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"A knowledgeable critic, Thomson skillfully interweaves articulate criticism of Costello's musical evolution into his biographical narrative. . . . An engrossing and lively account of an equally animated personality." —Publishers Weekly
It is always hard to determine exactly where genetic inheritance ends and destiny begins. Declan Patrick MacManus may have been raised in a household filled with music, but he was never groomed to play the role of professional musician. There was no formal tuition or education. From birth, he was simply immersed in an ocean of wide-ranging sounds as an integral part of a rounded, liberal and socially aware upbringing. Among the first half-dozen or so words that Declan ever uttered, according to his mother Lilian, were 'Siameses' and 'skin, mummy'; straightforward requests for Peggy Lee's 'Siamese Cat Song' and - more often - Frank Sinatra's definitive version of 'I've Got You Under My Skin'.
'I used to request it before I could form proper sentences,' he would later reflect. 'I guess that's a pretty young appreciation of Cole Porter.'
But it would be entirely wrong to suggest that there wasn't also pedigree in the MacManus genes. Born on 25 August, 1954, in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, west London, the new arrival would - given time - simply become the greatest exponent of the family business.
The musical bloodline can be traced back to the early 1900s. Declan's paternal grandfather Patrick Matthew McManus was an accomplished trumpet player who learned his craft as a teenager at the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall. The son of Irish emigrants, Pat was born in 1896 in the working-class, shipbuilding town of Birkenhead, directly across the river Mersey from Liverpool, and almost exclusively Irish in character in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
There is little known or to be told about Pat's parents. They hailed from the Ulster town of Dungannon, and there were later hints within the family that Pat's father - a coal merchant by trade - was embroiled in activities which may have eventually resulted in his murder. Whatever the exact truth, Pat was raised in an orphanage in Southall, north-west London, before being sent on to Kneller Hall near Twickenham, about ten miles south-west of central London.
While there he learned to read music and became an accomplished player on the coronet. He also acquired an English accent. While still only eighteen, Pat was sent to France during the Great War. He was shot and injured in action, and returned to recuperate at Beggar's Bush Barracks in Dublin. It's a supreme irony that the grandfather of the author of 'Oliver's Army' - that deceptively jaunty indictment of the English military's brutalization of Ireland - didn't return to the Front upon his recovery, but instead found himself as a non-combative soldier in the British Army in Ireland at the time of the rising Republican tide in 1916.
With many Irish friends and a strong Irish heritage, Pat was caught in the middle, a quirk of fate that didn't sit easily with the McManus family, and indeed caused ripples and repercussions much further down the generational line.
'I was brought up with this anti-attitude,' remembers Declan. 'My father got that from his father, who was anti-English. He passed that on to my dad and my dad passed it onto me.'
Pat became a military bandmaster in the army. Following de-mob, he made a living playing the trumpet in ships' orchestras on the White Star Line cruise liners that made regular traffic between Liverpool and America. Apparently - and we must always be aware of the traditional Irish enthusiasm for turning a good story into a great one - Pat had quite a time of it in 1920's New York. He socialised with boxers, bootleggers, and even shared a house with the gangster 'Legs' Diamond, an East Coast demilegend whose colourful past included army desertion, hijacking and car theft, and whose presence in Prohibition-era New York principally involved sating the public's illicit thirst for alcohol.
Pat's ocean travels throughout the '20s and '30s also took in Japan and India, before he returned to England to become a pit musician with conventional orchestras. His home base was 282 Conway Street, Birkenhead, where he lived with his wife Mabel McManus (nee Jackson), known as Molly, and whose middle names of Josephine Veronica would one day also inspire Declan into song.
* * *
Ronald Patrick Ross McManus arrived on 20 October 1927, born at home in Birkenhead, a town where religious choices were still an important issue. 'As a child I lived in an area where bigotry was rife,' he later recalled, which served only to fan the flames of that 'anti' feeling that Declan felt was part of his genetic inheritance.
Ross was gifted both his father's passion and talent for music. In time, he learned to read music and later mastered the trumpet, emulating the jazz records he loved. Ross was something of a pioneer: according to local musical history sources, he was perhaps the first musician brave enough to blow his beloved be-bop in Birkenhead.
Learning his trade in the myriad swing bands that flourished in Britain around the time of the Second World War, Ross augmented his musical work with a job as a shipping clerk. Although principally a trumpet player, he would occasionally sing with the band, and found he had both reasonable technique and immense power. 'I have a memory of him singing and the door rattling in the frame,' recalled Declan, who inherited a considerable percentage of his father's vocal punch.
Ross settled down in 1952, marrying Lilian Alda Ablett in Bromley Registry Office, south-west London. Both bride and groom were twenty-four at the time and living - at separate addresses, naturally - in Sidcup, Kent. The daughter of Jim and Ada, Lilian was another product of a displaced Irish Catholic family from Smithdown Road in Liverpool's Toxteth, a tough, multi-racial dockside neighbourhood flanking the Mersey.
The couple's similar upbringings cemented their relationship and informed their left-wing social and political values, but it was music that really brought them together; Lilian had helped run some of the jazz clubs where Ross played early in his career, and, at the time of her marriage, was working as a gramophone record assistant at Selfridges department store in London's Oxford Street.
'She had to sell all different kinds of music,' said Declan. 'So she was knowlegable about lots of records.' Lilian's enthusiasm for music existed independently of her husband, grounded firmly in the classic ballad singing of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. She would become an invaluable source for Declan.
Young, versatile and good-looking enough when dressed for action, Ross's hum-drum musical career took a quantum leap in 1954, when a talent scout for Joe Loss spotted him singing with a band in Nottingham. At the time, Loss was the leader of the most famous big band in the UK, the closest thing Britain had to Glenn Miller. His fourteen-piece orchestra played sell-out seasons in every major dance hall in the country, when they weren't entertaining royalty or making one of their constant radio or television appearances. They were the band to be in. Ross was signed as one of the three principal vocalists, alongside Rose Brennan and Larry Gretton. It was the biggest of breaks.
By the time of Declan's birth on 25 August 1954, Lilian and Ross had moved to 46a Avonmore Road in Olympia, west London. Home was a rented ground-floor flat just off the intersection of Hammersmith Road and Kensington High Street, on a quiet, cosmopolitan street which had once boasted Edward Elgar among its residents. The flat in Avonmore Road was the setting for the photographs which later appeared as part of the Brutal Youth artwork, and also inspired the flickering childhood shadowplays of 1986's 'Battered Old Bird', although in reality the young Declan was taught to swear in Welsh, not French, by the live-in landlady.
The child was taken home and almost immediately enveloped in music. Ross was already an integral part of the Joe Loss Orchestra, quickly settling into a fourteen-year-long residency at the Hammersmith Palais, the famous London ballroom only a short distance away from Avonmore Road. The band were required to turn around the hits of the day week-in, week-out at the Palais, embarking on short national tours during then summer. Sometimes, Declan would hop on the tour bus to see a couple of shows and catch up with his dad, but most of the early memories of watching his father come from the Hammersmith Palais.
As well as playing to paying punters, the Joe Loss Orchestra also performed a live radio broadcast every Friday lunchtime, churning out faithful approximations of all the current hits. Declan was listening to all of this - and learning.
'I knew the names of jazz musicians before I went to school,' he recalled. '[Dizzy] Gillespie, Charles Mingus, I really loved Peggy Lee; and that comes from the broad-mindedness that was fostered in my household from an early age.'
Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown were among the other frequent and welcome guests on the MacManus turntable, providing a far more fruitful education than school. Declan began attending the local Catholic primary in 1959, but he didn't linger long. In 1961, the family moved from the bustle of west Kensington to the leafier locale of 16 Beaulieu Close in Twickenham Park, just over the river from Richmond and a stone's throw from the banks of the Thames.
The family were doing well. They went to Spain on holiday every year - certainly not the common occurrence then that it is now - and the new house was comfortably middle-class: a medium-sized, modern maisonette, one in a semi-detached block of four in a pleasant cul-de-sac just outside London's city limits in Middlesex.
The change of address meant a change of school. Aged seven, Declan started at St Edmund's primary school in Nelson Road in the suburb of Whitton, a couple of miles west of his new house, near where the England Rugby Union stadium now stands and literally around the corner from where he would establish his first marital home nearly fifteen years later.
With a total pupil roll of around 150, St Edmund's was a small parish school in a sedate suburban area, run by nuns and attached to St Edmund's Church. An utterly ordinary example of its type, with its one-storey buildings, fenced-in asphalt play area and small grass playing field, it was a friendly enough environment, although in keeping with most institutions which involve nuns, there was inevitably an aggressively religious atmosphere coursing through it. 'I didn't like it very much,' Declan said later. 'I don't think anybody likes school very much.'
The feeling wasn't necessarily mutual. He was popular with the nuns, partially because most of them were of Irish extraction and anyone with Irish links and an obviously Irish heritage was regarded favourably, but above all because he was very little trouble to anyone. School friend Robert Azavedo remembers him as 'a quiet lad', and this seemed to personify his primary school days.
Brian Burke was another friend from Declan's class at St Edmund's who recalls random snapshots of him from that time: taking their first Holy Communion together, working on a piece of basketwork during craft classes, and one striking vignette which hinted that his future ambitions lay not merely in consuming music, but in performing it.
'The one thing that has always stuck in my mind is him singing 'The Little White Bull' in class one day,' says Burke, painting a slightly unsettling picture of the boy who went on to write 'Tramp The Dirt Down' sneering through a Tommy Steele number. 'He still has this sort of nasal singing style which I recognise as being the way he sang back then, just from this single song.'
It was perhaps the first public exhibition of a stubborn, single-minded determination and a certain immunity to ridicule, core characteristics which to date have shown no sign of diminishing. Physically, Declan was on the plump side, and one vital ingredient was missing. 'He wasn't wearing glasses,' says Burke. 'But you could recognise him in old photographs that I have as Elvis Costello. You can see the facial resemblance.'
Ross's status as a local celebrity with the Joe Loss Orchestra did Declan no harm at school either. 'The nuns would go crazy when his father came to collect him,' recalls Robert Azavedo. 'He used to come to school dressed in white trousers, blue socks and white Italian shoes. Drove the nuns clucking mad like giggly schoolgirls.'
His father's career was becoming more and more important, and not just to excitable women under strict religious orders. By the age of nine or ten, Declan was taking every opportunity to capitalise on the benefits of Ross's job, especially keen to catch the preparations for the weekly radio show whenever he could.
'Fridays during the [school] holidays were something that I really used to look forward to,' he recalls. 'I used to see bands rehearse. I would get there at nine in the morning and see The Hollies, then Billy J. Kramer, then Engelbert Humperdinck or whoever it was.' Regularly observing the stars of the day first-hand over a number of years was an invaluable learning experience, even if it did drain most of the romance from the idea of being a professional musician. 'A lot of the instinctive things I have about being onstage come from watching my dad and the discipline of that band, but I saw that it wasn't actually glamourous, that it was sort of a job.'
There was precious little 'sort of' about it. By the mid-'60s the glamour of the big-band era had long since ebbed away, along with most of the groups that had helped create it. Even the Joe Loss Orchestra needed to be increasingly adaptable to survive. The band had evolved into an amazingly versatile if somewhat eccentric beast, album releases like Go Latin With Loss! - featuring a booming Ross singing 'La Bamba' - with performances combining everything from straight renditions of the latest Tony Bennett 45 to full treatments of The Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows' and 'See Emily Play' by Pink Floyd.
Where some might have scoffed, the polished diversity of what Ross and the Joe Loss Orchestra were able to do was not lost on Declan. Nor was the effort it required: there's no question that his work ethic was forged from an observance of his father in those days. Penning a tribute to the recently deceased Joe Loss in the Guardian in 1990, Ross recalled: 'I still travel 50,000 miles a year entertaining people and every night I operate to the same principles as everyone who has passed through Joe's hand: discipline, punctuality, hard work and value for money.' It's an ethos that clearly made an impact on his son. Declan would always be a worker, perhaps deferring only to James Brown for the title of hardest working man in the business.
There was little sense of any generational divide in the MacManus household. Ross's work ensured he had no need to make the kind of excruciating - if well-intentioned - attempts to understand or appreciate his son's tastes that wrought divisions in many other families. The two males were close, and when Declan later grew into adulthood it would become possible to identify several shared father-son characteristics.
'I remember that the woman my dad sang with for a number of years, Rosie Brennan, told me that my dad was always flirting with the tallest, best-looking woman in the room or trying to pick a fight with the biggest guy, depending on his mood,' said Declan. 'He was a terror! I think that's where I get some of it from.' Ross was also a very loving father, articulate, passionate, loquacious and witty, and passed on many of these attributes to his son. He also bequeathed the mighty MacManus nose.
It was an unusually tight father-son relationship, made all the more unique by the fact that Declan's mother also defied stereotype. Allan Mayes played with Declan in Liverpool in the early '70s and remembers Lilian well from those days: '[She] was hipper than my mother, hipper than any other mother. She was like, "Have you heard the new Band album, Declan? I heard Neil Young on the radio this afternoon." She knew stuff like that, and she had stories to tell about life on the road with the Joe Loss Band. And she was a very nice lady.'
Declan himself noted that his parents were a bit beatnik, and later sensed that Ross had sacrificed most of his own artistic ambitions to be a serious jazz artist as a young man by throwing in his lot with the middle-of-the-road stability of the Joe Loss Orchestra. Although there was never any parental pressure on Declan to be a musician, the legacy of his father's compromised career stayed with him. Later, when he realised he had the privilege of an audience that was prepared to follow him down some of his more experimental avenues, he would seize the opportunity to cover every inch of musical territory he possibly could. Ross would expect no less. As contemporary composer and some-time Costello collaborator, Richard Harvey notes: 'I think Declan is very much aware of being the son his father would want him to be.'
Excerpted from Complicated Shadows by Graeme Thomson Copyright © 2004 by Graeme Thomson.
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Posted September 14, 2010
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