‘…the line between present and past never seemed clear to me as a child.’
Background: I know Elvis Costello’s early work well: ‘Imperial Bedroom’ is one of my favourite albums. I gave up after ‘Blood and Chocolate’. I have a lot of interest in him and respect for him as a writer but I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan, not am I particularly knowledgeable about his work. [Dons flame-proof hat.]
The short version:
This is an autobiography of a difficult and complex man who was heavily influenced by his father’s musical background (and perhaps his father’s habitual adultery). His largely traumatic relationships with women are documented (after all, it’s all there in the lyrics). The book demonstrates his passion for music and willingness to experiment and learn from others who he would admit are more talented in certain respects. The book meanders a bit at the end and becomes less engaging, but the material on his parents and grandparents is fascinating and he comprehensively documents his life in London and Liverpool via his Irish heritage and how this influenced his life and songs. He also demonstrates the power and significance of music within families; how musical talent, knowledge and traditions are passed on. It’s too long and the latter parts need editing right down, but worth a read for his early family life and life on the road in the years prior to his fame, and for getting inside his head a little to discover something of his writing process. He’s self-aware and self-critical, and in some respects it’s a more open and expansive book than one might expect, with a great deal of warmth.
Strict chronology is not followed. The book moves backwards and forwards through musical experiences and career events, and these are weaved together with childhood memories. So it’s simultaneously linear and non-linear; there’s an over-arching forwards trajectory but it often dips back into memory. It begins with a story about his father playing at the Hammersmith Palais with Joe Loss. Costello’s time spent there watching this is obviously stamped on him, as is his childhood in London and Liverpool where he moved to with his mother. There is a lot of detail on his complex relationship with his often-absent father and his father’s music and love of Irish poets. In lots of ways it is a memoir of and tribute to his father. A touching section is included on the impact of his father giving him ‘Please Please Me’ to listen to:
‘I didn’t know any of these words to describe the music back then, but to say that it was thrilling and confusing doesn’t do it justice. I went into the living room and sat quietly on the couch’.
The detail on the writing process is illuminating: on ‘Beyond Belief’ he notes that he left out lines that were ‘inelegant’, which indicates something about how he likes to leave some things unsaid. He makes some perceptive points about the ‘carnal power struggle’ described by the lyrics. In this way, we get little snapshots of how lyrics are formed and rejected. Costello is fascinating on the process of writing ‘Imperial Bedroom’ and what he was listening to at the time: Billie Holiday, Miles David, Erik Satie, Debussy, Miles Davis; the album is connected to so many musical threads. The book is very revealing on his writing process and worth buying for that alone.
There is a thorough account of the experiences and reflections that lead to ‘Imperial Bedroom’, some personal, some less so, and how incidents and observations were entwined. Costello perceived it to be a more upbeat record than ‘Trust’ but it doesn’t sound or read as such (to me, at least). The writing and recording is described as a more fluid, unplanned, less calculated and more improvised form: ‘I knew there was more than one way to tell a story or to make one’s confession. ‘Imperial Bedroom’ seemed determined to explore them all’.
There’s a nice story (that reflects badly on him) regarding the encounter that inspired ‘Accidents Will Happen’ although he states this is ‘pop music, not confession’. Although later in the book he admits that many of the lyrics written for other people are about his relationship breakdowns (particularly with Cait O’Riorden).
There is extensive detail on his early encounters with other musicians which were initially tentative but with whom he grew to form strong bonds (Springsteen, McCartney, Ringo, George Martin, Dylan, Bowie, Neil Diamond). He is (rightly) very generous to other performers although he admits he wasn’t always so (for example Neil Diamond). He does note his often fractious relationship with The Attractions, pointed to in Bruce Thomas’ book I think (see Dave’s review: https://theafterword.co.uk/rough-notes/)
He has an obsessive, exhaustive and eclectic music interest, influenced by his father, and he takes music very, very seriously: Dylan, CSNY, T Rex, Little Feat, The Band, The Grateful Dead, Hank Williams and later, Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons (he makes an astute point about the similar vulnerability in the voices of Cash and Parsons). He points to the influence of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Van in the early years, and this helps to explain his later musical diversions and explorations: ‘There was too much to learn and too much to love’.
Costello is well aware of the charges against him. At one point, he imagines interviewing himself in the style of his later US chat show:
‘“Don’t you agree, you’re a sellout, a hypocrite, a dilettante, a bigot, a socialist, an elitist, a misogynist, a has-been, and a talentless egotist?” I would have liked to have seen how I’d have wriggled out of that kind of interrogation.’
So I think he is more than aware of his flaws. The chapter about the ‘N’ word is the shortest, and he has said it was the hardest to write. His regret and distress over the incident seem genuine but it’s not hugely illuminating about why it happened at all. Costello is pretty forthcoming about charges of misogyny, although he argues that the male protagonist (himself?) was always the subject being ridiculed. Having said that, he is honest about his behaviour towards women whilst he was married, on the road dealing with his new fame. When reflecting about writing about himself at this time, he admits that ‘I don’t much care for the subject’.
His relationship breakdowns and encounters with groupies and his own responsibility are documented, although there is little prurient detail and surprisingly little about Cait O’Riorden, given their 18-year relationship (she doesn’t even appear in the ‘Acknowledgments’). His relationship with her appears to have been fractious at best and he alludes to what troubled people they both were at the time. He describes his many casual encounters whilst touring and how deadening they can be. Inevitably they took a toll on his marriage: ‘…trust is the hardest of the graces to repair’. This was all a little oblique; I can understand why, as most people involved are still alive, but it is slightly frustrating to refer to these relationships without giving much detail. But I guess it’s all in the lyrics.
There is a moving account of working in New Orleans post-Katrina and the impact on the community and his experience of recording in the context of this. He does touch on his well-known political beliefs throughout the book but not at any great length. His anger about the suffering of people post- Katrina comes off the page, although he finds joy in the recording sessions.
After a difficult and complex emotional life, it’s hard to begrudge him some comfort, stability and happiness, but the last section is rather glib: ‘here’s my beautiful wife and my showbiz pals’. This got a bit trying. Everything is here: every collaboration, all the US TV shows, and I’m not sure what it adds. To me it was much less interesting, although I wasn’t aware of just how famous he is in America. For me his early life is much more interesting than the ‘fame’ years (I think someone on the blog said this about all musician’s biographies). (The Morrissey biography has the same flaw- it starts well and descends into a morass of back-biting about the court case and an almost list-like account of the US tours.)
Towards the end, he touches on his own children’s love of music: ‘There is no way to prove that that this disposition for music must run in the blood, except for all the evidence’. Music is the thread tying him to his grandfather, father, and children.
The book is written in short, concise paragraphs; it’s unshowily written, and (unsurprisingly) unflowery: it ‘sounds’ like him, if that makes sense, although the one-sentence paragraphs are a little mannered after a while. However as noted he tends to be somewhat circuitous at times, especially (understandably?) in reports of his romantic life.
The book is written in a style of either faux self-deprecation or humbleness and honesty. I would go for the latter, I think. He is all too aware of the limitations of his voice, the lyrics, his spikiness when younger and his behaviour with women. He points to ‘disappointment’ with some of his work (such as the recorded version of ‘Shipbuilding’ and ‘All This Useless Beauty’). He frequently characterises his early lyrics as ‘quips’ and writes that the pre-‘Almost Blue’ catalogue is comprised of ‘Tricky, bitter little songs that only appealed to a certain kind of creep’.
As you might expect, he has a gift for a concise phrase and /or a vignette that encapsulates so much. A semi-fictionalised story in Leeds that formed the basis for ‘…And in Every Home’ discussed two girls entering a café in Chapeltown: ‘Their skin is coarse and pancaked when striped of shadows by the buzzing neon’.
I don’t know how to end this. One for the fans, obviously; but also anyone who loves songwriting and wants a little insight into one artists’ inspiration.
Length of Read:Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Autobiographies by Patti Smith, Keith Richards, Dylan.
‘Rough Notes’ (Bruce Thomas: see ‘Reads’ for review- link above).
One thing you’ve learned
Misc. aka ‘all the bits I couldn’t fit in’:
1. Steve Nieve‘s piano part in ‘Oliver’s Army’ was inspired by ‘Dancing Queen’- I didn’t know that but now it seems obvious.
2. He’s entertaining on the bizarre yet mundane experience of TOTP: the tedium of miming, getting pissed and pissing about, BBC dunderheads, banal DJs and the eclectic bunch of performers that he would bump into.
3. On his first trip to America he appears on a San Fransisco radio station and his playlist (p. 305) probably tells you what you need to know about his comprehensive music knowledge.
4. There’s a nice quote in relation to ‘Radio Radio’: ‘The idea that the radio broadcasting from within you was ultimately of more value than the radio in the dashboard or the wireless on the shelf or a transmitter on a pirate ship, beaming from beyond the three-mile limit, is something that I would argue to this day’.