“You never asked me what I wanted. You only asked me why.”
– “Miracle Man”, My Aim is True.
In a 1982 Rolling Stone cover story entitled “Elvis Costello Repents,” our own Greil Marcus wrote of the man in question, “No punk in terms of craft, he rode the punk wave because he communicated a more authentic bitterness than any punk; his demands on the world were more powerful and thus his rejection of the world when it failed to deliver was more convincing.”
Smash cut to 2015 – thirty years and over twenty albums later – where it remains true that Costello can communicate bitterness with veracity. A song like 2005’s “Button My Lip” still finds him turning lines like “Don’t want to talk about the government / Don’t want to talk about some incident / Don’t want to talk about some pe-pe-peppermint gum” with enough force to button his and bloody yours. Bitterness was never the pony’s only trick, but it is an irony worth savoring that at age 61, the only thing that seems to draw the decidedly gratified Costello’s ire are the nostalgia-fascists who would mislead you into thinking he’s lost his venom, while impatiently waiting for him to re-record his 1970s oeuvre. Pity the fools.
He is otherwise a proud papa to three sons, and joyful husband to jazz siren Diana Krall. He enjoys an eclectic career of composing symphonic amalgams, touring the world with his steadfast rock outfit the Imposters, and serving as frequent troubadour and comedic foil to the likes of Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, and Homer Simpson. His “demands of the world” today seem less like “Peace, Love and Understanding” and more akin to the title of his 2009 album Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane. Where many of his “pub rock” peers of the New Wave era have found religion, reality television gigs, or simply that all that tavern time has made them sluggish, Costello remains vibrant. The snarl that he sported in boyhood has matured into a growl.
I spoke to Elvis as he prepared for the release of his new autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, a zibaldone of Liverpool which darts back and forth through the last century of the families that raised him: those of his father Ross MacManus (himself a famed performer known throughout England as a trumpeter in the Joe Loss Orchestra and singer of TV jingles) and mother Lila Ablett. Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and a few Beatles stop by along the way. The book is fast-paced, sentimental toward the working-class England of his youth, and genuinely funny by tavern-tested standards, not just those of celebrity’s lowered bar. (Alice Cooper, a favorite of his bandmates, is described by Costello as “a very likable fellow, and completely free of snakes.”) Sharing his recollections by phone, the author proved to be an affable gent, a biting wit, and likewise void of serpents. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. – Nick Curley
The Barnes and Noble Review: I’ve believed in your ability to write a six hundred seventy page book since your feature for Vanity Fair back in 2000 entitled “The Costello 500,” in which you listed your picks for the world’s “five hundred albums that can only improve your life.” It was a gold mine for a teenager, opening me up to so much great music that can likewise be found in this book: “The Unfaithful Servant,” “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights,” Roxy Music, Captain Beefheart, the collaborations of Eno and Bowie. You were even the first person I knew that championed ABBA Gold, which you compared to Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.
Elvis Costello: There’s some sort of responsibility that I got handed there. Everything we know about music comes from listening, absorbing: why not talk about it? That list you mentioned is of the past. If you’d asked me another day, I might have given a different five hundred.
I was fortunate to hear my father’s favorite songs early in life, before I ever knew about the grown-up life that those songs were describing, in songs by someone like Frank Sinatra or Burt Bacharach. I got to share such music with my father in the last years and last even minutes of his life. What an incredible thing to have happened. And to have my wife [musician Diana Krall] there with me, who understood what it meant to share with a parent the love of very specific pieces of music: songs about some of the hardest stuff you’ll ever have to face, and stuff that’s going to affect you the whole rest of your life. I wrote a song – people wouldn’t have trouble recognizing it – that my dad later told me he wanted played at his funeral. That’s one of the reasons why we sing, and it’s one of the reasons we listen.
BNR: Your father is such a prominent character throughout this book. He’s a flawed, complex searcher, but ultimately a very fun and compassionate guy to have for a dad. What did writing this book teach you about him?
EC: To be honest, I wonder if my mother will give me a hard time, since I wrote a lot more about my dad than about her. The truth is, my mother raised me. I say that a few times in the book. She did all the hard work. My dad was absolutely useless at discipline. I am not alone in saying this. My four half-brothers, who had a different upbringing at a different time, would confirm it. But he was totally hopeless at being a conventional father in matters of setting a good example. Because he and I shared the same vocation, I learned from observing him at work. But my mum’s very detailed knowledge of music – she sold records – was probably just as influential. It’s just not as picturesque to describe in a story. So in terms of number of words in the book, my mum gets less. It’s not that I love her any less. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.
The last thing I wanted to write with this book was, “Life turned out like this for me because I blame my Dad for something.” My dad loved to tell stories and was, as I say in the book, a little bit too charming sometimes. He got himself into trouble. I adopted some of the same tendencies, but I made my own mistakes. He didn’t invent them. I found my own trouble.
BNR: The specificity of the storytelling in this book is exceptional by any standard, but it’s particularly detailed compared to any other music memoir that I’ve read. Are you someone who keeps diaries and personal records, or is this a product of personal recollection?
EC: I just have a memory. For now, anyway! Part of the reason to write this book is that members of my family in two generations have had issues with cognition in later life. I can’t take for granted that I will always have the memory that I have now. My wife encouraged me, and I did it for my two youngest sons. I wanted to leave them the account of what I’ve done, and what our family is about. I chose to write a lot about preceding generations.
The other thing is: particularly now, with the internet, we have a not-very-well-edited account of everything that everybody’s ever done. Every undeserved compliment, every stupid thing you’ve said when you’ve drunk or whatever. You can’t deny any of it, so you’re only as good as your search results. Some of the accounts that have been written – not just of my life, but of the lives of other musicians – bear no resemblance to the real person. The research can be flaky, which leads public assumptions about motivation to be wrong-headed.
I wasn’t about to enter into an argument with my critical reputation, or record company bosses, or ex-band-members or ex-girlfriends. I didn’t want to write an argumentative book, and I don’t think I did. I wasn’t easy on everybody, and I wasn’t easy on myself, but I wasn’t trying to pick a fight with my own past.
BNR: It reminds me of that great anecdote you tell about Paul McCartney being accosted by undergrads who were taking a class in “Beatleology”, and stubbornly believed that they knew the facts of his life better than he did. He has to gently explain to them that he was there.
EC: That was so comical. Maybe that was indiscreet of me to put that in, because it’s not my story. But it does make you think, when you happen to work with people who are that famous.
BNR: The book’s chapters recall your life out of sequence, with stark shifts in tone and chronology. What drew you to this approach? Were you aiming to say something about the nature of memory?
EC: It’s not coincidental, it’s not chaotic, and it’s not without some understanding. I didn’t plot it out like a graph, like the building of the great cathedral. But one example is the reminiscence of my dad coming home from the Royal Variety Show in 1963, and me hoping that he’d been able to get the Beatles’ autographs. The next scene is me singing a Beatles song that I’d learned with Paul McCartney himself – the very person who wrote it – in a very different set of circumstances than I would ever imagine. The book moves from me being an audience member to coming to know this man as an adult. He was at that moment going through a very profound loss, and there he was, singing a song which he’d written when he was a young man.
BNR: That idea that a song changes for its writer over the passage of time is a constant in this book: you write that you feel your songs can become either more or less autobiographical, depending on the crowd or your state of mind in the moment of singing them. In the songwriting process, do you likewise find that you have to be in an exuberant state of mind to write an album like Get Happy, or a frenzy to write “Lipstick Vogue”, or blue to write “I Want You”?
EC: [Laughs] No! Get Happy was, like Trust, a highly ironic title. In that case, exuberant would be a very polite word for completely drunk, I think. There was a lot of chaos involved in the making of that record, and those records are surprisingly coherent given the state I was in while writing and recording them. To name those collections of songs Get Happy and Trust was underlining how lacking in those qualities both those records were.
A song like “I Want You” is a recitation of something that happened, but the repetition of singing it isn’t returning yourself to that moment. That’s what I meant in saying that these songs become more or less autobiographical, depending on how acutely you’re feeling the initial impulse. In order to sing them with any conviction to people, you have to find ways in which they belong to other people. They change shape. Your distance widens. They mutate. It’s true of books you’ve read in the past: at one time of your life they have great significance, then you read them at another time and they seem trite. I’ve had the experience in music of not understanding certain kinds of music, not having the patience, then having it become all-consuming at another part of my life, and just not wanting to listen to anything else, whether it’s jazz, or classical, or country music.
BNR: There’s a moment early in your career, during a concert at the El Mocambo, of a girl in ripped tights emerging from the audience to kiss you. You describe the moment as one of sheer mania, then sharply cut the scene with your next line: “And then I went home and tried to act normal.” I’m wondering what you thought “normal” meant in that context. At that moment in your life, as a very young but married performer, what did you think you were supposed to be?
EC: One of the things that I tried to do in this book – rather than be lurid or say “Wasn’t I a great fellow because I’ve lived all this wild life?” – is to acknowledge that I did a lot of things which I had vowed not to do. Out of those lies I wrote a number of songs, some of which are very painful to sing – much less to write – because they describe early desires, and things I’m not proud of. I tried to acknowledge the truth, because the songs came out of it. I tried not to be coy, and it’s painful. Painful to meet those memories again, and walk away from the pages remembering times when I wasn’t true to a wife or son. I’m finished with all that now. I can’t equally, literally wish none of those things happened, or that my life didn’t go in these other directions, because I ended at the place where I am now, and I had to be here. You can say, “I wish I didn’t do it,” but you have to accept what comes after.
BNR: While the romances of your life are covered in this book, certain specifics go powerfully unsaid. Your seventeen years with [musician] Cait O’Riordan is covered in about three pages: disappearing ink, if you will.
EC: I tried to be discreet out of respect: there was nothing to be gained by poring over painful things that have happened. I tried to be truthful about some of the triggers for leaving. One thing that unites people is parenthood, and we didn’t have that between us.
Musically, at that period in time, there were people who were enamored with my earliest work, which was, in their view, more visceral than this work that I did through the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. It was thought to be somehow more theoretical, less emotional. Which was nonsense. When you read the lyrics from that time, they’re much more raw and specific than a lot of the songs that I wrote early on. It’s just that the musical sounds they traveled in weren’t making such a theater of aggression. There are some extremely harsh lines in those songs, many of them directed at myself.
BNR: Likewise, your marriage now to Diana Krall is shown as a source of great strength. When raising the idea of describing that power, you write, “Some things are too intimate.” You treat these loves that shaped your life with great care.
EC: You can’t write retrospectively about something which is still ongoing. You can only describe the moment of discovery and develop it, and the uncertainty of your own worthiness for such love. The few stories I tell of my eldest son are told with great love. They are not told to drag him into a spotlight. My younger sons [with Krall] are still of an age that, presumably, if I were to just write a series of cheap anecdotes about what delightful children they are, they might be a little disgruntled by the time they’re fifteen.
BNR: Given the heads of this household, do you play instruments at home with your wife and kids? Is there music you make together as a family?
EC: Not as the four of us yet, but I’m looking forward to that day. I don’t think it will be very long. We’re certainly people who like to make noise. The kids used to come through three locked doors to tell me stop making such noise, but now they don’t mind it so much. Of course, we will be ever delighted if Diana plays, because she is much more accomplished, and has a much more agreeable sound.
BNR: You earlier touched on the mid-eighties and nineties. In the book you deem that period of your career as one in which you were “feeling like a blacksmith in a glass factory.” How does one reconcile those moments in a career where you’re artistically drawn one way while your industry is drawn another?
EC: There’s nothing much one can do about it. I had the resources to adapt, and play the game. But my grandfather and father both experienced it. I never saw my grandfather face obsolescence, but he did, when he came back from playing on the liners. He couldn’t regain some of the jobs that he’d taken before playing in silent movie pit orchestras, because they didn’t exist once talkies came in. My father spent parts of his career as a singer believing he was in danger of being upstaged by karaoke machines.
I don’t have any tears to shed about being not in step with trends, or the designs of record companies or “the music industry”, whatever that is. That’s such a small part of the overall experience of music, which is much more complicated and much more valuable, and has been much more fun, even when it’s been frustrating. That’s why I didn’t linger on all that very much in the book. When I describe making Blood and Chocolate, I say that we started trying to make it sound as if we were playing with boxing gloves on. We could have made a more refined sound, but we didn’t want one.
BNR: Looking back at your youth, you write that, “It would have been so easy to remain in a permanent sneer.” Of recording your 2003 album North you even say, “It was good not to be looking for the last word for once.” It seems to be a learned truth of aging: juveniles desperately want to be correct, while wise elders like being proven wrong.
EC: My song “When I Was Cruel” remarks about that same thing. It’s very easy to be on the outside of any situation and just sneer, which is a condition you probably remember yourself from teenage years. It doesn’t mean that you’re not right sometimes when taking that skeptical view. Never, ever mock first love. Or first disdaining. When a very young person falls in love, it can be as deeply felt as at any other time in life. It might be a little less complicated than it is later, but the complication could just be an accumulation of your later relationships. It doesn’t necessarily make it more or less true. Same with disdain.
People say, “Do you feel a longing for songs you wrote when you were twenty-four?” I say, “Well, yes, some of them I do.” But as I described in the book, “Radio, Radio” probably doesn’t mean as much to me today as the [unreleased demo] song on which it was based, “Radio Soul,” which had a different proposition: that we’re all broadcasting out, and that expression ultimately has value beyond entertainment. I turned that song into a timely polemic, because it suited my purposes to do so. And the song had enough mechanisms as a piece of pop music that either version works. Sometimes I sing one version and sometimes the other, depending upon my mood!
BNR: I wanted to close by saying that in visiting some of your more recent work for the first time, I was delighted by what I heard. Your post-Katrina “New Orleans album” with Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse, is fantastic. In particular I was struck by how loud and raucous a lot of these songs are, as on 2005’s The Delivery Man in your duet with Lucinda Williams, “There’s a Story in Your Voice”. Or the great Jenny Lewis pairing “No Hiding Place” that opens Momofuku. Do you find there’s still a true ferocity to this music that was written long after your so-called “angry young man” years?
EC: In some ways, those songs are actually a lot less friendly than the ones on which my reputation was founded. But the element of surprise isn’t there when you’re fifteen, twenty, thirty albums in. I put together a compilation as a soundtrack to this book, and I tried to take the songs that had lyrical themes that I picked up in the book – and not just the ones I had that ended up on the radio – because otherwise it would just be a Greatest Hits record.
I could make a case for the last ten years being my very best, musically. Among many other things I’ve done, like writing dance music for orchestra and things like that, my current band the Imposters have been together longer than the Attractions ever were. Are we better? At some things, yes, we are, actually. For one thing, the two members who are common to both groups have thirty or forty years experience of playing with me, and have a lot of great ideas to offer any arrangement. Certain things that seemed right to me musically back in 1978 don’t seem right to me now. So the way I hear it now is well served by the people who are in the group. There’s more vocal harmony, a greater sense of rhythmic groove, and a lot of very wonderful invention and abstraction in both the keyboards and the bass. So it’s great that I had these two fantastic groups. That’s the great news.
Thank you for that question, because while I’m not trying to make a case for any period in my later career, there’s some music there that hopefully people may even discover having read a passage or two of this book. Who knows? I think it’s going to be interesting to pick my first set-list when I go back out on my own next year to play. Because I have a feeling that people might know a song or two that they didn’t know before, having read about them in this book, if they’ve taken the time to read. I don’t know. Let’s see what happens?