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).

I Got It at the Library: Red, White and Blues

If you’re a blues fan you really owe it to yourself to check out a DVD called Red White and Blues (if you haven’t seen it already.)

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Directed by British filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) the documentary is dedicated to pioneers of UK blues and jazz from the post war years to the Sixties. (Figgis has composed the soundtracks for 14 of his 33 directing credits on imdb. He plays piano on this DVD.) 

Mike Figgis -He's Got the Right To Shoot the Blues
Mike Figgis -He’s Gotta Right To Shoot the Blues

Filmed in 2002 as part of a TV show called The Blues (which means filmmaker/music aficionado Martin Scorsese is somewhere in the mix) the doc features interview clips with legendary UK music biz figures like Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber, Bert Jansch, George Melly and Humphrey Lyttleton (most of whom are no longer with us).

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Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Georgie Fame and Albert Lee also make appearances in this  entertaining and absorbing film  about the white English musicians who rediscovered a treasure trove of music from black America and exposed these artists to mainstream audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, most of them for the first time. (The doc shows a young Mick Jagger singing with Muddy Waters. Georgie Fame talks about the challenges of accompanying  instinctual artists like John Lee Hooker: “They changed keys whenever they felt like it.”) 

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Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Booker T. & the MGs are shown in  vintage performance clips. There is also a clip of Alexis Korner in action. (I still have the double WB LP  Bootleg Him! featuring Mr. Korner and Blues Inc. playing with  Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker before they met Eric Clapton and formed Cream and Charlie Watts before he hooked up with the group that would eventually become the Rolling Stones.)

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All all star cast lays down  some tasty tracks live on the floor at Abbey Studios in London. I’ve never been a big Tom Jones fan but i gotta say Ol’ Leather Lungs’ subdued and heartfelt take on Ketty Lester’s 1961 version of “Love Letters” with Jeff Beck on guitar is a keeper. Lulu sings a soulful version of “Cry Me a River”. And if you think the petite Scottish chanteuse, best known for the treacly pop hit “To Sir With Love” can’t sing soul, than you have obviously never heard (or have forgotten) “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool For You Baby)”, from her 1970 album New Routes (recorded  with the same team that backed up Dusty Springfield on the classic Dusty in Memphis LP.)  

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Even cranky old Van Morrison seems to be enjoying himself. Okay, he’s not smiling but he is obviously enjoying singing the music he grew up with.  

That’s the question I ask myself everytime I hear the blues …  how can something that hurts so bad make you feel so good?

 

 

 

What Do Steve Earle, Chuck Berry and Jack Kerouac Have in Common?

What do master folk/country/rock songsmith Steve Earle, rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry and the author of the 1950s literary classic  On the Road have in common?

 Well, actually, it’s a song from Steve Earle’s current CD The Low Highway on New West Records.

In “Down the Road Pt. 2”     Mr. Earle adds his own spin to a famous Chuck Berry lyric (“Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news …..) and references “beat” legend Kerouac and folk icon Guthrie  ….  all in one line!

“Roll over Kerouac and give Woody Guthrie the news ….”

KWIK KWOTES: Did Rap Really Get Its Start in the Southern U.S. ?

Saves Me A Caption
Saves Me A Caption

“Rap is coming back home to the South. Because this is where it all began. Heavy percussion, repetitive hooks, suggestive lyrics. Man, its all blues brother.”

Shelby (DJ Qualls) in HUSTLE AND FLOW (2005)

 

Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: THE RUNAWAYS on Netflix

Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie - `Bombs Away
Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie

Dakota Fanning’s version of “Cherry Bomb” is the bomb.

Even Cherie Currie thinks so. And she recorded the original (as lead singer of The Runaways in 1976.)

Back in the mid 70s Ms. Currie  was just another mixed-up, shook-up teen, trying to make inroads into  the L.A. club scene.

Then she was “discovered” by Kim Fowley, a seasoned snake oil salesman slithering through the L.A. rock and roll scene looking for his main chance.

He found it when he met Joan Jett who had an idea for an all female rock and roll band (an audacious concept for its time.)

I was in London when The Runaways landed in the U.K. and I remember seeing their pictures plastered all over the rabid English music press (along with some fairly salacious headlines.)

The group went on to tour Japan where they were greeted with an almost Beatles-like hysteria. The original line-up splintered after two albums but they are still fondly remembered.  (Google the name of the band and you’ll get a ton of results.)  Female rockers like Courtney Love and the girls in The Donnas  – to name just a few – credit the group as seminal influences and/or motivators.)

The Original Group (l. to r.) - Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West
The Original Fab Five (l. to r.) –
Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West

The brief history of the  “Fab Five” had already been chronicled in a 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways, written and directed by Victory Teschler-Blue  (who replaced original bassist Jackie Fox in the group under the name Vicki Blue)when renowned music video director Floria Sigismondi picked the group as the subject of her first (and, so far, only) feature film in 2010.

The Runaways - Coming Soon to a Computer Near U
The Runaways – Coming Soon to a Computer Near U

Adapting the pic from Ms. Currie’s 1989 memoir Neon Angel (and with Joan Jett as executive producer)  Ms. Sigismondi pulls few punches in depicting the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle that exacted a heavy toll on various members of the group and eventually led to the breakup of the original quintet.

I evidently liked the film more than the critics (David Edelstein in New York Magazine writes: In patches it’s agreeably lurid, but it’s otherwise ho-hum.) And, despite a cast that includes the aforementioned Ms. Fanning as Cherie Currie and  Kristin Stewart as Joan Jett, the film (according to boxofficemojo.com) failed to make back its budget.

Frankly, I thought Ms. Sigismondi did a great job of capturing the look and feel of the period.

For younger viewers the film offers a chance to see Twilight phenom Stewart in a role with real hustle and muscle.

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett
Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett

Ms. Fanning is a revelation as well. The film`s opening images makes it clear the onetime child star has left her childhood behind forever.

Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley is both charismatic and creepy  (This isn`t about women`s lib, kiddies. This is about women`s libidos. Now growl … moan!

The film, despite its flaws, can serve as a role model for young women to,  as Ms. Sigismondi says on a Blu-Ray DVD bonus feature: do what they want … If it’s music that’s great, but if it’s not … just follow their heart.”

Director Floria Sigismondi, the real Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, the real Cherie Currie at a  premiere of The Runaways 2010
Director Floria Sigismondi, the real Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, the real Cherie Currie at a film premiere of The Runaways (2010)

Concerned parents should note that although the film is rated PG-13 the dialogue can be quite coarse in places. There are also scenes of substance abuse. Just so you know.

RIX RATING:  4 guitars out of 5

I Wish I’d Said That: DIANE SCHUUR And All That Jazz

“Guys like me can use all the words in the big book of words, but ultimately, we’re left with the music. We used to call these things records. SCHUUR FIRE is a record of a time and place,a moment when a great singer was joined by great musicians to create a rhythmic document that transcends time and place. In our increasingly disposable culture,  SCHUUR FIRE has legs for the long haul. Stop reading. Play the music. Enjoy.”

Doug McIntyre. liner notes for 2005’s Concord recording Schuur Fire by Dianne Schuur featuring Caribbean Jazz Project.

Cool liner notes ... and very cool contents ... that's for damn schuur (sorry, I couldn't resist)
Cool liner notes … and very cool contents … that’s for damn schuur (sorry, I couldn’t resist)

I also like (and envy) his description of Diane’s reading of the old Sig Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein II chestnut “Lover Come Back To Me.” 

“Diane’s ‘Lover’ is not a chaste wallflower. She’s uninhibited and defiant and erotic – the lover you remember on your death bed.”

Whew! Well, I can’t top that. I’ve listened to the disc myself and there’s not a weak track on the album. All I can say is “Yeah, what he said!” 

PS The track “Ordinary World” which Doug says “may be as new to you as it is to me” is actually from a 1993 album by Brit heartthrobs Duran Duran. Two of the song’s composers,  Simon LeBon and John Taylor, are flagship members of the group. (I hate myself for knowing that.)

Diane Schuur - Extraordinary talent
Diane Schuur – Extraordinary talent

Just Added to my iPod: “Greatest Hits” Mystery Jets

I don’t know if it is the playful reference to  “Stuck in the Middle with You” that opens the tune; the namechecks of classic rock and pop albums in the clever lyrics (“You can take ‘The Lexicon of Love’ away but I’m keeping ‘Remain in Light’ /You can take away ‘It’s a Shame About Ray’ but I’m holding on to ‘Country Life’ (Ohhh)/ You can keep ‘No Need to Argue’ and I’ll keep ‘The Aeroplane Over the Sea’ / But hold on to ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ cos I’m holding on to ‘Village Green’ “), or the boyish enthusiasm of  this British foursome as they serve up the sinfully catchy ‘sha la las” on the chorus but I gotta wonder (in the words of You Tube commenter Cococobianxx)  “How in the world is this song not more popular?”

Mystery Jets