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Elvis Costello’s Talk Show “Spectacle”: Almost Me, Almost You, Almost Good

Elvis Costello was making a mistake. It was years and years ago on “Late Night” with Letter man and he was pushing his album Spike and he was talking about a central song on Spike, “God’s Comic”. “God was wishing he had he given the world to the monkeys,” Costello said, with an ingratiating lean forward he hadn’t owned five years before and a twinkle in his eyes, “Dave, Pete, Mickey and Mike” he gleamed. Harharhar. As jokes go not the best but as told me the new user friendly bloody awful and the reason is Costello can’t tell a joke to save his life. He reminds me of my Dad, he is too eager, too gladhandy.

I’ve seen Costello live many, many, many and I have never found him the lightest bit fun and their is a moment in his Sundance Talk Show from earlier this year, currently available on Itunes, when he explains how the interview with his wife Diana Krall would be conducted by Elton John , with an excruciating bad joke about how :that sweet chalice” he is discussing the actually interviewing, “has been dashed from lips” and the way he says it is so uncomfortable it makes me cringe.

As an interview, an a man, Costello can be such a suck up and a smarm it is difficult to reconcile this hack with the guy behind some of my favorite albums and as a long time fan “Spectacle” can be like an Albert Brooks movie only intentionally; it makes me squirm. But if that was the only thing going on with “Spectacle” I would try to ignore it. The flip of this is Costello can be everything you would like from an interviewer.

The very first interview, with Elton John, is pure revelation. IT has been so long since John was anything but the Queen Mother it is difficult to remember him as an up and coming rock star and keyboard wizard and to hear John on Laura Nyro is as much fun as to read Nessing on Sill; Costello has John so much at ease, so open to the experience, Costello is better with Rufus Wainwright,. Oddly enough he isn’t up to much with the young generation on “Spectacle” but Rufus isn’t scared of the situation and given the opportunity to speak at length Rufus is a charmed series of “bububububuttt” and and and and… he is all tics and torettes and Costello, the mellow older statesman is relaxed and ready to lead Rufus. First Costello covers his father Loudon Wainwright III “New Paint” and then Costello tells a less than telling anecdote about seeing Loudon open for the Soft Machine in Liverpool in 71 and then, and this is where it gets interesting, he mentions how in the following years Rufus’ father had written about parenting. It was a very skillful way for Elvis to lead Rufus to discuss his famously raucous relationship with his dad and it works pretty well.

Much less well in most of the rest of the interviews: Lou Reed is the Mount Olympus of interviewing. Reed is a notoriously nasty piece of work and even with a peer -which Costello sure is, he seems testy and bloody minded, and until the end when Julian Schabel joins the interview, when it takes off like a concert which hasn’t been up to much and certainly clicks. It doesn’t save the interview, instead it makes it much more important: a moment of true revelation. I will give Costello the Renee Fleming interview as well -not revelatory, but sweet spirited and musically the highlight. The final great episode was the Diana Krall interview by Elton John. Krall really does have a sense of humor and Elton is a companionable interviewer who understands piano men as well as anybody and better than most.

Unfortunately nothing can save the rest of the episodes, dreary suck ups to Tony Bennett and Smokey Robinson, out of touch next generation fawning from M. Wards and Jenny Lewis. Jenny Lewis? Really? With an hour of Sundance time, this is what Costello wants to show us? Just as bad was a Cash here and a Kristoffersson there hootenanny. And that’s your lot. People complain that I am always ragging on Costello: well he is rich and married to Krall so i think he can handle it and it’s not my fault the guy has lost his mojo. Still, I for all my usual Costello caveats I hope he gives us another season of “Spectacle” . To spend an hour dissecting a great musicians work by a man who understands what it takes to be a great musician is a brilliant idea. Next season EC could well get closer.

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