Elvis Costello, A Biography Cara Bobchek Book Lovers

book Elvis Costello, A Biography

reviewed by Cara Bobchek

Published in Issue No. 26 ~ July, 1999

Elvis Costello has grown up. And if you’re like me, having bought your first Costello record – My Aim is True – in 1977 as a teenager, you’ve grown up along with him. At the very least, you’re aware of this increasingly difficult-to-categorize songwriter. While Costello is decidedly not among the very-top-selling pop artists of the last two decades, he is, with over 25 albums and collections released during that time, among the more prolific. But much more than that, Costello is one of the most influential artists of the rock era.

Those who have been fans from the get-go will remember the giddy, rushing crescendo of discovering, in satisfyingly quick succession, what some critics call the “First Four,” the albums My Aim is True and its more sophisticated (add the Attractions) cousin This Year’s Model (1978), the anthemic Armed Forces (1979), and the more obviously reverential Get Happy (1980). They’ll recall the soulful step-back provided by Trust and Almost Blue (1981), followed by the perfectly triumphant Imperial Bedroom just five years after Aim‘s smashing 1977 debut. Imperial Bedroom coincided with many an original fan’s arrival at the legal age of maturity (amazingly, Costello himself was only 27 in 1982) and, if asked to name a favorite Costello album, many of those fans would point to one from among these – or at least one from the “Attractions era.”

But happily, for fans at least, the growing-up process continued with projects that reflected Costello’s expanding original style along with interpretations of his jazzy, country and western, and R&B influences, punctuated by some distinct “ups,” (Spike, Brutal Youth) and very few notable “downs” (Goodbye Cruel World). The departures, such as his Brodsky Quartet collaborative The Juliet Letters, could tell as much about Costello’s perspective as the comings-home (Brutal Youth).

But growing up along with Costello is sadly not the same as growing up alongside this modern Elvis the King. Can’t blame a curious fan for wanting to know: How did the boy born Declan McManus become Elvis Costello? Where did all that so-called angst come from? What was he experiencing in his professional and family life during the “First Four,” the many departures, the unexpected collaborations? What sort of background imbued this man with the gift that places him among the handful of truly awe-inspiring lyricists of our time? Fans and others who have noticed this artistic phenomenon – this is a songwriter/performer whose commercial respectability is eclipsed by his name-recognition – might be expected to pick up Tony Clayton-Lea’s Elvis Costello, a Biography eagerly, if not hungrily.

They’ll be more satisfied in reading Clayton-Lea’s biography if they do so on a full stomach. Elvis Costello isn’t really even a biography; instead, it’s a narrow look at the progression of the artist’s production output, from the perspective of a Dublin-based music critic who’s had some personal access to Costello and who possesses a credible understanding of the music “biz.”

Which is not to say that the book doesn’t have its elucidating moments, and even its treats – it does. It even, for this reader, had some surprises. By Clayton-Lea’s reckoning, for example, the spiky-haired, skinny-pantsed kid in the big glasses (didn’t we all have them; don’t some of us still?) and the impossible posture was as much a marketing conceit of Stiff Records’ Jake Riviera (Andrew Jackman) as an original persona who crossed with grace from the pub-rock to the punk-rock scene in the mid `70s. In fact, many of the most interesting parts of this book are about Riviera. Some of the concert stories (Costello once introduced himself and the Attractions at a show as “The Clash”), featuring cameos from the likes of such unlikelies as Courtney Love and Abba, are fascinating enough to make one appreciate the insider’s view, not to mention his luck. And who would believe that Costello would write an entire album for a campy singer named Wendy James just because she sent him a fan letter!

It’s interesting to read that the Attractions, Costello’s much-of-the-time backup band, were not discovered as a unit and in fact included both veterans of the pub-rock scene and a young Royal College of Music student who became known as Steve Nieve. (Nieve also appeared with Costello and Burt Bacharach during their three-city U.S. tour this year; Costello and Nieve tour the U.S. again this summer. Having witnessed Nieve’s amazing arrangements of the Costello/Bacharach show, I suspect that he wielded greater influence on certain Costello albums than we have been told.) And while the names of Costello’s pub-rock compatriots, including Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker, and Wreckless Eric, will be familiar to fans of his music, it is nevertheless a comfort to see these old friends appear again in the context of Costello’s career.

At times, Clayton-Lea shows us an Elvis Costello whose personality seems not at all like the arrogant young man sold to us in earlier days. For example, through some introspective quotes, we learn that Costello’s move away from the substance abuse of his mad touring days was merely a natural part of his maturation as a man (father, husband) as opposed to the publicity stunt that the recovery process has become for many contemporary rock stars. Most of all, what Clayton-Lea’s biography reveals is Costello’s resigned work ethic in the face of the realities of making a living in the commercial music industry. Perhaps having a working musician for a father contributed to Costello’s not-so-grudging-as-one-might-have-expected acceptance of the inevitable artistic constraints that accompany a record contract, not to mention the lack of control over the selection and timing of particular releases. Fans and critics will agree that some of the choices of singles from Costello’s most commercially viable albums were baffling.

The book also includes a comprehensive discography that American fans, especially, will appreciate – even the dedicated collector is bound to spot some must-have releases that were made available only to Costello’s ever-loyal British fan base. It should be noted that Elvis Costello was originally published in Great Britain in 1998, and therefore, the discography excludes Painted from Memory, a beautiful, desperately emotional collaboration with Burt Bacharach. A recounting of the origins and progression of Costello and Bacharach’s joining of musical forces is included in the text of the biography.

But Clayton-Lea’s biography doesn’t tell us much about who Elvis Costello was, and who he has become. His childhood is only roughly sketched, a recounting of his parents’ backgrounds nearly nonexistent. His first wife and the mother of his grown son, a son who has worked with Costello, is mentioned only as “Mary” – no clues to her own background, nor to how she and Costello met, and not much about why they split, either. Indeed, although Costello has allowed both himself and ex-Pogue Cait O’Riordan, who became his second wife, to be quoted in other places about their relationship, there is scant exploration here of their personal and professional relationship. O’Riordan has been described as fiercely protective of Costello’s privacy while on tour, specifically concerning the access that journalists have to him, but that isn’t discussed in this book. And it’s frustrating to read, for example, that Costello made certain creative decisions in Italy, a country he and O’Riordan were in because she was on “extended studies” there, without being told what those studies were. It is known that O’Riordan is much younger than Costello – Was she earning a degree? What does it say about Elvis Costello, husband, that at this time in his quite vital career he went to Italy so that his wife could study? This book is about Costello’s work, and while that work is an immense part of his life, one suspects that this is a man whose private life is far more influential than we know.

The style of Elvis Costello is lighter than journalistic, more like a happily-told tale by a witness to a musical era in general and one of its jewels in particular. Don’t let the 243-page length fool you: the typeface is large enough to be baby boomer-friendly. It’s clear that Clayton-Lea is a fan (or at least a canny rock-crit who wouldn’t mind further access to a subject based in the author’s native Ireland.) American readers might find some of the idiomatic language (adjectives like “narky” and a population of “footie fans” are referenced, for example), a little troublesome.

According to the bibliography, Clayton-Lea compiled this book chiefly from previously published articles about and interviews with Costello from reputable publications including Rolling Stone, NME, Melody Maker, Record Collector, and Pulse!, along with a small handful of previously published interviews with the author himself. (Costello did not provide any new interviews with the author for this biography.) While serious biographies have been written before without the direct participation of the subject, Clayton-Lea had the most unreasonable constraint imaginable in writing this book: he was not allowed to quote a single lyric from any of Costello’s songs. That he published this biography despite that seemingly fatal constraint is a testament to either Clayton-Lea’s sheer courage or to his confidence that his own career knowledge and personal exposure to his subject’s world constitute enough of a story to merit telling.

In the end, Elvis Costello remains to us an invisible man, and we’re left living on the outskirts of a life that, while still in full creative force, deserves to have some of its past detailed.