I recently saw an interview Madonna did for Swedish television. She obviously didn't think much of the questions, so she just pulled the conversation toward the things she really wanted to talk about. It worked because she had time, and because the interviewer lacked David Letterman's relentless instinct to keep everything light and bright. But if the encounter had been cut down to a five-minute broadcast slot, a lot of what Madonna wanted to say would have disappeared.
"We live in a sound-bite culture," said Elton John, who has endured plenty of unsatisfying media interviews, though he seemed reasonably pleased with our recent chat by phone. "You get five minutes to plug your record or your tour, with no chance to really talk about the music and where it came from. I haven't really been asked those questions for years and years."
So when a Canadian proposal to co-produce an in-depth TV interview program came his way, John jumped at it. The result is Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ... , a 13-part series of conversations about music, hosted by the man who, 30 years ago, cut a demo on which he sang, "I've seen dreams have a happy ending / Disappearing on my TV."
The show, which begins weekly Canadian broadcasts on CTV on April 3 and on Bravo! on April 4, is an anomaly in the current media environment. Most of the one-hour programs have only one guest. There are no comic monologues, no sidekicks, no stupid musician tricks, no spectacle of any kind. It's just conversation in a small theatre, with occasional musical illustrations, and one or two performances, often with Costello joining in.
The guest list includes Lou Reed, the Police, Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, James Taylor, John Mellencamp, Renée Fleming and John, who appears on the first show and is also an executive producer of the series. It's meant to be an antidote, John said, to "the moronic entertainment environment" he finds on most TV.
"I was desperate to have a program in which artists could really talk about their art, something that in 50 years' time people could come back and refer to," John added. "Where's the definitive Nina Simone interview? The definitive James Brown interview?"
Not surprisingly, most of the guests are much-decorated veterans. When you're making TV for history, the musicians at the top of the current charts aren't necessarily your first choices.
"The greats are the greats," said Stephen Warden, the Canadian producer who had been pitching a show like Spectacle for years before linking up with John and his producer/spouse, David Furnish. "To some extent, that meant people who had been around for a long time and had done a lot of influential work. We wanted the shows to be timeless documents, not promotional opportunities."
Costello seems to have been everyone's first choice as host. Apart from his own stature as a musician, he has written persuasively about a lot of other people's music (most notably in a well-annotated list of the 500 best albums ever for Vanity Fair magazine in 2000), and successfully guest-hosted for Letterman when the latter was ill with shingles in 2003.
"I knew that Elvis was a witty guy," Warden said. "But I was really impressed that he could just walk in and do it all, from monologue to interviews to performances."
Costello's own musical history clearly adds something to the first episode with his close friend John. The two spend much of the time talking about other musicians whose work has had a defining impact on their own. An extended dialogue about Laura Nyro ("I idolized her," says John) includes a video clip of her performing at the Monterey Pop Festival, and an impromptu demonstration at the piano of the debt John's song Burn Down the Mission owes to Nyro's rule-breaking notions of song structure.
There are also lengthy tributes to more obscure figures such as Billy Stewart ("the most underrated R&B singer ever," according to John) and American singer-songwriter David Ackles, two of whose discs appeared on Costello's Vanity Fair list. The show ends with a duet performance by John and Costello (their first ever) of Ackles's Down River .
All this ancestor worship has a polemical undercurrent, which comes out in the open when John recalls the days when "people were genuine performers," when songwriters told compelling stories, and when there seemed to be no boundaries between one kind of popular music and another, in people's minds or on radio. Things have taken a dire turn since then, he told me.
"MTV started an age of people who can't perform and can't really sing," he said. "A lot of live shows now are like watching music videos, with lip-synching and everything. There are so many machines involved.
"There's some great stuff happening now, but there's a lot of mediocrity. Apart from Rufus Wainwright and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, nobody's really throwing the rule book out the window. You turn on the radio and it all sounds alike. You have all these Black Eyed Peas kind of records, they all sound the same, and you have these terribly restrictive radio formats. In Britain, a band like Kings of Leon can still have a hit on radio, but not in America. In America, the music scene is dead on its ass."
On the show, John singles out Wainwright and Ron Sexsmith in particular as current musicians who are not getting their due. Wainwright "would have been enormous" if he'd been making his kind of music in the early seventies, John says, and Sexsmith "is a great Canadian songwriter, he writes beautiful songs, he's never going to get played on the radio. It's tragic, it's disgusting."
A lot of these sentiments may play well among the generation that came of age when John's career began. Spectacle 's guest list has a definite golden-oldie look, though Warden said that the demographics of the intended audience were less important in the producers' minds than the desire to get the thoughts of Smokey Robinson and the rest on record. The first show also includes some intriguing personal tidbits, such as the news that since John came out some 20 years ago, Bernie Taupin, his principal lyricist, has quietly retired the pronoun "she" from songs he has written with and for John.
Spectacle has already been seen in Britain and the United States, where it ran last winter on the Sundance Channel. Discussions are under way about a second season, and about whether the guest list needs to include more prominent young talent.
"The TV people would like to have more commercial people on, like Beyoncé, to get more viewers," said John. "But I want to have people who have more to talk about. I think Beyoncé's very talented, but she's just starting."
The first season will emerge in extended form on DVD. Most of the tapings ran for two to three hours, so there will be lots of outtakes on the discs, said Warden.
John's time on Spectacle has already provoked one spinoff. After talking with Costello about Leon Russell, and doing a little piano improvisation in Russell's distinctive style, John called up the venerable sideman and talked about more than old times.
"The upshot is that I'm going to be doing an album with Leon Russell next year, with T-Bone Burnett producing," he said. Given the origin of the project, maybe they should call it Bifocals .
Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… premieres April 3 at 10 p.m. ET on CTV; and April 4 at 8 p.m. ET on Bravo!