Interview: Elvis Costello, Author Of 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' Throughout his memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello grapples with parallels to his father's life. "In the end, music was playing in the room when my father left this earth," he says.

Elvis Costello: 'There Is No Absolute Right And Wrong About Music'

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Elvis Costello is probably one of the world's most famous songwriters.

ELVIS COSTELLO: Infamous, I'd say.

MCEVERS: Today he publishes a new memoir, called, "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink." It is a hoss of a book. It's nearly 700 pages of good, bad and sometimes poetic memories from his long career, and a lot of memories about his father.

COSTELLO: And all due respect to my mother - she raised me. But writing a book about your mother going, did you brush your teeth, is that coat warm enough, have you had enough to eat - you can't really make a dramatic story about that.

MCEVERS: What he can make a dramatic story of is how his father, the working musician and band leader, Ross MacManus, left the family when Costello was around 7 years old. Elvis Costello told me one reason he wrote this book was to chronicle the few times he actually spent with his father.

COSTELLO: He enjoyed the robust health of a man who knew about the restorative powers of Bushmills Whiskey and never took an aspirin until he was about 79 and then developed Parkinson's. And when he was in his last illness, I sat and tried to talk to him and keep him in the present, you know, because he was - dementia was developing. And when I actually tried to recall our times together, I ran out of experiences very quickly. In fact, I may have written all of them down in the book. That's how few they were.

MCEVERS: Yeah. There's a chapter in the book that's called "Unfaithful Music." And that's part of, actually, the title of this book. This chapter is about that great song of yours, "Alison..."


COSTELLO: (Singing) Alison I know this world is killing you.

MCEVERS: ...And I was wondering if you could read page 187. There's two paragraphs - two short paragraphs.

COSTELLO: One eighty-seven?

MCEVERS: One eighty-seven.

COSTELLO: (Reading) I believed that "Alison" was a work of fiction, taking the sad face of a beautiful girl, glimpsed by chance, and imagining her life unraveling before her. It was a premonition - my fear that I would not be faithful, or that my disbelief in happy endings would lead me to kill the love that I had longed for.


COSTELLO: (Singing) Well, I see you've got a husband now. Did he leave your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake? You use to hold him right in your hand. I'll bet he took all he could take.

MCEVERS: You have said that the sad face of this beautiful girl was somebody you saw in a supermarket, basically, and...

COSTELLO: Yeah, that was some - that was - I just suppose I just had a momentary crush on this girl. But in a way, the song became a premonition of my own, you know, ability to be constant.

MCEVERS: I mean, basically, you're talking about being unfaithful to your wife, to your family?


MCEVERS: Yeah. And your dad wasn't faithful, either.


MCEVERS: Do you think that in some ways you were bound to be like him?

COSTELLO: No, I really don't. That makes it less forgivable, and I'm not inclined to say, like father, like son, or that because I came from a gently-broken home that I would inevitably break one up myself. I can acknowledge what's in the past. I - you can't go back and change it.

MCEVERS: So this was the late '70s, and you were making this very catchy pop music, but there was a lot of - of course, a lot of other stuff going on in the '70s in music, with punk and rock. You weren't necessarily the glamorous type, you know, you weren't doing the Ziggy Stardust, like, shiny jumpsuit thing.

COSTELLO: I worked for Elizabeth Arden for a while.

MCEVERS: Yes, you did. That's right.

COSTELLO: I did for several years. And I could get cheap lipstick and cheap mascara, and I still never made it in glam rock.

MCEVERS: (Laughter). So I mean, you did later get cast as the angry type.

COSTELLO: I've explained that very clearly in the book.

MCEVERS: You have.

COSTELLO: I have. It's because I have a gap in my teeth.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

COSTELLO: And although this makes people such as Jerry Lewis and Jane Birkin sex symbols, it just makes me sound aggressive. And that's really true. I mean, I'm making a joke obviously because there were things in the songs that I said emphatically and things I meant. And I certainly didn't help myself by going along to a couple of my early interviews very drunk.

MCEVERS: You know, I think Americans might remember you, the sort of the angry you, from an episode in 1977. You were appearing on "Saturday Night Live." You were supposed to play your latest single, called, "Less Than Zero," but then this happened.


COSTELLO: (Singing) There is a vacancy waiting in the -

Stop. I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here. "Radio Radio." One, two, three, four...

COSTELLO: My argument was not really with "SNL." My argument with was my own record company 'cause they were just going on at me to do this song, and I said, I'm not sure that even people know what this song is about in America 'cause it was written about very specific English circumstances. I had a brand-new song ready to go that I thought was the one we should play, and I did play. And of course because I didn't tell the producers about it, it was a little bit of a stink, as they say, a kerfuffle. And we were told we would never work on American television again. There was a period where I didn't appear on TV in America, about three years, and it was 12 years before that Lorne Michaels let me back in the building (laughter).

MCEVERS: We read somewhere that Lorne Michaels was giving you the finger from the booth. Is that true?

COSTELLO: I'm not going to say that's true. Bill Murray told me that at the 25th anniversary party. He said, don't let Lorne tell you he was (unintelligible) the joke, I remember him doing that.

So I'm not saying it, Bill is saying it.

MCEVERS: Your dad, he died in 2011. He had Parkinson's, and then he had a brain tumor. And you write in the book that, at one point, you thought you couldn't bear to write any more songs if you couldn't play them for your father.

COSTELLO: No, not write them so much as record them 'cause it was the taking the record home. I always used to like playing the record and see what he took out of it. And he would always listen in and find the center of it, the center of it for him. And I was always encouraged by that because I know there is no one way to listen. There is no absolute right and wrong about music.

MCEVERS: So you write that you couldn't record another song if you couldn't...

COSTELLO: Not for a while, no. And then I stumbled into a recording collaboration with The Roots. And the oddest thing happened. Quest and a keyboard player who plays with The Roots sometimes, Ray Angry, sent me a composition. And within an hour or so I had written this song called, "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings," which was an almost, like, moment-by-moment recitation of my dad's passing.


COSTELLO: (Singing) The breath is slow and shallow too. The sky is bright Venetian blue.

COSTELLO: I'd told myself I wasn't ready to write about that, or, I would never write about it. But it just came out. In the end, music was playing in the room when my father left this earth. And I suppose that's something that I return to throughout the book, in thinking about how music has served me as being my companion. It's got me into all kinds of trouble, but also got me all sorts of other things as well - all sorts of experiences that I wouldn't trade.

MCEVERS: That's Elvis Costello. His new book is, "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink."

Elvis thank you so much.

COSTELLO: Thank you. That was very, very interesting. Thank you.


COSTELLO: (Singing) Can't feel my fingers anymore.

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