The perfect gift for music lovers and Elvis Costello fans, telling the story behind Elvis Costello’s legendary career and his iconic, beloved songs.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink provides readers with a master’s catalogue of a lifetime of great music. Costello reveals the process behind writing and recording legendary albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Almost Blue, Imperial Bedroom, and King of America. He tells the detailed stories, experiences, and emotions behind such beloved songs as “Alison,” “Accidents Will Happen,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Oliver’s Army,” “Welcome to the Working Week,” “Radio Radio,” “Shipbuilding,” and “Veronica,” the last of which is one of a number of songs revealed to connect to the lives of the previous generations of his family.
Costello chronicles his musical apprenticeship, a child's view of his father Ross MacManus' career on radio and in the dancehall; his own initial almost comical steps in folk clubs and cellar dive before his first sessions for Stiff Record, the formation of the Attractions, and his frenetic and ultimately notorious third U.S. tour. He takes readers behind the scenes of Top of the Pops and Saturday Night Live, and his own show, Spectacle, on which he hosted artists such as Lou Reed, Elton John, Levon Helm, Jesse Winchester, Bruce Springsteen, and President Bill Clinton.
The idiosyncratic memoir of a singular man, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is destined to be a classic.
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A White Boy in the Hammersmith Palais
I think it was my love of wrestling that first took me to the dance hall.
There was barely a week of my childhood in which I did not have the following dialogue with a stranger:
“Beg your pardon?”
“You know? Any relation to the wrestler?”
My mother might wearily manage an indulgent laugh, as if to say, You know, I’ve never heard that before in my life.
I just felt awkward.
Though, I suspected that I might indeed be a distant relation of Mick McManus, a professional wrestler who was a fixture on the Saturday-afternoon televised bouts. The contests in the early 1960s had none of the pyrotechnics of the modern spectacle, just well-oiled showmen like Jackie Pallo or Johnny Kwango grappling and hurling sweaty lunks around, and sometimes out of, a small roped ring.
Mick McManus spelled his name like my Papa had, before my Dad added an a to make it “MacManus,” because it looked posher and better in print.
Anyone could see that I shared the same stocky physique with “The Man You Love to Hate” and had similar plastered-down, black hair.
Later, it was revealed that, like me, Mick could only be forced into submission by tickling. Late in his career, Mick suffered a rare defeat when his opponent used this dastardly tactic, and the champ renounced the match in disgust.
Back around 1961, I would practice my flying scissors kick in front of the television and then crumple as if felled by a forearm smash. Eventually all my jumping off the furniture became too much for the neighbors and my mother wanted to tidy the house, so she persuaded my Dad to take me with him to work on Saturday afternoons at the Hammersmith Palais.
This was my father’s place of employment. His office. His factory.
It was just an old tram shed that had been converted into a Palais de Danse, jammed in between the Laurie Arms pub and a parade of the shops just off of Hammersmith Broadway.
While other dads came home at five-thirty, my father went to work at six p.m., or, in this case, on Saturday afternoon, to sing with the Joe Loss Orchestra.
The walls of the Palais looked as if they were made of dark velvet, but it came off like powder if you ran your hand along it. It smelt and felt strange. It didn’t seem like a place for children.
Today, it is hard to imagine any establishment opening in the afternoon for so few patrons, but when the Joe Loss Orchestra revolved into view on the turntable bandstand, you would forget it was still light outside.
I was given a bottle of lemonade and a packet of crisps, and was secured in the balcony overlooking the dance floor with strict instructions to not speak to anyone.
The clientele were as curious as they were sparse in number. When I pointed out that two old ladies were dancing together, they were identified as “spinsters.”
There was a mother teaching her young daughter dance steps, sometimes lifting her onto her own feet to give the girl the sense of the right rhythm.
Commanding the floor were the competition dancers who used the Saturday matinees for practice sessions. They jealously guarded their territory, intolerant of more frivolous obstacles, like children. From my vantage point, their haughty expressions and sudden frozen poses seemed quite comical, as they cocked their heads and made pecking movements with their necks like chickens. There could also be something quite intimidating about them, especially when they launched into a gallop during the quickstep. Foot soldiers fear cavalry charges for the same reason.
There was nobody else up in the balcony except for the women who checked coats and another who sold refreshments at the kiosk. I think my Dad had charged one of them with checking on me from time to time, to make sure I hadn’t wandered off.
She needn’t have worried. My eyes were fixed on the bandstand.
At that time, the Joe Loss Orchestra was one of the most successful dance bands in the country. It consisted of three or sometimes four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, a rhythm section, and three vocalists. The band opened and closed every set and radio broadcast with its signature tune, “In the Mood,” which was borrowed from the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
In fact, they still played a lot of Miller tunes from the war years: the beautiful and sentimental “Moonlight Serenade,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000”—with the band members shouting out the telephone number in the title—and “American Patrol,” which was my favorite, probably because it sounded like the theme song from a cops-and-robbers show.
What the outfit lacked in musical adventure, Joe Loss made up for by hiring arrangers with a keen ear for fleeting dance trends. They had a hit with “Must Be Madison,” and recorded novelty tunes with daft titles like “March of the Mods,” “March of the Voomins” and “Go Home, Bill Ludendorff,” which my Dad wrote with the band’s pianist, Syd Lucas.
I still had a child’s uncritical ear for the corny bell effect created by the horns on “Wheels Cha Cha” and waited for the tango or the paso doble numbers because of the comical dance moves, or the samba, as my Dad got to play the maracas or the conga drum.
The competitive ballroom dancers used not to care much for vocalists, because they pulled the beat around when phrasing, so my Dad might only get to sing once or twice during the afternoon.
I became impatient for those moments, kicking my leg against the balcony wall and picking idly at a swivel lid mounted on the tabletop, until I pulled out my finger, all grey and powdered with ash.
Finally, my father was called to the microphone to sing a Spanish number. It was a language that he could actually speak. He once made the Spanish wife of a friend of mine blush when she inquired where he had learned the Spanish tongue.
“In bed,” he replied.
I believe that this was true.
His talent for learning songs phonetically meant that he was able to fool most people when called upon to sing in Italian, French, or even Yiddish. The Argentine international hit “Cuando Calienta el Sol” and Peppino di Capri’s tremulous Italian pop hit “Roberta,” sung in Spanish, were two rumbas that I heard him sing during those afternoons. They were eventually recorded for the wonderfully titled Go Latin with Loss album, on which Ross also sang Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba.”
My father didn’t have the appearance of the typical romantic leading man. He was only five-foot-five and wore black horn-rimmed glasses, much like the ones I’ve sported most of my career. His hair was slicked tight at the sides and swept up into a discreet jet-black pompadour, until the fashion for brushing your hair forward caught up with him around 1965, when he started to buy Chelsea boots with Cuban heels from Toppers on Carnaby Street.
In 1961, my Dad was thirty-three. “The boys in the band,” as he always referred to them, seemed like older men to me, but were probably only in their late thirties and forties. They wore matching band uniforms—shawl-collared jackets of burgundy or baby blue, and dress pants with a satin side stripe.
My father wore a dark lounge suit for the matinees, and evening dress when the occasion demanded it. The idea that you wore a suit to go to work became so instilled in me that, to this day, the temperature must soar well above one hundred degrees Fahrenheit before I will remove my jacket.
• • •
ONE EVENING IN 1980, when I’d already had my own brief moment of pop infamy, my Dad and I were talking with Joe Loss’s former singing star Rose Brennan and dancer Lionel Blair in an area curtained off from a hotel ballroom in Lancaster Gate. On the television monitor, I could see Mr. Loss conducting his band in the style that was familiar from my childhood. He still shot the point of his baton to the floor and then to the ceiling with one sharp flick of the wrist, with his little finger daintily extended. He still bounced vigorously up onto the balls of his feet and then back down to his heels, a strand or two of hair breaking free, although his once pomaded black had now turned silver.
A production assistant tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Remember, when Eamonn introduces you, just say what we’ve agreed or you’ll throw him off completely.”
“Eamonn” was the former sports commentator Eamonn Andrews. He was a man with the impressive build of a boxer who’d had a career on Irish radio before making some of his first appearances in England with the Joe Loss Orchestra and then going on to be the presenter of several long-running television shows. He was most famously the host of This Is Your Life, a show that had begun in the late ’50s and was now entering its second decade on the air, since a revival in 1969.
For those of you who don’t recall the show, Eamonn would stalk up to some prearranged ambush location, clutching a big red book stamped with the show’s title, and surprise his quarry with the dramatic announcement that they had to cancel whatever was planned for the evening because “Tonight, This Is Your Life.”
The victim was then usually whisked in a fast car to a television studio, where their family and friends would arrive through an archway, preceded by a fanfare and an introduction that went something like this:
“He was the choirboy who sat next to you in chapel and put live frogs down your cassock. You haven’t seen him since 1932, but he’s here tonight . . .”
Cue laughter and tears and a gentle, somewhat selective, telling of a life story.
On this occasion, the trap was already set, as Joe Loss was playing a dinner dance in honor of his fiftieth anniversary in show business. The comedian Spike Milligan entered the greenroom with a few minutes to spare. I hadn’t realized he had any connection to Joe Loss, as his radio fame from his days on The Goon Show and his books Puckoon and Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall seemed to come from a different universe, but it turned out he’d made some of his earliest appearances with the band during summer engagements in towns like Bridlington.
We all huddled around the television set to witness the big moment of surprise. Eamonn Andrews slipped from the shadows as the applause from the previous number tapered off. A few giggles and gasps almost gave the game away.
The penny would usually drop with This Is Your Life victims the moment they saw Eamonn coming their way. Some would back away in mock alarm, others laugh hysterically or shed some tears, a few even fled the scene completely and refused to take part, which is perhaps why the show was no longer broadcast live.
In the split second before Eamonn tapped Joe on the shoulder, a piercing Goon voice called out:
“A thousand pounds for anyone who warns that man!”
If this was audible to the diners beyond the curtain, it was quickly swallowed by applause and cheering.
The details of the Joe Loss story told that night had been fairly sketchy to me until then. Eamonn recounted how Joe had studied the violin and in the early ’30s began leading a small group at the Kit-Kat Club called the Harlem Band, a strange name for a group fronted by a man born to Russian immigrants in Spitalfields.
He’d given the wartime heroine Vera Lynn her first radio broadcast in 1935, had played at Princess Margaret’s wedding, and then went on to provide the music for several generations of lovers and dancers at the Hammersmith Palais, the Lyceum and Empire ballrooms, and on the radio.
Rose Brennan and my Dad had probably been his best-known singers, so it made sense for them to be surprise guests at the party. They were reunited with Larry Gretton, who still sang with the band. He was a strapping man with a slightly stiff romantic charm and wavy blond hair that may not have been his own. He and my Dad had been good foils in the comedy numbers, not least of all because of the difference in their height. I have a publicity photograph of them dressed in striped vaudeville blazers and clutching straw boaters with matching hatbands while earnestly gazing at their boss, who is posed imparting some important detail about the performance of some long-forgotten novelty song while holding a pencil.
My Dad was announced to the stage first, where he told some silly tale from his time with the orchestra.
Then it was my turn to enter.
Eamonn adopted his familiar style of setup, which I must now paraphrase.
You may remember him as that young man who sat up in the balcony of the Hammersmith Palais.
Now he’s the pop star responsible for the hit record “Oliver’s Army.”
You know him as “Declan,” son of Ross MacManus, and he’s here tonight. Come in, “Elvis Costello” . . .
It was as bizarre an entrance as I’d ever had to make. If I’d had to traipse down one of the gold-painted staircases that framed the Hammersmith Palais bandstand, I could not have felt more peculiar.
During my Dad’s time with the band, Joe Loss had never spoken to me as if I were a child. He always addressed me as “young man,” seeming kind and engaged in anything I said in response to his questions. Now he was just as gracious and composed upon meeting me for the first time as an adult.
I can’t recall exactly what story I told, probably the one you’ve just read about me visiting the Hammersmith Palais matinees. He seemed to take pride in my success, as if he had suspected it would happen all along.
It was all over in a flash, just like life itself.
• • •
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to say how much it meant to me to be there or to speak of all the things I probably learned from those few afternoons while lurking in the dark.
Joe Loss led his band for almost sixty years, come rain or shine or changes of style, and that is no mean achievement. A band continues in his name to this day.
Sometime later, my Dad let me in on one of the band’s secrets. Joe Loss’s energetic showmanship apparently didn’t always make for an entirely accurate beat. If there was ever any minor dissent in the ranks, they would adhere exactly to his baton and take evil glee in winding the tempo up and down like a wonky gramophone. It was a subtle, almost imperceptible, form of insubordination, but it probably acted as a safety valve for a group of men who worked in such close proximity, six days a week, in the same dance hall.
The band got just two weeks’ holiday a year like any other workingmen, but it would also be their job to provide the entertainment when everyone else was celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve. They worked hard. When they weren’t at the Palais or another London ballroom, they were doing radio broadcasts or touring the country.
Some of my earliest memories are of my Dad arriving home with a big stuffed animal under his arm or a small painted plaster donkey that he’d promised to bring back from a tour of Ireland. I have photographs but no actual memory of my mother carrying me as an infant on the sands of Douglas, during an engagement on the Isle of Man in the mid-’50s. In that picture my Mam is wearing pearls and full makeup, but it really wasn’t that glamorous a life, with band members always changing from damp clothes in freezing or overheated dressing rooms or crushed together for night drives in drafty coaches along foggy A and B roads.
Joe Loss was a stickler for appearance, punctuality, and discipline. He seemed to regard my father almost like another son, constantly questioning him about his family origins as if unwilling to accept that they were Irish and not Jewish. He even forgave him a fair few transgressions.
I recall one night when Mother had let me stay up late to watch my Dad on Come Dancing. In those days it was a live broadcast that had nothing to do with the stunt casting of celebrities. It was purely a competition between amateur ballroom-dancing teams, so I knew there was little chance that my Dad would be singing, but it was still a novelty to see him on television.
The moment the camera panned across to his side of the bandstand, I think I could tell something was amiss from my mother’s reaction.
The show had opened with the Latin dances, and my father was up behind the conga drum playing with rather more force and animation than the number really required.
My Mam went out of the room to put the kettle on and quietly registered her dismay at my father’s fairly obvious intoxication.
A short time later the hallway telephone rang, and I could hear a low but anxious tone to her side of the conversation.
My mother seemed to spend quite a lot of time on the phone to one or the other orchestra wives, alternately sympathizing or receiving consolation over their husbands’ latest jag. The details were obscure to me then, but from what I overheard and came to understand, drink and other women were generally involved.
After that appearance, my Dad remained “fired” for about three days before Joe Loss relented and hired him back.
I don’t recall exactly when my parents parted because, even after he went to live elsewhere, my Dad would come around a lot. There was no big ominous announcement of the parting, or if there was I have dismissed it from my mind.
He’d still sometimes arrive on a Sunday morning and take me to the eleven-o’clock sung Latin mass at St. Elizabeth on Richmond Hill, which they retained long after it was abandoned elsewhere by papal decree. Then we’d all eat Sunday lunch together while listening to Two-Way Family Favourites, a BBC request show linking military families with their kin serving overseas. While the dedications to a lance corporal at a BFPO in West Germany played in the background, my Dad would tell stories, reminiscing about a drummer and painter friend of his from Birkenhead or recounting tales of his working week.
Ross definitely had charm, perhaps a little too much. Young women would call our number late at night, looking to make mischief, until we were obliged to take our listing from the directory.
Although I was never allowed to go to the Palais after dark, I know that the nearly empty dance floor of the matinees was absolutely packed at night and not always with entirely salubrious types.
My mother recalls one of my Dad’s more dubious acquaintances extending his hand to her with the greeting “Hello, I’m Phil the Thief,” and this was only a few convenient steps away from Hammersmith Police Station.
• • •
MANY YEARS AFTER my Dad had left Joe Loss and was out touring the northern clubs and I’d had a couple of hit records to my name, London cabdrivers would delight in telling me, “I used to see your Dad sing down at the Palais,” never failing to add, “He was a better bloody singer than you’ll ever be,” to which they would never get any argument from me.
When The Attractions and I first played the Palais in January 1979, one reviewer unfavorably compared us to Freddie and the Dreamers.
I knew we’d hit the big time.
The dance bands had long been banished and the Palais was now an overcrowded, overheated rock and roll venue, looking a little bit tatty and kicked in.
I wasn’t drinking lemonade anymore but did take a walk up into the balcony. The same scent hung in the air, only now I could name the ingredients: sour, spilt beer, stale tobacco, nicotine stains, and, of course, the stifled tears of jilted girls.
You might expect I would have written more than a line or two about the old place, but I pretty much thought that Joe Strummer had put an indelible mark on a brand-new map with the Clash song “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.”
We didn’t really click there until 1984, when we made a circuit of the country, returning to London for a Monday-night residency at the Palais, playing shows that were nearly forty songs long.
I was looking for something I couldn’t find.
In 1981, we hired the deserted ballroom for the afternoon so we could stage a photograph for the album sleeve of Trust. Rather than list everyone involved in the credits, we dressed them all in hired tuxedos, sat them behind monogrammed music stands, and gave them rented instruments to hold.
The Attractions were word-perfect. Nick Lowe was pretending to play a tenor sax, while our engineer led the string section. All the other members of the ensemble were our road crew, the staff of F-Beat Records, and the owners of Eden Studios.
The scene was photographed in glorious black-and-white by Chalkie Davies. Two years later, I would sit for a series of 20x24 Polaroids that Davies and Starr shot with a giant Land camera at the Science Museum. It resembled a Victorian plate contraption with bellows. Among the life-size Polaroids peeled back and framed was a portrait of me and my son Matt, then aged seven, but on the afternoon of that Hammersmith charade I was just my father’s son.
I took my central place on the bandstand, I hid my eyes behind dark glasses and buttoned up my new silk Savile Row suit.
There was no way to go back.
Time and the wrecking ball have taken care of the rest.
Then They Expect You to Pick a Career
It was an idiotic accident.
No seventeen-year-old lad should die that way.
I’d stopped trying to pick an argument with the teacher—an ability that the other lads knew might spare us another thirty minutes of taking dictation of the philanthropic works of Jeremy Bentham.
The prim little teacher closed the dog-eared university thesis from which he recited, rather than actually explaining anything, dismissed us with pursed, impatient lips, and headed for his lunch.
We hurried down the shabby Georgian stairs and burst out on the pavement for some less stifling air. My friend Tony Byrne spied the master already turning the key to his small battered car and called out, begging for a fast ride to the main school building, a mere three hundred yards from the steps of the annex.
“Please, sir, me legs are tired.”
His comic wheedling plea softened the man’s initial reluctance.
The lad left the curb in a sprint. He probably didn’t see the other car at all. None of us saw the first contact. All we heard was the dull thud and turned to see Tony twisting in the air and then making sickening contact with the tarmac. His head bounced and made a second agreement with the ground. He lay quite still.
There was no blood. No one was screaming. The only sound was footsteps running away to summon help.
In minutes, his skin turned a translucent tint of blue.
I don’t remember anyone crying.
I don’t remember anyone speaking.
There was a siren in the distance.
• • •
IN THE ELEVENTH HOUR of that day, I walked home over the Penny Bridge that crossed the West Float of the Birkenhead Docks to my Nana’s house in the North End. The only sound was the dull clang of my own footfalls on the metal grate above black water.
I’d kept my Friday-night date to sing a few songs at the Lamplight—a folk evening lodged within the Remploy Social Club, which was attached to a factory staffed by people with disabilities.
I have no memory of what I may have sung that evening. I was probably in shock. I couldn’t sleep that night. I spent the fearful, wakeful hours cursing Sister Philomena, remembering how she had come into a class of eight- and nine-year-olds and told us, “By the time you reach thirty years old, not all of you will be alive.”
I suppose this was just a melodramatic way of giving us some sense of mortality and responsibility for our eternal souls. When I think of it now, I can only imagine how very young and inexperienced she must have been, just accidentally cruel, and not meaning to wield the legendary lash of the Catholic fear.
By Sunday night, Sister Philomena was proven to be correct. Our friend never woke up.
There was an old-fashioned open-casket viewing at his house. I got to the door of the front room and could enter no farther than to glimpse his waxy forehead, sealed lashes, and painted lips. I had nothing to offer the abject tears of the family or his distraught mother at the graveside who managed to say, “Good night, God bless,” as if she were putting her child to bed.
The doctor had given me some blue pills. I don’t know if we were all in the same chemical fog, but six of us carried him out of the church on our shoulders without breaking down.
A week after the funeral I found a tattered sheet of folded paper tucked inside a small notebook in my blazer pocket. It was the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” which Tony had meticulously written out for me in an erratic hand with a leaking biro, in an attempt to persuade me that I should sing it.
I said I didn’t think I qualified for the title and, for that matter, neither did John Lennon.
Tony loved the line about “fucking peasants,” I think because nobody had ever sung “fucking” on a record before, and there are people in Liverpool who can insert five “fucks” into a three syllable word if they’ve got a point to make.
Not quite two months later—on April 28, 1972, to be precise—my singing partner, Allan Mayes, and I played support to a psychedelic folk trio called the Natural Acoustic Band. The show was at Quarry Bank, John Lennon’s old school.
I thought about Tony and our almost comical debates about whether the recently released “Imagine” was a load of bollocks or a work of genius and arguing the merits and authenticity of “Working Class Hero,” and was somewhat surprised to find that Quarry Bank was a nice middle-class grammar school with a pleasant bit of greenery around it. It was surely nothing like our grim Victorian redbrick monstrosity at the top of Islington rising out of Liverpool city center.
I suppose the teachers were doing their best. I wouldn’t have wanted to drill an appreciation of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins into our unwilling heads. They taught us about “sprung rhythm” and made us recite:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow
The only “Holy Cow” I wanted to hear about was the one on that Lee Dorsey record.
We were given Dickens’s Hard Times to read, as we were being told they were right around the corner.
Until the age of sixteen I’d gone to a secondary modern school in Hounslow on the road out to the London airport, where I think we’d been part of some mad educational experiment in which classic literature was pretty much limited to one play by Shakespeare. The rest of the reading list consisted of relatively contemporary books from the ’50s and early ’60s: Arnold Wesker’s play about kicking the fascists out of the East End of London; and John Osborne’s drama about an “angry young man”; and northern novels about thwarted ambitions and desires by John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and Alan Sillitoe, full of daydreamers and vaguely predatory women.
Most of these books had the advantage of having already been made into films with an “A” Certificate from the British Board of Censors. “A” was obviously for “Adult,” but that didn’t have the same implication as it would today. It meant that you had to be over sixteen or accompanied by an adult if you wanted to see such a film, but if you could sneak into the cinema you could write your essay based on the film adaptation and avoid reading the book entirely. I’d managed a fairly decent mark for an essay about A Tale of Two Cities despite having referred only to an American Classics Illustrated comic-book version of Dickens.
Still, we faithfully worked our way through works of George Orwell, William Golding, and Nevil Shute, all predictions of tyranny, the breakdown of civilization, or the coming mass destruction.
I went ahead and read all of George Bernard Shaw’s plays for my own pleasure, because I liked the cut of his beard. In fact, I read all of the Irish literature that was on the family shelf—W. B. Yeats’s poetry, the comedies of Oscar Wilde, and Fenian plays from O’Casey to Behan—even though none of it was on the curriculum.
Now, in Liverpool, I was expected to develop an appreciation of “The Windhover,” on the grounds that little Gerard Manley Hopkins had briefly taught at our school during its previous incarnation as an esteemed Jesuit college, which had now decamped to a leafy suburb.
For the two years after my mother and I moved to Liverpool, my school even retained the noble St. Francis Xavier name, which impressed the hell out of my former headmaster in Hounslow when I bid him farewell. I didn’t point out that the place actually had no more academic pretensions than his pleasant little secondary modern, located about one minute from touchdown beneath the Heathrow flight path.
I’d say that the main difference between the two schools was that if you threw the windows open during the summer in Hounslow, about half the lesson would be drowned out by a VC10 coming in to land, and if a big Tupolev Tu-114 arrived from Moscow, the whole building shook from the noise of the four double-propeller engines whirring past.
I used to lie awake at night and listen to planes drone overhead. Sometimes they’d seem so close that I felt they might land on our roof. For a while, my ideal would have been the freedom and means to go to London airport and just select any destination in the world.
Then, if you are an only child and you don’t have an older sibling trying to smother you with a pillow or keep you awake with endless speculation about a sweetheart, there’s a lot of time alone with your own imaginings. There is always someone or something to dream about.
I’d seen the girl I wanted to marry when I was just fourteen. Mary was a year younger. The Burgoyne family had arrived recently from their hometown of Galway in the west of Ireland. One afternoon, I watched her step down from the platform of a Routemaster bus after a summer shower. There was a rainbow of oil or petrol in the rainwater puddle and it splashed over her brown shoe as she alighted. It took me four years to get up the courage to throw down my coat for her and ask her out.
For a couple of those years, I lived more than two hundred miles away. My school in Liverpool didn’t even have girls to distract me.
By the time I turned seventeen and entered the upper sixth, I was obliged to wear a stupid-looking prefect’s gown and police the younger boys running recklessly up and down the stairs, some of them nasty little ankle biters from Everton.
Whereas in the south I had sometimes been known as “Mac,” every second lad in my Liverpool classroom seemed to have “Mac” in his name. Those who didn’t have Irish surnames like McEvitt, McVeigh, Kearns, Byrne, or Devine had names that were Greek or Italian. It seemed like there were no entirely English Catholics in the city.
We spent most of the time we could hiding in a common room in which we were briefly allowed the privilege of a record player. The class was divided between those who scratched their heads over Pink Floyd albums and a couple leerier lads who liked soul music.
I was persuaded to bring my guitar to school, once it was discovered I could play a little bit. Tony Byrne’s interest was photography, but I hadn’t recalled him taking any pictures that day until his sister, Veronica, recently sent me some of his photographs. One of them shows an eager-looking guitarist playing for a group of lads wearing school blazers and blank expressions, slumped at well-worn desks. I’d like to think that was just concentration and not boredom.
Oddly enough, I do remember exactly what I was singing. It was a Tony Joe White song called “Groupie Girl” that we all thought was pretty racy, even though I really didn’t know what it meant.
• • •
I’D COME UP from the outskirts of West London, where all you needed for a teenage party was a copy of Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3 or the Rock Steady collection Tighten Up Vol. 2. To get the full effect, you had to add a Watneys Party Seven—a can of beer just one pint shy of a gallon—and a bottle of advocaat, for mixing with lemonade to make “snowballs” for the girls, because they were “dead sophisticated.” In my attempt to fit in at an all-boys school on Merseyside, I seemed to never get around to mentioning that I liked “Working in a Coal Mine.”
Thankfully, we were past the usual trials of strength and courage that attend the arrival of a new pupil in a school. The worst of it was me being “skitted” endlessly about my supposed “Cockney” accent. As far as I was concerned I’d inherited the northern a from my parents—rendering “glass” and “grass” rather than the southern “glarse” and “grarse.” My classmates would only hear of me reading my “buck” in my “rum,” because I didn’t say “bewk” or “rrroom,” with a roller r. Ever since, I’ve been able to change my speaking voice as the occasion demands it.
It was all pretty harmless stuff, and a couple of us soon found that we shared the common, hallowed ground behind the goal of the Kop at Anfield for Liverpool F.C. home games.
The rest of the time, we sat around listening to the new acoustic music coming out of Laurel Canyon. I managed to talk a couple of my new pals out of an unhealthy fascination with the music of Emerson Lake & Palmer.
A lot of the best music tours came no nearer than Manchester, which was forty miles away. If you wanted good tickets, you’d have to get up around dawn, sag off school, and catch an early-morning train to be first in line at the box office. On one such outing, we saw James Taylor with Carole King opening for him, but either had to miss the final number or our last train home.
Occasionally, a tour would play Liverpool Stadium, a dank boxing venue that didn’t always have the blood washed off the seats. I once saw Loudon Wainwright III hold the place in rapt attention with just an acoustic guitar and a song about a deceased skunk, but then the place definitely had that air about it.
In the early spring of 1971, it was announced that The Rolling Stones were coming to Liverpool to play two shows in one night. This was a month or so before the release of Sticky Fingers and immediately before they went into the French tax exile that yielded Exile on Main St.
On the day the shows went on sale, I overslept, and by the time I got to the Empire Theatre most of the pupils from my school and several others in the inner city were wound around the block, two or three deep, queuing for tickets.
I affected teenage indifference and had the following conversation with myself in my head.
“The Rolling Stones?”
“Yeah, they’re probably past it.”
And I decided to spend the money I’d saved on a record instead.
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.
• • •
IN THE DAYS AFTER my friend Tony was killed, it was difficult to go back to school and carry on as before.
It was hard not to think that some other afternoon we might have used that lunch hour to walk all the way down to Whitechapel, where we’d pretend we were going to buy albums in the record departments at Rushworth’s, NEMS, or Beaver Radio.
Tony didn’t like to take a direct route through the center of town, as we might run into his father, who worked on a stall selling the Liverpool Echo. I knew his Dad was estranged from the family and Tony knew that my parents were separated, but that’s as much as the guard came down. We didn’t talk about our feelings or any of that kind of thing.
We’d have had the shop assistants play a few new tracks from an LP under a listening hood, even though they probably knew we didn’t have any money. They were indulgent and I’d make the occasional purchase of discounted sheet music or one of a box of reduced 45s on the counter. Most of these deleted titles were bubblegum fare that had outstayed their welcome in the charts, but sometimes you’d stumble upon a gem.
One day, I rummaged through the discs and found an Elektra single that I’d read about in Zigzag magazine, which featured articles about Captain Beefheart and Love and other outfits that you couldn’t read about anywhere else. The magazine had also printed Pete Frame’s meticulously hand-drawn Rock Family Trees, explaining how members of Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band had mutated into Dantalian’s Chariot, and other absolutely essential information.
It was due to such a Frame diagram that I knew that “Please Let Me Love You” by the Beefeaters was actually an early recording by a group that had been just about to change its name to The Byrds.
I’d seen The Byrds play twice in 1971. The first time was a ferocious show at Liverpool University at which Clarence White’s twenty-minute Telecaster solo during “Eight Miles High” had just about eased the pain of seeing Liverpool lose to Arsenal in the FA Cup Final earlier in the afternoon. The second occasion involved traveling right across the county to the cathedral town of Lincoln.
I was a fairly naive sixteen-year-old who’d never slept in a field, but my friend John was a couple of years older and thought responsible enough to get us there and back without us getting into any trouble. We were given strict instructions from John’s parents not to swallow anything we didn’t recognize, and my Nana packed us some sandwiches.
Lincoln was to be a one-day festival, but we had to camp on the site the night before in order to catch as many of the acts as possible. John had been a Scout, so he knew a thing or two about pitching a tent, even in a howling rainstorm. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that you don’t touch the canvas from the inside, and we spent the rest of the night shivering and trying to dry out.
By the standards of British Summer Time, the next day was blisteringly hot and the ground was soon baked dry. We got ourselves a good viewing spot and dined on disgusting “fake” vegetarian ham from a can, which might as well have been rations of bully beef.
The bill of the Lincoln Folk Festival had its share of English folk stars, from Sandy Denny to Pentangle and Steeleye Span, but the day kicked off with the harmonica and guitar of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
I had one of Tim Hardin’s records, so seeing his name on the poster was reason enough to get there early. I didn’t know enough about the effects of drugs to recognize what made his performance seem so fragile and scattered with just a few moments of unsteady beauty.
The day got a little long on jigs and reels and fey hippie songs for my liking, so when the “Acoustic” Byrds arrived around sundown and proceeded to plug in and storm through “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” it was just the jolt the day needed.
A year earlier, The Byrds had been rained out at the Bath Festival so played an impromptu acoustic set that had gone over really well, hence their billing at Lincoln. After that opening electric blast, Roger McGuinn and the band brought out their acoustic guitars, but the crowd found that Clarence White was just as dazzling on his Martin as he was on his Fender.
Like most festivals in those days, nothing ran on time.
We arrived at Lincoln station in time to see the last train out of town pulling out of sight and tipped out our pockets to find that we had barely enough money between us for a cup of tea, let alone a night in a bed-and-breakfast.
There seemed no sense in heading back to the festival site, so we rolled out our blankets and tried to sleep on the now chilly stone floor of the station building. Any sleep we managed must have been pretty fitful.
We stirred at first light, shivering more from exhaustion than the temperature. It was still long before the trains started running again.
Suddenly, an exotically attired figure appeared out of nowhere, strolling along the line of stragglers like a drill sergeant at the sound of reveille. He told us that he was from Nigeria, but he spoke in a theatrical upper-class English accent. He seemed to take pity on our bedraggled appearance and offered us breakfast at his flat.
This was expressly the kind of invitation that our parents had instructed us to refuse, but we followed him a few blocks to what looked like beat-up student accommodation. The walls were lined with psychedelic posters and there was a lingering in the air of incense and funny cigarettes.
Our host disappeared through a beaded curtain, and suddenly loud music was booming from the next room, despite the early hour. Seconds later, he draped himself in the doorway smoking a joint and wearing just a blue satin robe gathered carelessly at his waist.
“Fuck me, he’s got no kecks on,” said John, and we bolted for the door.
• • •
THERE WAS ALWAYS TREASURE to be found.
In 1971, Probe Records opened a small shop where the posh doctors’ offices of Rodney Street became the newsagents and sweet shops of Clarence Street. The shop carried records that were impossible to find elsewhere. The owner, Geoff Davies, was the kind of music fan who would direct you away from a terrible purchase with a disapproving look.
Virgin Records was mostly a mail-order operation back then, but they also opened up a sort of counterculture retail shop on Bold Street. It was the first place in town to offer large cushions and headphones so people could really appreciate the genius of those endless prog rock albums. They even installed a water bed for the customers, but this lasted just until some tearaways decided to stick knives in it and flooded the place.
For all that music meant to me, it still didn’t seem a likely or inviting occupation. I knew I hadn’t been born with the good looks and confidence necessary for popular success. I also held to some sort of youthful idealism that music was above mere commerce, but deep down within me pushed the knowledge that the temptations offered to my father for standing in a spotlight had pulled my parents apart.
Yet I don’t ever remember being really angry with my Dad for leaving us, probably because my Mam never spoke ill of him, mostly hiding any bitterness she felt until it wrecked her nerves.
I don’t think she ever stopped loving him.
Up until 1972, my energies and illogical dreams had been evenly split between music and football.
After my friend Tony’s death, I don’t recall going to the match so regularly, any more than I paid any attention to my lessons. Continuing my education seemed completely pointless. Suddenly, everything but music seemed like a waste of precious time. Whatever lessons were to be learned within that school had nothing to do with the life I was starting to imagine. I struggled on in a daze, dissecting frogs and being taught French by a teacher with an incredibly strong Liverpool accent, which affects my ability to be understood in the Francophone countries to this very day.
Our visiting careers officer advised us that if we failed the exams that might buy us passage to a minor university or lowly polytechnic, we were basically doomed to a dead-end office job, as we were already too old to take up a “trade,” unless we were ready to join the army to do so. There was a lot of talk in army recruitment adverts about enlisting and learning to become a mechanic or electrician and even finding the time to master waterskiing. There was never much mention of having to shoot people or getting yourself blown up.
That year, there were over a million unemployed people in Britain for the first time since the 1930s, and although things were to get a lot worse over the next ten years, this was enough to make parents anxious and pupils compliant.
There were far fewer ships in the Mersey than when my mother was a girl, but there was still a fair bit of trade in contraband. One morning, we were summoned to the school hall for a lecture from the drug squad about the dangers of pep pills and reefer cigarettes. If the police officer was intending to instill a fear of these temptations then he failed miserably with his opening gesture. Reaching into a leather briefcase, he produced what looked like a short length of rough wood covered in clear furniture varnish. It was a large brick of hashish.
“This . . .” He paused for dramatic effect until all eyes were on the object that he brandished above his head. “Is MARRY-JOO-ANNA,” he continued, in the kind of old-fashioned Liverpool accent that sounded just like my Grandad.
“And you WILL be offered it”—which sounded quite inviting.
He then went on to detail the dire consequences and penalties for those who partook, while the brick of “MARRY-JOO-ANA” was passed around the assembly hall so that we would be sure to recognize it again.
It’s easy to imagine that, in less innocent times, it might have been returned to him minus several slices removed by a Stanley knife, but that morning it did the circuit of eager hands and curious eyes without being diminished by an inch.
I suspect that my other grandfather, Patrick McManus, probably stashed a few illicit items in his kit bag when he came home from ocean voyages as a bandsman on the passenger liners in the 1920s, but the only really efficient smuggler in our family was my mother. Then, Lillian Ablett’s schooling had pretty much ground to a halt in the war years—between periods of being evacuated to the countryside and school buildings being bombed or requisitioned in absence of sufficient teachers. By fourteen, she was looking for work. Lillian was independent by nature and necessity. Her mother, Ada, was already barely able to walk, due to the chronic rheumatoid arthritis that would make her housebound within a couple of years, yet insisted on accompanying her daughter to the labor exchange.
A job as a sales assistant was proposed at Rushworth & Dreaper, then a prestigious four-storey establishment that sold pianos, organs, and brass instruments that had a fine record department on the ground floor vying for space with a massive stock of sheet music. There were a number of grand places in Liverpool that a woman of Ada Ablett’s background would not have thought to enter. One was the Adelphi Hotel, then resplendent in imitation of a Cunard luxury liner. Another such location was Rushworth’s.
However, Lillian was unabashed and did not emerge from the job interview to rejoin her mother on the pavement outside for fifteen minutes, during which she did enough to convince the manager to take her on and have her trained in the mysteries of record catalogs by a senior sales assistant for a wage of ten shillings a week. Lillian’s confidence in her own opinions about music made her valuable to the senior staff, who knew little or nothing about dance band music or jazz. In return, my Mam got a basic education in the classical and opera catalog, part of which was to work as an unpaid usher at the Philharmonic Hall. She was eventually able to recognize and recommend the key works of the repertoire.
At the time, individual movements of symphonies and concerti were split up over the four-minute sides of 78 rpm records, so the sales assistants were expected to handle the fragile discs and play them for prospective customers in a soundproof audition booth. None of the young women working at the shop ever really wanted to find themselves in this confined space with one particularly famous conductor, who would use his guest appearances with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as a prelude to attempted seductions of the sales staff.
After three years at Rushworth’s, Lillian took a job at a rival store on Parker Street off Clayton Square. As a small boy, I remember the square being filled with flower stalls, a taxi stand, and containing the Jacey cinema, which offered a continuous program of cartoons.
It was a perfect place.
Later, the Jacey became an art cinema showing such titles as Street of Shame and The Subject Is Sex, before mutating again into an X-rated cinema, and eventually into the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Back in the late ’40s, the scene was somewhat different. The shop in which Lillian now worked was called Bennett’s, a smaller operation that attracted musicians on their break from tea dances at Reece’s, a fancy restaurant and bakery with a ballroom on the first floor. Needless to say, these musicians never bought anything, and only wanted to have my Mam audition records for them, so Sol Bennett would periodically chase these deadbeats out of the shop. However, word eventually got around that Lillian was “the girl in Bennett’s who knows about jazz,” and that is how my parents met—across the counter of a record shop.
My father had just returned from his national service in Egypt with the RAF, and had started to play trumpet in the Merseyside clubs. Ross McManus and His Quintette were sometimes billed as coming “Direct from Their Engagements in Paris and London,” when they had yet to cross the Mersey from the British Legion Hall on Park Road East, Birkenhead, to achieve the dizzying heights of playing a cellar in Liverpool.
Ross would perch on the stairs below Mr. Bennett’s office in yellow socks and a secondhand American sports jacket. He and his friends all wanted to be Americans. They even started playing baseball in Birkenhead Park in a team called the Bidston Indians and took to standing around in wire-rimmed sunglasses and old USAAF flying jackets with a cartoon Indian painted on the back.
One of the gang changed his name to the more Yankee-sounding handle “Zeke,” so I suppose “Ronald McManus” got off lightly when he decided to go by his third given name of “Ross.”
He’d roll out his plans for the future until my mother ran out of new releases to spin or Mr. Bennett had him ejected from the shop. Eventually, he persuaded Lillian to sing at band rehearsals, as his vocalist could never get there in time from her day job at Littlewoods Pools.
Lillian knew all the songs even though she never had the confidence to sing in public.
Ross started to lead the Bop City All-Stars and evenings that offered “Rocking with Ross” at any venue that would have them. My mother would collect a small entrance fee that barely covered the band’s costs, while the patrons often had to smuggle in their own alcohol if the hall lacked a license.
Not everyone was so thrilled about what they were playing. A trumpet player from the Merseysippi Jazz Band—a popular traditional jazz group—punched Ross for belligerently pestering him for a loan of his mouthpiece in order to play this weird new music.
Lillian found it equally difficult to persuade Mr. Bennett to stock obscure items on the understanding that there was a small and probably penniless pool of potential buyers. One of her customers was absolutely determined to hear the revolutionary new recordings of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz—discs that had not yet been issued in England. To order such a record directly from America was prohibitively expensive due to the levy of import taxes. So Lillian took matters into her own hands.
She was friendly with a young man named Norman Milne, who sang part-time in the clubs around town. He was working as a merchant seaman until he could make his living in music, so when she heard he was shipping out for New York, my mother gave him £5 of her own money and the details of the Tristano/Konitz records.
Norman must have smuggled them back into Liverpool in his suitcase. But then, “Norman” doesn’t sound like the name of anyone responsible for sneaking dutiable items past the Customs and Excise officer.
My mother’s ingenuity and her seafaring pal kept her customers supplied with rare and unavailable music and Norman, the vocalizing merchant seaman, went on to win a singing contest at Radio City Music Hall during one of his working passages to New York and, emboldened by this, took up a full-time career in show business. He changed his name to Michael Holliday and became a popular recording artist in the easygoing style of Bing Crosby. He had UK hits with “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Sixteen Tons,” and later sang the theme song to Gerry Anderson’s marionette western series, Four Feather Falls.
In 1958, he had his first number-one record with “The Story of My Life,” a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
One morning in 1963, my mother and I were listening to Jack de Manio on the Home Service when the death of Michael Holliday was announced. My Mam gasped and perhaps even stifled some tears.
My Dad was still living with us then. He was sleeping off whatever he had been up to after leaving work the night before. When it came time to wake him, I carelessly blurted out the news, having no way to appreciate the coded implications of the report.
The BBC said that the singer suffered from “stage fright” and had had a “nervous breakdown.” I had no idea what those terms meant, just that my parents were upset by the news. It was not until I was much older that I became aware of the secrets a man might have been obliged to keep in those days.
Forty years later, I invited Lee Konitz to come to a New York studio to play on a track for an album of lost-and-found love songs called North. He added a beautiful alto saxophone solo on the coda of my song “Someone Took the Words Away.”
At the end of the session, I told Lee about my mother smuggling his records into England and asked if he would sign and dedicate the lead sheet to her. With characteristically terse economy, he wrote:
Lillian, Thanks, Lee Konitz.
Don’t Start Me Talking
We were all as drunk as lords and had been crawling around the streets of Liège since we’d left the chaotic scene out in the woods. I’d been drinking Pernod and Coca-Cola all afternoon and had lost the ability to count or stand upright.
Our set at the 1977 Bilzen festival met with a pretty muted reaction from those punk-crazy sons and daughters of the Kingdom of Belgium, but The Clash ended up in a fine confrontation with the security goons. The audience had tried to pull down fences in order to get closer to the band. Full cans of beer were falling short of the stage and being used as ammunition to repel the invaders. I saw one stalwart at the ramparts receive three direct hits to the head in quick succession before he went down.
Joe Strummer jumped off the stage to help the marauders over the barricades from his side and nearly got battered by a large Walloon in a shiny tour jacket. He ducked down under the brute and scrambled back to his guitar. It was all in an afternoon’s work and seemed like jolly good fun.
Now we were all in a hotel room for some reason. Mick Jones was laughing like a droog and jumping up and down on the bed as if it were a trampoline. Paul Simonon was egging Strummer on, and said with a teasing sneer, “Put his glasses on, then you’ll see.”
Now he was giving orders: “Costello. Give him your glasses.”
Reluctantly, I gave them up. Strummer relented and put them on. Between the Pernod and the absence of glasses, Joe looked pretty foggy, but I could tell from Mick’s and Paul’s cackling reaction that it must have been true: we really did look like distant cousins once you put Strummer in horn-rims.
His bandmates had been needling him about this after spotting a slight resemblance in an old 101ers publicity photo of Joe in Ray-Bans and wearing a baggy secondhand suit like mine. At that time, our tailoring only ran to cheap suits. The Clash were dressed for the front line.
What occurs to me now is just how young and daft we all were, especially when no one was pointing a camera or a notebook in our direction. Then, it was time to go into the routine.
The next morning, hosting a fearful hangover, I slumped across three seats at the very back of an airless Belgian charabanc on the way to the ferry home. I awoke to find my shoelaces on fire and my slumbering, open mouth full of ashes, courtesy of a couple of The Damned’s dafter members.
There usually wasn’t this much camaraderie among the London bands. Encountering another outfit was like a prelude to a gunfight in a western, all preening and posturing. Occasionally, it really spilt over into childish fisticuffs, but then, there were always provocateurs on hand. Maybe it felt different if you hung around the West End punk scene. I lived out in the suburbs—earning just enough money for rent and to feed the family—where news of the impending musical apocalypse had seemed as distant as if you’d been living in Cleethorpes or Weston-super-Mare.
The next time I encountered The Clash was in the summer of 1979 while they were recording London Calling. I’d gone to Wessex Sound Studios to scope it out as a possible location for recording The Specials’ first album, which I was about to produce.
Back in early ’78, I’d asked Mick Jones to play on our next single, “Pump It Up,” and someone started the ridiculous rumor that we were actually trying to poach him to be The Attractions’ lead guitarist, and since then there had been a little bit of a “hands off” attitude between our managers. The idea was never remotely in my mind and we didn’t even end up using Mick’s guitar on “Pump It Up,” although he did play a great part that sounded like police sirens on “Big Tears,” the B-side of the single.
Now Mick was out on the studio floor with the volume and the reverb on his amp cranked all the way up to “obliterate.” I thought to myself, That’ll never work. But when London Calling came out I couldn’t believe how great everything sounded. I was completely and utterly wrong. It sounded ragged and thrilling.
I think records started getting better again because everyone was dropping that tedious pose that there was no past. You could hear that The Clash were raiding their record collections for anything that they could turn into new songs.
Jerry Dammers was doing the same thing with his songs for The Specials’ album. When we met, their first single, “Gangsters,” was already on the charts before Jerry’s publisher realized that it was essentially Prince Buster’s “Al Capone” with new words added. Later that summer we would pull the same trick over and over again while recording Get Happy in Hilversum, Holland.
Our first attempts to record my new songs for that album came out sounding like someone doing a bad impersonation of us in 1978.
I went to the Rock On, the secondhand record shop in Camden Town, and bought every old Stax 45 that they had on their shelf and carried them home to plunder. It never occurred to me that I had ended up in the front room with a stack of singles to learn, just like my Dad had done. Almost everything we needed to arrange the new songs was pilfered from that pile of old records. A lot of pop music has come out of people failing to copy their model and accidentally creating something new. The closer you get to your ideal, the less original you sound. Our cack-handed, wired-up attempts to play like bands we’d heard on Motown and Atlantic compilations were just enough to get us away from our clichés, but back then I was dreaming of being anyone but myself.
At the time, I was on a different mission. I found my way into the Wessex studio lounge. Joe Strummer hailed me over to a coffee table, where he was opening up a stack of mail. He handed me a letter to read.
It was written in red ink. I knew that couldn’t be good. It was from someone claiming to be from a loyalist paramilitary group in Belfast threatening to kill the band if they returned to Northern Ireland.
Joe seemed a bit shaken up by the letter and asked me whether he should show it to the others. I said there was no way to know if it was even genuine. He handed me the envelope. It had a Belfast postmark.
But then it certainly wasn’t the first time they’d received such offers. The Clash had famously been photographed on the Falls Road, strolling insolently past a British Army patrol, after their first Belfast gig in ’77 had been canceled at short notice. That photo opportunity had some people pretty riled up.
When I’d gone to Belfast for the first time in early ’78, we couldn’t even stay at the Europa Hotel in the city center, as it was under reconstruction after the latest attempt to blow it up. We had to lodge at the Conway a little ways out of town, and even that building had work going on that you wanted to tell yourself were “improvements” and not “repairs.” You had to pass through the kind of security checkpoint that is now commonplace but back then made you aware that this was just everyday life in Northern Ireland.
On the way to our show at the Queen’s Hall, we saw the Queen’s soldiers on patrol. They looked like little kids, but they were little kids holding machine guns. You knew they’d come from towns that really looked no different from Belfast.
It was all so normal, except for the barbed wire and the observation towers and the armored cars and a tangle of old hatreds and grievances that you could never imagine being reconciled. In the middle of the show, a lad ran up from behind me and grabbed the microphone and started yelling something incoherent. We were so wound up by then that I thought it must be a political statement and left him to it.
It turned out that he was just a local punk rocker trying to make a name for his band. Before the security could grab him, the lad tried to make a spectacular exit by stage diving into the audience.
I think a lot of people had read about Iggy Pop doing this and copied him. I’d even seen Joe Strummer attempt it at the Lyceum Ballroom. On this occasion, the audience just parted like the Red Sea and let the local hero knock himself out on the concrete floor.
• • •
I’D WRITTEN THE WORDS of “Oliver’s Army” by the time our plane landed back in our own little “Safe European Home” in London.
Seeing the youth of the British soldiers patrolling the streets of Belfast with my own eyes had triggered lyrics about the military career opportunity that I’d thankfully never had to take up.
The opening lines argued the absurdity of even trying to write about such a complex subject.
Don’t start me talking
I could talk all night
My mind goes sleepwalking
While I’m putting the world to right
The song was filled with contradictions, a jumble of ever-shifting allegiances and imperial misadventures, and about how they always get a working-class boy to do the killing; some of them Irishmen, who, like my grandfather, wore a British Army uniform. It wasn’t supposed to read like a coherent political argument. It was pop music.
People even told me that the Liverpool fans sang it on the Kop at Anfield, although I imagine they might have changed the words a little, as nobody called “Oliver” would have ever been allowed to manage the club, let alone play on the left wing.
Thanks to Nick Lowe’s insistence that we finish a track that I was about to scrap, and Steve Nieve modeling his sparkling piano part on an ABBA record, “Oliver’s Army” became our biggest hit single, stalling at number two on the charts while records by Blondie, Boney M., and the Bee Gees all overtook us at the top of the hit parade.
I thought briefly about changing my name again to something beginning with a B.
Still, they gave me a gold record for five hundred thousand sales. If you did that now, you’d be number one for a whole year.
A year after “Oliver’s Army” was released, I deliberately drove the bus off the road to tour British towns that other bands rarely visited. We made a point of including the neglected towns adjacent to the major cities that bands usually hit. So we played Sunderland rather than Newcastle, Merthyr Tydfil rather than Cardiff, and Leamington Spa rather than anywhere.
It was early March when we rolled into the seaside towns of West Runton, Folkestone, and Margate—resorts that were not always inviting during the height of summer, but we were all lit up like Christmas trees and feeling no pain.
In Hastings, I got so drunk I couldn’t even remember the second line of “Alison” and had to be led from the stage.
After that, we rallied. We refused to wilt at the Floral Hall in Southport and were the main feature at Kinema Ballroom, Dunfermline. We watched people beat the hell out of each other in Canvey Island and at the Dixieland Showbar in Colwyn Bay, and at the Ayr Pavilion, part of the audience disappeared through a hole in the floor that had collapsed under an onslaught of stomping and jumping that passed for dancing.
At the Frenchman’s Motel in Fishguard, we were told to exit through a door at the back of the stage, and had to make a hundred-yard dash across the car park to one of the motel chalets that had been pressed into service as our dressing room, while freezing rain drove in off the Irish Sea. Once inside, we found just the pair of single beds nailed to the floor. In that part of Wales they didn’t want you pushing them together and getting up to any hanky-panky.
We got a great welcome from the audiences in these towns that had only the faded posters of bands from the late ’60s and early ’70s on the backstage walls.
But some strange disconnection had also occurred. We were just “them off the telly” to the merely curious, unreal visitors from another orbit.
Our new single, “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” was in the Top 5 by the halfway point of the tour. It was exactly the timing that most bands would be looking for. We’d play it and the place would go wild. Then we’d play “Oliver’s Army” and everyone would sing along, just like at a Max Bygraves show.
For a few split seconds each night, as the smoke and the heat of the lights made it hard to breathe, I’d get the feeling I was outside my body, observing the scene. I could see everyone bouncing up and down and singing the chorus. I had the uneasy feeling that the words became meaningless after a while, if they even mattered in the first place.
Ask Me Why
There’s a record, so you put it on
When I was a boy, I liked television adventure programs like Highway Patrol, Whirlybirds, and especially the medieval exploits of William Tell and Robin Hood. The latter’s program was announced by a stirring anthem of hunting horns and a vocalist singing the refrain:
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad, loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood
I met him once. Not Robin Hood, of course, but the man who sang that song. His name was Dick James. I was eight years old and he was chucking my cheek, and I didn’t much care for it. My Dad had taken me with him to an address on Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley. I don’t know what business he had in a publisher’s office, but my father did write a few songs. Perhaps he was trying to get one of his own compositions placed.
Now this man was pinching my face and making a theatrical show of it. My guess is that he was deflecting the parent by flattering the child.
Every week, my Dad would bring home a stack of sheet music to learn, some of it printed with pictures of the artist on the front, the rest of it beautifully transcribed with an italic pen. Along with the song sheets came advance vinyl copies of the new singles, most of them overprinted with a big A on the label so that you didn’t play the wrong side of the record.
Most urgent of all were the acetate discs that didn’t even come from the record company but were dubbed and dispatched directly by music publishers looking to generate performance royalties on those songs. These discs played just enough times to learn the tunes before they would wear out, like when a secret agent in a spy movie is instructed to his swallow orders after reading them.
One of the curiosities of the British music scene in the early ’60s was the “needletime agreement” that had been struck between the BBC and the Performing Rights societies and the Musicians’ Union. Only five hours of recorded music could be played per day. Everything else had to be performed live by a BBC ensemble or a band hired to play on the radio. It generated work for the musicians but also fed all the songs of the day through a strange filter of orchestras on the BBC Light Programme, the musical frequency that ran adjacent to the Home Service.
You could turn on the wireless in 1961 and believe that it was still 1935. You might hear the strings of Semprini playing light classics, or the polite dance music of Victor Silvester and His Ballroom Orchestra, or even a broadcast of someone playing happy tunes on a cinema organ for an entire hour.
It seemed the BBC would do anything to fill up the broadcast schedule, and it was on the air only from early morning, with the “Shipping Forecast,” to just before midnight, when it closed with some improving thoughts from a vicar.
I’d wait all week for Saturday Club, a two-hour show that featured live appearances by pop groups in between the records. Beat groups, as they were now being called, would turn up on variety shows and have jokes made about their hair by comedians who might have only been five years older than them.
The Joe Loss Orchestra may have seemed square to some ears—one famous beat group member once told me, “We used to call him ‘Dead Loss’”—but they made a better job of playing the hits of the day than some of their contemporaries, due to their ingenious arrangements and having at least one very versatile singer. This was often the only way to hear your favorite songs, if not the original artists.
I’d never paid attention to what became of all the records my Dad brought home, until January 1963, when he was asked to learn “Please Please Me” by The Beatles. My folks had registered the novelty of a group of local lads with a funny name when “Love Me Do” had entered the charts, but everything about this record was more startling.
I was used to my father’s voice coming from the front room when he was practicing new songs. It rattled the pane of frosted glass in the door to the hallway.
From my room, I heard my Dad playing this record over and over again, memorizing the descending cadence of the melody, which was made all the more startling by the vocal harmony line in which Paul McCartney seemed to be singing the same note again and again against John Lennon’s lead vocal. When it got to the call-and-response section, I knew that my Dad’s colleagues, Rose and Larry, would be answering his “C’mon” and probably find the whole thing a bit daft, but I couldn’t hear enough of that crescendo, especially when it broke into the title line, with a little falsetto jump on the first “Please.”
I didn’t know any of these words to describe the music back then, but to say that it was thrilling and confusing doesn’t do it justice. I went into the living room and sat quietly on the couch.
My Dad usually didn’t like to be disturbed when he was working, but I suppose he could see that my interest in this song was a little stronger than anything I’d registered before. He bent over the Decca Deccalian record player and fiddled with an arrangement of rubber bands that he’d added to the spindle to trick the arm into landing repeatedly on the groove at the top of the disc while he was working.
“Please Please Me” spun again, and my Dad read down the song copy for the last time, singing along sotto voce. After the record ended, he lifted it off the turntable, put it back in the paper Parlophone sleeve, and dropped it on a pile of sheet music that he’d already memorized. He picked up the next record he had to learn, and started to work on a melodramatic song by actor John Leyton. It was called “The Folk Singer.”
I don’t know how I formed the words exactly, but I asked if he needed “Please Please Me” anymore.
He laughed and handed the record to me.
I don’t know what became of all the records that had passed through his hands prior to this moment. I know a few favorites went onto the family shelf. Perhaps the others were given to friends or even to the women who I now know he was seeing on the side. From that moment on, though, I had the pick of the new releases my Dad was obliged to learn. Those records were going nowhere. I suddenly had ten times the records that my pocket money would have bought me.
As The Beatles’ success grew and grew during 1963, I waited for each new single with the increasing certainty that my Dad would bring it home to learn it and that it would eventually become mine. “From Me to You” arrived next on a white Parlophone label with a big orange A printed on it.
Many of the songs that my Dad was given to learn were so hot off the presses that they arrived on an acetate dub that came with a label reading DEMO DISC and DICK JAMES MUSIC LIMITED printed in bold red type.
In the case of one particular record, someone had typed in the words Northern Songs in a slanted line of black ink. In the space left after the word “Artist,” someone had simply typed “Beatles,” but then had taken the time to type “45” next to a printed “R.P.M.,” before presumably gluing the label to the disc.
The song was “She Loves You.”
Even though these songs were already on the radio, the presence of the records in the house felt special, as if the copies had come from The Beatles themselves, along some inside track.
• • •
￼ABOUT THREE WEEKS BEFORE the release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—another orange A label—The Beatles appeared at the Royal Command Performance. It was then the biggest variety show of the year and starred popular singers, comedians, dancers, novelty acts, and stars of the stage and screen, all for the amusement of the Queen or one of her royal family, and broadcast to her subjects at home with some pomp by Associated Television.
The TV Times went so far as to print a double-page insert, mocked up to look like a formal program with a serrated edge, printed in a typeface chosen to resemble handwritten calligraphy. Everything about it was designed to make the viewer at home feel as if they were sharing an evening at the theater with the Queen Mother and her rather racy daughter, Princess Margaret.
On this occasion, the show featured Max Bygraves, the slapstick comedian Charlie Drake, the South American folk group Los Paraguayos, the North American singer Buddy Greco, and the young English singing star Susan Maughan, who had just enjoyed a hit with “Bobby’s Girl.” Nadia Nerina led a corps of dancers from the Royal Ballet in an excerpt from The Sleeping Beauty, and there were to be sketches from the comedy show Steptoe and Son, though, sadly, not at the same time. Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, who resembled an admiral and a vicar, respectively, would be expected to sing their collegiate favorites—“The Hippopotamus Song” or “The Gnu Song”—while the casts of the musicals Half a Sixpence and Pickwick were to be led in excerpts from the hit West End shows starring Tommy Steele and Harry Secombe.
There was usually a special cameo by a big Hollywood star who might just walk on, wave, and take the ovation, but this year it was a musical performance by Marlene Dietrich, accompanied by her musical director, Burt Bacharach.
Somewhere in the middle of the order came the Joe Loss Orchestra, featuring the vocalists Rose Brennan, Larry Gretton, and Ross MacManus.
Needless to say, the idea that my Dad would be sharing the bill with The Beatles was a lot more exciting than the fact that he was to perform for royalty.
That show is now mostly remembered because John Lennon introduced “Twist and Shout” by saying:
“For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”
It was this quip that grabbed all the headlines the next day. There was no mention that my Dad had sung “If I Had a Hammer” for the Queen Mother, who was very fond of work songs, never having had a job of her own.
My memory is that my mother and I watched the show as it happened, but the history books tell me that it had been recorded for later broadcast. Either way, this was long before home video recorders, and such shows were never re-aired, so it might as well have been live, for if you looked away, you missed it. I had to memorize every second of my Dad’s performance as it happened.
Early in 1964, the Joe Loss Orchestra starred in a short cinema release called The Mood Man, in which my Dad reprised the number that he had sung by Royal Command. My mother and I went to see it as a second feature at the local Odeon.
The television appearance had been broadcast in 405 lines of fuzzy black-and-white, but this was in vivid Technicolor. Unlike the Royal Command Performance, it was lip-synched, but what it lacked in musical veracity it more than compensated for with energy and surrealism.
The number opens with a tight shot of hands playing a pair of conga drums and pulls back to reveal a man I recognize to be baritone saxophonist Bill Brown, who I had not previously associated with the playing of Latin percussion. Ross’s feature was the reprise of “If I Had a Hammer,” arranged after the Trini Lopez version, featuring only a rhythm section and massed percussion.
The filmmakers had to do something with the rest of the band, so the members were arranged around a set, playing various bongos, maracas, guiros, and shakers rather than their usual trumpets, trombones, and saxophones. Three hapless souls revolved on a small circular yellow podium for the duration of the entire number, although the camera failed to register what must have been the eventual green of their complexion.
My Dad was dressed in the same off-white suit that he’d worn at the Prince of Wales Theatre and under which he’d been obliged to wear long underwear after the television director claimed that his flesh could be detected through the thin material once my Dad stepped under the television lights, which would be bound to scandalize the royal party.
In the movie, he lip-synchs the hell out of the number, miming “hammer of justice” for all he is worth, while the drummer, Kenny Hollick, beats time on a gold-sparkled drum kit. The close-ups that come on the repeated line “It’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters” are eerie to behold for the similarity of our facial expression at about this age and especially when singing particular words.
Where my Dad holds the advantage over me is in his dance moves.
Those are steps that I am yet to master.
It is a terrific curio of a lost time and a way for me to recapture the thrill of that night in November ’63.
The morning after the Royal show, there was all the excitement of hearing about the backstage scene. Over breakfast, I tried to play it cool.
“Did you meet Steptoe and Son?” I asked casually.
After all, Joe Loss had a novelty number named after the comedy rag-and-bone men.
“And Dickie Valentine?”
Eventually, I couldn’t pretend that I really cared whether he’d stood next to Charlie Drake in the presentation line or had shaken hands with the Queen Mum. I blurted out:
“Did you actually meet The Beatles?”
It had obviously been a long night or an early morning, as my Dad wasn’t that talkative. He mumbled something about them being very nice lads. Then he reached into a jacket slung over the back of his chair and pulled out a sheet of thin airmail paper and handed it to me.
I unfolded it, and there were the signatures of all four of The Beatles on one page. I’d seen reproductions of their signatures in enough magazines and fan club literature to know that these appeared to be the real thing.
The ink seemed barely dry.
What I did next will bring tears to the eyes of those who make a fetish of such objects, but I had only a small autograph book and the paper was too large to be mounted in it.
I carefully, if not so very carefully, cut around each of the signatures, lopping off the e of the “The” in “The Beatles” and pasting the four irregular scraps of paper into my album.
You might say that it was me who broke up The Beatles, and it only took a pair of scissors.
Paul McCartney was at the microphone singing Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” to an almost empty Royal Albert Hall. Many of the other performers on the bill were waiting to rehearse but had melted away to the edges of the auditorium to give him some space. Neil Finn was talking to Johnny Marr, Sinéad O’Connor was there with her son, and the emcee for the night, Eddie Izzard, was looking over the running order with Chrissie Hynde. George Michael arrived quietly and was waiting patiently for his turn to sing.
This was to be Paul’s first public performance since the death of his wife Linda, almost a year earlier in 1998. The occasion was Here, There and Everywhere: A Concert for Linda, a salute organized by her friends, Chrissie and the television writer Carla Lane.
Prior to the day of the show, it was by no means certain that Paul would do more than attend the event along with his family. Now it seemed he was ready to take the stage.
I was sitting on a flight case, out of sight, when the familiar voice of Paul’s personal assistant, John Hammel, said in my ear, “Why don’t you go up and sing harmony with him?”
I would have never presumed to do so, and it wasn’t like John to make such a suggestion, but it was a kind thought, as there was an uncommon and understandable fragility to Paul’s demeanor that day.
“Lonesome Town” came from Run Devil Run. It was Paul’s first recording after Linda’s passing, mostly songs from the 1950s that they had each loved before they met.
After the first run-through, John found a technical reason to speak to Paul. I saw them confer, and suddenly Paul was nodding in agreement and beckoning me from the shadows. I didn’t really know the song well, but the harmony line was pretty straightforward. Whatever the reason, Paul’s next performance began to soar.
I started to make my exit.
Paul said, “Do you want to stay up for the next one and sing harmony?”
“What is it?” I asked.
“‘All My Loving.’ Do you know it?”
Do I know it? I thought.
I may have said, “Are you kidding?” or maybe that was only in my head.
Even without Paul changing a note of the music, there was something incredibly poignant about the opening lines of the song.
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you
Tomorrow I’ll miss you
Remember I’ll always be true
I locked on to the vocal harmony on the second time around, as I’d done a thousand times before while singing along to the record. It never really occurred to me that learning to sing either vocal part on a Beatles record was any kind of musical education. I was just a kid singing along with the radio or in our front room. Not having any siblings or friends who sang, I assumed everyone could sing harmony. I didn’t realize that being able to hear harmonic intervals was actually a gift for which you should be very grateful.
Right now, I was feeling extremely glad that I’d spent all that time alone with our record player.
The end of “All My Loving” was met by an echoey round of applause and cheering from the performers scattered around the edges of the auditorium, and we were ready to go.
There were a lot of fine, heartfelt performances that night, but naturally Paul’s entrance was greeted with the warmest ovation. My part in “Lonesome Town” may have been discreet, but I was proud to be up there as part of the band.
Then Paul kicked off “All My Loving” . . .
He got as far as the word “eyes” in the opening line, and the extraordinary increase in the volume from the audience at the recognition of a Beatles song caused my heart to race. If that was a tiny fraction of the fervor that they must have encountered nightly, then you could understand why they would eventually want to get off the stage. It was exhilarating and slightly frightening at the same time.
At that very moment, someone backstage misread the cues and Sinéad O’Connor led a premature stage invasion of the entire cast, supposedly poised to join the closing choruses of “Let It Be.” The unexpected delicacy and emotion of the afternoon performance of “All My Loving” was all but swept away in the enthusiastic but uncoordinated caterwauling into any available microphone.
• • •
I’D FIRST MET Paul and Linda briefly when we had opened the show for Wings during the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea series of benefit shows at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1979. Rockpile, and their special guest, Robert Plant, followed our rather wired and rattled performance.
A few years ago, when we met again in Texas, Robert told me that I’d walked up to him that night, just as he was about to take the stage, got right in his face and just sneered, “Stairway to Heaven,” with a theatrical leer worthy of Johnny Rotten, Kenneth Williams, or some other pantomime dame.
Robert said, in his still evident Kidderminster accent, “I was going to punch you until Dave Edmunds told me, ‘He’s just winding you up.’” It certainly wasn’t in the spirit of brotherly love.
That night, Robert Plant pulled his voice down from the usual helium heights and brought the house down with a couple of rocking Elvis Presley tunes that put our ramshackle set to shame.
Having watched most of the Wings set from the stalls, I was now gathered side-stage with Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve to witness the finale of the show. Paul had decided that his more-than-twenty-strong studio rock orchestra should close the show dressed in silver lamé top hats and tails. Rockestra included all the members of Wings, John Paul Jones and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Ronnie Lane, Jimmy Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders, Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner of Rockpile, and our bandmate Bruce Thomas. In total, there were four bass players, three drummers, seven guitarists, and a horn section, more people than is strictly necessary for playing “Lucille” and an instrumental folly called the “Rockestra Theme.”
While everyone was getting plugged in, a heated discussion was going on just offstage between Paul, Linda, and a rather belligerent-looking Pete Townshend. It seems he was the only cast member who had absolutely refused to don the rather daft-looking band costume, and after a frank exchange of views, Paul and Linda took the stage without him. Townshend looked around for his road manager, who handed him what appeared to be a bottle of Rémy Martin. I was standing right behind him as he tore the foil off the neck, pulled out the stopper, and tipped as much of the bottle down his throat as I thought humanly possible in one long swallow.
Wild-eyed and still dressed only in his own grey baggy suit, he proceeded to completely upstage the rest of the band. Jimmy Honeyman-Scott, who was a sweet fellow with the heart of a fan, made the reckless choice of “throwing shapes” with his guitar in Townshend’s direction, as if to egg him on.
I thought, Oh no, don’t do that, you’ll only make him mad.
Townshend responded with a windmill of such ferocity that I was surprised that any strings remained on his guitar. Jimmy gave a weak smile and retreated to a safer distance near his amp.
Queen had opened these post–Christmas week benefit shows with a Boxing Day concert, but the subsequent nights saw a collision between two or more generations of musicians—some who usually played arenas and had to scale down for the Hammersmith Odeon and bands like us who had yet to make it to Shea Stadium.
I attended the second night, watching Ian Dury open for The Clash, and returned the following evening to see The Pretenders and The Specials on the bill, with The Who before appearing the final night, which turned out to be Wings’ last-ever concert.
• • •
THE NEXT TIME I saw Paul was in 1981, in the rather calmer surroundings of Air Studios, which was then perched in a building above Oxford Circus in the very center of London’s West End.
It was pretty much the first time the band and I had worked in a busy multiroom studio complex. You never knew who you were going to run into. We were recording Imperial Bedroom in Studio 2 with Geoff Emerick, but our sessions sometimes overlapped with the mixes and overdubs that Geoff was also working on in Studio 1 with Paul and George Martin for Tug of War.
You could say that I was really introduced to Paul and Linda by their young son, James. He must have only been about four or five years old and visiting his Dad at work when he ran down the hallway from their studio and into our control room while we were doing something tricky with tape and a razor blade. James burst into the room pursued by his sisters, Stella and Mary, who were about ten and twelve at the time. A few seconds later, the trespassers were all retrieved by their mother. I liked Linda immediately. She was easygoing and friendly at first meeting and, as I discovered in time, a very thoughtful and kind woman.
It was a little strange at first to have the McCartney clan camped out down the hallway, but I soon got used to running into Paul while on the way to the coffee vending machine or playing Asteroids in the recreation lounge.
Halfway between the two large studio rooms was a smaller mixing suite. For half a week, the final mixes of The Jam’s new double A-side, “Town Called Malice” / “Precious,” could be heard blasting out every time the control room door swung open.
The next day, I ran into Alice Cooper on his way to work. He was a very likable fellow and completely free of snakes. I immediately ran out to the big HMV record shop on Oxford Street and bought copies of School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies and asked Alice to sign them for Steve Nieve, as he had claimed they were the only rock and roll records that he knew when he had joined The Attractions.
Our sessions were as luxurious in appearance as they were in generous duration. We’d booked twelve weeks of studio time, a fantastic amount of leeway, given that my first record was cut in a total of twenty-four hours and This Year’s Model in a mere eleven days. We turned our studio into a fancy playroom filled with new toys. I bought myself a marimba and a xylophone and a big shiny new acoustic twelve-string guitar. I also purchased an accordion, although it took three of us to wrestle any music out of it, laying the instrument on a table so Steve could play the keyboard, while one of us worked the bellows and the other held the beast in place.
We hired a harpsichord and an orchestra. Isn’t this how The Beatles had done it?
I don’t know, maybe we should have gone down the hall to ask one of them, but of course we never did.
We employed instruments that we wouldn’t even have admitted to liking back in 1977, especially the Mellotron, which was then about as far out of style as flared trousers. I hadn’t seen one of those things since a man tried to sell one to my Dad in the ’60s. He was the father of a lad I knew and some sort of sales representative for the Mellotron company. He claimed to have the future of music sitting in the front room of an ivy-covered house next to our parish church in which Dickens had briefly dwelled.
One Sunday after mass, we were invited to a demonstration of the newfangled gadget. My Dad was a little skeptical that a machine could actually replace an entire orchestra, but as he was singing in front of a bunch of grouchy saxophone players every night, I suppose the proposition might have held some appeal.
I remember the Mellotron as being very impressive in size, like the kind of organ that Vincent Price played in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but this is probably my memory playing tricks, because all of the pictures I can find now show an instrument on a rather more modest scale. Our host switched on the contraption with the flourish of a stage magician. He depressed a couple of the keys and out came a wobbly recording of voices that sounded appropriately like monks chanting in a horror film. He pressed some buttons on the console and the sound switched rapidly from a drunken brass band to a pair of waterlogged flutes. Another triggered a recorded drum pattern that resembled someone repeatedly kicking a suitcase full of spoons.
Eventually, my Dad was persuaded to try out the instrument, but the split-second delay between depressing a note and the head engaging with a tape loop within the cabinet made it nearly impossible for him to play in time. It seemed those jobs in the orchestra would be safe from this particular musical miracle for some time, and we left without placing an order.
Needless to say, it was this disjointed and otherworldly quality that made the Mellotron so attractive to psychedelic musicians. We took for granted many of the woozy sounds and extreme recording processes that were first dreamed up by engineers like Geoff Emerick, Norman Smith, and their colleagues at Abbey Road. Geoff was just a young man of twenty when he took on the engineering work on Revolver and went on to make his reputation with Sgt. Pepper.
But when you spoke to him about his time at Abbey Road, he’d also describe morning recording sessions with the London Philharmonia conducted by Otto Klemperer or an afternoon with Judy Garland, in between the long hours experimenting with The Beatles, recording songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and then having some tea and biscuits in a thoroughly English fashion.
There was very little that you could throw at him that he hadn’t already encountered. The way Geoff shaped and balanced the sound was nearly as important as the notes we played and sang. It was also about the last time The Attractions and I played together, as opposed to in spite of each other, or even to spite each other.
There are many stellar performances on the remaining three and half albums that we made together, and discounting Blood & Chocolate—as playing with spite was the whole point of that record—we never sounded better as a group than we did on Imperial Bedroom, but even then it was touch and go.
One of the band members wanted the songs to be about his dramas not mine. One of our drummers was drinking for England.
Pete Thomas turned up so late for one afternoon session that we’d begun the song without him and pretty much sketched out the arrangement using a metronome. He tumbled through the door, cackling like a hyena and breathing flammable fumes but insisting he was ready for the front.
I said, “You’ve got one take and then you’re going for a little lie-down.”
He trumped me by playing a sensational drum part for the track that later became “Beyond Belief.”
The song had originally been called “The Land of Give and Take,” and the chorus was a lot more literal-minded and accusatory:
In the land of give and take
You keep your body and your soul, make no mistake
But I can’t take much more heartache
So, to hell with you, for heaven’s sake
Reading it again now, it seems, as it did then, just a little pat. It didn’t dig down deep enough. None of the temptations and corruptions in the rest of the lyrics were being forced on the narrator.
He was complicit in his own ruin.
In the final verse of the rewritten lyrics, I left out one inelegant line, a small, true-to-life detail about a courtship dance, the carnal power struggle:
His hands were clammy and cunning
She was suitably stunning
But she says there’s not a hope in Hades
All the laddies catcall and wolf-whistle
Though they dogfight like rose and thistle
Getting to the nitty-gritty just chewing on the gristle
As she staggers to the Ladies’
Waiting for that girl to return from the powder room adds little to the understanding of the scene. It’s just one of those Polaroid mementos that make you shudder in more chastened times.
I wrote the final draft of “Beyond Belief” over that recorded music, a methodology familiar to many big post-1980s groups like U2, but the very novelty of it was a real liberation for me. I had often changed lines on the fly, rearranged songs in a different tempo or even in a different time signature, and cannibalized entire songs. But to stretch the lyrics over an existing musical performance was unprecedented for me.
I thought we’d invented a new way to play rock and roll, no longer screaming the words out over the drums but using the false perspective of close-miking to keep the voice low and intimate. It would be more accurate to say “voices,” as at this time I had the notion that there should be more than one vocal “point of view” in the recording and would spend many long hours alone in the studio, redubbing leads in contrasting tones and registers and building up vocal background groups, and even adding a few of my own keyboard and mallet parts to thicken the brew still further.
I didn’t think I needed any company, but the band had already laid down most of their remarkable part of the picture. Steve’s dazzling piano in the bridge on “The Loved Ones” and Bruce’s chordal accompaniment for the last verse of “Human Hands” and the entire band’s performance of “Shabby Doll” are just a few of the highlights.
I had renounced the drink for the duration of the recording sessions, but I’d step out every evening for some air around eight p.m., strolling up to a mews pub off Portland Place just to torture myself.
There was an attractive girl behind the bar. She would flirt with me over a glass of tonic water with a few drops of Angostura bitters. That’s the concoction that boxers drink when they are in training. I’d stay just long enough to stay out of trouble, returning to the microphone while my heart was beating fast.
I’d been taught not to give in to temptation, but the lesson hadn’t always taken. A missionary priest from Connecticut served at the parish of my junior school. Father Corbett was a handsome man with wavy hair like a Kennedy brother. He had been dispatched to save the little heathen children of Middlesex after the Second World War had caused a shortage of Catholic priests to minister to the flock heading out to the suburbs. Everyone liked Father Corbett. The Sisters doted on his every word, as did the parents who would gather around him on the church steps after mass. The children loved him because he was kind, but not least of all because his wealthy mother made a gift of modern playground equipment and elaborately illustrated reference books from America at a time when our own schoolbooks were dog-eared and worn.
What pennies we didn’t spend on rice-paper flying saucers filled with sherbet, we dutifully dropped into little blue envelopes bearing similarly hued portraits of abject-looking African children. We were told the money was going to baptize them and we were encouraged to name the children in our own penciled handwriting. By 1964, there were a lot more kids called “John,” “Paul,” and “George,” and probably even a few “Ringos.”
If our money was meager, then perhaps it was enough to buy them a sherbet fountain or some penny chews.
We’d memorized our catechism, recited the Rosary daily before lunch, and, at the age of seven, made our First Holy Communion dressed in white. This meant making your First Confession.
I looked down the table of possible sins in the Commandments and got all the way to number seven and realized I had nothing to confess. I thought it would look a little suspicious if I hadn’t done anything, so I confessed to “adultery” and threw in “coveting my neighbor’s ox,” just to be on the safe side.
On the other side of the confessional grille, I could make out the fuzzy outline and familiar voice of Father DeTucci, another, more somber, American. He gently set me straight on the possible sins of a child and then gave me a penance of three Our Fathers and five Hail Marys for telling lies.
I’ve spoken with several Catholic friends who made the same idiotic, forced confession rather than claim that their little souls were spotless.
A couple of years later, the parish announced that the senior cardinal in the country had agreed to officiate at a confirmation mass. This ceremony assumes that the children have attained an understanding by which they can be confirmed and anointed in their faith. I think the parish just wanted to herd a flock of nine-year-olds through the gate, simply because a cardinal was to do the laying on of hands.
The Sisters told the class that we must select a “confirmation name,” one that had no legal implication but would be sent on a printed list to Catholic HQ. Once selected, the name couldn’t be changed. After the debacle of missionary baptisms, they knew the score. We could choose any saint’s name we wished but there would be no “Saint Freddie” and the Dreamers, or “Saint Gerry” and the Pacemakers. We were even forbidden to choose “Saint John” or “Saint Paul,” because they knew whom we had in mind.
“Saint Ringo” was right out.
It seems the Quiet One had escaped their notice completely.
Sister Cecilia, the headmistress, collected a number of archangels—“Gabriel” and “Michael” were most popular—and a few straggling “Patricks” and “Christophers.” As far as I can recall, none of the girls wanted to adopt “Saint Cilla” or “The Blessed Lulu.”
It came to my turn. My mind went blank. My Dad had told me to say “Lawrence,” a sentimental choice based on the patron saint of his own school parish, but I could only think of Lawrence of Arabia and knew that couldn’t be right. He didn’t seem like a saint, even though he looked good in white.
“George,” I blurted out.
I knew it was wrong as soon as I had said it, but my mind had gone blank. Now I was going to get it for being cheeky and choosing a Beatle name. But no, Sister Cecilia just wrote it down and went on to the next child.
“George!” my father said. “You chose ‘George’? The patron saint of England?”
He rang the Sisters.
He rang the priest.
But there was nothing that could be done.
The list had already been dispatched to the diocese, presumably written in indelible ink or the blood of martyrs.
I suppose it could have been worse.
I might have been a fan of Herman’s Hermits.
Now Steve Nieve was at the piano going through the ambitious string chart that he had written for my song “. . . And in Every Home,” when “Saint Ringo” walked in. George Martin looked up and said, “Hello, Ringo,” as if this were entirely an everyday occurrence—which, I suppose, at one time it had been for him—and went back to the music at the piano.
Geoff Emerick had asked George Martin if he would look over Steve’s orchestral score for any technical challenges, as Steve was intending to conduct the orchestra himself. George was generous with his time and advice, amused by the allusions to his Beatles orchestrations that Steve had written into his score.
I invited Ringo and his wife, Barbara, into the control room, where he asked me if I would produce a few tracks for what became his Stop and Smell the Roses album. It was flattering to be asked, but I had a hard time imagining that I was the right man for the job, as I was still uneasy around musicians outside my own circle, so the plan to produce Ringo didn’t go any further than that one conversation.
Eventually, the day arrived to record Steve Nieve’s baroque chart for “. . . And in Every Home.” Steve summoned up all of his Royal College of Music training, overcame his natural shyness, and commanded the conductor’s podium admirably. It was as if we were hearing him speak for the first time.
The other three of us applauded from behind the studio glass as Nieve provided some elaborately embroidered clothes for my shabby tale.
Not long before I was born, my parents lived in a modest flat in Leeds, while my Dad was playing in the trumpet section and singing the occasional song with Bob Miller and His Millermen at the Mecca Locarno Ballroom.
By the time I pitched up there in the early ’80s, at an all-night café in the company of a couple of local girls, their old neighborhood seemed to have developed a more desolate and sinister atmosphere. I wrote “. . . And in Every Home” after that bleak early-morning visit, but there were so many details that I left out of those verses.
They can be found in this short story.
Chapeltown, two a.m.
No one is praying.
Someone is preying.
Saltfish and dumplings are pushed through a grill bolted on the café counter along with a chipped mug of strong tea swill.
Legs, mottled and blue from the cold, swish into the meager shelter. Those tired pins look like something already dead or dying above a wrinkle of cheap, pointed leather.
The two girls enter in a hail of curses. Their skin is coarse and pancaked when stripped of shadows by the buzzing neon.
One of them heaves her bosom—barely zipped into a fake fur–trimmed garment that would do well to cheat the wind—over the counter.
The other unpops the studs of white nylon fabric gathered above a tiny stretched pelmet of skirt.
Hard eyes calculate the time off the beat.
No endearments are exchanged.
If money is passed between them then it is not apparent to the eyes of interlopers.
Who among these sallow, hollow men hugging the edges of the room would dare trade with that hand with its gashed knuckle or approach any of his charges.
Did he pass furtively along the edge of their world, sniffing the scent, seething and plotting to sharpen and strike?
Josie has a husband up in the town gaol.
He’d never laid a glove upon her, but the violence that accompanied the robbery had put him away for several years.
She had grown tired of waiting and now sat to the left of Percy Inch, along with her chaperone, a disappointed and angry girl who Inch is determined to lose.
The spark that remained in her charge had been utterly extinguished in Jane. They were neither plain nor pretty. The difference between them was Josie still imagined something better.
Inch believed her compliant.
Leaning hard into the babble of Inch’s tired war stories, Josie occasionally recognized names that tumbled out in a tangle of private jokes and leaden ironies. They didn’t impress her much.
He had obviously seen too much, too quickly, and now seemed intent to recite it all in order to blunder his way back home.
The voice in her head is screaming, “Why don’t you take me somewhere soft and warm and give me something to remember?” but her glazed expression remains fixed on his monologue.
Sometime around three a.m., fatigue outruns disapproval and the chaperone leaves Josie to her fate.
Inch and the girl quit pretending that there is anything to detain them further in this waiting room filled with pox and hacking coughs.
They repair to a hotel that rejoices in the name The Bland Arms.
Once within, the visitor was welcomed along a purple corridor decorated with a repeated motif, the silhouette of an unclothed, dancing woman enticing the resident to bed with outstretched limbs.
• • •
Oh, heaven preserve us
Because they don’t deserve us
—“. . . AND IN EVERY HOME”
The songs on Imperial Bedroom were about the same lies and deceits as found in the songs of Trust, only now they were being perpetrated behind gilded doors or during the murky excursions of nighttime.
I’d begun writing the Trust songs “New Lace Sleeves” and “Watch Your Step” when I was only twenty years old, maybe even younger, so much of what I had written then consisted of uneducated guesses and predictions of the future. I copied lines and whole verses from notebook to notebook for nearly five years until some images found their rightful home.
At that time I was trying to distinguish between being “civilized” and being “captured” as I made my way to work every day from my place on the outskirts of town, while working on a song with the odd title “From Kansas to Berlin.” It was about the aftermath of the Second World War, and it was nothing if not ambitious, although all that survived of it in the final draft of “New Lace Sleeves” was the question
When are they going to stop all of these victory processions?
Which was eventually joined by the chorus
The teacher never told anything but white lies
And you never hear the lies that you believe
Though you know you have been captured
You feel so civilized
And you look so pretty in your new lace sleeves
If the tone of the first draft had been a little pious and even moralistic, I wasn’t feeling nearly so high-minded by 1980.
Bad lovers face-to-face in the morning with shy apologies and polite regrets
Slow dances that left no warning of outraged glances and indiscreet yawning
Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere
The British newspapers have always loved a scandal, especially anyone being on the fiddle, or any kind of kinkiness. I rode the commuter train each morning, reading the tittle-tattle and indignation on other people’s front pages and in their furrowed brows.
Even presidents have newspaper lovers
And ministers go crawling under covers
The final draft was a collage of hoarded couplets and brand-new triggers from the daily headlines. If the late-night newscast coughed up some minister, red-faced and rattling his sabre for the little he was worth, he too went into the pot with a brand-new rhyme for that old line:
No more fast buck
When are they going to learn their lesson?
When are they going to stop all of these victory processions?
When I happened upon a photographic portrait of an Honorable lady in the inevitable pile of back issues of Country Life in a dentist’s waiting room, I lingered with indecent curiosity and imagined her and her sister in my song:
The salty lips of the socialite sisters
Table of Contents
1 A White Boy in the Hammersmith Palais 1
2 Then They Expect You to Pick a Career 13
3 Don't Start Me Talking 31
4 Ask Me Why 39
5 Beyond Belief 49
6 London's Brilliant Parade 81
7 The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face 99
8 Roll Up for the Ghost Train 111
9 Almost Liverpool 8 131
10 Welcome to the Working Week 141
11 No Trams to Lime Street 149
12 I Hear the Train a-Comin' 163
13 Unfaithful Music 179
14 Scene at 6.30 195
15 Unfaithful Servant 213
16 There's a Girl in a Window 217
17 It Mek 247
18 America Without Tears 263
19 Accidents May Happen 287
20 I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass 313
21 What Do I Have to Do to Make You Love Me? 335
22 Talking in the Dark 341
23 Is He Really Going Out with Her? 361
24 Diving for Dear Life 381
25 It's a Wonderful Life 397
26 The Color of the Blues 419
27 The Identity Parade 435
28 The River in Reverse 457
29 That's When a Thrill Becomes a Hurt 481
30 I Want to Vanish 501
31 Put Away Forbidden Playthings 523
32 They Never Got Me for the Thing I Really Did 551
33 A Voice in the Dark 571
34 Country Darkness / Narrow Daylight 593
35 I'm in the Mood Again 615
36 Down Among the Wines and Spirits 635
Postscript: The Black Tongue of the North End 663
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Elvis Costello
In a 1982 Rolling Stone cover story entitled "Elvis Costello Repents," Greil Marcus wrote of the man in question: "No punk in terms of craft, he rode the punk wave because he communicated a more authentic bitterness than any punk; his demands on the world were more powerful and thus his rejection of the world when it failed to deliver was more convincing."
Smash-cut to 2015 thirty years and over twenty albums later where it remains true that Costello can communicate bitterness with veracity. A song like 2005's "Button My Lip" still finds him turning lines like "Don't want to talk about the government / Don't want to talk about some incident / Don't want to talk about some pe-pe-peppermint gum" with enough force to button his and bloody yours. Bitterness was never the pony's only trick, but it is an irony worth savoring that at age sixty-one, the only thing that seems to draw the decidedly gratified Costello's ire are the nostalgia fascists who would mislead you into thinking he's lost his venom, while impatiently waiting for him to re-record his 1970s oeuvre. Pity the fools.
He is otherwise a proud papa to three sons and joyful husband to jazz siren Diana Krall. He enjoys an eclectic career of composing symphonic amalgams, touring the world with his steadfast rock outfit, the Imposters, and serving as frequent troubadour and comedic foil to the likes of Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, and Homer Simpson. His "demands of the world" today seem less like "Peace, Love and Understanding" and more akin to the title of his 2009 album, Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane. Where many of his "pub rock" peers of the New Wave era have found religion, reality television gigs, or it's simply that all that tavern time has made them sluggish, Costello remains vibrant. The snarl that he sported in boyhood has matured into a growl.
I spoke to Elvis as he prepared for the release of his autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, a zibaldone of Liverpool that darts back and forth through the last century of the families that raised him: those of his father, Ross MacManus (himself a famed performer known throughout England as a trumpeter in the Joe Loss Orchestra and singer of TV jingles), and mother, Lila Ablett. Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and a few Beatles stop by along the way. The book is fast-paced, sentimental toward the working-class England of his youth, and genuinely funny by tavern-tested standards, not just those of celebrity's lowered bar. (Alice Cooper, a favorite of his bandmates, is described by Costello as "a very likable fellow, and completely free of snakes.") Sharing his recollections by phone, the author proved to be an affable gent, a biting wit, and likewise void of serpents. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. Nick Curley
The Barnes & Noble Review: I've believed in your ability to write a 670-page book since your feature for Vanity Fair back in 2000 entitled "The Costello 500," in which you listed your picks for the world's "five hundred albums that can only improve your life." It was a gold mine for a teenager, opening me up to so much great music that can likewise be found in this book: "The Unfaithful Servant," "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights," Roxy Music, Captain Beefheart, the collaborations of Eno and Bowie. You were even the first person I knew that championed ABBA Gold, which you compared to Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.
Elvis Costello: There's some sort of responsibility that I got handed there. Everything we know about music comes from listening, absorbing: why not talk about it? That list you mentioned is of the past. If you'd asked me another day, I might have given a different five hundred.
I was fortunate to hear my father's favorite songs early in life, before I ever knew about the grown-up life that those songs were describing, in songs by someone like Frank Sinatra or Burt Bacharach. I got to share such music with my father in the last years and last even minutes of his life. What an incredible thing to have happened. And to have my wife [musician Diana Krall] there with me, who understood what it meant to share with a parent the love of very specific pieces of music: songs about some of the hardest stuff you'll ever have to face, and stuff that's going to affect you the whole rest of your life. I wrote a song people wouldn't have trouble recognizing it - that my dad later told me he wanted played at his funeral. That's one of the reasons why we sing, and it's one of the reasons we listen.
BNR: Your father is such a prominent character throughout this book. He's a flawed, complex searcher, but ultimately a very fun and compassionate guy to have for a dad. What did writing this book teach you about him?
EC: To be honest, I wonder if my mother will give me a hard time, since I wrote a lot more about my dad than about her. The truth is, my mother raised me. I say that a few times in the book. She did all the hard work. My dad was absolutely useless at discipline. I am not alone in saying this. My four half brothers, who had a different upbringing at a different time, would confirm it. But he was totally hopeless at being a conventional father in matters of setting a good example. Because he and I shared the same vocation, I learned from observing him at work. But my mum's very detailed knowledge of music she sold records was probably just as influential. It's just not as picturesque to describe in a story. So in terms of number of words in the book, my mum gets less. It's not that I love her any less. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her.
The last thing I wanted to write with this book was, "Life turned out like this for me because I blame my Dad for something." My dad loved to tell stories and was, as I say in the book, a little bit too charming sometimes. He got himself into trouble. I adopted some of the same tendencies, but I made my own mistakes. He didn't invent them. I found my own trouble.
BNR: The specificity of the storytelling in this book is exceptional by any standard, but it's particularly detailed compared to any other music memoir that I've read. Are you someone who keeps diaries and personal records, or is this a product of personal recollection?
EC: I just have a memory. For now, anyway! Part of the reason to write this book is that members of my family in two generations have had issues with cognition in later life. I can't take for granted that I will always have the memory that I have now. My wife encouraged me, and I did it for my two youngest sons. I wanted to leave them the account of what I've done, and what our family is about. I chose to write a lot about preceding generations.
The other thing is: particularly now, with the Internet, we have a not-very-well-edited account of everything that everybody's ever done. Every undeserved compliment, every stupid thing you've said when you've drunk or whatever. You can't deny any of it, so you're only as good as your search results. Some of the accounts that have been written not just of my life but of the lives of other musicians bear no resemblance to the real person. The research can be flaky, which leads public assumptions about motivation to be wrong-headed.
I wasn't about to enter into an argument with my critical reputation, or record company bosses, or ex-band members or ex-girlfriends. I didn't want to write an argumentative book, and I don't think I did. I wasn't easy on everybody, and I wasn't easy on myself, but I wasn't trying to pick a fight with my own past.
BNR: It reminds me of that great anecdote you tell about Paul McCartney being accosted by undergrads who were taking a class in "Beatleology",and stubbornly believed that they knew the facts of his life better than he did. He has to gently explain to them that he was there. EC: That was so comical. Maybe that was indiscreet of me to put that in, because it's not my story. But it does make you think, when you happen to work with people who are that famous.
BNR: The book's chapters recall your life out of sequence, with stark shifts in tone and chronology. What drew you to this approach? Were you aiming to say something about the nature of memory?
EC: It's not coincidental, it's not chaotic, and it's not without some understanding. I didn't plot it out like a graph, like the building of the great cathedral. But one example is the reminiscence of my dad coming home from the Royal Variety Show in 1963, and me hoping that he'd been able to get the Beatles' autographs. The next scene is me singing a Beatles song that I'd learned with Paul McCartney himself the very person who wrote it in a very different set of circumstances than I would ever imagine. The book moves from me being an audience member to coming to know this man as an adult. He was at that moment going through a very profound loss, and there he was, singing a song which he'd written when he was a young man.
BNR: That idea that a song changes for its writer over the passage of time is a constant in this book: you write that you feel your songs can become either more or less autobiographical, depending on the crowd or your state of mind in the moment of singing them. In the songwriting process, do you likewise find that you have to be in an exuberant state of mind to write an album like Get Happy, or a frenzy to write "Lipstick Vogue," or blue to write "I Want You"?
EC: [Laughs] No! Get Happy was, like Trust, a highly ironic title. In that case, "exuberant" would be a very polite word for completely drunk, I think. There was a lot of chaos involved in the making of that record, and those records are surprisingly coherent given the state I was in while writing and recording them. To name those collections of songs Get Happy and Trust was underlining how lacking in those qualities both those records were.
A song like "I Want You" is a recitation of something that happened, but the repetition of singing it isn't returning yourself to that moment. That's what I meant in saying that these songs become more or less autobiographical, depending on how acutely you're feeling the initial impulse. In order to sing them with any conviction to people, you have to find ways in which they belong to other people. They change shape. Your distance widens. They mutate. It's true of books you've read in the past: at one time of your life they have great significance, then you read them at another time and they seem trite. I've had the experience in music of not understanding certain kinds of music, not having the patience, then having it become all- consuming at another part of my life, and just not wanting to listen to anything else, whether it's jazz, or classical, or country music.
BNR: There's a moment early in your career, during a concert at the El Mocambo, of a girl in ripped tights emerging from the audience to kiss you. You describe the moment as one of sheer mania, then sharply cut the scene with your next line: "And then I went home and tried to act normal." I'm wondering what you thought "normal" meant in that context. At that moment in your life, as a very young but married performer, what did you think you were supposed to be?
EC: One of the things that I tried to do in this book rather than be lurid or say "Wasn't I a great fellow because I've lived all this wild life?" is to acknowledge that I did a lot of things which I had vowed not to do. Out of those lies I wrote a number of songs, some of which are very painful to sing much less to write because they describe early desires, and things I'm not proud of. I tried to acknowledge the truth, because the songs came out of it. I tried not to be coy, and it's painful. Painful to meet those memories again, and walk away from the pages remembering times when I wasn't true to a wife or son. I'm finished with all that now. I can't equally, literally wish none of those things happened, or that my life didn't go in these other directions, because I ended at the place where I am now, and I had to be here. You can say, "I wish I didn't do it," but you have to accept what comes after.
BNR: While the romances of your life are covered in this book, certain specifics go powerfully unsaid. Your seventeen years with [musician] Cait O'Riordan is covered in about three pages: disappearing ink, if you will.
EC: I tried to be discreet out of respect: there was nothing to be gained by poring over painful things that have happened. I tried to be truthful about some of the triggers for leaving. One thing that unites people is parenthood, and we didn't have that between us.
Musically, at that period in time, there were people who were enamored with my earliest work, which was, in their view, more visceral than this work that I did through the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s. It was thought to be somehow more theoretical, less emotional. Which was nonsense. When you read the lyrics from that time, they're much more raw and specific than a lot of the songs that I wrote early on. It's just that the musical sounds they traveled in weren't making such a theater of aggression. There are some extremely harsh lines in those songs, many of them directed at myself.
BNR: Likewise, your marriage now to Diana Krall is shown as a source of great strength. When raising the idea of describing that power, you write, "Some things are too intimate." You treat these loves that shaped your life with great care.
EC: You can't write retrospectively about something which is still ongoing. You can only describe the moment of discovery and develop it, and the uncertainty of your own worthiness for such love. The few stories I tell of my eldest son are told with great love. They are not told to drag him into a spotlight. My younger sons [with Krall] are still of an age that, presumably, if I were to just write a series of cheap anecdotes about what delightful children they are, they might be a little disgruntled by the time they're fifteen.
BNR: Given the heads of this household, do you play instruments at home with your wife and kids? Is there music you make together as a family?
EC: Not as the four of us yet, but I'm looking forward to that day. I don't think it will be very long. We're certainly people who like to make noise. The kids used to come through three locked doors to tell me stop making such noise, but now they don't mind it so much. Of course, we will be ever delighted if Diana plays, because she is much more accomplished, and has a much more agreeable sound.
BNR: You earlier touched on the mid-'80s and '90s. In the book you deem that period of your career as one in which you were "feeling like a blacksmith in a glass factory." How does one reconcile those moments in a career where you're artistically drawn one way while your industry is drawn another?
EC: There's nothing much one can do about it. I had the resources to adapt, and play the game. But my grandfather and father both experienced it. I never saw my grandfather face obsolescence, but he did, when he came back from playing on the liners. He couldn't regain some of the jobs that he'd taken before playing in silent movie pit orchestras, because they didn't exist once talkies came in. My father spent parts of his career as a singer believing he was in danger of being upstaged by karaoke machines.
I don't have any tears to shed about being not in step with trends, or the designs of record companies or "the music industry," whatever that is. That's such a small part of the overall experience of music, which is much more complicated and much more valuable, and has been much more fun, even when it's been frustrating. That's why I didn't linger on all that very much in the book. When I describe making Blood and Chocolate, I say that we started trying to make it sound as if we were playing with boxing gloves on. We could have made a more refined sound, but we didn't want one.
BNR: Looking back at your youth, you write, "It would have been so easy to remain in a permanent sneer." Of recording your 2003 album, North, you even say, "It was good not to be looking for the last word for once." It seems to be a learned truth of aging: juveniles desperately want to be correct, while wise elders like being proven wrong.
EC: My song "When I Was Cruel" remarks about that same thing. It's very easy to be on the outside of any situation and just sneer, which is a condition you probably remember yourself from teenage years. It doesn't mean that you're not right sometimes when taking that skeptical view. Never, ever mock first love. Or first disdaining. When a very young person falls in love, it can be as deeply felt as at any other time in life. It might be a little less complicated than it is later, but the complication could just be an accumulation of your later relationships. It doesn't necessarily make it more or less true. Same with disdain.
People say, "Do you feel a longing for songs you wrote when you were twenty-four?" I say, "Well, yes, some of them I do." But as I described in the book, "Radio, Radio" probably doesn't mean as much to me today as the [unreleased demo] song on which it was based, "Radio Soul," which had a different proposition: that we're all broadcasting out, and that expression ultimately has value beyond entertainment. I turned that song into a timely polemic, because it suited my purposes to do so. And the song had enough mechanisms as a piece of pop music that either version works. Sometimes I sing one version and sometimes the other, depending upon my mood!
BNR: I wanted to close by saying that in visiting some of your more recent work for the first time, I was delighted by what I heard. Your post-Katrina "New Orleans album" with Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse, is fantastic. In particular I was struck by how loud and raucous a lot of these songs are, as on 2005's The Delivery Man in your duet with Lucinda Williams, "There's a Story in Your Voice." Or the great Jenny Lewis pairing, "No Hiding Place," that opens Momofuku. Do you find there's still a true ferocity to this music that was written long after your so-called "angry young man" years?
EC: In some ways, those songs are actually a lot less friendly than the ones on which my reputation was founded. But the element of surprise isn't there when you're fifteen, twenty, thirty albums in. I put together a compilation as a soundtrack to this book, and I tried to take the songs that had lyrical themes that I picked up in the book and not just the ones I had that ended up on the radio because otherwise it would just be a Greatest Hits record.
I could make a case for the last ten years being my very best, musically. Among many other things I've done, like writing dance music for orchestra and things like that, my current band the Imposters have been together longer than the Attractions ever were. Are we better? At some things, yes, we are, actually. For one thing, the two members who are common to both groups have thirty or forty years experience of playing with me, and have a lot of great ideas to offer any arrangement. Certain things that seemed right to me musically back in 1978 don't seem right to me now. So the way I hear it now is well served by the people who are in the group. There's more vocal harmony, a greater sense of rhythmic groove, and a lot of very wonderful invention and abstraction in both the keyboards and the bass. So it's great that I had these two fantastic groups. That's the great news.
Thank you for that question, because while I'm not trying to make a case for any period in my later career, there's some music there that hopefully people may even discover having read a passage or two of this book. Who knows? I think it's going to be interesting to pick my first set-list when I go back out on my own next year to play. Because I have a feeling that people might know a song or two that they didn't know before, having read about them in this book, if they've taken the time to read. I don't know. Let's see what happens?
October 28, 2015