Guest Post: Elvis Costello & John Pizzarelli – a comparison of memoirs

dave-thomasThis week’s post is brought to you buy retired music teacher & fellow Beatle freak – Dave Thomas. Dave wanted to write a comparison between two books written by musicians that have both colaborated with Paul McCartney. One of the books, Elvis Costello’s memoir, I reviewed on November 15, 2015…you can reread it here.

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While somewhere in the midst of reading Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello, and hearing him talk (albeit briefly) about his collaboration with Paul McCartney, I found myself thinking about a book by another artist who has worked with Sir Paul:  World on a String: A Musical Memoir by John Pizzarelli.  I read the latter book some time ago, and was struck by the similarities, yet drastically different tone and content of these two books.
I have never considered myself to be a huge fan of Elvis Costello’s music, but I have always had a great deal of respect for both the breadth of his musical knowledge, as well as his skills…and while I am not familiar with a great deal of his catalog, most of what I AM familiar with I enjoy very much.  When I am in the mood for lyrics that make me think, Elvis Costello has never disappointed.  His lyrics, by and large, are quite poetic, and in many cases, stand alone quite nicely apart from their musical accompaniment.  In his memoir, he will often slip in and out of these lyrics, using them to illustrate a point, or describe an event in his life.

Overall, his 2016 memoir (Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink) left me with very mixed feelings.  Perhaps it was the out-of-sequence way in which it was told, which made the story a bit difficult to follow at times.  Costello has worked with many musical partners over the years, in a variety of musical genres and styles…but the way the book has been edited left me with a case of musical and literary whiplash as we jumped into and out of stories featuring this eclectic mix of characters.  Perhaps it’s just that after 688 pages, I really don’t feel like I “know” Elvis Costello any better than I did before.  I know many more things about him than I did before, but all of these facts fail to leave me with a clear picture of who he really is. While clearly a talented, intelligent man, neither Mr. Costello’s music, nor this book, gives one the impression that he is “accessible”.  Perhaps that was his intention – he appears to be a private person who, although he sought fame, is not as comfortable with the reality of it, as he is the idea.
Given the length of the book, I would have hoped for more detail in his stories.  I was particularly disappointed at the lack of anecdotes surrounding his late 1980’s collaboration with Paul McCartney, which led to McCartney’s album “Flowers in the Dirt”, and also had an impact on Costello’s album, “Spike”….but the whole book felt somewhat lacking in specifics.  He dances around the edges of stories, especially those originating from a more reckless time in his life, in the earlier stages of his stardom.  He mentions several failed relationships along the way, but we never get a real understanding for why they failed; neither do we hear very much about his current relationship with the talented Ms. Diana Krall.
He talks quite a lot about his musician father, Ross McManus.  Elvis’ relationship with his father seemed to often be rocky, but he does owe a lot of his early musical influences to his father’s work as a musician as a trumpet player and singer.  They even collaborated on a few projects together, starting with a commercial jingle in 1973.  But it is difficult (based upon this book) to draw a clear musical line from the father’s work to the son’s.
There are a few (and just a few) moments of lightness and humor in the book, much of it having an air of lessons learned and a few regrets…but Costello’s tone seems to soften slightly when he talks about his father’s failing health robbing them of the music that was a large part of the bond between them.
This is all in very stark contrast with World on a String, by John Pizzarelli.
First – full disclosure:  While I cannot say I “know” John Pizzarelli, I have had numerous opportunities to interact with him, (along with his father, Bucky, and his brother, Martin) over the years – starting with the wedding of some mutual friends (mine and John’s) about 30 years ago.  John was still in his early 20’s, honing his skills, and I’ve enjoyed watching his talent develop and grow over the ensuing years.  Because of the interactions that we’ve had, I can tell you without equivocation that John Pizzarelli is one of the nicest, hardest working guys in “show business”.  So without any slight intended toward Mr. Costello, I acknowledge that this review may tend to favor Mr. Pizzarelli’s book.
I used the term “show business” above for many reasons, not the least of which is that it evokes an era that Pizzarelli is completely familiar with and comfortable in – the era which gave us the “Great American Songbook”.  The names Berlin, Mercer, Gershwin, Schwartz, Porter, van Heusen and Arlen come up frequently on his recordings, in his shows, and in this book.
John is a master story-teller, a pretty decent mimic (a talent which he employs often when telling stories), a wonderful crooner and a world-class guitar player.  Like Costello’s book, Pizzarelli spends a great deal of time talking about his father’s musical career, but in this case, the direct career line from father to son is unmistakable.  In fact, a great deal of John’s early career was spent playing gigs with Bucky, and the two still occasionally play together, as Bucky continues to demonstrate his mastery of the instrument at age 91 (as of this writing).
Unlike the somewhat dry, factual recounting we get from Costello’s book, Pizzarelli’s mood is upbeat and jovial, his stories full of amusing anecdotes and inside stories of well-known musical figures. The only change in tone comes when he speaks of his 1st manager, and to a lesser degree, his co-star in the Broadway musical Dream, Lesley Ann Warren.  Every story has enough detail to give you a “you are there” feel, despite the fact that at 304 pages, it is less than half the length of Costello’s book.
The Pizzarellis were, and are, a typical New Jersey Italian household: Sunday dinners were a very important event!  What was not typical was the people around the table at those dinners:  Les Paul, Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, and many, many other musical legends who knew and worked with John’s father, Bucky.  Reading this book (or better yet, listening to the audio version, read by John), you’ll feel like you’re at one of his shows, and at times, even sitting around in his living room being regaled with stories of jazz history.  His writing style puts you at ease, with a great deal of humor sprinkled throughout.
Unlike Mr. Costello, whose parents divorced when he was not yet out of secondary school, John’s childhood centered around a very strong home life.  It is no coincidence that Bucky, who was the original guitarist for the Tonight Show, decided not to move to California when Johnny Carson took the show from New York City to Burbank, because most of the Pizzarelli family was on the East Coast.  John was taught to play guitar by his father and uncles, and has worked all over the world for the last 30 years, often with his father Bucky on guitar and/or his brother Martin on bass.  In fact, both John and Bucky perform on Paul McCartney’s 2012 release, Kisses on the Bottom, (along with Costello’s wife, Diana Krall), and Pizzarelli’s stories about working with Sir Paul are much more forthcoming than Costello’s.
The reader gets the impression that his strong family ties are the main reason why John has stayed so grounded over the years, despite working with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Doc Severinsen, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, and probably most of the jazz musicians any reader could name.  The book leaves you with the impression that John is every bit the same person in private as he is on stage.
Two artists of our generation, born 6 years and 3,500 miles apart, with very different backgrounds, very different talents, and each having (for the most part) a very different fan base….  but both their paths intersected musically with Paul McCartney.  Such is the power of music to unite, and such is the magic of a Beatle.  But then, The Beatles have been uniting people through their music for over 50 years, so I guess that’s no great surprise.

 

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