Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
Blue Rider Press
As a young man with questionable morals I stole cassettes from the cardboard standee at the pharmacy where I worked. I used the fact that we never sold any of these bargain bin albums to justify pocketing Frank Sinatra Swings 1940-1953, The Best of Jethro Tull, and Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy by The Who. I even gave myself the five fingered discount on an unlistenable Mel Torme tape after seeing him on Night Court. The Velvet Fog ended up tossed from my car window as I turned left from Richmond Avenue onto Hylan Boulevard, back when I also thought littering was acceptable. My moral compass seemed to always point to “go ahead, no one’s looking.”
One day, after swigging intermittently from secretly stashed bottles of Coke syrup and equally delicious Grape Dimetapp, I picked up Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model from the rack and it became one of my favorite tapes to listen to while delivering overpriced pharmaceuticals to old ladies. Since the standee only had that one Costello album, I had to pick up the rest of his catalog at the Staten Island Mall.
“Excuse me,” I might ask, “do you have ‘Blood and Chocolate’ by Elvis Costello?”
“A box of chocolates by Elvis Presley?” the oblivious cashier might reply.
I caught Costello on tour in ’89 in support of Spike and have seen him nearly every year since, loving every step into pop, beat, chamber, electronic music, you name it. There’s a handful of folks that couldn’t make a bad record if they tried. For me, Costello is at the top of that list. When I heard he was finally writing a memoir, I was sure it would best some of my favorites, like Chronicles Volume One by Bob Dylan and This Wheel’s on Fire by Levon Helm, though I was certain it couldn’t be as good as my favorite; Beneath the Underdog by Charlie Mingus.
A few hundred pages into Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink I was convinced Costello’s grasp of language translated swimmingly into prose, like I knew it would. A lot has already been written about this book, which is why I won’t repeat that stuff here. Suffice it to say, my favorite parts expose the mechanics of writing songs with Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, and The Roots. Hardcore fans will find those passages hard to put down.
Elvis is the same great storyteller he is in song, though the terrain is markedly different. On record Costello may crowbar five different viewpoints into three minutes. On paper he’s gotta be way more linear over the course of nearly 700 pages, which reveals the first of my five complaints about this excellent new memoir.
ChronologyUnfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink travels back and forth through time, a device that works well in films like Pulp Fiction, for example, but one that makes Costello’s history harder to follow.
… a device that works well in films like Pulp Fiction, for example, but one that makes Costello’s history harder to follow.
It’s not that I can’t keep up, it’s that I would prefer chronological order. It’s just how my mind works, and perhaps the reason Musée Picasso, the Paris museum where Pablo’s works are mostly chronological, is one of my favorites. As readers, we mentally catalog prerequisites as we read them, something writers take advantage of to build tension. Throwing that device out the window can be jarring. For example, hearing about Costello’s first son Mathew in one paragraph, only to revert back to the pregnancy in the next takes some getting used to. So chapters including details on playing Live Aid or singing Penny Lane for President Obama are followed by chapters that expound on the early days before his first record.
If specificity is your bag, you’ll find more proper nouns here than within all the begats in the Book of Genesis. Every second or third sentence introduces the unique name of a person, place or thing that quickly fills up your short term memory banks. There are 86 counties in Great Britain and Costello seems hellbent on name-checking them all. He remembers every street, venue, ancillary character, instrument, machine and brand that ever crossed his field of vision. Perhaps Costello wants to prove that all that Turpentine he drank didn’t result in an unreliable narrator. At some point it becomes a little self-serving, like me telling you that Mel Torme cassette wound up on Hylan Boulevard after turning left from Richmond Avenue.
Honestly, this rears its head more in the first third of the book, and for avid readers it won’t be a problem at all. Perhaps I’m not as smart as I thought I was.
This one is a bit confounding. At nearly 700 pages, there’s definitely room for more full sized photos. No joke, some pics take up a sixteenth of the page. Sometimes are so small you can’t even make out the details.
Why no captions, Elvis? Did you use up your quota of proper nouns?
Early versions of lyrics are uselessly small. Group photos are even harder to decipher, which wouldn’t be a problem had their been captions. Why no captions, Elvis? Did you use up your quota of proper nouns? Perhaps readers of the eBook can pinch and zoom, but that doesn’t work with the hardcover, try as I might.
Also, all the pictures are black and white, like the book was published a hundred years ago. I assume this was a cost saving measure and not an artistic choice.
Wow, I’m really nitpicking now, but I would swear the text isn’t black but a dark grey. Or maybe it’s because the pages seem kinda thin and you can see through a little to the text on the underside. Or, perhaps, this alludes to the titular disappearing ink. Maybe one day I’ll open this book to find 700 blank pages. While that would be genius, I live in the present, and like many of Costello’s fans, my eyesight ain’t what it used to be.
Once again, eBook readers, and anyone enjoying the audio book, won’t have this gripe. The rest of us may need an electron microscope and an arc lamp as we read into the night.
DirtI’m a gossip. I know this. If I’m talking to a friend, I want gossip about who we know in common. Is someone shagging someone they shouldn’t? That’s none of my business, so please tell me everything and don’t leave out any details. It’s the same reason I want to see so many of of the people I know naked (you know who you are).
Give me some of that vitriol you were famous for in the seventies.
While Costello does throw a few sexy bones our way, they’re almost always of the regrettable variety. He cops to his own multiple infidelities, for sure, but would it be in bad taste for a married man with children to tell me how Bebe Buell was in the sack? I’m asking for a friend.
We hear a lot about musicians Costello admires, but I want to hear who he can’t stand. I’m a fan, so I already know he loves The Band and Bob Dylan. I wanna hear him obliterate Bon Jovi. Sure, he mentions that he couldn’t sit through a Pink Floyd record, and that The Doobie Brothers couldn’t follow Little Feat in concert, but it’s all handled a little too politely. Give me some of that vitriol you were famous for in the seventies.
At least we get a glimpse of the dark side. We hear a lot about the drinking and pills that helped fuel his more aggressive lyrics, performances and bumblings. Dylan hardly cops to taking an aspirin in his book and we know he introduced the Beatles to the “jazz cigarettes” that ferried them from I Wanna Hold Your Hand to Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.
Costello’s honesty is refreshing, his memory is photographic, and his pencil is sharp.
I’m actually thrilled Elvis finally put his thoughts down on paper. It’s a very satisfying read – even the parts Bruce Thomas tried to tell you first. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into. Costello’s honesty is refreshing, his memory is photographic, and his pencil is sharp.
Won’t be long before I give the audio book a listen, which I know will be imbued with his late breaking elder statesman charm, as opposed to the thinly veiled sarcasm of his youth.
Growing up looks good on him.
Comic Fans: Geek out with Cartoonist Kayfabe
Comics have come a long way since they were just for kids – and anyway, those kids have grown up and rightfully embrace it as an artform. Cartoonish Kayfabe expertly walk you through the finer points of comic creation and appreciation, referencing some high quality images along the way. If you’re a comic geek, you will dig it – especially if you’re into 90’s era and independent comics.
Chadwick Boseman Forever!!
It is clear that Chadwick Boseman chose iconic roles like Thurgood Marshall, James Brown, Jackie Robinson and Black Panther with deliberate intent and for a specific purpose. In an age where positive roles for Black actors is often sparse, Chadwick managed to land and portray historical figures that made most respect his talents if not revel in his ability to transition effortlessly for one character to another. Even I had to give his African accent a solid B+ (It’s the highest grade the Nigerian Standards Bureau can give for an African accent to a non African FYI.)
Holding out and preparing for these dynamic roles came with both great frustration and incredible resolve I’m certain. Not to mention the taxing ordeal of battling Colon Cancer as the grueling scheduling of filming and increasing responsibility for positive representation loomed. Even under extreme duress, Chadwick’s commitment to others appeared to outweigh his own tribulations, unbeknownst to us all.
Black Panther may have been just a movie to some and that may be because some can easily rattle off 10 movies with a king of non Af-Am origin. It represented a lot more to others. Albeit imagined, imagery on cinema often accomplishes more to augment the social narrative and society itself than actual reality. If negative stereotypes influence perception then positive ones absolutely have the same converse effect.
Even in jest, the cultural misappropriation of raisins in potato salad on SNL skits directly spoke to the tampering of black culture to which T’challa championed, represented and aptly responded “Oh hell Nah Karen!”
If you don’t understand the relevance of representation, it’s probably because you are thoroughly represented. After all, no one is ever grateful for every breath they take until they are gasping for air.
R.I.P Chadwick Boseman. Thank you for breathing life into the possibility of Black excellence.
10 Easter Eggs of Segregation in Lovecraft Country Episode 1
We’re all familiar with movies hiding easter eggs throughout their films sending winks and nods to pop-culture references. Sometimes it will be a tip-of-the-cap to an author, actor, or creator. Sometimes it is paying homage to an inspiring series, book, or film that’s near and dear to the director’s heart. This week I’ve seen a first. A T.V. series that has several easter eggs depicting segregation and oppression that only eagle-eyed aficionado’s of the black struggle might have caught on to.
Lovecraft Country is littered with important details that would fly over many people’s heads, and as I watched it again, I caught more nods to the true oppression of many African-Americans during the post-World War II era.
As a film buff, nothing makes me happier than watching a review, breakdown, or hidden easter egg video on a TV show I enjoy. Yesterday I did the same with Lovecraft Country, and while many of the melanin-deficient reviewers on youtube touched on the themes of literature, horror, and fantasy, many understandably missed some of the most important historical references.
Here are 10 Easter Eggs of Segregation in Lovecraft Country Episode 1.
1. H.P. Lovecraft’s little poem.
While we all know H.P. Lovecraft as an innovator of modern horror, fiction, and fantasy in literature, many people (including myself) didn’t know about a poem he wrote that spoke horribly about African Americans. Lovecraft Country alludes to the poem, but never recites it. Once they mentioned the title, I went straight to my Google Search. Below is the poem called: On the Creation of N*****s (1912)
When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceived a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a N****r.
I’m sure Jackie Robinson beating the S**T out of Cthulhu at the beginning of the episode was a collective middle finger from the black community to Mr. Lovecraft.
2. Seating for Black People
While this may not come as a surprise to many of you, a lot of people are ignorant to the fact that, yes, black people were made to sit in the back of the bus. Many know the story of Rosa Parks’ defining moment, but for decades this was the way of life for black people. Where insult to injury is predicated in the show is when the bus breaks down and the bus driver gets a local pick-up truck driver to ride the stranded passengers into the city. Immediately in the next scene, the only two black passengers were seen walking down the road into Chicago.
3. Propaganda for the Negro Soldier
In Lovecraft Country, the above poster is not shown in this episode, but instead, it’s a black soldier telling other young black men that if they enlist, they can see the world. While Atticus walks by the soldier, there’s a glance of recognition as if Atticus was once one of those impressionable young men, and he knows their being lied to. Black men had to be enticed to enlist by different methods than whites because it was hard to show patriotism to a country that still to that day had kept them oppressed. So, they would show a poster of Joe Louis joining the fight…why don’t you? Get to see the world! Little did they know seeing the world would involve PTSD, death, and despair.
4. The Negro Motorist Greenbook
The synopsis according to IMDB.com is: “Lovecraft Country follows Atticus Black as he joins up with his friend Letitia and his Uncle George to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father.” While this is true, it’s not the whole story. Why are they embarking on this trip? It’s to help update what many people may know as, The Negro Motorist Greenbook. Yup, just like the movie, The Greenbook. If you don’t know, this book was originated by Victor Hugo Green as a travel bible for African Americans. It provided details of safe roads to travel, places for food, repairs, and lodging where they wouldn’t be turned away or even worse, assaulted.
5. James Baldwin’s monologue on racial divide
During one of the scenes in Lovecraft Country, we see a montage of our protagonist’s road trip. In the montage we see different moments where they face discrimination, others facing discrimination, and the hardships of ignorant people with all the privilege in the world monopolizing on their entitlements. Usually, during movie montages, a composer would play a score to envoke emotions during the collection of scenes. Lovecraft Country went in a different direction. Instead, they played the monologue of James Baldwin’s renowned speech at Cambridge University where he debated with William Buckley on the subject of the United States racial divide. James Baldwin was a brilliant playwright, novelist, speaker, and activist that eloquently described the plight of the black man as it still stands today. Merged with the scenes during the montage, it speaks volumes about the state of America.
6. Ice Cream stand Scene
In one of the scenes in the montage, we see a black man and his children waiting at an ice cream stand for service. Right over them is a sign that says “colored” and on the other side of the stand is a group of white people with ice cream being tended to by the servers. This scene looked extremely familiar to me. When I did some research, I realized this scene was based on a famous photograph by Gordon Parks, photographer and journalist who well-documented scenes of the segregation and civil rights era. Years ago I saw his work in its full brilliant quality at the High Museum in Atlanta. The color and detail brought a realism that a black-and-white photo could never do. It made this a real thing.
7. Mother and daughter under the neon sign
This scene once again pays homage to another photograph by Gordon Parks. A mother and her daughter dressed elegantly as if they were going to church, standing under a large neon sign that says ‘Colored Entrance’.
8. The billboard across from the gas station
While Atticus and company are at a gas station filling up their car, they are approached by a gas station attendant pretending to be a gorilla to mock them. Leticia holds Atticus back from approaching the man as the attendant intensifies his ignorant behavior and she forces Atticus into the car. As they pull off, you can see a Billboard for Aunt Jemima in the background. Aunt Jemima has always been a misrepresentation of black culture through the lens of the white man and advertised to his fellow man as the overall perception of black people. The image of Aunt Jemima is a source reflection of the learned behavior of the gas station attendant.
9. Sundown towns
Two years ago was the first time I’ve ever heard of a Sundown Town. No, not through a history book, but as a warning about staying too late in a little town in Texas that exists today! If I didn’t hear about this first hand, I would’ve thought it was a theme of the past, but no. There are currently county’s that do not condemn the abuse of black people once the sun goes down! While the billboard here might be a relic from the past, Sundown Towns are definitely alive and well across America!
10. White walls
Not only is this one telling, but it also holds all kinds of subliminal messages. While the group finds a Green book safe haven for dining called Lydia’s, they are surprised to find the restaurant is now called, Simmonsville Dinette. Still, they walk in and are greeted by unwelcoming faces. While the server goes to the back for what seems like their coffee orders, Atticus realizes that the walls are painted white. He asks his uncle to remind him why the white house was white. His uncle tells him about the war of 1812 when British soldiers torched it and when slaves were tasked to rebuild it, they had to paint it white to cover up the burn marks. This tells us two things. Lydia’s restaurant was burnt down and rebuilt by trespassers (obviously for being a safe haven for blacks in this all-white town) and the blackness of this restaurant was erased and covered up by the ‘white’ paint. My goodness, I could go on and on about this one!
I was expecting this series to be littered with easter eggs, but knowing they have incorporated easter eggs specifically about the black movement and struggles has me fired up to see what else is in store for these characters. Did you see any easter eggs that I missed? Comment and let me know.
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