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

When Declan Patrick MacManus was just 7, his father — a musician of Irish descent, with thick glasses and tousled black hair — left home. The boy grew up to be Elvis Costello, and throughout his career-spanning 674-page memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the singer-songwriter grapples with that relationship and the parallels in their lives.

Costello and NPR's Kelly McEvers recently discussed those familial similarities, the gap in his teeth and why Lorne Michaels will probably take the truth of Costello's infamous Saturday Night Live performance to his grave.

Both you and your dad wear glasses. At one point, you're wearing the same kind of boots. You borrow his equipment. You know, his tape recorder, and at one point --


I was just a thief, really. That's the truth of it. [Both laugh.]

At one point, you guys are even living in the same building. He's remarried and you're married, and you're living up and downstairs from each other.

That's right.

So you're together a lot.

Actually, you know, the poignant thing about it is, towards the end of his life, 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, because dementia was developing rapidly. 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 there were.


There's a chapter in the book that's called "Unfaithful Music," and that's part of the title of this book. This chapter is about that great song of yours, "Alison," and I was wondering if you could read Page 187.

"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."

So, you have said that the sad face of this beautiful girl was somebody you saw in a supermarket.

That — I just supposed I had a momentary crush on this girl, but in a way, the song became a premonition of my own ability to be constant.

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


Yeah, and your dad wasn't faithful, either.


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

No, I really don't. That makes it less forgivable, because I don't — 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. You can't go back and change it.

So, this was the late '70s and you were making this very, in some ways, very catchy pop music. But there was, 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 weren't doing the Ziggy Stardust shiny-jumpsuit thing.

I worked for Elizabeth Arden for a while.

Yes, you did!

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

[Laughs.] So, I mean, you did later get cast as the angry type.

I've explained that very clearly in the book.

You have.

I have. It's because I have a gap in my teeth. And although this makes people such as Jerry Lewis and Jane Birkin sex symbols, it just makes me sound aggressive. A lot of air gets pressed out between that gap, and it makes everything I say sound like a provocation or a threat, and quite often — I mean, that's really true. I'm making a joke, obviously, because there were things in the songs that I said emphatically and things I meant, and there was just something about my face that made people think they read them this way. And I certainly didn't help myself by going along to my couple early interviews very drunk.

You know, I think Americans might remember you — the sort of 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 you played "Radio Radio."

My argument was not really with SNL; my argument was with my own record company, because they were just going on at me to do this song. And I said, "I'm not sure people even know what this song is about in America, because 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 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. It was 12 years before Lorne Michaels let me back in the building.

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

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 in on the joke. I remember him doing that." So I'm not saying it; Bill is saying it. Lorne can take it up with Bill. I don't know.

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.

No, not write them so much as record them, because it was the taking the record home. I always used to like playing the record and seeing what he took out of it. He would always listen in and find 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.

So, you write that you couldn't record another song if you couldn't play it --

No, not for a while. No. And then I stumbled into a recording collaboration with The Roots and the oddest thing happened: Quest[love] 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 "A Puppet Has Cut His Strings," which was almost like a moment-by-moment recitation of my dad's passing. And I 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 something that I returned to throughout the book [is] 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 things, as well; all sorts of experiences that I wouldn't trade.

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