I’m a similar age to Elvis Costello. The influences are the same. Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus have written best about the country we live in.
And he is a songwriting genius. For 40 years come next year, I have listened to his songs.
Here’s the problem though, and it’s all his fault. For us not so clever people to recognise a clever person, we need them to behave consistently, and to stay where they’re at their best. Or we don’t understand them. And he never has. So we don’t. And it can lose us. (I’ll get to his voice in a minute).
The book solves the problem. He doesn’t care what I think – or what you think. He only cares what he thinks. And he likes hanging out with really cool, creative people, and writing clever songs he likes. He is the ultimate journeyman.
Leonardo da Vinci (not that I’m putting Elvis in that class) had the same problem: He grew up “alone” too, and like Elvis just didn’t care what anyone thought. He was not the best artist, or engineer, or musician, or anatomist of his time. But he could have been the best at most of those disciplines and he knew it - had he cared enough about what people thought to focus on only one thing. Like Leonardo, Elvis has spent a lot of his career in areas where he is not a genius, because he doesn’t care what you think, and so you have to just get that and be selective when collecting him.
To the book: It’s a 5 star book and the reason is that it is as true a reflection about Elvis and his career as it is possible to have. There’s been real work in the making of this. The clever turn of phrase, and the words gliding over the deeper meaning held in each phrase make it read like one long song lyric.
But it’s as charmingly imperfect as the man, and as his whole career is devoted to the imperfection of man, that’s the problem. Why, in all these pages, does it not somewhere submerge closer to the soul of the man? He’s used to allusion, and as he acknowledges himself in the pages, he struggles to speak plainly, and so we go around in a circle on the surface.
We all have our suits of armor, and my criticism is I wish he’d taken his off, at least for a while. A chapter from Pete Thomas and one from Steve Nieve would have been lovely, if not a word from the wives. Otherwise, there is a risk of appearing to be disingenuous.
He wears inspiration on his sleeve as he has done his whole career. Chronicles Vol 1 is his template here, and if you haven’t read it – do. Like much of the non genius parts of Elvis’s career, this book recognizes and works within the style of a person he admires. But that’s no criticism, it’s what he mostly does and he does it very well, and it’s why you should read it.
For the record, I consider When I was Cruel to be one of the greatest records ever made. It sounded like nothing else when it was released, and all these years later still sounds like nothing else. I always wondered how many horn players died in the making of that record.
Like Elvis himself, I wish he had been born with his father’s vocal cords. It would have been very helpful for us all. But at the end of the day, he is a certain kind of genius, and I’m very very thankful to him for that.