Soul Surmise regulars will know that I am a fan of rock biographies. Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to fill the shelves and this year Santa brought Patti Smith, Tom Petty, one on The Beatles’ Zapple Label and Elvis Costello. Costello was the last on my list but somehow the first one I picked up and opened.
It is over 650 pages long! Elvis Costello has never been a man of few words. His wordiness defines him. He even mentions in the book an incident with Bob Dylan where Dylan laughs at his fanciful vocabulary. What all this wordiness does to a biography is to make it an absolutely delightful read, up there with one of the best autobiographies that rock music has produced. It has all the vivid prose of Dylan’s Chronicles but more authenticity and openness about the singer’s life and songs.
There is not a word in the entire tome where you ever are given clue to why Elvis Costello made it in rock music. He reveals much but not one thing that says he was a cert to be a star. He is humble about his gifts. Yet, by the end of the book you have spent chapters where Costello shares his friendships and collaborations with a range of musical legends; not just rock ones.
Unfaithful Music is the work of a fan. Right to the end you are ware that Costello is just amazed that he has gotten to live this life and meet all the heroes he grew up with. McCartney, Dylan, Cash, Bacharach, Toussaint, George Jones and on and on. That Elvis Costello has been courted by all of these greats and accepted as a peer is a rock story in itself. The story near the end of the book when his seven year old son asks a question about Fool On The Hill and Costello’s wife Diana Krall simply picks up the phone and asks Paul McCartney for an answer gives you a hint of the lovely little insights at work here.
As in his lyrics Costello doesn’t know quite when to stop. As his words drift over rhythms and he can add more words to one verse than the previous one so here Costello has no desire to be economical. Don’t let the size put you off as it nearly did me. Through the subjective account of how Costello wrote a great many of his songs you will have an objective clue to the artistic process. Like me you will likely fill in any gaps of your Costello music catalogue including other artists singing his songs. In spite of his lack of self praise, it is a reminder of his brilliance!
Around it all, Costello shares a life. The failure of his first marriage is heartache. His honesty and candour is real throughout. His relationship with his father too is beautifully described. The chapter on the last days of his dad’s life are poignant and a highlight. The obvious happiness found with Krall is a near Hollywood ending.
The other thread that I particularly loved was his utter obsession with The Beatles. Most Christmases I get a Beatles book. This year I thought it was Zapple but actually this book has within it a unique book about The Beatles from the perspective of a fan and fellow artist. From his dad handing him a demo copy of Please Please Me, to Yoko saying John Lennon was a fan to his songwriting work with McCartney, The Beatles appear all over the book.
As I finished it tonight I felt bereft. Every day for a few weeks I have lived with Elvis Costello. I will miss the book; the personal, the art, the fandom. I don’t even think you need to be a Costello fan to enjoy it. In the genre of rock biography this one is a major literally contribution!