Disclosure/disclaimer: As of this date, I'm not even half-way finished reading this rather thick memoir. But I'm loving every paragraph, and I don't envision it getting any less awesome. I earnestly wish that I had picked up this book when it first appeared in stores three years ago. As it is, I found it on a recent visit to Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City.
It must be said: Elvis is still the King.
Having been a fan since first seeing Elvis & the Attractions on Saturday Night about 40 years ago has certainly boosted my enjoyment of Declan Patrick MacManus's life story. I was just starting to flex my songwriting muscles, with laughable attempts at setting teen-angst lyrics in a prog-rock idiom. Elvis's third album Armed Forces came out shortly thereafter, and it got some airplay on the local AOR stations. Get Happy!! dropped in 1980; when I heard "New Amsterdam" on KTRU one lazy afternoon, I despaired of ever writing a song to top it no matter how long or hard I might try.
The Costello Method has always been about stealing ideas from the best possible influences and improving on them. Elvis injects this tome with numerous examples of how he discovered those influences. It's both disquieting and vindicating to learn that he dug Woodstock-scene bands and songwriters like the Beatles and the Byrds/CSNY/Joni Mitchell axis: it certainly explains how he could sing "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" with such Springsteen-esque sincerity, making it his own with help from the guy who wrote and sang it first (Nick Lowe, recording with Brinsley Schwarz).
Enough rhapsodizing about the man and his music. Let's talk about...his acting! He delivered my favorite bits in 200 Cigarettes (which I love) and Straight to Hell (which I otherwise loathe, and which I doubt I'll ever watch a second time).
Nah, jk, let's focus on the book itself.
You don't need to be an OG fanboy like me to enjoy the writing. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Elvis Costello manages to place the reader right in the middle of those times and places and experiences, but with the cool detachment. At times he seems to be writing about someone he's never met, even while using first-person pronouns.
If you're put off by memoirs that mess with chronology, you may be less than thrilled with the narrative path here. Elvis's approach is more contextual than chronological. The main thread goes from birth to publication, but there are frequent detours when an event from, say, 1963 reminds him of a similar event from 1982.
One remarkable literary accomplishment is Elvis's detailed illustrations of how remarkably different England in the 1950s-'70s was from today's England, or from the US of that time. Also on full display is how the music business has evolved from the '50s to his hey-day to the present. He doesn't come out and say, "Things were different in the following ways..." The old rule of "show, not tell" is in full effect. The stories of UK hit factories churning out UK versions of US hit records (often sung by his father under various pseudonyms) before the US records reached UK record shelves are pure gold.
Another feature I love is the relentless name-dropping, with anecdotes of catching rock stars, other entertainers, producers, and executives in moments of unvarnished humanity. (Sadly, the paperback edition does not include an index.) Yes some of those people were assholes, or at least acting that way in the moment, and Elvis is usually kind of enough not to drop their names. Even before his career really began, he was able to meet some of the giants of British music, mostly because England is a fairly small place where nobody is more than three degrees of separation from anyone else.
Elvis acknowledges that his own father, philandering dance-hall singer Ross MacManus, could be a bit of an asshole, but he never stoops to deleting the good memories or reducing him to subhuman status. He then acknowledges some of the foibles he inherited from Ross, without dwelling on it too much, such as the infidelities that spoilt his first marriage.
If, in the next 300+ pages, I find any more awesomeness that I absolutely must include in this review, I'll come back and add it. Then I will finally replace my long-lost Costello LPs with CDs and give them all a thorough listen or two—especially Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, Trust, Imperial Bedroom (aka IbMePdErRoIoAmL), and Spike.
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