Review: ‘Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink,’ Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello has always been one of my very favorite songwriters, mostly for his eclecticism (new wave, pop, country, classical, jazz) and lavish melodic inventiveness, but also because of his unusually clever lyrical wordplay, which is evident in almost all of his music. Allmusic.com says Elvis “emerged as one of the most innovative, influential and best songwriters since Bob Dylan.” So I guess it comes as no surprise that he’s actually a very good storyteller too.

This autobiography, released last year, was a delight to read, mostly to digest all the background stories behind his incredibly prolific catalog of songs (go here for an earlier blog recommending Elvis’ 20 best tunes), but also to hear about Elvis’ peculiar ability to make friends with musical giants from a variety of genres — Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, Oscar Peterson, Joni Mitchell, Chet Baker, George Jones, David Bowie, and of course Diana Krall (his wife).

One of the most entertaining stories is an encounter between Elvis and Dylan described on p. 566-568, in which the two singers traded lyrics in a kind of playful joust. Dylan must have felt a little threatened, as he brought out all of his gold standards in an ensuing live show that featured both artists on the bill, leaving Elvis feeling overwhelmed. But, “it was just fun to be in the ring with the champ for a minute or two.”

Speaking of wives, Elvis has had three, and it was refreshing to see him eschew his pride and instead express sincere regret over his own infidelities in his first marriage. Elvis had a reputation early in his career as a smug “angry young man,” but gracing the pages of this book are self-deprecation, humility and thoughtful reflection on a career mostly in the past. How quickly time moves on.

Elvis was raised Catholic, a fact that is mentioned with some frequency in the book. As a child he had become “obsessed and fearful about eternity and was losing sleep” over the question. (p. 510-511). Elvis’ father (at that time Elvis was known as Declan MacManus) came into his room one night and sat on the bed, knowing his son’s spiritual struggles. His father wanted to help, saying, “Well, either there is eternity or we are just like a candle that gets snuffed out and we won’t know anything about it.” He was probably just doing the best he could, but how I wish the Gospel were on that man’s lips in that precious moment.

I would have been interested in hearing about Elvis’ well-known rift with bassist Bruce Thomas, but it’s not here. Not one word. Perhaps it was a classy decision to leave the dirty laundry in the closet, which Elvis also chose to do when he was welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 along with the members of his outstanding backup band, the Attractions.

At the heart of this book is simply a man who is, and always has been, captivated with music. “I have absorbed almost everything I know from listening to records.” (659). It was fun to learn about some obscure but wonderful songs I’d never heard of, such as “The Monkey” by Dave Bartholomew, and “Down River” by David Ackles. If you want to explore new music, find a true music lover, and then sit at his/her feet and learn.

But as splendid as music is, it has its limits. In one of the most touching passages of the book, Elvis describes the death of his father, who is discussed at length in the book. Elvis has apparently decided that he is done making music, and the reason is that he couldn’t “imagine how I could bear to write songs and not be able to play them for my father. Watching him listen to music was irreplaceable to me. There are some things that music just can’t fix.” (p. 538).

Music is one of God’s greatest gifts, but it makes a lousy savior.