When He Was Cruel

Elvis Costello’s memoir is most potent when it wrestles with the sins of the past—and his relationship with his bandleader father.

Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello.

Photo by Mary McCartney

It was 1977, the scabrous peak of punk and the heyday of the British music tabloids. Elvis Costello was doing press (frequently drunk) to promote his debut, My Aim Is True. Soon, New Musical Express had a scoop. It reprinted a publicity photo of “Day Costello,” who in 1970 had released a soon-forgotten cover of the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road.”

NME claimed, as Costello recalls in his new memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, that the picture was “evidence of my previous, failed tilt at pop stardom and that I was lying about my age and not actually twenty-two as I claimed but really over thirty and had just got myself some New Wave threads and a short haircut.”

The report was tongue-in-cheek. The shot was of Costello’s father, the well-known singer and bandleader Ross MacManus, who often adopted pseudonyms for his commercial knockoff singles. He chose “Costello” for the same reason Declan Patrick MacManus later would: It was Ross’ granny’s maiden name. On other occasions he was “Hal Prince” or “Frank Bacon and the Baconeers”—no wonder his son was unfazed when his own manager suggested an outlandish showbiz sobriquet.

Yet the NME’s fib pointed at a truth most Costello fans never fully assimilated. Watch this YouTube clip of the single in question, including the same photo (I assume). See the horn-rimmed glasses, the munificent Irish nose. Hear the vibrato on the sustained notes. It’s the spitting image, albeit without his heir’s spitting diction.

The resemblance also ran deeper, in ways both lucky and nasty. If there is any center to the sprawling, 670-page Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink—which free-associates on themes from Costello’s life without any obvious throughline, perhaps on the model of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles—it is that inheritance. Ross MacManus died of Parkinson’s and dementia four years ago, and the book seems driven by a desire both to honor him and to reckon with his legacy and in turn the one Costello, now 61, will leave to his own offspring.

Growing up in the 1980s, I thought of the singer of “Oliver’s Army” and “Beyond Belief” as my Bob Dylan. He was nearly as acute in transmuting language into music and back again but more electrically skeptical and more socially and sexually insecure, as suited the times. Later, as his star dipped (or, in North America, never quite dawned), he extended into other vocabularies, from country to soul to baroque pop and string quartets, as if reaching for historical handholds against the growing will to cultural acceleration and amnesia. (Which much of punk, in retrospect, seems to endorse unwittingly.)

Before long, Costello’s catalogue had built into a pileup as unwieldy as one of his most notoriously crammed multisyllabic lines. The highlights became a matter of any listener’s opinion. It became harder to follow his tangents, though the music often rewarded the attention, especially onstage, where he remains as compelling a performer as there is.

I can’t help seeing that transition as a bit of a mystery: Once, he had been the one who brought societal bulletins with a backbeat, less protest singer than human thermometer, lyrics loaded with flash points like a search-tag cloud. Then the nervy urgency of that first decade of undeniable albums (from My Aim is True to Blood and Chocolate) began evolving (with the still-great Spike) into the persona of “beloved entertainer” and musical connoisseur he radiates today.

Over most of that time, I was aware that Costello’s dad had been a singer and trumpeter but for some reason thought that fact incidental, merely indicating that he came from a musical family—perhaps by day his old man was a teacher, or a delivery man, or an industrial merchant, like his later collaborator Paul McCartney’s father, who likewise played in Liverpool jazz bands. What becomes clear in Unfaithful Music is that Ross MacManus was in fact a complete pro, one of the main featured vocalists of one of England’s most successful stage combos of the time, the Glenn Miller–styled Joe Loss Orchestra. He met Costello’s mother when she was working in a music shop, having heard that she was a jazz enthusiast too. (She even ran an illicit American bebop record smuggling ring.)

Ross was on radio and TV regularly and played the same 1963 Royal Command Performance where John Lennon famously told the “cheap seats” to clap their hands and the aristocrats to rattle their jewelry: Ross sang his calypsoed-up version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer,” to the pleasure of the Queen Mother, “who was very fond of work songs,” Costello writes, “never having had a job of her own.”

In writing redolent of the stale and still-smoldering air of postwar Britain, we witness Costello hanging around backstages and dance halls, seeing his Dad go off to work when other kids’ fathers were coming home and hearing him practice all manner of songs to be able to keep up with demand for the latest from the hit parade. Ross learned his way around swing, bebop, folk, rock, pop, easy listening and even Pink Floyd—anticipating his son’s later eclecticism. Ross also provided the vocals (with his son singing backup) for one of the best-known British TV ads of the 1970s, in which a husband sneaks down to the fridge at night crooning about being “a secret lemonade drinker,” which itself sounds like an Elvis Costello line.

In a way, the NME had gotten the story figuratively right: Costello had been performing since around 1970, first as a teenager in a close-harmony acoustic duo and then in what later got termed “pub rock” bands. He was born in 1954 and his experiences of Beatlemania and, later, of hitchhiking to outdoor festivals to see the Band; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Joni Mitchell; and the Grateful Dead mark him as more of a classic boomer than his “angry young man” image gave away. He didn’t subscribe to punk’s no-history/no-future manifestos, and his stage name and glasses (providing a “Superman in reverse” effect) were given to him by his manager; he went along cheerfully because that was showbiz.

At the start he was more adult than his years, and his peers, working a straight suburban job (data entry at an Elizabeth Arden lipstick factory) to support a wife and infant son. It was only success that brought a regression, one that he’d voiced premonitions about in his early songs: “When they told me ’bout my side of the bargain, I knew that I would not refuse/ And I won’t get any older, now the angels wanna wear my red shoes.” He comments now: “I had barely received a hint of encouragement from the world outside, but knew that there was a jealousy and malevolence to the pursuit of fame that would not allow you to get any older once the deal was struck.”

Likewise, when he wrote “Alison,” he was sounding “my fear that I would not be faithful or that my disbelief in happy endings would lead me to kill the love I had longed for.” (His first wife, Mary, was someone he’d fallen for from afar back in high school.) That pessimism about family came from his father’s own trespasses against Costello’s mother, which seem to have been serial and flagrant. In this way, too, Costello would turn out to be a chip off the old block. Or maybe it was just an occupational hazard. Like his boy, Ross was himself the only son of an itinerant musician, an orphaned military and later ocean-liner bandsman. In the book he writes, “[My] Dad and I had also the capacity for selfish cruelties that the solitary child can think routine and acceptable.”

Those cruelties were visited particularly on Mary, whom Costello cheated on promiscuously while he and the Attractions stormed Britain and America in a haze of booze and pills in his brief, early “pop star” years. The book circles again and again to his regrets about his actions, though discreetly and sometimes obliquely—the way he handled such matters in many of his lyrics, in which he often transposed pronouns and mixed carnal and romantic imagery with politics and commerce, for the sake of art but also for a touch of obfuscation. As he writes, this was pop music, not the confessional.

One of the book’s most wrenching moments comes a quarter-century later, when Mary came to see Costello perform for the first time in decades. He was employing his colorful invention, the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a wheel of fortune full of song titles that audience volunteers would spin to determine the setlist, a way of keeping the performances fresh. That evening, though, “the contraption delivered eight songs in a row that detailed how our life together fell apart—the songs I wrote when I betrayed her, and really broke both of our hearts. It’s hard to describe the mortification that I felt that night.”

Nevertheless, inevitably the most exciting sections of the book, though they’re also the most-previously-rehearsed, are those chapters that chronicle the early Attractions years, with an intensity of both life and art such that every month was packed with incident. The momentum came to a crash, however, late one infamous night in March 1979, when Costello was drinking with members of the Stephen Stills band in Columbus, Ohio. He was winding them up by slandering American music, culminating by dismissing Ray Charles and James Brown in vile racist terms (including the N-word), which set off a fistfight. The next day his arm was in a sling and his still-obscure name all over the press. The tour meant to make his career in America sabotaged it instead.

He deals head on with Columbus here, although he avoids repeating his statements (which, to be fair, he can’t remember saying). He disavows having any hidden racist sentiments, and while no white person should deny that infection so stridently, the evidence of his life and art, before and after, mostly justifies him. Costello doesn’t mention it, but his father wrote a letter to Rolling Stone objecting to his son being characterized as a racist, saying that his own background as an Ulster Catholic led him to despise intolerance and his son was raised the same way.

I think the explanation, beyond a blind-drunk relish for provocation at any cost, is more in the young Costello’s insular Britishness. The American version of racial tension was abstract to him, so he did not grasp the depths of the obscenities he was uttering, however facetiously. (For a much deeper analysis of the incident and its reverberations, as well as Costello’s music in general, read Franklin Bruno’s masterful, compact book on Armed Forces in the 33 series.)

What surprises me here is not his self-defense—which he is careful to balance by saying, “There are no excuses”—but that he still feels hounded and haunted by that night. Whenever he meets someone new, he writes, he wonders if they know and are thinking ill of him. Thirty-five years is a long time to carry even a self-inflicted wound.

Yet he also says that night might have “saved my sorry life.” There’s no telling where his excesses were leading, especially if amplified by further fame and fortune. He’s grateful for the “more interesting” life that resulted from “this failure to get into some undeserved and potentially fatal orbit.” Costello didn’t actually stop drinking for another couple of decades, but he does not discuss that here, so thankfully it does not turn into a rehab-and-redemption memoir. The book’s asynchronous structure permits him to omit what he pleases, without the gaps becoming obvious. If he avoids much mention of his 16-year second marriage, to Cait O’Riordan of the Pogues, whether from enmity or respect, that’s fine with me. But the way he handles one other controversy bears scrutiny.

In Chapter 13, the one actually titled “Unfaithful Music,” he says that of everything people have said about his music, the most “bewildering” charge to him is misogyny. He points out, I think rightly, that many of the songs marshaled in those accusations, such as “This Year’s Model” and “Party Girl,” are depictions and critiques of misogyny instead. He claims people are projecting  or “just weren’t listening very hard.”

He partly blames an early quote from an interview in which he hyperbolically (and drunkenly) said that all his songs were motivated by “revenge and guilt,” which the press never let go. And he even says that because of the gap between his front teeth, everything he sang tended to come out with an unintentional hiss. “If everything you say sounds like the beginning of an argument, it is easy for someone to miss the joke and look for the smart remark, where only the heartfelt word is written.”

While it’s true the “angry” Costello was a caricature, it was one in which he was complicit. (Showbiz, again.) More so, many of his songs are argumentative, which is one of their virtues—unlike a lot of more impressionistic musicians, he has a restless and tenacious mind that likes to pull subjects apart and reassemble them askew. (Contra David Lee Roth, critics don’t love Elvis Costello so much because he looks like them but because he thinks like them.) 

And his subjects, especially on his early albums, often involved gender roles and sexual tension—the way that both sides of an amorous exchange objectify, exploit, and commodify each other and weaponize sex for status. He often views sociopolitical problems through a sexual lens as well and always from the masculine side. It all certainly enhanced his art. He shouldn’t be called out more than other male musicians because he confronted these dynamics rather than being oblivious to them. But neither should he expect total absolution.

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello. Blue Rider Press.

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It was after Columbus, his first divorce, and a few wilderness years that he shifted back nearer to his father’s public shape, within his own variation on the entertainment world that whelped him. Perhaps it was in gradual realization of and penance for what his more lone-wolf, hand-biting instincts had wrought. Artistically it was both an expansion and a loss. But it may have been necessary to the peace he seems to find toward the end of the book, in his new family in Vancouver, Canada, with jazz singer Diana Krall and their twin boys. He quotes one of his own songs: “Day is closing/ Old men and infants are dozing/ That’s the kind of life I’ve chosen/ Just see what I’ve become … The humbled father of my three sons.”

He once took his mandate from seeing Neil Young play “Don’t Be Denied” in 1974: “If there is an applecart,” he then understood, “you must do your best to upset it.” If Ross MacManus’ spirit contributed to the way Elvis Costello’s wheels almost came off, he also showed his son there are far less dignified fates than to end up among those who keep the old apple cart rolling, the wood varnished to a gleam.