Hey, I finally got to watch the first two episodes of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…, the new Sundance channel talk show, in which Elvis plays James Lipton to a legendary guest musician. I know some of you have been following this nascent show.
The first episode, with Elton John, was fantastic. The two immediately got down to musician-on-musician rock nerd talk, with Elton talking about being a young rock snob in England who thought it was cooler to buy American releases of records while his American counterparts were seeking the UK releases. There was little to no typical rock mythologizing about drug abuse, sexual escapades, and a career’s worth of landmark hair architecture. This was a music talk show for the few of us who got into this for reasons other than “meeting chicks.”
Talk quickly turned to Leon Russell, a childhood favorite of mine thanks to my piano-playing uncle, who counted Russell among his favorite pianists and who to this day tells me about catching a nobody named Elton John in a tiny club on his first tour of the States. I can’t wait to tell my uncle about the Russell-John connections. As soon as Elton brought up his love for the piano style of Leon, I could hear the piano in “Benny and the Jets,” among other smash hits. I’m sure you had your own thoughts about this episode, but wasn’t “Sir Elton,” as he’s listed among the Executive Producers of this show, a gentleman and a scholar? Elvis covered an Elton tune and the two men played some songs together, with Pete Thomas, Allen Toussaint, James Burton, and Steve Nieve. The music was totally respectable. I loved the debut episode!
Elvis had to earn his paycheck on episode 2, featuring Rock Town Hall favorite Lou Reed. You know how cantakerous an interview Reed can be. After a strong start by Lou, Elvis had to use all his charm to keep Reed’s short attention span (with things other than his own genius) occupied. Along the way, Reed displayed his legendary self-importance, claiming that there’s a “secret” chord in “Sweet Jane” that us mere mortals have yet to unlock. Did you catch that part? As he pulled out his acoustic guitar, I said to my wife and stepfather, “Let’s see if it’s the Bm I’ve always played.” Sure enough, it was. For the first time in my life I could feel like a Guitar Visionary. Thanks, Lou!
To help keep the focus on Legendary Lou, Elvis had to call out a second special guest, artist/film maker Julian Schabel. In all fairness to Schnabel, I’ve never seen a lick of his work, but he came out in a tan camelhair sportcoat over deep purple velvet pyjamas, got off to a decent start by talking about how much he loved his longtime neighbor Lou, and even tied in the previous Elvis-Lou discussion of Lou’s Magic and Loss lp by telling a very personal story about the day Schnabel’s father died in his apartment and Lou came over to hold his dead father’s hand. Seeing the focus on himself slip away, Lou jumped – after asking his friend’s permission – to add that while he was holding Pere Schnabel’s still-warm hand, Julian went over to the stereo to spin Magic and Loss. Lou said something to the effect of, “Now it was getting too intense for me!” Julian’s father is dead on the floor and suddenly it’s all too much for Lou because his friend wanted to commemorate the moment by playing Lou’s death-obsessed album! As soon as some YouTube nerd posts this passage of the episode to the web, we’ll have another edition of Lou Reed…As His Music Was Meant to Sound! The Lou and Julian interview wrapped up with Schnabel, glass of hootch raised, reciting the entire set of lyrics to Lou’s “New York Minuet” with Lou sitting inches away, to his right. I would have loved to know what Elvis thought about his new venture at this moment.
The musical moments with Elvis and Lou were nowhere near as smooth as those in the Elton episode. Elvis and his musicians (Nieve and some other guys whose names were vaguely familiar) played Cajun version of “Femme Fatale” that worked all right solely because the song is so strong (eg, not even Nico could kill it). Lou and Elvis did a duet on “Perfect Day” that was really awkward, swinging from horrible to mildly impressive when Elvis got to sing a verse without Lou shadowing his every line. I’d never given some of the lyrics the credit they might deserve whenever I’ve played Lou’s version, but I’m not a big fan of that song in any form. Then they closed the show with a wretched version of “Set the Twilight Reeling.”
Episode 2 was nowhere near as great an episode as Elvis’ debut, but it was fascinating nevertheless.