Most celebrity memoirs are a sham. They’re ghostwritten, delivered too early in an artist’s career (Britney Spears published hers at age 18; Justin Bieber, age 16) and conform to the same narrative of a modest, unassuming superstar born of humble beginnings. It takes patience, and no small amount of guts, to deliver a memoir that encompasses both your successes and failures, one that doesn’t always make you out as the hero. This fall, two legendary performers—Grace Jones and Elvis Costello—delivered such memoirs. Here, we review the tellings of two full, accomplished lives.
She’s Not Perfect (But She’s Perfect for You)
Grace Jones has walked the runways for the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa. She’s hit the charts with tracks such as “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Pull Up to the Bumper.” She’s not only starred in movies featuring alpha male icons James Bond and Conan the Barbarian, but she’s scared the crap out of both of them.
Jones calls her work “the entertainment that is really art that likes to party.” And offstage? “I was the ultimate specialist in pursuing insatiable appetites and shameless lusts.”
I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, $27) is full of lessons in motivation, determination and intimidation from a woman who has never let anything hold her back. There are tales of her early Paris modeling days with BFFs Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall, and the time Debbie Harry and Andy Warhol hosted her baby shower at the Paradise Garage. She talks about being called “the Errol Flynn of the ’80s” by her fellow Hollywood party animals and makes bold statements like, “I want to fuck every man in the ass at least once.”
Yet, despite her fierceness, Jones’ tone is open and witty. She’s a diva who throws eggs at taxis when they won’t pick her up. And she meets rejections with defiance. When modeling mogul John Casablancas tells Jones he cannot sell a black model in Paris, she recalls: “I leaned over his desk like I was on the prow of a ship powering through hundreds of dry, gleaming snakes, and I said, ‘I’m going to make you EAT THOSE WORDS.’”
A compelling theme about Jones’ story is her depiction of a time when people experimented with new forms of art, identity and culture, safe from the 24-hour exposure of the Internet. “The mainstream absorbed the idea of the underground, and in the process made it difficult for there to be an underground, because if there is, it is quickly spotted and undermined. It is difficult to explain what it was like back then, to be so careful about the kind of work you did that you didn’t feel like a sellout. A lot of people now do not get the concept of the sellout.”
In one chapter, Jones spills a full pot of tea on Lady Gaga and other pretenders to her avant-garde throne, saying, “I’d rather be a memory of something fantastic than join in with the party as it is now, filled with people copying something that happened before they were born.”
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation of Memoirs is Jones’ childhood: She spent most of it at the mercy of a fanatically religious, sadistically abusive grandfather. It would have broken most people, but it only fueled her mighty fire. When she describes playing the villainess in the James Bond movie A View to a Kill, she says she was emulating her abuser’s scowling intensity: “That was my way of dealing with the monster—turn it into something he would have been horrified by. I threw it back in his face even if he never knew it.”
Throughout her career, Jones has defied expectations of gender, color and now age—earlier this year, the 67-year-old diva performed topless at New York’s Afropop festival and looked astonishingly good doing it. When her family nervously debates what her son’s daughter should call her—Nana, Aunt Grace—she waves them away: “I deserve to be called Grandmother, with emphasis on the grand.” I’ll Never Write My Memoirs is another grand achievement in an incredible career. ★★★★★ – LTR
His Aim Is Truth
Elvis Costello has always been one of pop music’s most literate songwriters, so it should come as no surprise that when it came time for the musician to face his own “deep, dark truthful mirror,” the man born Declan Patrick MacManus delivered a pumped-up memoir that weighs in at nearly 700 pages. Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Blue Rider Press, $30) isn’t perfect, but it’s articulate and entertaining and a real treasure trove for music fans, and Costello fans in particular.
It’s clear from the start that Costello is interested in giving readers a full accounting of his work. There are anecdotes galore about his collaborations with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, his interactions with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash, and details about virtually every album from his debut (My Aim Is True) to his recent work with the Roots (Wise Up Ghost).
But at its core, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is the story of an only child, the product of a broken home, whose early success in the music industry quickly turned him into a self-centered jackass. Arrogant, sharp-tongued and frequently inebriated, Costello’s philandering cost him his first marriage—a note taken from his own father’s songbook.
Costello’s father, Ross MacManus, was a trumpet player and longtime vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra. Costello begins his memoir with a recollection about accompanying his father to work—a singing engagement at the Hammersmith Palais ballroom.
Young Declan’s regular exposure to popular music (particularly emerging bands, such as The Beatles) instilled a love for virtually every musical genre, which explains Costello’s frequent forays into country, jazz and orchestral music. It also introduced him to the pleasures and temptations associated with performing and touring; Costello’s parents split while Ross MacManus was off seeking the spotlight, leaving MacManus fils to be largely raised by his mother, Lillian.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink contains many wonderful and essential stories—both musical and personal, comic and tragic—all of them well told by a wiser, sober Costello. Particularly affecting are the stories about his aging parents, his family’s history and the courtship of his current wife, singer Diana Krall. Costello also tries to acknowledge his various missteps (his drunken rant about Ray Charles and James Brown, his failed relationships, his squabbles with bandmates) without begging for apologies.
The book dances happily all over Costello’s timeline, though some readers will be disappointed by Costello’s frequent lack of detail and the absence of a proper index. This is a memoir after all, told from Costello’s point of view. Like any career-spanning set list, it’s important to be grateful for what is there rather than grouse about what isn’t.
But wait, there’s more, as the late-night pitchmen are fond of saying. True Costello fans should consider the audio version of the book (Penguin Audio, $50), read by The Beloved Entertainer himself. While it’s a little disconcerting hearing his wonderful lyrics spoken and not sung each time Costello references a song, it’s enormously satisfying hearing Costello’s recollections in his own voice. ★★★★✩ – MSK
Soundtrack to Declan
Do we honestly need another greatest hits package from Elvis Costello? Haven’t there already been a dozen or so discs chronicling his career, many of them indistinguishable from each other, save the label-specific stuff? Yet devoted Costello fans were thrilled to hear of a new, two-disc set issued in conjunction with his just-published memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Ume Records, $20), as a kind of “soundtrack album” to the book (Costello’s words). What better opportunity to unlock the vault and deliver a blistering set of home demos, live tracks and previously unreleased material?
Turns out the new package contains a smattering of that stuff, but not nearly enough of it. What you do get are 38 tracks selected and sequenced by The Pope of Pop, featuring many of Costello’s personal favorites, along with songs that are thematically linked to the new book. The only true rarities here are “I Can’t Turn It Off” (recorded in 1975, and attributed to D. P. Costello) and “April 5th,” a collaboration with Costello, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson and John Leventhal, which was previously performed live on Spectacle, Costello’s short-lived series. There are also three short sketches from Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink that didn’t make the final manuscript. Aside from that, it’s nothing you could call unexpected, and—much as I love “Man Out of Time”—not necessarily enough to say “I Want You.” ★★★✩✩ – MSK