Costello's book on stardom

Elvis Costello (left) and his new book (above).
Elvis Costello (above) and his new book. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

British artist Elvis Costello charts his unlikely rise to pop stardom, in spite of not having "good looks and animal magnetism"

NEW YORK • For more than four decades, Elvis Costello has been a pop music icon known for his literary wordplay, but he owes his career in part to a base stunt.

Frustrated that his music had not found a label in the United States, the British artist in 1977 took an electric guitar and battery- powered amplifier to the London hotel where CBS Records executives were holding a convention.

Enlisting a welcoming commit- tee who waved placards advertising his gig, he played until hotel staff called the police. Hauling him to jail, an officer told him: "Why do you people have to push it so far?"

Costello, 61, writes in his memoirs released on Tuesday: "It was as if they were always arresting people for playing the electric guitar and singing rock 'n' roll outside luxury hotels."

Elvis Costello and his new book (above).

His gimmick got him some press attention and within months, he was signed to an American label, offering a springboard for him to become one of the most critically respected artists of the New Wave and post-punk era.

The nearly 700-page account, Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink, charts Costello's career as he created now-classic albums including My Aim Is True and Armed Forces, known for their pithy lyricism but pop sensibility. He developed artistic partnerships with artists ranging from former Beatle Paul McCartney to New Orleans R&B great Allen Toussaint.

Yet Costello voices surprise at the enduring success of a singer sporting nerdy glasses and a gap between his front teeth.

The son of a live musician of Irish heritage, he was born Declan Patrick MacManus and grew up in humble homes in London and Liverpool.

"The decision for me to adopt the Elvis name had always seemed like a mad dare, a stunt conceived by my managers to grab people's attention long enough for the songs to penetrate, as my good looks and animal magnetism were certainly not going to do the job," he writes.

His career in the United States came close to collapse in 1979 when he got into a shouting match about music with folk rocker Stephen Stills at the bar of a Holiday Inn hotel in Columbus, Ohio.

Costello faced a furore after he was overheard using racial slurs to refer to African-American legends James Brown and Ray Charles.

In his memoirs, Costello contends that, fuelled by drink, he sought only to provoke through "unspeakable slanders".

He had played anti-racism rallies and later produced The Specials' song Free Nelson Mandela, and was incredulous about the reaction.

He describes a survival instinct that kicked in during the controversy and kept him going, in what he would later describe as a turning point at a low time in his life.

He wrote: "That Ohio evening may very well have saved my sorry life. I fear an obituary might have appeared not too much later, just a few short lines lamenting my unfulfilled promise on the occasion of a tawdry demise."

While insisting his book is not meant to settle scores, he bristles at some interpretations of his songs, known for a greater literary bent than most pop fare.

He writes with astonishment that many listeners believed that he intended violence to Alison - the drab heroine of one of his best- known songs, in which he sings, "I know this world is killing you."

He writes: "Of all the strange slights and undeserved accolades attached to my name over the years, 'misogynist' is the one term that I find most bewildering."

He also writes of the indignities inflicted by Alzheimer's on his grandmother Molly, whose Catholic confirmation name was Veronica.

Veronica became another of Costello's most recognised songs, in which he sings of an old woman in a care home - "all of the time she laughs at those/who shout her name and steal her clothes".

He writes movingly of how his trumpet-playing father, who would never miss his son's shows in London, was similarly dimmed by Parkinson's disease, dying in late 2011 just days after his second wife died.

Around that time. Costello declared himself to be finished with recording albums, viewing them as a "vanity".

He wrote: "The real reason was that I needed time to imagine how I could bear to write songs and not be able to play them for my father."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'Costello's book on stardom'. Print Edition | Subscribe