Elvis Costello lives in a rev­e­la­tory memoir.

Elvis Costello turns his pen­e­trat­ing gaze around and plants him­self at the top of the re­cent rock-and-roll memoir charts

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS Ge­off Edgers sec­tion. ge­off.edgers@wash­post.com is a writer for The Post’s Style

It’s 1979, and Elvis Costello, not yet 25, is on a cre­ative roll. With his Buddy Holly glasses and punk-rock sneer, he al­ready has es­tab­lished him­self as a mas­ter­ful song­writer, whether craft­ing torch­light bal­lads (“Ali­son”), tor­tured kiss-offs (“Lip­stick Vogue”) or bit­ing protest songs (“Oliver’s Army”) as but­tery as any­thing in ABBA’s cat­a­logue.

Nat­u­rally, our hero is also a mess. He’s drink­ing too much, sep­a­rated from his wife and em­bark­ing on a se­ries of dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ships. “I once re­ferred to this process as ‘Mess­ing up my life, so I could write stupid lit­tle songs about it,’ ” he says, “and I can’t im­prove on that de­scrip­tion here, but then songs are never ex­actly taken from life.”

The para­graph, sprung mid­way through Costello’s sprawl­ing memoir, gets to the heart of what makes “Un­faith­ful Mu­sic & Dis­ap­pear­ing Ink” so fas­ci­nat­ing. We get the artist when he’s old enough to have per­spec­tive but still young enough to re­mem­ber ev­ery de­tail, down to the shirt his fa­ther wore (“em­broi­dered . . . with small mir­rors sewn into the fab­ric over a scoop-necked Mickey Mouse T-shirt”) dur­ing a meet­ing in Lon­don more than 40 years ago.

In a world lit­tered with un­even (and largely ghosted) celebrity mem­oirs, “Un­faith­ful Mu­sic” is a beau­ti­fully writ­ten rev­e­la­tion. Dare I blas­pheme by declar­ing I liked it even more than the ex­cel­lent mem­oirs pro­duced by Bob Dy­lan and Keith Richards? Costello em­braces the ba­sic qual­i­ties of good sto­ry­telling: the use of de­tail, ten­sion and hu­mor. At 672 pages, “Un­faith­ful Mu­sic” is ac­tu­ally a breeze.

The book is also a gold mine for Costello ob­ses­sives who have spent decades dis­sect­ing and an­a­lyz­ing his ev­ery lyri­cal zinger. But it’s not just for fans, more “An­gela’s Ashes” than Mot­ley Crue’s “The Dirt.” “Un­faith­ful Mu­sic” is a lyri­cal tale that stretches across gen­er­a­tions, ge­og­ra­phy and a cen­tury of pop­u­lar song. The book serves as both mu­si­cal and per­sonal an­thro­pol­ogy. Young De­clan MacManus who, in 1963, squir­rels away a nap­kin signed by the Bea­tles, be­comes Elvis Costello, a man en­listed, a quar­ter-cen­tury later, to write songs with Paul McCart­ney.

Ge­orge Jones. Solomon Burke. Nick Lowe. Van Mor­ri­son. Burt Bacharach. The Brod­sky Quar­tet. The Spe­cials. The Roots. Allen Tous­saint. Lee Konitz. Bob Dy­lan. They’re all here — and not to drop names but to con­nect the mu­si­cal dots. Af­ter read­ing of Costello’s more ob­scure in­flu­ences, you also might find your­self search­ing out records by David Ack­les, Tim Hardin and Ge­orgie Fame.

Wisely, Costello busts the chronol­ogy. His rich fam­ily history — much of it cen­tered on his fa­ther, Ross, a singer and trum­pet player of some promi­nence — is pre­sented in the con­text of his cre­ative life. And for a song­writer who could fill the cargo hold of a Boe­ing 747 with clever puns, it won’t be sur­pris­ing that Costello, the mem­oirist, has a gift for the punch line. He fails to score Rolling Stones tick­ets for a 1971 con­cert, declar­ing with teenaged snooti­ness, “They’re prob­a­bly past it,” and de­cides to spend the cash he has saved on a record. “All of which would be a good story if the record I pur­chased had been some­thing more in­spir­ing and en­dur­ing than ‘Vol­un­teers’ by Jef­fer­son Air­plane.”

He watches McCart­ney, dur­ing a ben­e­fit con­cert in 1979, cu­ri­ously in­struct his bloated su­per­star “Rockestra” to wear sil­ver top hats and tails, while the well-lu­bri­cated Pete Town­shend an­grily sig­nals his dis­plea­sure with a se­ries of wind­mills. There’s also Costello’s won­der­ful de­scrip­tion of the pro­gram­mers in the com­puter lab in which he worked in the sum­mer of 1976. Thomas Pyn­chon or Martin Amis would be com­fort­able turn­ing out this graph: “Their de­meanor said, We are a spe­cial

breed. They wore ec­cen­tric clothes, smoked pipes, and took on airs. One liked to boast of his fine roast goose. Another had an un­nat­u­ral ob­ses­sion with the recorded works of Demis Rous­sos.”

Re­grets? Costello has had a few. He’s sorry for the way he treated his first wife, Mary Bur­goyne, although not so gen­er­ous when re­fer­ring to his sec­ond mar­riage, to the for­mer Pogues bassist Cait O’Rior­dan, or his late-’70s fling with ex-Play­boy model Bebe Buell. (Buell re­cently took to Face­book to post her dis­may with his cold ac­count of the re­la­tion­ship.)

Costello also ad­dresses his low­est public mo­ment. In 1979, at a Hol­i­day Inn dur­ing a tour stop, he gets into a drunken brawl with mem­bers of the Stephen Stills band, dur­ing which he refers to James Brown and Ray Charles with a racial slur. Here, Costello of­fers a se­ries of po­ten­tial de­fenses, from his poor psy­cho­log­i­cal state to his ob­vi­ous record of col­lab­o­ra­tion and ad­mi­ra­tion for black artists, be­fore con­ced­ing “never mind ex­cuses, there are no ex­cuses.”

That hu­mil­ity is im­por­tant. It’s hard to imag­ine it com­ing from the wiry ’70s-era Costello, with the oily mul­let, skro­nky Jazzmas­ter guitar and raised fists. This Costello is a grown-up, grate­ful for what he has (his boys; his wife, Diana Krall) and blessed by the mu­si­cal places he has been able to go. The man who sang so harshly about the in­dus­trial ra­dio com­plex when there ac­tu­ally was a vi­able ra­dio net­work isn’t about to wal­low in nos­tal­gia.

“The dan­ger of re­gard­ing any point in the past as the golden age is that you for­get that there were just as­many crooks, crack­pots, and id­iots around then, and just as many ter­ri­ble records,” he writes. “We only re­call the ones we love.”

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST

IN­SIDE

CINDY ORD/GETTY IM­AGES

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