Face to Face with Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello
Stephen Lam/Reuters

Only the British could have produced an artist who, in terms of his lyricism, wit, invention and longevity, can legitimately be ranked with the likes of Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, then spend a great deal of their time bickering over his repertoire. Over the years, I tell Elvis Costello, who is talking to me on his tour bus en route to a concert in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, I've met older fans incensed by his versatility, and who especially disliked early excursions into classical music such as his 1993 masterpiece, The Juliet Letters.

"I think some of the stuff lionized from my early career is vastly overrated," says Costello. "Of my recording career, only the first 10 years was in England. Some consider that the only period of worth."

"You wrote a song about those days that includes the line 'Lonely cowards followed me like ghouls'."

"It's unsettling to see somebody dressed up as me in 1977, and who is a person of my age. I'll be 61 in August," says Costello, who now lives in New York with his wife Diana Krall and their eight-year-old twin boys. (He has a grown-up son, Matthew, from his first marriage.) "Such scenes have a tragic, Pagliacci-like quality. But that's a small proportion of my audience."

In the days I spend with him on the road, Costello is editing his autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, published this autumn.

"This isn't an orthodox chronological memoir or an attempt to settle scores," he says. "If people want that, this won't be for them. If they want something written from the heart which could, I hope, occasionally make them laugh, this may be for them. There's a tremendous amount of dirt in there, naturally," he adds, with the slightest hint of irony, "but mostly under the fingernails".

Costello appeared on the Letterman show more than any other musician and once guest-hosted the programme for a week. He has acted in Frasier, The Simpsons and, alongside Sean Penn, in Two and a Half Men and was an accomplished host of his own show, Spectacle, interviewing guests like Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen. I was once with him when he got a call from Diana, who said: "The President [Obama] says 'Hi'."

"Are you appreciated in the United States to a degree that isn't replicated in the UK, even if you can sell out the Royal Albert Hall?"

"The Mirror once quoted me as saying I hated Britain, which was an absolute lie and an idiotic opinion to attribute to me. My fortunes are different in different countries."

Declan MacManus – his stage name was invented by an ex-associate – grew up in west London, then moved to Merseyside, where his mother Lillian still lives. His current show includes footage of his late father Ross, who sang with Joe Loss at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance.

"He sang If I Had a Hammer to the Queen Mother," Costello says. "She was very fond of work songs, never having had a job of her own."

If the only song he'd ever written had been his withering indictment of slavery, Red Cotton [2009], Costello would have been remembered for ever. ("There is no man that should own another / When he can't even recognise his sister and his brother.")

If you remain trapped in a 1977 mind-set, you might equally investigate a more recent song, Jimmie Standing in the Rain, which precipitated ovations at most venues we visited, including the 2,400-seat Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, or his extraordinary anti-war anthem The Scarlet Tide, as performed on YouTube with Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.

Costello's vitriolic indictment of Margaret Thatcher, Tramp the Dirt Down [1989] sold rather well after her death. Did he ever imagine an even more radically Conservative regime?

"Yes. But I didn't imagine it would arrive via a public relations conspiracy that involved the Labour Party. Margaret Thatcher was replaced by a more devious, more insidious surrogate who wore a red rose.

"I wrote Shipbuilding [1982] about the distress of a family in wartime. None of the people bereaved on either side will ever regard that conflict [The Falklands] as a small war. But it was relatively small compared with Iraq, which has had appalling consequences for the entire planet; a catastrophe based on a lie."

How would he like to see Tony Blair reappear in public life?

"Photographed in a newspaper," says Costello, "wearing an orange [jail] suit".

Given the stature of the work he has achieved, is he surprised at the degree to which he irritated parts of his original fan base?

"Most artists I admire worked in various styles. It's true there have been people who've viewed the different kinds of music I've been involved in as peripheral to some sort of main thread. But the fact that my work hasn't proceeded in a straight line, to me, is a virtue."

"And one that's important to you?"

"Very important. Because that," says Costello, "is my life"

Face to Face with Elvis Costello | Culture