The Life and Music of Elvis Costelloby Graeme Thomson
“Sensitive, impeccably researched account of his journey from pub-rock mediocrity in Flip City to New Wave megastardom with the Attractions and beyond.” –Time Out (London)
“Sensitive, impeccably researched account of his journey from pub-rock mediocrity in Flip City to New Wave megastardom with the Attractions and beyond.” –Time Out (London)
Elvis Costello is undoubtedly one of the most important and challenging musicians of the last thirty years. Complicated Shadows paints a detailed portrait of an intensely private, complex, and creatively restless individual. It draws on a wealth of new research, including exclusive interviews with people from all stages of Costello’s life and career: classmates, friends, members of his early bands, former lovers, members of the Attractions, producers, and various collaborators.
Complicated Shadows unearths many previously unknown details about Costello’s childhood in London and Liverpool and his early years as a struggling musician, as well as his turbulent personal life. It also reveals the circumstances surrounding his marriages to ex-Pogues bassist Cait o’Riordan and jazz singer Diana Krall, and the bitter breakup of his long-term backing band, the Attractions. We are made privy to the moment when Elvis and the Attractions were on the cusp of superstardom while touring the States in 1979. Costello’s “coiled tight” personality and penchant for outrageous candor set the tone for a frenetic, and aesthetically inventive, independent band. Their independence is epitomized by their infamous 1977 Saturday Night Live appearance (replacing the Sex Pistols, who dropped out) when Costello cut short the scheduled song, “Less Than Zero,” shouting “Stop. Stop. . . . I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here,” then directed the band to play the as-of-yet unreleased “Radio Radio.” Costello didn’t appear on live U.S. television again until the 1980s.
Complicated Shadows contains a full examination and analysis of the entirety of Costello’s vast and varied musical output, both in the studio and on the stage.
“Thomson’s research is superb . . . he weaves Costello’s personal, professional, musical and business lives together with a clarity that no one has ever approached.” –Mark Brown, Rocky Mountain News
“As British journalist Thomson eloquently shows . . . Costello’s tireless search for inspiration and ideas led to greatness. . . . [He] evaluates and rightly praises his subject’s lyrics, which are often absolutely inspired. . . . Readers also get a taste of Costello’s personal life, which while stormy is replete with the songwriter’s inimitable character. . . . Those with even a remote interest in rock music of the past 30 years will find his book utterly mesmerizing.” –William G. Kenz, Library Journal
Chapter One: 1954–73
It is always hard to determine exactly where genetic inheritance ends and destiny begins. Declan Patrick MacManus may have been raised in a household filled with music, but he was never groomed to play the role robably will be public tomorrow. Firefox, and other versions of IE and Netscape can use our site).
Polination shing soon that of professional musician. There was no formal tuition or education. From birth, he was simply immersed in an ocean of wide-ranging sounds as an integral part of a rounded, liberal and socially aware upbringing. Among the first half-dozen or so words that Declan ever uttered, according to his mother Lilian, were ‘siameses’ and ‘skin, mummy”; straightforward requests for Peggy Lee’s ‘siamese Cat Song” and – more often – Frank Sinatra’s definitive version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”.
“I used to request it before I could form proper sentences,” he would later reflect. “I guess that’s a pretty young appreciation of Cole Porter.”
But it would be entirely wrong to suggest that there wasn’t also pedigree in the MacManus genes. Born on 25 August, 1954, in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, west London, the new arrival would – given time – simply become the greatest exponent of the family business.
The musical bloodline can be traced back to the early 1900s. Declan’s paternal grandfather Patrick Matthew McManus was an accomplished trumpet player who learned his craft as a teenager at the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall. The son of Irish emigrants, Pat was born in 1896 in the working-class, shipbuilding town of Birkenhead, directly across the river Mersey from Liverpool, and almost exclusively Irish in character in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
There is little known or to be told about Pat’s parents. They hailed from the Ulster town of Dungannon, and there were later hints within the family that Pat’s father – a coal merchant by trade – was embroiled in activities which may have eventually resulted in his murder. Whatever the exact truth, Pat was raised in an orphanage in Southall, north-west London, before being sent on to Kneller Hall near Twickenham, about ten miles south-west of central London.
While there he learned to read music and became an accomplished player on the coronet. He also acquired an English accent. While still only eighteen, Pat was sent to France during the Great War. He was shot and injured in action, and returned to recuperate at Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. It’s a supreme irony that the grandfather of the author of “Oliver’s Army” – that deceptively jaunty indictment of the English military’s brutalization of Ireland – didn’t return to the Front upon his recovery, but instead found himself as a non-combative soldier in the British Army in Ireland at the time of the rising Republican tide in 1916.
With many Irish friends and a strong Irish heritage, Pat was caught in the middle, a quirk of fate that didn’t sit easily with the McManus family, and indeed caused ripples and repercussions much further down the generational line.
“I was brought up with this anti-attitude,” remembers Declan. ‘my father got that from his father, who was anti-English. He passed that on to my dad and my dad passed it onto me.”
Pat became a military bandmaster in the army. Following de-mob, he made a living playing the trumpet in ships’ orchestras on the White Star Line cruise liners that made regular traffic between Liverpool and America. Apparently – and we must always be aware of the traditional Irish enthusiasm for turning a good story into a great one – Pat had quite a time of it in 1920’s New York. He socialised with boxers, bootleggers, and even shared a house with the gangster “Legs’ Diamond, an East Coast demilegend whose colourful past included army desertion, hijacking and car theft, and whose presence in Prohibition-era New York principally involved sating the public’s illicit thirst for alcohol.
Pat’s ocean travels throughout the “20s and “30s also took in Japan and India, before he returned to England to become a pit musician with conventional orchestras. His home base was 282 Conway Street, Birkenhead, where he lived with his wife Mabel McManus (nee Jackson), known as Molly, and whose middle names of Josephine Veronica would one day also inspire Declan into song.
* * *
Ronald Patrick Ross McManus arrived on 20 October 1927, born at home in Birkenhead, a town where religious choices were still an important issue. “As a child I lived in an area where bigotry was rife,” he later recalled, which served only to fan the flames of that “anti” feeling that Declan felt was part of his genetic inheritance.
Ross was gifted both his father’s passion and talent for music. In time, he learned to read music and later mastered the trumpet, emulating the jazz records he loved. Ross was something of a pioneer: according to local musical history sources, he was perhaps the first musician brave enough to blow his beloved be-bop in Birkenhead.
Learning his trade in the myriad swing bands that flourished in Britain around the time of the Second World War, Ross augmented his musical work with a job as a shipping clerk. Although principally a trumpet player, he would occasionally sing with the band, and found he had both reasonable technique and immense power. “I have a memory of him singing and the door rattling in the frame,” recalled Declan, who inherited a considerable percentage of his father’s vocal punch.
Ross settled down in 1952, marrying Lilian Alda Ablett in Bromley Registry Office, south-west London. Both bride and groom were twenty-four at the time and living – at separate addresses, naturally – in Sidcup, Kent. The daughter of Jim and Ada, Lilian was another product of a displaced Irish Catholic family from Smithdown Road in Liverpool’s Toxteth, a tough, multi-racial dockside neighbourhood flanking the Mersey.
The couple’s similar upbringings cemented their relationship and informed their left-wing social and political values, but it was music that really brought them together; Lilian had helped run some of the jazz clubs where Ross played early in his career, and, at the time of her marriage, was working as a gramophone record assistant at Selfridges department store in London’s Oxford Street.
“She had to sell all different kinds of music,” said Declan. “So she was knowlegable about lots of records.” Lilian’s enthusiasm for music existed independently of her husband, grounded firmly in the classic ballad singing of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. She would become an invaluable source for Declan.
Young, versatile and good-looking enough when dressed for action, Ross’s hum-drum musical career took a quantum leap in 1954, when a talent scout for Joe Loss spotted him singing with a band in Nottingham. At the time, Loss was the leader of the most famous big band in the UK, the closest thing Britain had to Glenn Miller. His fourteen-piece orchestra played sell-out seasons in every major dance hall in the country, when they weren’t entertaining royalty or making one of their constant radio or television appearances. They were the band to be in. Ross was signed as one of the three principal vocalists, alongside Rose Brennan and Larry Gretton. It was the biggest of breaks.
By the time of Declan’s birth on 25 August 1954, Lilian and Ross had moved to 46a Avonmore Road in Olympia, west London. Home was a rented ground-floor flat just off the intersection of Hammersmith Road and Kensington High Street, on a quiet, cosmopolitan street which had once boasted Edward Elgar among its residents. The flat in Avonmore Road was the setting for the photographs which later appeared as part of the Brutal Youth artwork, and also inspired the flickering childhood shadowplays of 1986’s “Battered Old Bird”, although in reality the young Declan was taught to swear in Welsh, not French, by the live-in landlady.
The child was taken home and almost immediately enveloped in music. Ross was already an integral part of the Joe Loss Orchestra, quickly settling into a fourteen-year-long residency at the Hammersmith Palais, the famous London ballroom only a short distance away from Avonmore Road. The band were required to turn around the hits of the day week-in, week-out at the Palais, embarking on short national tours during then summer. Sometimes, Declan would hop on the tour bus to see a couple of shows and catch up with his dad, but most of the early memories of watching his father come from the Hammersmith Palais.
As well as playing to paying punters, the Joe Loss Orchestra also performed a live radio broadcast every Friday lunchtime, churning out faithful approximations of all the current hits. Declan was listening to all of this – and learning.
“I knew the names of jazz musicians before I went to school,” he recalled. “[Dizzy] Gillespie, Charles Mingus, I really loved Peggy Lee; and that comes from the broad-mindedness that was fostered in my household from an early age.”
Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown were among the other frequent and welcome guests on the MacManus turntable, providing a far more fruitful education than school. Declan began attending the local Catholic primary in 1959, but he didn’t linger long. In 1961, the family moved from the bustle of west Kensington to the leafier locale of 16 Beaulieu Close in Twickenham Park, just over the river from Richmond and a stone’s throw from the banks of the Thames.
The family were doing well. They went to Spain on holiday every year – certainly not the common occurrence then that it is now – and the new house was comfortably middle-class: a medium-sized, modern maisonette, one in a semi-detached block of four in a pleasant cul-de-sac just outside London’s city limits in Middlesex.
The change of address meant a change of school. Aged seven, Declan started at St Edmund’s primary school in Nelson Road in the suburb of Whitton, a couple of miles west of his new house, near where the England Rugby Union stadium now stands and literally around the corner from where he would establish his first marital home nearly fifteen years later.
With a total pupil roll of around 150, St Edmund’s was a small parish school in a sedate suburban area, run by nuns and attached to St Edmund’s Church. An utterly ordinary example of its type, with its one-storey buildings, fenced-in asphalt play area and small grass playing field, it was a friendly enough environment, although in keeping with most institutions which involve nuns, there was inevitably an aggressively religious atmosphere coursing through it. “I didn’t like it very much,” Declan said later. “I don’t think anybody likes school very much.”
The feeling wasn’t necessarily mutual. He was popular with the nuns, partially because most of them were of Irish extraction and anyone with Irish links and an obviously Irish heritage was regarded favourably, but above all because he was very little trouble to anyone. School friend Robert Azavedo remembers him as “a quiet lad”, and this seemed to personify his primary school days.
Brian Burke was another friend from Declan’s class at St Edmund’s who recalls random snapshots of him from that time: taking their first Holy Communion together, working on a piece of basketwork during craft classes, and one striking vignette which hinted that his future ambitions lay not merely in consuming music, but in performing it.
“The one thing that has always stuck in my mind is him singing “The Little White Bull” in class one day,” says Burke, painting a slightly unsettling picture of the boy who went on to write “Tramp The Dirt Down” sneering through a Tommy Steele number. “He still has this sort of nasal singing style which I recognise as being the way he sang back then, just from this single song.”
It was perhaps the first public exhibition of a stubborn, single-minded determination and a certain immunity to ridicule, core characteristics which to date have shown no sign of diminishing. Physically, Declan was on the plump side, and one vital ingredient was missing. “He wasn’t wearing glasses,” says Burke. “But you could recognise him in old photographs that I have as Elvis Costello. You can see the facial resemblance.”
Ross’s status as a local celebrity with the Joe Loss Orchestra did Declan no harm at school either. “The nuns would go crazy when his father came to collect him,” recalls Robert Azavedo. “He used to come to school dressed in white trousers, blue socks and white Italian shoes. Drove the nuns clucking mad like giggly schoolgirls.”
His father’s career was becoming more and more important, and not just to excitable women under strict religious orders. By the age of nine or ten, Declan was taking every opportunity to capitalise on the benefits of Ross’s job, especially keen to catch the preparations for the weekly radio show whenever he could.
“Fridays during the [school] holidays were something that I really used to look forward to,” he recalls. “I used to see bands rehearse. I would get there at nine in the morning and see The Hollies, then Billy J. Kramer, then Engelbert Humperdinck or whoever it was.”
Regularly observing the stars of the day first-hand over a number of years was an invaluable learning experience, even if it did drain most of the romance from the idea of being a professional musician. “A lot of the instinctive things I have about being onstage come from watching my dad and the discipline of that band, but I saw that it wasn’t actually glamourous, that it was sort of a job.”
There was precious little ‘sort of” about it. By the mid-“60s the glamour of the big-band era had long since ebbed away, along with most of the groups that had helped create it. Even the Joe Loss Orchestra needed to be increasingly adaptable to survive. The band had evolved into an amazingly versatile if somewhat eccentric beast, album releases like Go Latin With Loss! – featuring a booming Ross singing “La Bamba” – with performances combining everything from straight renditions of the latest Tony Bennett 45 to full treatments of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows’ and ‘see Emily Play” by Pink Floyd.
Where some might have scoffed, the polished diversity of what Ross and the Joe Loss Orchestra were able to do was not lost on Declan. Nor was the effort it required: there’s no question that his work ethic was forged from an observance of his father in those days. Penning a tribute to the recently deceased Joe Loss in the Guardian in 1990, Ross recalled: “I still travel 50,000 miles a year entertaining people and every night I operate to the same principles as everyone who has passed through Joe’s hand: discipline, punctuality, hard work and value for money.” It’s an ethos that clearly made an impact on his son. Declan would always be a worker, perhaps deferring only to James Brown for the title of hardest working man in the business.
There was little sense of any generational divide in the MacManus household. Ross’s work ensured he had no need to make the kind of excruciating – if well-intentioned – attempts to understand or appreciate his son’s tastes that wrought divisions in many other families. The two males were close, and when Declan later grew into adulthood it would become possible to identify several shared father-son characteristics.
“I remember that the woman my dad sang with for a number of years, Rosie Brennan, told me that my dad was always flirting with the tallest, best-looking woman in the room or trying to pick a fight with the biggest guy, depending on his mood,” said Declan. “He was a terror! I think that’s where I get some of it from.” Ross was also a very loving father, articulate, passionate, loquacious and witty, and passed on many of these attributes to his son. He also bequeathed the mighty MacManus nose.
It was an unusually tight father-son relationship, made all the more unique by the fact that Declan’s mother also defied stereotype. Allan Mayes played with Declan in Liverpool in the early “70s and remembers Lilian well from those days: “[She] was hipper than my mother, hipper than any other mother. She was like, “Have you heard the new Band album, Declan? I heard Neil Young on the radio this afternoon.” She knew stuff like that, and she had stories to tell about life on the road with the Joe Loss Band. And she was a very nice lady.”
Declan himself noted that his parents were a bit beatnik, and later sensed that Ross had sacrificed most of his own artistic ambitions to be a serious jazz artist as a young man by throwing in his lot with the middle-of- the-road stability of the Joe Loss Orchestra. Although there was never any parental pressure on Declan to be a musician, the legacy of his father’s compromised career stayed with him. Later, when he realised he had the privilege of an audience that was prepared to follow him down some of his more experimental avenues, he would seize the opportunity to cover every inch of musical territory he possibly could. Ross would expect no less. As contemporary composer and some-time Costello collaborator, Richard Harvey notes: “I think Declan is very much aware of being the son his father would want him to be.”
* * *
In August 1965, Declan turned eleven and moved up to Catholic secondary school. Archbishop Myers, now re-named St Mark’s, was situated on Bath Road in Hounslow, north-west of Whitton and a trip which necessitated a ride on the No. 281 bus. Life required some adjustment. It was a secondary modern school, much bigger than St Edmund’s, above average in standard, and Declan was by no means part of the social or academic elite. However, he was beginning to make an impression as an individual character, if a bit of a loner.
“I liked him, he was very independent,” remembers Marianne Burgess, who was in Declan’s class at Myers. “He wasn’t bothered by what people thought of him. I remember him wearing a bow tie to the school dance, which was quite unusual. We girls could have sensible chats with him because he seemed very mature.”
He may have been mature, but maturity is seldom what teenage girls are really interested in. Declan was very chunky, serious-minded and stubbornly individual, and by all accounts was not a particularly big hit with the opposite sex. However, there was the perennial teenage boy’s consolation prize: he was a ‘solid footballer”, according to Robert Azavedo.
“I was fanatical about [football] in those days,” Declan later recalled. “I was always a Liverpool supporter. I suppose my hero was Roger Hunt.”
Hunt was soon fighting for heroic status with those other Scouse legends, The Beatles. The first single Declan had bought with his own money was “Please Please Me”, released in March 1963. It was the beginning of an obsession, and not merely with the Fab Four. Although With The Beatles was his first LP purchase and he joined The Beatles’ fan club in 1965, he was avidly consuming all kinds of pop music.
“From the time I was eleven to sixteen – only five years, but five pretty important years in your life – I concentrated on pop music and the changing trends,”12 he recalled. He could afford to be choosy. His tastebuds, already sharpened on jazz and the classic American songbook, were highly sophisticated for one so young. Initially it was The Kinks, The Who, Merseybeat and classic Motown sides, rather than Buddy Holly, Cliff Richard or Chuck Berry. In his mid-teens his tastes became even more refined, encompassing reggae and the songs of Burt Bacharach, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Dusty Springfield.
Ross’s position with the Joe Loss Orchestra ensured that Declan had access to many record company acetate copies of the very latest singles before they were officially released to the public. As Declan moved into his teens and became more aware of the inherent nowness of the classic pop single, it became a genuinely thrilling experience to get his hands on copies of the newest sounds a couple of weeks before anyone else, made all the more exhilarating due to his good fortune in being a teenager slapbang in the middle of the pop single’s peak years.
His record collection was soon far larger than the standard pocket money allowance of a child his age would normally permit, and unlike most people’s fathers Ross knew all the hip songs spinning on his turntable. Not just the songs, but often the chords and the lyrics as well; he might even have been on nodding terms with the band. It was this innate good fortune that fostered Declan’s sense of musical superiority, which endured through thick and thin. He didn’t look for – nor did he require – approval for what he was going to do with his life.
“He was a big dreamer,” recalls Myers schoolmate Dale Fabian. “All he was interested in was his beloved Liverpool FC and becoming a famous musician. This didn’t ever seem likely to his classmates, who frequently ridiculed him.”
The jeers of his classmates would not go unfelt or unforgotten, but the sense of otherness wouldn’t distract Declan from his vocation; indeed, it fuelled him over and over and over again. “When it comes down to it, they don’t know what I know,” he would say years later. “It sounds arrogant, but that happens to be the way it is.”
The transition into secondary education coincided with Declan beginning to take a much more serious interest in playing music. Initially, he toyed with the school’s formal music classes, but found them stifling.
“The music teaching was laughable. I could sing, so I sang in the school choir, but then my voice got too loud and they threw me out. Then I became an altar boy because of the solemn face, but I got thrown out at fourteen for laughing, because the priest used to mumble everything except the church plate takings.”
Perhaps understandably, the lack of spontaneity and excitement in these mundane experiences would put him off formal music training for the best part of twenty-five years. Instead, he started to get to grips with things on his own terms. He had had an acoustic guitar since he was nine years old, a gut-stringed Spanish guitar his father had bought him; it had all but been ignored until his early teens. Now he began tinkering, and despite an initial reluctance to follow in Ross’s footsteps, he quickly came to the conclusion that this was his calling; he also realised, with typical self-assurance, that he was potentially very good at it. “I knew I had a career when I was fourteen,” he later claimed. “It just took a long time for me to work out how to do it. But I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Although he was far from a natural on the guitar, he worked around his limitations with characteristic determination, and began writing his own songs straight away. The first one was called “Winter”, a cheery little number kicking off in E-minor. It has long since been consigned to the dustbin of musical history.
* * *
Life was changing. The final two years of the “60s saw the security and assurance of family life begin to break apart. Already something of a loner with a growing awareness that life could be a melancholy experience, Declan became even more self-sufficient, and a little more cynical.
“I wouldn’t say I was raised on romance,” he would sing just a few years later in “Pay It Back”, a rueful nod back to the events of 1969 when his parent’s marriage reached the end of the road. Around the same time, his father fell in love with a singer called Sara Thompson, many years his junior, which marked the final and most significant of all the changes Ross had made to his life. He had left the Joe Loss Orchestra in 1968 after fourteen years’ service, finally ready to go it alone. From then on, he effectively became a solo cabaret artist, continuing to make a very comfortable living by singing and playing the trumpet all over the country, augmented with regular TV and radio work.
Ross had already scored a No. 15 hit in Germany in 1966 with the self-penned ska tune “Patsy Girl”, backed by The Joe Loss Blue Beats. Later, he caused a minor stir with a version of The Beatles’ “The Long And Winding Road”, released under the name Day Costello, the surname taken from Ross’s maternal grandmother. But the staples of his solo career were themed albums concentrating on one particular genre or artist: these included Ross MacManus Sings Frank Sinatra; Day Costello Sings Elvis Presley’s Greatest Hits; and Ross MacManus Sings Roy Orbison. Predictable fare, perhaps, but at last he was getting the opportunity to map out his own career.
Meanwhile, Declan was laying the foundations for a solo career of his own. During these domestic upheavals he had continued to persevere with the guitar, writing and improving with typical fortitude. There was even the odd appearance – including one at Archbishop Myers – with his dad, usually consisting of him sitting in unobtrusively on guitar while Ross played his set.
Both Ross and Lilian had been full of quiet encouragement, despite understandable misgivings. ‘my parents were aware of the dangers and pitfalls and disappointments of [the music business],” said Declan. “But they never discouraged me. They were very conscious of not putting me off it.”
An important part of their level-headed support was allowing their son the time to find his feet. They had little choice. Declan heavily discouraged Ross and Lilian from attending his first-ever solo public appearance, which came early in the summer of 1970. The Crypt at St Elizabeth’s in Richmond was a fixture in the London folk scene, with a welcome lack of ceremony. “If you played acoustic guitar you could basically get up there,” Declan recalled. “It was very open.”
The Crypt became a weekly outing for Declan during the school summer holidays, first to watch a parade of folk talent and then later to play. The night of his first appearance he happened to perform in front of Ewan MacColl, the author of such folk standards as “Dirty Old Town” and a rather austere presence by all accounts. MacColl wasn’t necessarily impressed with Declan’s set of “little sensitive teenage songs’.
“He sat there, head bowed all the way through my set,” he recalled. “I’m sure he just nodded off. I had a traumatic first appearance; [it] was pretty crushing.” However, he remained undeterred, and spent the remainder of the summer confirming over and over again what he already knew in his heart: that this was what he wanted to do with his life.
* * *
At the end of the summer he moved to Liverpool. “It was question of going home, really,”20 he later claimed. “I was born in London but I was christened in Birkenhead. My mother’s from Liverpool and my father’s from Birkenhead. I went to school in London for most of my life, but all my holidays were in Merseyside.”
This was putting a brave face on things. The notion of “going home” was rather fanciful. In reality, Declan may have felt he had little option but to leave London. He had just turned sixteen, and planned to go onto sixth form at school and complete his final two years of education. And although Declan had great affection for Liverpool and knew the city and Birkenhead well, living there was a different proposition: as an only child he was pained by the break up of his parent’s marriage and the enforced separation from his father, his musical mentor and friend, as much as a parental figure. He felt the absence keenly.
Declan and Lilian moved to the West Derby area of Liverpool, only a stone’s throw from where the now-defunct Channel Four soap opera Brookside was filmed. As an added boon for Declan, West Derby also bordered Anfield, home of Liverpool FC, and he would take every available opportunity to go there, often alone. The house was new, a semi-detached brick building in a neat suburban area that was neither upmarket nor dowdy. Although relations between Lilian and Ross were understandably distant, Ross and Declan’s close relationship survived the marital strife. His father was a frequent visitor to Merseyside, to see his son, naturally, but also to visit his own mother in Birkenhead, and to play the odd gig at British Legions and similar venues.
On occasion, Declan would join the band and play a little guitar, once venturing as far afield as Blackpool. It afforded him a low-key but tempting taste of the professional musician’s life.
Liverpool would be Declan’s home for over two years. In late August 1970, he started at Campion School in Salisbury Street, Everton, a lay Catholic school previously known as St Francis Xavier Bi-Lateral School and still often referred to in Liverpool as SFX. He entered the sixth form to sit his A-Levels, and found the atmosphere entirely different from his experiences in the capital.
“It was very much two years behind London,” he later recalled. “I’d gone to school in Hounslow, and you had to like Tamla and reggae otherwise you were dead. But then I went [to Liverpool] and you didn’t dare say you liked Tamla, you had to like Deep Purple or something.”
Ross was going through a psychedelic phase in his early forties, growing his hair long and reading Herman Hesse. Perhaps in sympathy, Declan adopted the Grateful Dead as his personal group. “Nobody else liked them and you had to have a group that you liked,” he remembered. “I used to sit at home going, “Please make me like the Grateful Dead!”.” He eventually talked himself into it.
Declan made little effort to integrate socially, and as a result had few friends, mainly by choice rather than design. A stubbornly independent youngster, he began to devour books and newspapers, forming the rather idealistic social consciousness typical of many intelligent teenagers. He also drew increasingly close to his immediate family: his mother in Liverpool, his father in London, and his grandmother in Birkenhead. He was a frequent visitor to her house, and the area made a permanent imprint on his brain, providing the geographical location for many of his songs: the shipyards of Cammell Laird in ‘shipbuilding”; the ‘sedated homes’ of “Little Palaces’; the departing ‘migr” of “Last Boat Leaving”; and the enduringly affectionate tribute of ‘veronica” are but four examples of dozens of lyrical snapshots which have their emotional heart in the tight terraced streets and docks around his grandmother’s house in Conway Street.
Football and music were the twin cornerstones. Aside from going along to watch Liverpool play on the odd Saturday, Declan busied himself by making tentative forays into the less-than-happening local music scene. The Merseybeat boom had long gone, the demise of The Beatles a symbolic sign that times had changed. Now it was heavy rock and folk music. However, the more progressive, intuitive folk culture which Declan had tentatively dipped a toe into in London was made of much grimmer stuff up north, and he was floundering in his attempts to find a foothold in a music scene which was all but moribund. “I found a scene dominated by Jacqui & Birdie and sub-Spinners people and it was like running into a brick wall,” he said. “It was horrendous.” The clubs wanted folk music of the most traditional kind: Ralph McTell’s ‘streets Of London”, Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”, the usual crowd-pleasers. There was little appetite for original songs and it was a harsh, unforgiving atmosphere for anyone who wanted to play contemporary music or try something individual.
Aware of Declan’s frustration, Ross tried to help his son by introducing him to a rock band/art collective called The Medium Theatre, who also ran a poetry magazine called Medium. Well, it was the early “70s. Ross had some vague Liverpool links with members of the band and had also donated something along the lines of “10 to the magazine to help with publishing costs. The members of the group were slightly older than Declan, and his father hoped that they might help the sixteen-year-old integrate into whatever was happening in Liverpool at the time.
Allan Mayes was one of the boys involved with The Medium Theatre, and much more interested in playing music than getting embroiled in the group’s loftier artistic pretensions. A year older than Declan, Mayes first bumped into him at one of the band’s get-togethers. “I think he was just very uncomfortable; basically his dad had forced him into it,” he recalls.
It proved to be a blind alley, but Declan slowly sought out the right places to be seen; sympathetic environments such as Thursday nights at The Songwriter’s Club in Broad Street, and the Remploy or Lamplight in Wallasey.
If he was playing at all during this period it was infrequently, but he was continuing to write. Perhaps influenced by the local beat-poet boom which was still going strong, he became involved with the school’s sixth form magazine throughout 1971, contributing the occasional poem and helping out on the editorial side.
But still Declan was having trouble finding his musical feet – until he bumped into Allan Mayes again at a party at mutual friend Zinnie Flynn’s house on New Year’s Eve, 1971. Mayes arrived at the party clutching his guitar and bumped into Declan, clutching his. Mayes had left Medium Theatre earlier that year, over what he rather grandly remembers as musical differences. “I wanted to be Crosby, Stills and Nash and [Medium Theatre] were still arty-farty,” he recalls, so he left and took the bass player with him, forming a drumless three-piece with bassist David Jago and harmony singer Alan Brown, labouring under the name of Rusty. Mayes began gigging around Liverpool, sometimes playing solo gigs in folk clubs, but more often working up a set with Rusty that included original material and cover songs by Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan.
It was the same kind of music that Declan had grown into. Having tentatively discovered country-flavoured American music via his rather reluctant immersion in the Grateful Dead’s two 1970 albums – Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty – he was growing to love The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, a record which would lead him to the door of Gram Parsons and untold country music riches. He was also feeling his way into The Band’s Music From Big Pink, the debut offering from Bob Dylan’s erstwhile backing band and an object lesson in the enduring musical arts of harmony, mystery and simplicity. “When I was about eighteen, The Band were it for me,” he would later say. “It was like receiving a letter from the other side of the world, a world you couldn’t possibly understand, let alone visit.”
Declan also loved Neil Young’s debut album; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu; Van Morrison’s His Band And The Street Choir; Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Perhaps the most obscure – and downbeat – records on his turntable at the time were David Ackles’ The Road To Cairo and Subway To The Country, both of which had a profound influence on
Declan; he later rated Ackles as “the greatest unheralded American songwriter of the late “60s’. More conventionally, he favoured some of the less whimsical singer-songwriters of the time such as Randy Newman, Loudon Wainwright, Jackson Browne, Jesse Winchester – whose eponymous 1970 album had been produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson – and even James Taylor. It was either that or glam rock, and Declan had neither the physique nor the eyelashes for that.
The Medium Theatre encounter, though awkward and brief, served as an ice-breaker between Mayes and Declan, before the two got down to business. “It was a matter of “Oh, here’s a guy with a guitar who knows two Van Morrison songs’,” says Mayes. “”He’s my new best friend and to hell with drinking cider and chasing women”.” As Declan later admitted, this “wasn’t the carousing crowd”.
Instead, the two new friends ushered in 1972 sitting in an unoccupied bedroom for three hours, playing Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” “a hundred times’ and most of the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album. According to Mayes, almost every sentence they uttered started with ‘do you know?” “‘do you know “Brown Eyed Girl”?” ‘do you know anything off the first Neil Young album?” ‘do you know “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”?” We weren’t trying to impress anybody, we weren’t trying to impress each other, it was just the fact that we had each found a soulmate.”
At the end of the night, the two swapped telephone numbers. Keen to keep the momentum going, Mayes called the next day to make arrangements to meet up again. This time, Declan was introduced to David Jago and Alan Brown, and Rusty had a new member.
Declan’s guitar style may have left more to luck than chance, and his flirtation with open tuning was simply disastrous, but he and Mayes found they could harmonise instinctively. Like any young man trying to find his voice – both literally and figuratively – he was trying on different hats as both a vocalist and songwriter; his style would change from week to week depending on who he was listening to. “He had all the Americanised phrasing,” says Mayes. “He could sing like Robbie Robertson and Neil Young.”
Just three weeks into the New Year, on 21 January, 1972, the new Rusty line-up was unveiled at the Wallasey Lamplight. They played eleven songs, including Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn”, ‘dance Dance Dance” by Neil Young, and Van Morrison’s “I’ve Been Working”, as well as some original Rusty material written before Declan joined the band. They also played a new song by Declan, called “Warm House”, and took home “7 between the four of them.
It was the beginning of a concerted onslaught on the less glamourous venues of the north-west of England. Though Declan was still in sixth form, the band naturally claimed precedence over his academic work, but not everyone shared his view. Within a few months, both David Jago and Alan Brown left for college and Rusty became just Allan Mayes and Declan.
They weren’t necessarily the greatest-looking duo on earth. Declan was still noticeably overweight, with scraggly long hair and a bizarre misunderstanding of what constituted style. “He was always pretty geeky and even then he dressed like shit,” says Mayes. “None of us was exactly snappy, but he dressed to the point where we’d both be laughing at him; these terrible chequered jackets and red shoes, big red Doc Martens.”
The duo played bars, clubs, schools, libraries, hotels, community centres, colleges, arts centres and even a cathedral; anywhere that would have them. Their packed schedule wasn’t really a reflection on their talents. The local scene was more the 1970’s equivalent of karaoke: virtually anybody could walk in with a guitar and play a few songs.
Declan didn’t drive, so Mayes would pick him up. Mostly it was Liverpool, but there were regular visits to Birkenhead, and occasional trips out of town to pubs in Widnes, Wigan, Manchester and even London. If they were playing at a poetry night, their musical intervention was tolerated as long as they didn’t play anything too poppy; gentler numbers by The Band, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Simon and Garfunkel and Loudon Wainwright were the order of the day, interspersed with original songs from both Mayes and MacManus and usually topped off with their show-stopping version of the Crosby, Stills and Nash classic, “Wooden Ships’.
If they were playing somewhere like the Crow’s Nest Hotel in Widnes or the Fox and Grapes in Birkenhead, a slightly less sensitive side would be required. On these occasions, Allan and Declan included songs that people recognised from the charts and could sing along to: a Slade or a Rod Stewart number, or a “60s favourite such as “Happy Together” by The Turtles.
Rusty played eighty-eight gigs in 1972, the year in which Declan could justifiably claim to have first become a working musician. But it was never a band based on a great social bond. “We never did the girl thing,” says Mayes. “I don’t remember him ever drinking. I don’t remember any rock “n” roll camaraderie, but then I don’t remember us ever having an argument, either.”
They played mostly to sympathetic audiences where people would listen, or at least not interrupt, but they quickly became used to a kind of polite apathy. “Ninety per cent of the room when we were playing was full of other musicians,” reckons Mayes. “The only people who weren’t musicians were wives, girlfriends or someone who was a friend of somebody. There was no one booking us. We’d just go and play for nothing. There was no actual drawing power of people on the street.” It was essentially background music.
© 2004 by Graeme Thomson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.