The first notable aspect of musician Elvis Costello’s memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, is its length. It doesn’t feel like a celebrity memoir in your hands; it’s too weighty and thus probably divulging way too much personal stuff. Some celebrity memoirs are carefully crafted and calibrated to not divulge anything revealing while trying to persuade you that you’re the celeb’s best friend.
Elvis Costello doesn’t write that way (or pay a ghostwriter to write that way for him). Best known for his hits “Alison,” “Veronica,” “Watching the Detectives,” and “She,” Costello first rose to fame in the late ’70s in the U.K. He looked then like a junior high nerd who accidentally ended up on stage. Now he sings with Bob Dylan, among others, and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Given the wordplay and feisty feel of his lyrics, a memoir by a musician like Costello would have to be a one-of-a-kind book for it to feel as if it were really written by him. Costello gleefully grabs from pop, punk, country, and jazz influences in his songs; his memoir is also all over the map. It’s digressive, rueful, funny, dark, honest, and witty (Costello’s favorite writer is legendary humorist James Thurber). In a publishing season when memoirs by rock stars are plentiful (Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith are two examples), Costello’s stands out. Here he is on what it was like to sing with Johnny Cash: “Johnny’s singing voice was so extraordinarily resonant and full of portent that, next to him, I sounded just like a little girl selling crafts at a garden fete.” The book is studded with memorable lyricism, like when he describes the city swimming pool he visited as a boy. “I remember the place with the fondness of lost summer,” he writes.
I talked to Costello before he embarked on a book tour for Unfaithful Music, a tour during which, in his trademark contrarian way, he intends to perform music “only if I’m really asked,” as you’ll see below.
For a memoir that’s really supposed to be about you, there’s a lot in this book about your dad, which is a wonderful element. Had you always wanted to write about him?
I suppose if I said that, people would say, ‘Why didn’t you do it before?’ I think I had been working toward writing this book in earnest for 10 years. As you can see, it’s not a problem for me to write. It’s what shape was it going to be in. I arrived at the idea that the perspective I was given by growing up in a musical family where my mother sold music, my father played music, and my grandfather played music…wasn’t entirely unique, but it was at least my story. And then I got signed to a record company, and as I made some attempts to work toward something that made sense to me, my father started to decline in health. Given that I didn’t live with him in the house for most of my growing up and the fact that we ended up in similar jobs, he had some things to teach me, and I wanted to talk to him while I still could. It made me realize, ‘Where can I start?’ It’s easy to make a sketch but then you have to write it and with feeling. I think in the end, I wanted more to feel than to analyze. I didn’t go in for a lot of pseudo-psychological stuff. If people want to read into it, that’s fine.
There are scenes in this book that clearly weren’t that much fun for you to recall, but is there a section of the book that now that you look back on it was the most fun to write?
I would say it was tougher to read than to write, oddly enough. When you edit things, you read them hundreds of times. When I was recording the audiobook, I had to do several takes to make it sound like it wasn’t fake emotion. I enjoyed writing the most comic elements, particularly the ones having to do with friendship.There’s a point in the book where you refer to Allan, an old friend, and the journals he kept, which revealed that you all weren’t paid to play as young musicians. Did you have to do a lot of research that involved asking old friends for their archives and journals?
Unfortunately, I seem to be approaching a curse of memory. Like anyone, I pushed some things away. I haven’t seen Allan in about 30 years, and I was really only telling him I was referring to him in the book. We hadn’t been in touch before that. Oddly enough, he’d been living in America, and we got back in touch, and the weird thing is that when you’re 17, you think you’re going to live forever. It turns out, all these years he had an exercise book of everything we played. But yes, there’s even more documents and things that are described in the book.
This is a long book. Did you set aside time each day to write?
They were all different occasions. I suppose I’m starting to appreciate what women writers must feel like when they see “women writers.” Aren’t they just writers? Obviously, I do something else. As we’ve planned the book events, people are asking me, ‘Are you going to perform?’ ‘Only if I’m really asked.’ If I were a famous surgeon and wrote my memoir, would I have to operate on stage? You have to acknowledge that you do another job, which I do—I’m a working musician and try to be present for my family—so I might get up at 6 o’clock to write or I might write in the tour bus. I have to take every opportunity I can. I didn’t hand this responsibility to someone else; it’s not a book you can tell to someone. It had to be written out in longhand by me. I edited it, but there wasn’t one writing occasion. It wasn’t like I set aside intense bursts; that’s not different from how songwriting is done.
They’re not that different, book writing and songwriting?
I had to accept that I couldn’t rely on the mechanisms of verse and chorus in a book. It would be very easy to write, but you couldn’t write those and expect it to be satisfying to read. As much I can, I had a master blueprint in spidery pen, and there is a structure you’ll see to it, but it’s not one that everyone will recognize. A lot of my songs are unusual shapes too.Claiborne Smith is the editor-in-chief.