Tuned In

His Aim Is True

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Tonight Sundance debuts Elvis Costello’s interview series, Spectacle. (Actually, the somewhat ungainly Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…) I reviewed it briefly in the print Time thus: 

It’s not just the glasses–Elvis Costello really is that smart. On this Sundance Channel Q&A series, the singer, showman and wit talks pop-music history with Elton John, jazz with Bill Clinton and more. Interspersed with cover songs, Spectacle is an engaging showcase for a curious mind.

David Lee Roth reportedly once said that critics all liked Elvis Costello because critics all looked like Elvis Costello. (I’ll let you judge by my photo.) Costello once reportedly said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (I can’t vouch for whether he originated the saying.) So I’m not sure whether it’s entirely appropriate or entirely surprising to see him taking the role of music journalist here.

Either way, it works. His first guest, tonight, is Elton John, also a producer of the show, and the two have a wide-ranging discussion of John’s influences as a songwriter, including a long discussion of Laura Nyro. More revealing than any of the questions are the illustrative performances: Costello opens each show with a cover performance related to his musical guest, offering some background without being pedantic, and guests like John take to the stage to demonstrate some of the musical points they’d just been talking about. 

That said, perhaps the most interesting of the four episodes Sundance sent was Costello’s interview with Bill Clinton, with whom he talked about pop culture more than politics. Clinton doesn’t blow the sax, but he holds forth, for instance, on the relation between performance and governance especially in Arkansas politics: one of his predecessors as governor was Jimmie Davis, who wrote and recorded “You Are My Sunshine.”

Clinton also analogizes the work of politics to jazz, rather than classical music—it’s more improvisatory and intimate—and says that failing to see this was one of Nixon’s failings: Nixon was only interested in “the mass of humanity, the sweep of history,” rather than connecting with people on an individual level. The former President also recalls being chastizes by daughter Chelsea for dismissing hip-hop, after which she bought him several CDs, including one by NWA, and forced him to listen. (“I’d still rather listen to Ray Charles,” he says, “but I get it.”) 

At one point, Costello begins a question about the immense responsibilities of the Presidency, saying, “You have to make decisions that would trouble any man, and the president is a man—” Clinton interrupts: “For the time being.” See, that’s what they call improvisation.

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