Declan MacManus Disappears Into Elvis Costello and Comes Back Again

“You don’t really need musical notation for rock and roll. I always said it was all hand signals and threats. I just didn’t specify who was doing the threatening.” 

That may be my favorite quote in a book full of them.

At over 600 pages, Elvis Costello’s new memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (Blue Rider Press) may be a doorstopper of a memoir but the man born Declan MacManus in London England in 1954 keeps it interesting.

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It helps that he has a vivid memory, shored up (no doubt) by  family and friends.

One of the author’s favorite childhood memories includes watching his father,  Ross MacManus, perform with  Joe Loss and his orchestra. In fact, E.C./D.M.’s dad figures prominently in the book, dating from his tenure with  the Loss orchestra to his  brush with UK fame as a solo artist to, in a poignant chapter, his final days suffering from a combination of Parkinson’s disease and dementia. (Few fathers may have been fortunate enough to have a son as devoted, compassionate and admiring as Declan MacManus aka Elvis Costello.)

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Ross MacManus (courtesy of Britain’s The Guardian.com website)                 

Mr Costello also gives fans (I plead guilty) the inspiration behind some of his (often) cryptic lyrics. For example, “Alison” (perhaps his best known composition, at least according to the folks at watchmojo.com, who recently posted a list of Top Ten Elvis Costello Tunes) was inspired by “the sad face of a beautiful girl glimpsed by chance ” (Mr. Costello tells us later in the book that it was  a supermarket checkout girl) “and imagining her life unravelling before her.” As for the name of the song “it was almost incidental. I knew it couldn’t be the name of a glamorous, sophisticated woman, like Grace or Sophia, or a poetic heroine like Eloise or Penelope. I needed a name that sounded like a girl anyone would know, and Alison fitted the tune.” Mr. Costello also tells us how jazz legend Chet Baker came to play the horn solo on “Shipbuilding” (one of my all-time favorite E.C. recordings.)

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The late (great) musician Chet Baker

E.C./D.M also devotes a number of pages to his first marriage, to an Irish girl named Mary, and its eventual failure (reading between the lines he seems properly remorseful), his 17 year marriage to onetime Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan (reading between the lines – small wonder it took me so long to finish the book – it seemed to be an often tempestuous union) and he is positively puppy-eyed when it comes to his latest wife, Canadian jazz singer/songwriter/pianist Diana Krall.) His much-publicized ’70s dalliance with aspiring singer/model Bebe Buell is reduced to a few lines.

E.C./D.M. has met just about everyone he admired as a music-loving youth and yet I never got the feeling he was name-dropping to impress the reader.  Throughout the book his tone is  intimate, conversational and often self-deprecating. The author writes about his collaborations with artists ranging from Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach to fabled New Orleans music icon Allen Toussaint and legendary country singer George Jones. He has also worked with Britain’s The Brodsky Quartet (justly famed for their interpretations of Beethoven, Shostakovich and other classical music masters), Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and U.S. hip hop artists the Roots. (In fact, after reading his memoir, I am convinced that Mr. Costello is one those rare musicians that has no “comfort zone”.) 

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The author is also straightforward and honest about some of the more highly publicized incidents in his career such as his thought processes about suddenly changing songs without warning on a live American television broadcast and the infamous night Bonnie Bramlett knocked him off a barstool for making drunken racial slurs (“Words had always been my friends. Now I had betrayed them. But never mind excuses. There are no excuses.”

And, since the book was copyrighted (by Declan MacManus) in 2015 the author also writes about the genesis of his excellent music and interview series “Spectacle” (My favorite guests were Richard Thompson and Lou Reed.)

Mr. Costello looks back to his “angry young man” phase with candour and the wisdom and regret that comes with age and hopes to  continue writing and recording. It’s all music to him and he is determined to experience it all.)

He also mentions in closing that he is the proud father of three sons (so far).

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Author: rixbitz

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