Elvis Costello Presents Spectacle With… Bruce Springsteen (Apocalypse Sound AS 188)
Apollo Theater, New York, NY, USA – 25 September, 2009
Episode 1 (Broadcast Date : January 20, 2010): She’s the One (Elvis Costello, Nils Lofgren and The Imposters), Interview #1, Wild Billy’s Circus Story (Bruce Springsteen, Nils Lofgren and Roy Bittan), Interview #2, American Skin (41 Shots) (Bruce Springsteen), Interview #3, I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren & The Imposters)
Episode 2 (Broadcast Date: January 27, 2010): Radio Silence (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren and The Imposters), Radio Nowhere (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren and The Imposters), Radio Radio (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren and The Imposters), Interview #1, [Oh] Pretty Woman (Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello), Interview #2, Seeds (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren and The Imposters), Interview #3, Black Ladder (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Nils Lofgren), Interview #4, Galveston Bay (Bruce Springsteen and Roy Bittan), The Rising (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren and The Imposters)
Elvis Costello recorded two series of Spectacle, in which he interviewed and played music with a variety of fellow musicians. The programme was broadcast on the Sundance Channel in the United States, CTV in Canada and Channel Four (who have yet to broadcast series two) in the UK. The second series, which yielded the shows contained on this release, was shorter than the first, consisting of seven rather than thirteen shows. Five of the shows were recorded during four days of a five-day period (21 and 23-25 September, 2009) at the Apollo Theater in New York. The Springsteen session, recorded on the last of those days, lasted the best part of four hours, beginning at around 8PM, and was split into two fifty-minute shows. Bearing in mind this punishing schedule, it it perhaps unsurprising that it seems to have influenced Costello’s decision not to undertake a third series. “It was a great session,” Costello said of the Springsteen taping, “but if I was coherent at the end, it was a bloody miracle.” He commented the next day that, “this is probably the last time I’ll do this,” later confirming that there would be no further series of Spectacle, as, “I wasn’t looking for a career in TV. It’s something I did as a side project from my real career.” Those who follow Costello’s career closely may have been expecting this: in an interview early on in the show’s existence he had stated that, “I am not a journalist or a television presenter.”
The show’s own website describes it, more than a little pretentiously, as, “a twenty first century hi-definition version of the classic Parisian salon…conceived to provide a window into the creativity, inspiration and general gestalt of a generation of legendary singers, songwriters and musicians.” Certainly, with regard to Springsteen, the show fulfils its aims and, with Costello largely impressive in the role of interviewer, many may find the talk more illuminating that the music, enjoyable though that is.
Episode starts with Costello and his band The Imposters playing a spiky, keyboard-driven version of Springsteen’s She’s The One. Part way through Costello breaks off from the song to introduce his guest (though the music continues). He claims that he was “just about knocked flat” by Springsteen’s “first two platters.” He then eulogises as, among other things, “past, present, future of rock and roll.” Springsteen then emerges, followed by the quirky opening credits. The introduction sets the tone for the show, with Costello demonstrating a rather sycophantic attitude towards Springsteen.
After the credits we see Costello and Springsteen sitting on stools at the front of the stage, and the interview begins. Springsteen has acquired an acoustic guitar, which he does later play, but which may also be a form of comfort blanket. Stan Goldstein, writing on the nj.com website, notes that, “he seems much more comfortable holding a guitar when doing an interview.” Costello begins by pointing out that when he first heard Springsteen’s early albums he had never been to America, and he goes on to suggest that coming from a place that was obscure, even to most Americans, may have been advantageous. Springsteen states that in his early days, “there were still a lot of very local scenes,” which helped to create, “a very specific sound.” Life in Asbury Park, he says, revolved around, “bars, cars, girls,” which naturally became the focus of many of his songs.
Costello then talks of being in London at the time of Springsteen’s first shows in 1975, and contends that London was not used to music informed by the traditions of bar bands and R&B, and Springsteen responds by noting the influence of the “romantic” music of The Drifters, Phil Spector and Ben E. King. He also speaks of the influence of the live performances of Sam And Dave, before telling the story of how he began to play regularly at The Student Prince. Intriguingly, Springsteen then states that he soon felt the need “to make do with just the guitar and my voice,” which developed his skills as a lyricist. This is interesting, as Clive Davis and CBS are usually portrayed as trying to turn Springsteen into a folky singer-songwriter against his will. Costello then speaks approvingly of the “operatic” qualities of lengthy songs such as New York City Serenade and Incident On 57th Street. I found this (as well as Costello’s claims of a very early liking for Springsteen’s music) something of a surprise. This is due to the fact that the only previous occasion on which I have encountered Costello’s opinion of Springsteen was in New Musical Express some three decades ago, where I read that he had walked out of A Springsteen show (probably in the UK in 1981), saying, “good songs, but way too long.”
Costello then points out that Springsteen turned away from lengthy songs, adopting a “less is more” approach. In response, Springsteen cites the influence of Bob Dylan who, “invented a language that didn’t exist in popular music before,” and who was a factor in turning Springsteen away from complicated imagery and towards a more colloquial approach. Costello then turns to a specific song, Wild Billy’s Circus Story, from Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, The Innocent And The E Streeet Shuffle. Springsteen talks of visiting the circus as a boy, pointing out that, “when you’re a kid, the things you notice about the circus aren’t the things you’re meant to notice,” and stating that the circus was a scary place late at night after the show. (“Magic and dread,” interjects Costello.) Springsteen is then joined by Nils Lofgren on acoustic guitar and Roy Bittan on accordion for a performance of the song. Interestingly, he makes reference to Lofgren’s eponymous debut album, which has a cover depicting him “leaning up against a carnival tent,” stating that, “Jon [Landau] and I listened to it before we made Born To Run, and we stole everything we could…we could find off it.” (It would be interesting to get Lofgren’s response to this!) The song itself is played a fraction faster that on the album. It is enjoyable version, though I did miss Garry Tallent’s tuba, which adds to the atmosphere of the original.
The second interview section begins with Costello mentioning that he saw Springsteen in Nashville in 1978, during the tour in support of the album Darkness On the Edge Of Town. Springsteen states that the album was different from his earlier work, partly due to the criticism of, “some young English songwriter at the time who said the songs on Born To Run were too romantic,” teasingly adding, “I can’t remember his name right now.” “It wasn’t me, I hope,” replies Costello, genuinely surprised and seemingly a trifle embarrassed, “Was it me? It wasn’t me?” It is another indication that perhaps Costello’s long-standing love of Springsteen’s music is less absolute than he would have us believe.
Having discomfited his host somewhat, Springsteen states that Costello’s first three albums were, “a hurricane…the perfect storm.” He then states that the music on Darkness was “written to be tougher,” citing the influence of the “tough” music coming out of the England at the time, specifically referencing early Buzzcocks records and Clash singles. “That stuff found its way into the subtext of Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” he explains, along with cinematic influences (particularly John Ford westerns) and a wider experience of the world gained through travelling. Costello then notes that, unlike the “carnival colours” of Wild Billy’s Circus Story, the songs from Darkness “are in black and white.” In response, Springsteen comments on the extent to which the songs on Darkness are about identity and belonging, and then, prompted by Costello, discusses the way in which they are about conflict and “adult issues.”
Costello next introduces the subject of the “narrative aspect” of songs from Springsteen’s next album, The River, and this prompts Springsteen to sing a snippet of the title track, which he reminds us was inspired by the struggles of his sister and brother-in-law in time of economic depression. Costello then contends that the album combined issues of “moral conflict… class…social justice,” with “rockin’ the fuck out,” and Springsteen agrees, stating that the less serious songs on the album contribute to it being, “our bar band record,” with songs designed to be exciting when played live.
After a discussion of some of Springsteen’s lighter “pop” songs during which he reveals that Hungry Heart was originally written for the Ramones, Costello turns to a specific example of Springsteen’s more serious songwriting, American Skin (41 Shots). Although the song is about the repeated shooting of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York police officers, Springsteen points out that the first verse is written from the point of view of one of the policemen, and that he was surprised at the controversy it stirred up. He then performs the song as a solo piece, accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, and this stripped-down presentation makes this rendition particularly moving.
These first two interview sections show Costello at his best in the role of host. He begins discussions with precise observations which lead Springsteen to discuss specific and interesting topics. He also allows Springsteen to talk uninterrupted when it is appropriate to do so, but intervenes when it necessary to steer his guest back on course. David Hinckley, of the New York Daily News, is clearly impressed, writing that, “he was enough of a fan, and a smart enough host, to lead Springsteen into anecdotes that hard-core fans may know but other viewers may not.” Goldstein says that, “Bruce sometimes isn’t the best interviwee, but tonight, for the most part, he was very comfortable and told a lot of great stories,” Costello encouraging him to reveal interesting information on, “his early bands, Asbury Park and other things.”
The next interview section is shorter and less weighty, concentrating on a discussion of Sam and Dave, whom Springsteen refers to as “incredible”. This ends with a performance of their 1967 song I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, on which Costello and Springsteen share lead vocals. Springsteen elects to sing the “incredibly high tenor” of Sam, leaving Costello to emulate the “gritty” and “earthy” vocals of Dave. In practice, Costello sings higher than Springsteeen in a fast-paced, ebullient rendition, reminiscent of Costello’s own recorded version, released as a single and included on his Get Happy! album. This concludes the first episode.
Episode two begins with a medley of radio-themed songs. The first, given the title of Radio Silence, is not a song as such, consisting of Costello’s urgent spoken vocals atop a jagged, insistent instumental backing. He speaks of writing a song called Radio Soul in 1975, which he describes as, “about as shameless a knock-off of a Bruce Springsteen song as you would ever have the misfortune to hear.” He goes on to speak of the power of music (“a song can change your mind. A song can change your heart.”), before ending with the phrase, “maintaining radio silence from now on.” This is immediately followed by a spirited Radio Nowhere, featuring Springsteen on lead vocals and a guitar solo from Lofgren. The trilogy concludes with around a minute of Costello’s Radio Radio, the song into which Radio Soul evolved, and the opening credits follow. (Costello did, incidentally, record demo versions of Radio Soul in 1975 with his band, Flip City, and two versions can be found on the Hand Made release, The Flip City Demos.)
Costello then mentions the Joe Strummer tribute concert and this leads into a discussion of Roy Orbison. (Both Costello and Springsteen appeared at the Strummer concert and the TV show, Roy Orbison And Friends, A Black And White Night.) Costello and Springsteen then perform Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman with Springsteen on acoustic guitar. Costello takes the majority of the vocals and he is clearly more familiar with the lyrics. Just before Costello sings, “Pretty woman, stop awhile,” Springsteen says, “I don’t know if I know this part. Let’s try it,” and then he almost immediately calls a halt to the performance, stating, “we’re done, man.”
Costello subsequently introduces a discussion of how parents and children influence each others’ musical tastes. Springsteen reveals that his own children collectively like, among others, Top Forty music, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Rage Against The Machine and The Gaslight Anthem. Costello then surmises that, as Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa come from similar backgrounds, they “have the same kind of jukebox in your head,” an observation with which Springsteen concurs. The latter then goes on to say that if you write songs you do not merely want to provide enjoyment and entertainment, but that you also, “hope to become a part of the fabric of someone’s life,” in the same way your own musical heroes did. Springsteen here specifically mentions Dylan, from whom he first “heard an America that I felt and believed to be true.” Costello then mentions his own love of Van Morrison and the discussion turns to Costello’s and Springsteen’s shared Catholic upbringing, which Springsteen says he has, “been trying to write my way out of ever since.” This is followed by a fine performance of Seeds, sounding very much like it does when played by Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert, and featuring a guitar solo from Springsteen himself at the end.
The next interview section is the only one that doesn’t come off well. After a brief and unenlightening discussion of actors, Costello then talks of how he visited Springsteen and Scialfa, and was persuaded to ride a horse. He then talks of how Scialfa, whom he describes as, “just the loveliest person…an incredible singer,” gives him and his wife advice on matters such as bringing up children. Unfortunately, this section presents Costello as someone who is desparate to convince us all that he is worthy enough to be Bruce Springsteen’s friend. Costello himself recognizes that this section is not really going anywhere, stating that the mention of Scialfa was effectively just a lead-in to a performance of one of her songs. The song is Black Ladder, the closing number from Scialfa’s third and most recent album, Play It As It Lays. Nils Lofgren emerges to add a third acoustic guitar and Costello enhances this haunting song with a beautifully restrained and tender vocal part. Scialfa is a talented singer who has made three very fine albums, and I hope that Costello’s performance might encourage viewers unfamiliar with her work to seek them out.
After this the discussion turns to music and politics, as Costello mentions Springsteen’s perfromance with Pete Seeger to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration as US president. Springsteen mentions how politcal change has come very quickly, “from the Voting Act ’64 (sic) to the first African-American president.” This leads to him talking of rock music as a force for change, beginning with a quotation found by Steve Van Zandt in “a ten-cent paperback.” Here a go-go dancer from 1960s music show Shindig! is quoted as saying, “rock and roll is always something coming. It creates an energy which pushes you towards the future.” Springsteen gives the example of Elvis Presley breaking down gender and racial barriers, and he states that his own songs are both for now and for tomorrow, attempting, as some of them do, to deal with issues of social and economic justice. This section culminates in a performance of Galveston Bay, from the solo acoustic album The Ghost Of Tom Joad. The song, which deals with strife and violence between white Americans and Vienamese immigrants, is performed by Springsteen backed by just his own acoustic guitar and a restrained keyboard part from Bittan, and it is a most poignant rendition. The other musicians then emerge to end the show (and the series) with a fine performance of The Rising.
Of course, The Rising ends a truncated version of the session. As well as the interviews being edited, some music was not included in the programmes. Goldstein notes that the first song was Costello’s version of Springsteen’s Point Blank, and that before Springsteen appeared Lofgren emerged to play his song Like Rain. Later, Costello performed another Springsteen song, Brilliant Disguise, which he recorded and released as the B-side of his single, It’s Time. (It later emerged on the Springsteen tribute album Light Of Day and the expanded edition of Costello’s Kojak Variety.) I would very much like to see and hear these performances, and perhaps they will one day also emerge due to what Springsteen once referred to as, “the magic of bootlegging.” Unfortunately, only two of them are ever likely to emerge: Hinckley reveals that Point Blank was performed, “while the cameras were being set up and focused.”
There are some splendid, and indeed unique, musical performances here; nonetheless, the revealing interview sections are the main attraction. Credit for this must go to the show’s host. As I have indicated above, despite an attitude to Springsteen at times bordering on the obsequious, Costello reveals himself to be an effective interviewer. According to the Spectacle website, “critics who praised the show…noted that Costello’s long run as a pre-eminent craftsman served him well when he took on a new role of host and interviewer, using his wry sense of humor and innate knowledge of several musical schools to bring out the best from his guests.” Other commentators have also that being a musician himself was an advantage for Costello. Goldstein concluded that this, “may have been the best interview I’ve ever seen Bruce do. Maybe it’s because it was a fellow musician or just the questions were better, but Bruce really opened up.” Hinckley, agreeing with Goldstein that Springsteen was made to feel “comfortable,” states that, “it wasn’t exactly two rock ‘n’ roll soldiers reminiscing over a beer. But it had that flavor.” Similarly, Jay Lustig, writing on the nj.com website, adds that, “The artists’ respect and admiration for each other is (sic) obvious.” Overall, then, despite some enjoyable musical performances, it is the interview sections that are most fascinating. This is both the strength and the weakness of this release – it is most interesting when one intially watches and listens, but it will probably find its way back inside my DVD player occasionally rather than regularly.
It must also be said that this DVD will soon face competition from the official release. The complete Series One has been available for some time and I have noticed that Series Two now appears on Amazon’s US site (though no release date is given at the time of writing). Although this might seem to make this DVD redundant, I would suggest that that may or may not be the case, depending on price and how much of the series you want. If, like me, you are only interested in the Springsteen shows, this release, seemingly recorded from the Sundance Channel and with sound and picture quality only a notch down from what they are likely to be on the official set, and with attractive tri-fold packaging featuring scenes from the show and a couple of off-stage photos of Springsteen, may still be your preferred option, especially if the official release prompts dealers to offer this DVD at a lower price. (I have known this to be the case; indeed, one internet seller I buy from offered a Rolling Stones DVD to his customers for free once the concert it contained, from Rio De Janeiro in February 2006, appeared on the official The Biggest Bang four disc set!) For my part, having acquired this release, I shall certainly be hanging on to it.