Book Excerpt: Elvis Costello Shares the Inspiration Behind ‘Alison’

Kew The Music 2014 - Day 1
Elvis Costello headlines onstage at Kew the Music at Kew Gardens on July 16, 2014 in London, United Kingdom. Photo: C Brandon/Getty Images

Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink was about as close to being a can’t-miss prospect as has come down the increasingly crowded rock-star memoir pipe in some time. Long one of music’s wittiest, smartest, and most perceptive lyricists, Costello has done his legacy proud with his new book, which, thankfully, goes far beyond his angry-young-man days, most movingly in its frequent reminiscences about the relationship between the singer and his musician father. In the excerpt below, Costello recounts a pivotal period early in his songwriting career. 

Chapter 13: Unfaithful Music

I’ve always told people that I wrote the song “Alison” after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honor.

Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.

I was daydreaming … Again …

My wife, Mary, and I and our young son, Matthew, were living in a block of flats in the suburban town of Whitton, three hundred yards from my old junior school. The building had replaced an old Odeon cinema to which the nuns had inexplicably taken us to see a garish, color newsreel about the Royal Family one Commonwealth Day afternoon in the early ’60s. It had closed for business shortly afterward; the cinema that is, not the Royal Family.

I’d daydreamed about being able to get into the derelict building and run pictures of my own choosing, and kids later made up stories about teenagers breaking in and running amok.

Later still, I wrote a macabre, carnal tale called “Dr. Luther’s Assistant,” which, in my mind, was set at this exact location.

Eventually, the actual cinema must have fallen into such disrepair that it was beyond renovation, because when I returned to the neighborhood after my two years on Merseyside, I found it demolished and replaced by an unlovely residential block funded by a housing trust for low-income families of this genteel district.

My wages had only increased a little from my days as a lackey in the bank to my current job bluffing my way through the computer world next to a lipstick factory. I made about £30 a week, so I took any available overtime. Mary did a little part-time work, such as parenthood allowed, and we got by. About once every four or five weeks, I might save enough money to buy a record. So, if I abstained from the beer and cheese roll that often passed for my lunch, I might get to buy Blood on the Tracks or Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys.

I hoped that guitar strings and my Underground fares might be covered by the modest fees that I earned from a handful of solo shows in folk clubs, since I’d disbanded my group.

Once I knew a girl
Who looked so much like Judy Garland
That people would  stop and give her money
And everybody was Frankie, Jimmy, or Bobby
Not the Jack, the Jack of All Parades

When Mary and I had married, we lived first in the maisonette directly below that which I had called home until 1970. My Dad, his wife Sara, and my half brothers Kieran and Liam, who was just six months older than Matt, lived upstairs.

It might have appeared to some of the rather more conservative neighbors that we were starting some kind of MacManus commune, especially as we were obliged to illegally sublet one of the two bedrooms.

The first couple of flatmates were a wiry speed freak and his pregnant wife. There were a lot of raised voices and slammed doors for a confined space containing an infant. The girl emerged with her face flushed, eyes wet with tears, and a welt on her cheek. Another time, the lad brushed by me in the hall, heading furiously for the door, having clearly received a well-deserved right-hander. Then would come the very different cries of their reconciliations from behind closed doors.

When the arguments got too frequent, the violence too obvious, and the screaming too loud, I told them that they had to go.

Our next flatmate was an American girl who had a startling resemblance to the young Judy Garland. In order to make her rent, she in turn had friends sleeping on the floor of her bedroom — another girl from the Midwest and a lugubrious hippie lad who was forever baking something oppressive in the oven.

I was trying to find a way to write something that made both sense and magic out of our petty struggles to get on with everyday life. My cues came from some distance, certainly a mile away from present fashions and the hit parade. I knew some of John Prine’s bleak and funny songs, and attempted to transfer the ragtime and New Orleans piano figurations and harmonies of Randy Newman’s songs onto my guitar.

Eventually, I wrote a few songs that stood up in the spotlight, and I have a couple that have even survived the time that has passed since they were written. The first was called “Poison Moon.” The opening verse was:

Cut loose in a nightmare, cast off in my dreams
If home is anywhere that I can hang my hat
Then it’s coming apart at the seams
My luck is hanging upside down
I tried to hold on tight
But money’s rolling out of town
And love slips right out of sight

I believed with all my heart that love would endure these small deprivations and the tension of close quarters.

Another song, called “Jump Up,” was about the campaign lies and promises from an election happening in an imaginary land. The whole song was full of real fears and, although they were dressed in stolen or borrowed clothes, ended up sounding both whimsical and terrified.

No tombstone would ever surprise me
When I’m locked in a room about half the size of a matchbox
Got holes in my socks
They match the ones that I got in my feet
I put my feet in the holes in the street and somebody paved me over
I was a statue standing on the corner
Tell me, how else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats?

The last in this group of songs was a more ambitious piece called “No Star,” about the absence of any lucky, guiding light in the sky. The title was a play on words, employing the Welsh “Good night” — Nos da — with which my mother sometimes bade me to sleep as a child, having learned it from our landlady in Olympia. It concluded:

If there’s one thing that’s worse than being lost
Its knowing youre so close to being found

The mood of these songs was hushed, as befitted songs written when a child was sleeping,  but not all of my songs were written to be sung, in Joni Mitchell’s memorable phrase, “to the sound hole and your knee.”

I wrote a country two-step barroom scene called “Cheap Reward” that contained the line “Lip service is all you’ll ever get from me,” which would eventually find its way into an Attractions song of that name in 1977. The earlier draft was a better, if less furious, song.

Then I came up with “Wave a White Flag,” which was clearly about how our battling lodgers would beat each other up and then reconcile in bed. It was the first song that I’d written that got a reaction whenever I played it in public, but given the subject matter I distrusted the laughter it inspired.

I borrowed a Revox tape recorder from a drummer. One afternoon while the house was deserted, I recorded most of these songs.

One of them was a rock and roll novelty tune called “Mystery Dance.” I didn’t think a lot of it, as it was a trife that just seemed to use the same riff as “Jailhouse Rock,” but people seemed to like it well enough.

This was the latest tape to go out to publishers’ offices and record companies, and it was just as swiftly rejected, like all of my previous submissions over the last couple of years.

However, disc jockey Charlie Gillett had a local BBC show at the time called Honky Tonk, on which he played a great selection of old rhythm and blues hits like Jerry Byrne’s “Lights Out,” South Louisiana gems like Tommy McLain’s version of “Sweet Dreams,” and country-soul records such as Charlie Rich’s version of the Penn-Oldham song “A Woman Left Lonely.”

Gillett played records from all over the world, but he would also spin a few homegrown releases. I heard through a friend that Mr. Gillett would listen to my demo tape and, if he approved, might broadcast a song or two.

By this point, I’d started sending different combinations of songs to different record companies, hoping to hit the jackpot. I would send my lyrics to myself by registered mail, leaving the envelope unopened so that I could prove authorship, should anyone try to steal my songs. I kept a note of the contents of each tape in a little notebook. For some reason, I thought A&M might respond to a version of “Radio Radio” called “Radio Soul” and the first draft of “Living in Paradise,” but I didn’t send either of these songs to Charlie.

Whatever the reasoning, I soon got word that the tape was going to be broadcast.

When that moment came, I went into the kitchen and turned out all the lights. I didn’t want anyone to see me listening to my own voice coming out of the transistor radio. The only illumination came from a streetlamp outside the ground-floor window, which cast a vague glow along the linoleum. I was just one storey below where I’d sat as a child, listening to my Dad rehearse for his radio broadcasts.

My voice sounded lower and older than I’d imagined, but I was still finding a way to sing, and the performance was still full of strange affectations, just not all of the strange affectations with which I eventually made my name.

Charlie was complimentary enough about the song, in his deadpan way, but then they went to the weather forecast and the spell was broken.

The world didn’t stop turning, the sky didn’t fall in, and I wondered if there was even more than a handful of listeners tuned in at that hour.

Over the next few weeks, a couple more songs were aired on the show, but still no limousine pulled up outside to dispatch a cigar-chomping impresario to my door with promises of acclaim and riches.

There was briefly a vague plan to issue one of the songs on Oval, the small independent label that Charlie ran. Oval had licensed Johnnie Allen’s Louisiana recording of “Promised Land” with some minor success and would soon issue the first version of “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits, another unsigned act of the day, but the scheme for me to be recorded was eventually overtaken by other more urgent overtures.

Unable to make our rent, we moved in with my in-laws for a while, until their dog started to chew its way through our record collection stuffed under the bed. Either the dog or I had to go.

I went looking for a new home among those offered by unscrupulous landlords who would tack up a screen that didn’t even reach the ceiling and claim a dwelling consisting of “two rooms,” or insist that a stove stuffed into the cupboard was actually a kitchen and then cheat you out of a deposit held against breakages or vandalism when all you had done was paint over a patch of damp wallpaper.

I wrote the song “Shatterproof,” which dreamt about doing physical harm to such a swindler.

For a brief while, I took the number 105 bus to work from a housing estate near Heathrow Airport, along the Western Avenue, to North Acton. Every day I’d wait until we passed the art deco temple of the Hoover vacuum cleaner building.

I’d just heard the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” which name-checks such exotic locations as the Stop & Shop. I thought if Jonathan Richman could sing about a supermarket, there should certainly be a song of praise for this architectural marvel and so wrote:

Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue
Must have been a wonder when it was brand new
Talkin’ ’bout the splendor of the Hoover Factory
I know that you’d agree if you had seen it, too
Its not a matter of life or death
But what is?
It doesn’t matter if I take another breath
Who cares?

—“Hoover Factory”

When I wrote those lyrics I was through the door to a different, less ingratiating way of speaking.

There was a new mood in town.

My gentle, sometimes heartfelt, sometimes trite little songs were not going to command a room, much less the fickle attentions of radio listeners. I needed a new vocabulary and different music.

I’d always had my doubts about people punching the air, people dancing too much and merrily in step.

So the opening lines of the next song I wrote recalled a dance that I’d been to at a Merseyside social club, next to a chocolate factory. The sound of high heels and Doc Marten boots were louder than the record that was playing, which was “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earl.

My head is spinning and my legs are weak
Goose-step dancing, can’t hear myself speak
Hope in the eyes of the ugly girls
That settle for the lies of the last chancers
Where slow-motion drunks pick wallflower dancers

That was my teenage, rock and roll dream and it seemed for the first time as if I could say it out loud without bursting anyone’s balloon. The rest of “Radio Sweetheart” was contradictory stuff, half hopeful, half despairing, like many of the songs that I wrote at the start of my recording career.

Other songs that ended up on my first record, like “Miracle Man,” were pure comic fantasy, intent on making a hero out of an unlikable dupe and romantic loser, likewise the clown in “No Dancing,” who spouts quotations after glancing “at the jackets of some paperbacks.”

“Waiting for the End of the World” turned a simple homeward journey on the Underground into a claustrophobic travelogue, pulling the hysteria out of newspaper headlines into the everyday boredom of the commuter.

I got the notion that someone should be writing these songs and that it was probably me. I scribbled in notebooks all day long, but still often wrote the music for them in the dead of night when our tiny f lat was sleeping. I didn’t know the volume or dimension of any of the songs until I first stepped up to the microphone in a rehearsal room or recording studio.

They were sung in a furious whisper, approximating the sound of someone spitting out the tale over an electric band that I could only imagine in my head. I had the choked percussion of my Harmony Sovereign acoustic and caught the finished songs on a reel of tape that was worn nearly transparent over the years. This  was the tape recorder that my Dad had used for rehearsals and on which I had recorded fragments of music from Radio Luxembourg and the BBC television In Concert series, after my Dad had given it to me.

The tape crawled across the heads, as I had the machine set to the slowest recording speed, in order to save tape. There was a portion of the reel that contained songs by other people, which I would have to sacrifice to make sure I didn’t let any of my own songs escape, as they were now arriving at a speed.

When it came time to write and then sing “Alison,” I knew that I’d never create a beautiful sound, as I was very obviously a mere mortal, unlike Marvin Gaye or Al Green or Philippe Wynne of The Detroit Spinners,  as we knew them in England. But it was the Spinners’ recording of the Linda Creed–Thom Bell song “Ghetto Child” that gave me the musical idea for the chorus of “Alison.” I broke up the line “I know this world is killing you” in the same staccato fashion as the “Life ain’t so easy when you’re a …” that precedes that title refrain of the Spinners’ hit.

Other than this, the emotional cues were pretty disguised.

The other song that was playing in my head when I wrote “Alison” was “The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix. It had been playing in there for a long time.

I believed that “Alison” was a work of fiction, taking the sad face of a beautiful girl glimpsed by chance and imagining her life unraveling before her.

It was a premonition, my fear that I would not be faithful or that my disbelief in happy endings would lead me to jill the love that I had longed for.

I have no explanation for why I was able to stand outside reality and imagine such a scene as described in the song and to look so far into the future, or what in the world would make me want this terrible prediction to come true or become untrue.

The name that I chose was almost incidental.

I knew it couldn’t be a name of a glamorous, sophisticated woman, like Grace or Sophia, or a poetic heroine, like Eloise or Penelope. I needed a name that sounded like a girl anyone might know, and “Alison” fitted the tune.

There was never any violence intended in the refrain, just culpability. “This world” that was “killing” the heroine embraced all the circumstances I’d imagined for that nameless girl, a deadening of dreams through betrayal into bitterness. That the singer was the one doing the damage was as much as I could admit.

I look at all the words in the refrain and I still find it remarkable that many people have failed to understand what is being sung after a thousand or more repetitions. Of all the strange slights and underserved accolades attached to my name over the years, “misogynist”  is the one term that I find most bewildering.

A book like this might be a tempting opportunity to argue with old critical opinions, right perceived wrongs, or have the last word in better- forgotten arguments, but Gentle Reader, hopefully you have already come too far to turn back and will press on regardless, knowing that I have no intention of doing any such a thing.

Except for in this instance …

It is a cruel trick of nature that should have so disposed me to be misinterpreted on a few crucial occasions. For a long time it was not uncommon for me to have the following dialogue at, say, a passport desk or some other identity control:

uniformed figure of authority: Passport.

myself, for it is I, E.C.: There you go …

ufoa: Do you have a problem, sir?

e.c.: Not that I’m aware of.

ufoa: There is no need to take that attitude.

e.c.: I don’t have any attitude.

ufoa: Then why are you using that aggressive tone?

e.c.: I’m not using an aggressive tone, that is my voice and this is my face …

And so on …

It seems that the space between my two front teeth, which made Jane Birkin, Ray Davies, and Jerry Lewis  so appealing, has had the effect of making half of what I say sound like a provocation or an insult.

This was all well and good during the trumped-up mischief of those New Wave days, but hardly an asset during my time in the diplomatic corps.

Add to this that I was blessed, if not cursed, with the face of an altar boy; admittedly not one who was ever asked to serve at a wedding, but rather a lad who was pulled out of lessons to be an acolyte or to swing the thurible at funerals.

My class photographs mostly resembled those of the young Winston Churchill.

If everything you say sounds like the beginning of an argument, it is easy for someone to miss the joke and look for the smart remark, where only the heartfelt word is written.

The disillusionment contained in “Alison” only deepened in the first six months of singing it before a suddenly attentive and hothouse audience, and satisfying the curiosities of reckless and sometimes damaged girls.

I found, to my dismay, that I could not be constant.

All it took was some gin, some tonic, some blue pills, and a red pen to write “Pump It Up” during my first exposure to idiotic rock and roll decadence.

I thought myself above and beyond it, but quickly found it easier to indulge than to sit in judgment. The verses were scrawled on sheets of hotel notepaper on an iron fire escape in Newcastle upon Tyne in the early autumn of 1977. The less memorable ones were crumpled  and tossed into a wastepaper basket.

Two nights later, The Attractions and I debuted the song in a university cafeteria, and a week after that the song was on tape after a handful of takes. Despite my guitar going wildly out of tune in the fade-out, after I smashed two strings off the instrument as the band sped out of sight, it was as good a rock and roll record as The Attractions ever made.

It’s always struck me as funny that the most enduring rallying cry in my repertoire is actually a complete contradiction.

For a while there, my managers maintained tight control of my appearance and public image. I was inclined to be talkative yet confidential, but I didn’t enjoy answering questions, so I stopped talking to the newspapers all together.

Later, when I did give interviews, I usually did so while drinking to a degree that seemed to sharpen my answers into a mythic précis of my true feelings. Everything became about “revenge and guilt,” and this nonsense followed me around like a mangy cur or a gypsy curse, so much so that even years later, earnest Italian journalists would repeat these quotations back to me like portions of the catechism and wait for my correct responses.

Yet even at the time of first singing these songs, I could sense there were people out there who perhaps really did harbor misogynistic feelings. Some of them had notebooks in their hands. Perhaps they saw me as some kind of mouthpiece for their own, uglier feelings. They just weren’t listening very hard.

Here are the words of the opening verse of “This Year’s Girl”:

See her picture in a thousand places
’Cause she’s this years girl
You think you all own little pieces
Of this year’s girl
Forget your fancy manners
Forget your English grammar
’Cause you dont really give a damn
About this years girl

Everything in the song is about the way men see women and what they desire from them. If there is a lie being told, then it is the one that a girl might be prepared to live or tell, in order to live up to some false ideal of attraction.

That may contain disappointment and be critical, but it hardly constitutes hatred.

Even in the second verse, when the song asks, “You want her broken with her mouth wide open?”

That is the view through the camera lens and why the cover of This Years Model portrayed me behind a Hasselblad.

The furious, skittering arrangement of “Lipstick Vogue” seemed to blur the fact that the chorus is actually “It’s you, not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue.”

Not a dismissive “You’re just another mouth in the lipstick vogue.” It was some kind of love song.

If anything, there was an improbable romantic idealism in these songs, along with a nasty little self-righteous, Puritan streak that I quickly realized was very inconvenient when tempted. It was impossible to live up to while traveling at speed or on speed.

Sensing that I could not turn back and believing I could never be forgiven, I sought ever more despairingly and irrationally for the first thrill of desire, however tarnished the circumstances.

By the time I got to writing “Party Girl” in 1978, the disenchantment had set in. I borrowed these lines about a solitary fixation from my earlier song “Poison Moon.”

It starts like fascination
It ends up like a trance
Youve got to use your imagination
On some of that magazine romance

And substituted mere observation for bitter experience.

Give it just one more try
Give it a chance
Starts like fascination
Ends up like a trance

I  wrote that  song as a letter of apology to  a young art student from the North Country fair. We’d talked into the night after one of my shows and if anything more passed between us, it would have been none of anyone else’s business, until I found the encounter written about in a local newspaper in a way that slandered the girl’s reputation.

Later still, people assumed they knew exactly whom the song was written about, when I started to keep more notorious company, but this would have required me to have a time machine as well as a guitar and notebook.

Even when songs have their origins in real events or are portraits of actual people, they do not remain in that realm very long, at least not if they are to endure.

How long can a wound remain unhealed?

I might lament my betrayals, shamefaced at the pain they caused, or regard the impetuous  acts of my youth with pity or more benevolence, but I don’t think of that brief affair every time I sing “Party Girl.” It is a drama to be visited differently with each performance.

Sometimes these songs seem more or less alive to the tragedy or the tenderness of the lyrics. That depends on the moment, the roar of the crowd, the lateness of the hour.

The listener might find their own private story in any of these songs or have no deeper curiosity than whether it was track five or six on an album released a lifetime ago.

Would you like a song less or would you like a song more if you knew exactly the identity of that “Party Girl” or, for that matter, “Alison”?

This is pop music, it isn’t Cluedo.

By the middle of 1979, when almost all of my alibis and excuses had been stripped away and both my personal and professional life were in complete disarray, I wrote this verse:

Some things you never get used to
Even though youre feeling like another man
Theres nothing that he can do for you
To shut me away as you walk through
Lovers laughing in their amateur hour
Holding hands in the corridors of power
Even though Im with somebody else right now

These lines come from “High Fidelity,” an incredibly sad, delusion of a song, in which a couple find themselves in different rooms with different lovers, one of them still irrationally believing their pledge will endure both the initial faithlessness and the solace of revenge.

As the same group of songs contained the titles “Temptation,” “Opportunity,” and “Possession,” perhaps I should not be so surprised I could have fallen so far and so fast from the innocent, resolute words of “Poison Moon” to the shattered scenario of “High Fidelity.”

To explain how, I have to go back to another song written in those hushed hours just before the clamor and temptations of my professional career began and I ran away with that peculiar circus. Back then, I could say things  in song that were simultaneously playacting and utterly true. Such a song is “Stranger in the House.”

In my mind, it was a tilt at writing something that functioned like one of half a dozen abject country songs that I admired, the sort written or sung by Gram Parsons or George Jones. But deep in that conflicted place between reason and impulse that people call the heart, this song was another premonition, a companion song to the faithless theme of “Alison.”

I knew that I could become estranged from all that I held dear: vows I’d made, homes that had and would soon be broken, trust that I could betray, in hotel rooms in which I merely lodged, rehearsing lies to say.

I was only twenty-two when I wrote:

Theres a stranger in the house
Nobodys seen his face
But everybody says he’s taken my place
Theres a stranger in the house
No one will ever see
But everybody says he looks like me

It sang more chillingly and with a lot less melodrama than it reads, borne on the echo of some Conway Twitty tune.

I left home again that year and never completely found my way back.

From UNFAITHFUL MUSIC & DISAPPEARING INK by Elvis Costello, to be published on October 13, 2015 by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Declan MacManus.

Elvis Costello on His Inspiration for ‘Alison’