Driving to a meeting yesterday, I heard an interview with Elvis Costello, talking about his new memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. It was fantastic. I’m a huge fan of autobiographies and I’m looking forward to reading this one. So far, the reviews have been very good. Geoff Edgars from the Washington Post said that he liked it more than Bob Dylan and Keith Richards autobiographies.
Here is an part of the book that talks about his famous song “Alison”, which is one of my favorites, and probably one of his most talked about songs….
“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.”
-Elvis Costello, from his new book Unfaithful Music….
Enjoy the book, but, if you can, buy if from a local bookstore. My favorite is Book Outlet at 69 Lafayette Road, North Hampton, NH. Their phone number is 603-964-2002.
Matt Becker Portsmouth, NH
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