Complicated Shadows

It took me a long time to finish reading this book, because I kept putting it down in disgust. I am not a huge fan of Elvis Costello, though we do have the one Hits set here and I like some of the songs well enough. The disgust comes from what an insufferable prick the guy seems to be. How badly he treated others around him, and how he behaved in general, and yet people (for the most part) just let him do it because he’s (purportedly) some sort of genius. That may well be, but for someone in the public eye, he sure sounds like he was (and could still be, for all we know) a jerk.

A jerk to his first wife and his son. A jerk to his bandmates, the media, his label(s) and even his fans. He reads like an impetuous child, storming off-stage and ending shows early, refusing to play the hits, making records that he thinks are challenging but only serve to alienate people and then when they fail to sell well, it’s all the label’s fault for not promoting it enough. Um… what? Never mind what he said to Stephen Stills about Ray Charles and James Brown (for which he never really did apologize), that was probably just the child being drunk and worse than normal. Yeesh. It was all very tiresome.

Tiresome, particularly, given how hard the author, Thomson, worked to make him sound less like a jerk, here. Honestly, the guy has written his ass off for this book, apologizing politely for all sorts of miscreant behaviour. All towards softening the blow, smoothing out the obvious rough points (and there were many) while inflating the Genius status as often as possible. The book’s a total blow job, in other words. 

I’m not really sure how Costello got away with it. He’s like the drunk, crazy uncle who behaves atrociously but gets away with it because people just expect it from him. Some even enable him. It’s just sad. He’d have been better to remain Declan MacManus. As soon as he put on those glasses and that hat and became Elvis Costello, the persona took over and he lost control of it. I’m no psychologist, but it’s how it seems to me, from this text.

Anyway, we go through all the phases of his career, with the Attractions, producing the Pogues (and ‘marrying’ their bass player, Cait O’Riordan, with whom he had a long relationship). Of course before that was Bebe Buell, Liv Tyler’s mom. And now there’s his current marriage to Diana Krall, of course. And we go through all the musical and stylistic changes too, the ups and downs and oddities. Fans will care. 

All that said, he did write many great songs. He did fearlessly try new things, even classical and jazz music, at the risk of alienating all of his fans (not like he cared, from the sounds of it). And it may be true that truly great art only comes from single-mindedly pursuing your goal, whatever it may be, even at the expense of everything around you. The artist suffering for their art, blah blah blah… But you don’t have to be a jerk about it.

After finishing this, I might still try out a record or two, just to see what all the fuss was about with the music, but I don’t need to know anything else about the man himself thank you very much.


Posted on February 8, 2014, in posts by aaron and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Go for ‘My aim is true’ one of my Top 5 LPs, easy!

    His mum used to live in the street behind us. True story.


  2. Sorry, am idiot, I meant to type ‘This Year’s Model’; My Aim .. is good, but not that good!


    • Gotcha, it’s easy to do. I found, with this book, that the writer was pretty hard to get anything other than “this was awesome” about most of his records. Even the ones where EC was deliberately challenging people with oddball stuff, this guy was writing in circles trying to make it sound better than it probably was. I appreciate word of mouth from actual listeners!

      And I should amend my review, we do have the green 1CD Hits of Elvis Costello & The Attractions, When I Was Cruel, and I just recently got the collaboration he did with the Roots. So we do own more than I originally stated. I’d need to play them again to get a better sense of what’s here. Comng soon to a KMA near you! Once I get through all the goodness from Mike, Scott and James, mind you…


  3. Had no idea, but not especially surprised. A lot of the Gods – John Lennon, Lou Reed, Eric Clapton – didn’t seem like good people outside the albums, and that’s also true outside of rock music.

    Doesn’t lessen his great albums, just lessens the person. Good summary of the book!


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