For Elvis Costello, eclectic taste and self-reinvention started at home

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a most unusual autobiography about a life in rock 'n' roll and beyond.

Elvis Costello talks about his new memoir, "Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink."

Jeffrey Brown has the story from New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: Early in his new memoir, Elvis Costello writes about his father, Ross McManus, trying to make it in Liverpool as a bebop jazz musician.

ELVIS COSTELLO, Musician: I have a clipping that I reproduce in the book where it says, the Ross McManus Quintet direct from their engagements in Paris and London. And at that time, I don't think they had actually played across the…

JEFFREY BROWN: Never happened, right?

ELVIS COSTELLO: No, they had never been out of the neighborhood.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, he was sort of making it up.

ELVIS COSTELLO: Well, that was good. That was the dream of it, to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The father would go on to a successful singing career with one of Britain's leading dance bands, doing cover songs of popular music, even folk songs like "If I Had a Hammer."

The son, born Declan MacManus, would become one of the leading rockers of his time, emerging in the late 1970s as a kind of nerdy-looking, language-loving, angry young songwriter and singer.

He was pegged back then as part of the folk scene. But when we talked recently at New York's famous Village Vanguard, a nod to his jazz-loving dad, recently, Costello said he never saw himself that way.

ELVIS COSTELLO: I think, early on, I had worked out that if I adopted a sort of less cooperative personality when speaking to people, they would leave me alone. And I would just be able to get…

JEFFREY BROWN: Simple as that, huh?

ELVIS COSTELLO: I just created this character accidentally. And then I realized, hey, that works.

ELVIS COSTELLO: It gets kind of tedious to kind of keep it up, because then you can never drop it down. You can never drop it down and just laugh, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's what I'm wondering. But you think of it as a character?

ELVIS COSTELLO: Not in a calculated way. It just happened spontaneously. And then you see the effect and then you play into the effect. But…

JEFFREY BROWN: The book sort of tells the story of you becoming more yourself or allowing yourself to be less of that character and more who you actually are?

ELVIS COSTELLO: I think it's a process of, you know, adventure, misadventure, you know, failure personally, and then realizing that you can't keep doing — you know, it's not like I'm denying the nature of the songs, but just carrying on like that was just tiring.

It's just like you run out of drinks to drink, you know, that kind of thing? And then there were just other songs to sing and other lives to live.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the years, other songs came, many of them, as Costello took on a wide range of other styles of music, an album with Burt Bacharach, one with a string quartet, and much more to this day.

But it began, he writes, at home as a child, when his father was passing on records that he was listening to for his own work and both parents had eclectic tastes.

ELVIS COSTELLO: I didn't study any French, so I didn't know the word genre. You know, so I didn't have sort of a sense of there being different kinds of music.

And my dad would get passions for Bach and we would listen all to the Bach passion, and then the Clancy Brothers and Irish music. And my mother loved singers like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. So I heard all those songs, as well as all the 1960s pop music that came out, whether it would be from England like the Beatles or from America like Motown.

And it was all just flowing through. And it didn't seem like you had to choose.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about when it came to performing and putting yourself forward? There's the — and even taking a new name, right, and not only just a new name, but a very big name, Elvis.


Well, I just felt, well, my family name, McManus, is hard to say on the telephone. It didn't look very attractive written down. It sort of suggested a guy in a cable-knit sweater singing waling songs. And so I wanted something a little groovier.

So I had adopted that part. And in addition, my father had made records in the '60s under assumed names, because he had made money on the side from his contracted gig as a dance band singer.


ELVIS COSTELLO: He had made records under the names Frank Bacon and the Baconeers and Hal Prince and the Layabouts.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you're used to taking on any names, but…

ELVIS COSTELLO: Seemed like, in the noble showbiz, tradition, if you're going to, you know — I mean, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: The memoir moves back and forth through time, connecting, as Costello told me, moments, experiences, revelations.

But it's all there, the way up working with many of today's great musicians and the many downs, broken marriages, too much drinking, a loss of control over what he wanted to be doing.

ELVIS COSTELLO: You can be addicted to misery the same way as you can be addicted to drugs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you felt yourself addicted to misery in a sense?

ELVIS COSTELLO: I am a fairly decent, dark-dispositioned person, have been, but you can — it can start to like it, rather than sort of try to think, well, yes, I'm — I was fine being a skeptic, but then when you start to settle for that, then it's not very good.

JEFFREY BROWN: But he also sings of happier times, including his marriage to the jazz singer Diana Krall. The two have twin 8-year-old sons. And he brings the story full circle with the death of his father four years ago.

ELVIS COSTELLO: His passing was poignant, in the way that I related it, because he had been a very vivid personality, and the nature of his demise was through Parkinson's and the dementia that came with that, erasing his senses little by little, of which music was about the last companion, which was very, very moving for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Was that part of the impetus, though, for you to write this book?

ELVIS COSTELLO: Well, I think the impetus to get it finished in a form that you now see it.


ELVIS COSTELLO: Certainly, because I was able to talk with him with clarity in the — as I saw him shutting down.

And then, at the end, I felt like I had the responsibility while it was still clear in my mind to get it on the page for anybody that — anybody that in — and anybody interested in how I came to do what I did. But for that — even if I had never published it, I would have written it for my sons, you know, because I am the last, best witness.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, "Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink."

Elvis Costello, thank you.