SPECTACLE REPORT: Elvis Costello on his favorite artists
Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello jam on the SPECTACLE stage.
As someone once wisely noted, “There’s nothing you can say that can’t be sung,” and so it proved to be during the nearly four hours that Bruce Springsteen and I shared the Apollo stage for our SPECTACLE taping.
Given Bruce’s generosity in song and conversation, it’s little wonder our performance yielded two full episodes. There is very little I can add by way of recommendation. He was good enough to sing almost every song we discussed, and even one we didn’t really know.
Suffice to say that the version of “Point Blank” with which the Imposters and I opened the evening, as well as my heartfelt but vocally fatigued solo rendition of “Brilliant Disguise,” are two of my favorite Springsteen songs. Sadly, neither could be accommodated in the final edit.
I am sorrier still that Nils Lofgren’s wonderful performance of “Like Rain” – a song that I had loved since his days in Grin – could not be placed in the narrative either. I hope it emerges one day. Nils’ contribution to preparations for the evening’s collaboration between the Imposters and he and his E-Street Band colleague Roy Bitten was invaluable.
Five weeks or so after the taping, I found myself back in New York, just as Bruce and the E-Street Band were playing a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden.
It was among the shows in which entire albums were performed, and I was delighted to find that Bruce was performing what is still my favorite of all his records, The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle, from which he had performed “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” on SPECTACLE.
I’ve spent a lot of time with this album, and it was remarkable to hear it re-animated in every detail with such nuance and vitality. It was stranger still to find myself walking out to sing Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” during the show’s finale.
But then it occurs to me that during the SPECTACLE encounter Bruce and I found ourselves talking about other artists and their music as much as our own experiences.
In some cases this was a departure from those previous occasions when we had shared the stage. So here are some songs that you might enjoy by those very artists.
Roy Orbison: “Crawling Back” – from The Essential Roy Orbison (2006)
Despite his obvious love and debt to the balladeer, when Bruce name-checked Roy Orbison in “Thunder Road,” he was speaking of an artist who, at that time, wasn’t in clear view to much of his audience.
By 1987, when we both appeared as part of the all-star band assembled by T Bone Burnett for the Black and White Night television special, this strange and unacceptable state of affairs was at an end.
Roy’s incredible songs were given faithful and beautifully sung renditions during that long night at the Coconut Grove, and a catalogue that was once buried in lost vinyl racks is now much more readily available.
This song may have escaped your notice. It is one of Roy’s most beautiful. Building from a confidential opening, it eventually reaches a typically dramatic climax – but then that was Roy’s style of “singing for the lonely.”
I was sitting in a classical vocal recital in London one night when I realized that the second section of Roy’s melody recalls Robert Schumann, although I’m not sure how big he ever was on the radio in Wink, Texas.
The Clash: “Rudie Can’t Fail” – from London Calling (1979)
Another time Bruce and I shared a stage was at a Grammy Awards salute to Joe Strummer. Bruce led the charge through “London Calling.”
On this cut from the London Calling album, Joe invites co-writer Mick Jones to the microphone to take the lead, and then returns at the chorus. It’s the Clash track that never fails to light up a room when it appears by chance.
Sam & Dave: “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” – from The Best of Sam & Dave (1969)
It was inevitable that Bruce and I would talk about R&B singers and showmen, and there are none finer than Sam & Dave.
By turning a ballad into an uptempo number, I’d had a U.K. hit with a Sam & Dave b-side back in 1980.
For our SPECTACLE duet, Bruce and I combined both versions of the song in one arrangement.
I found it rather curious that neither singer wanted to step into the central position of the hallowed Apollo stage during the performance of this song.
As Bruce remarked on SPECTACLE, Sam & Dave’s strength came from the great contrast of their vocal approaches.
If Sam Moore had not been part of a duo, I feel sure he would be more readily spoken about as the equal of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding or Al Green. But having sung with Sam Moore on a couple of occasions, and, due to his vocal power, barely being able to hear a note that I was producing, I got a greater appreciation of Dave Prater’s ability to hold his own.
This great Isaac Hayes/David Porter ballad is one that shows how their voices really complimented each other.
The Buzzcocks – “What Do I Get?” from Buzzcocks Finest – Ever Fallen In Love (2002)
I knew that Bruce liked The Clash, but I was surprised when he mentioned The Buzzcocks as a band that he was listening to around the time of his Darkness At The Edge of Town.
The Buzzcocks 7” singles will always have place on my shelf, right alongside the best records by The Kinks and the early Who releases.
Bob Dylan: “Marchin’ To The City” – from Tell-Tale Signs (2008)
It is pretty hard to have a conversation about songwriting without Bob Dylan somehow coming up, and this episode of SPECTACLE was no exception. Along with another recent SPECTACLE guest, John Prine, Bruce was once seen as working in the shadow of the man from Hibbing, although considering the remarkable songs of each writer, this now seems quite absurd.
Meanwhile, recommendations from the Dylan catalogue are probably redundant and are certainly ever-changing, but here is an extraordinary vocal performance from the recent Tell-Tale Signs collection of alternate and previously unreleased takes.
Pete Seeger: “The Foolish Frog” – from Children’s Concert From the Town Hall (1962)
Inauguration Day 2009 was a day on which Bruce Springsteen shared the platform with a man who he had saluted on his Seeger Sessions albums and a man who, in 1961 during the long, unresolved struggle for social justice, stood up for his First Amendment rights and was convicted and threatened with jail for his pains.
If we had known how the thieves and robber barons of Wall St. would continue conduct themselves, then perhaps this cautionary children’s tale might have made the set-list.