finding his own personal contentment.

In the book's acknowledgements, Elvis Costello thanks his wife, jazz musician Diana Krall, for making him take the time to write everything down for this memoir so that he and the family will have it. That's what this book reads like: a personal keepsake for future generations of the MacManus Clan to remember not only his extraordinary life, but also the lives of those distant working-class relatives who have already passed. The old black-and-white photos complement this effort, capturing the author at all ages as well as relatives, friends, scribbled song lyrics, and other mementos.

Unlike a typical memoir, this one is not a chronological life story. It's more like a box of memories. Chapters about Elvis Costello's parents and grandparents run alongside chapters about working with Paul McCartney, T Bone Burnett, Burt Bacharach, and Allen Toussaint. Within those, he recalls his encounters with Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, and even classic film director Frank Capra. You never know who or what he'll run into on the next page. Elvis Costello will keep you reading to find out.

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