STAR TIME. [Bruce Springteen and Elvis Costello at the Apollo]
Sitting in the Apollo Theater, watching Elvis Costello open this particular taping of “Spectacle” by performing “Point Blank” was, on its face, an extraordinary experience. It’s a compelling song. It was a stunning interpretation. It felt like Angry Young Man vintage 70s Elvis singing, it felt like for years he had sung that song to himself based on a live version of Bruce singing it back in the day. But break it down some more: Elvis Costello. The Apollo Theater. Elvis singing Bruce Springsteen. Elvis about to interview Bruce on the stage of the Apollo Theater. My head was spinning from the intersectionality, my heart was pounding from all the emotional touchpoints.
This was a huge night. I have loved Elvis Costello since high school, since I would get shoved into my locker because I liked “that punk crap,” since I had a boyfriend seriously question our relationship when I professed my love for “This Year’s Model,” since my father glared disapprovingly at the Imposters playing “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live. I have seen him in every incarnation, whether I thought I liked it or not. Put that next to how long I have been following Mr. Bruce Springsteen. And, just to be tiresome about it, let me dwell again on the fact that all of this was taking place at the monumentally historic Apollo Theater, a place that saw Jackie and Otis and Sam and James and and and and and and and the list goes on until your head should explode. I dress up when I go to the Apollo Theater. I sit up straighter. I feel like I am part of history.
So the two guys on the stage had a lot to live up to tonight. I am thrilled to say that they lived up to the expectations set by the ghosts that no doubt swirled around them on that stage.
Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a play by play description of the evening. Those are out there, and they do a fine job at capturing exactly what was discussed. But no one there that night got it all, because there was SO MUCH material, and it kept going, and going, and going. You know Nils was there. You know Roy was there. You know all of this already.
Two stools get set up after Nils. Steve Nieve noodles on the intro to “She’s The One,” so we know it is coming. Elvis has guitar issues, swaps them out, complains he needs a square guitar, really, to do this song. The nod to the traditional shape of Bo Diddley’s guitar took us into the song, where it was hard to sit on your hands and not clap the downbeat like you always do, except that at some point it became obvious that we should and could, and that singing along at the chorus would be welcomed. And then the band vamped into an instrumental, and Elvis launches into a beautiful, perfect, 60’s dj-cum-Apollo emcee introduction, complete with clever references and turns of phrase, “and if I had my way he’d be the Grand Imperial Emperor of New Jersey” – and on walks Mr. Springsteen, to tumultuous applause. He takes off his jacket, sits down, picks up the acoustic guitar to hide behind, and starts talking.
Now, I am probably not the only person who feels that it’s been a long time since anyone asked Bruce Springsteen anything resembling a difficult question. Naively, I want to think that Elvis had carte blanche and no one from JLM was vetting the talking points in advance. I’m going to keep thinking that because Elvis poked and prodded and got very close to subjects that even hinting about would be taboo for any other interviewer.
Furthermore, Elvis just kept gently pushing. When Bruce first walked out onstage, my other half whispered, Please, God, take this seriously, not realizing he was verbalizing what I was chanting internally. The last thing we needed was Bruce making a joke about everything and avoiding answering tough questions. I have to say that the last thing I expected, however, was over three hours of intense discussion between fellow musicians. Elvis got him to relax. Elvis got him to open up. Elvis knew his shit cold. Like ‘we need to interview him for Backstreets’ cold. Like he could sit in the GA line with the rest of us and trade stories just as good as anyone. There were times where it veered a little too much into the fanboy zone – the interview segment after the break, for example, lost focus – but the payoff for Elvis being someone who, as Declan MacManus, was wandering around London when they were hanging up the IS LONDON READY FOR BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN posters, was enormous. He barely needed his notes. He kept Bruce talking… and talking… and talking.
It took a little bit to get him going, but after a while, it felt like Bruce forgot there were a couple hundred people and half a dozen television cameras on him. It was a night where if you blinked, you missed something crucial; where when some moron felt the need to applaud every mention of Passaic or the Jersey Shore or Asbury Park, you missed vital, vital information (for example, what Elvis had to say about “New York City Serenade. “Whoever you are, I will hunt you down and find you). The information was just pouring out in buckets on the stage. Elvis and Bruce met for the first time when Elvis and the Attractions played the Capitol Theater in Passaic in the 70’s. Bruce talking about buying punk records coming over from England – the Buzzcocks and the Clash mentioned specifically – at “a little store in Greenwich Village” (which of course probably had to have been Bleecker Bob’s. The thought of Bruce lining up on Saturday morning with the rest of us who came to see what was in that week’s shipment blows my fucking mind). Elvis and the Attractions playing the Stone Pony in 1977, the night before they played SNL, and introducing Bruce Thomas as the future of rock and roll bass players, which the Pony audience allegedly didn’t appreciate.
When I was thinking about this show and what they would talk about, one of the things I would have loved to hear discussed was the Bonnie Bramlett incident; I think Bruce mentioned it in passing, when he talked about “a youthful brouhaha” Elvis was involved in. (And if you want to talk about euphemisms, the period between BTR and Darkness when Bruce was entangled in the lawsuit was referred to as “some bad luck”. Water, bridge, under.)
Elvis talking about walking around London and seeing the posters go up for the Hammersmith Odeon show in 1975, and wondering, ‘Why are they doing this to him?’ Bruce admitting that “you half believe the stuff they say about you” – which is the first time in his entire career he actually copped to the fact that part of him liked the hype. Talking about the media calling Bruce ‘the new Dylan,’ and Bruce saying, “I didn’t know why they needed a new Dylan. The old one was still pretty young at the time.”
“Wild Billy” turning up wasn’t a complete surprise to me, after a lengthy discussion of what the Jersey Shore was like in the 60s, how isolated it was, even with New York City an hour away, about how the circus would come through and how Adele would take him. Nils wasn’t a surprise, given that he’d opened the show with one of his songs earlier. Roy being there was a nice surprise, playing the accordion.
“There was some guy who said that ‘Born To Run’ was too romantic,” Bruce said, giggling that Muttley laugh.
“Wait, was that me?” Elvis said.
“I’ve been waiting 30 years for this moment.”
“There have been quite a few of these moments on Spectacle.”
By the time he got him up to Darkness, Bruce had completely forgotten to be guarded, and was just holding the guitar instead of strumming it (although the soft notes that underpinned the discussion was another surreal note: he’s sitting right there – he’s holding that guitar – he’s playing it THE WHOLE TIME – this isn’t on television.). “It came back to – identity, identity, identity.” I’ve heard him talk about the motivations and themes behind Darkness before, but this was deeper than he’s gone in years, with anyone. Long ruminations on Freehold, and the people he grew up with – that he didn’t know one person who went to college. “Who am I? Where do I belong?” I have always thought that Bruce took a lesson from Elvis (and probably Dylan) in terms of what he didn’t want to do with his life, and that he worked hard to stay in public and not have to become crazy or a recluse or both. From the discussion tonight, it seems like those thoughts have always been in his mind. (Although he did mention that this was before the internet, so you could get into as much trouble as you wanted to, and no one ever knew about it.)
Passaic, New Jersey, got more applause than a mention of the Ramones did. (You should be ashamed of yourselves, audience.) Elvis seemed to not know that Bruce had written “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones. I was hoping for more discussion on this, but I think that this is really the entire story. Bruce did specifically confirm that the anger on Darkness was informed a great deal by punk rock, in addition to the things we already know about – movies and literature. (Yes, a selfish pleasure, but given that I spent years in torment back then trying to convince both sides of my musical life that Bruce really did fit, it is nice at least to hear it now.)
The last song anyone probably expected to get mentioned tonight was “Reno,” but it came up in a discussion about feeling responsible to write about certain experiences (which led to the solo acoustic performance of “41 Shots,” after which I had to peel myself up off the floor). I loved that people laughed at the mention of “Reno,” and Elvis shot them a disgusted look. The point Elvis was trying to discuss was that Bruce never wrote about things in order to deliberately shock, or get a reaction – he described writing and then performing “41 Shots,” and then how Stevie walked into the dressing room at MSG the next night, saying, ‘Hey, you kind of started something here’ and Bruce thinking “Really?”.
Elvis talked about Black & White night. They both mentioned that more people come up to talk to them about that than anything else they have ever done. About how nervous they both were, Elvis talking about Bruce sitting in the dressing room at the Coconut Grove with his Walkman on, listening to the songs – talking about how complex they were, how hard they were to play – so that he didn’t fuck up. Bruce starts to play the Pretty Woman riff, Elvis must have indicated that he should continue, Bruce said, ‘You and me, brother, you and me,” and they started to sing, and the room collectively held its breath. They got through a verse and a chorus before Bruce claimed he didn’t remember the rest.
Elvis moving on, and mentioning Nebraska, which even Bruce applauded the mention of, and I was hoping for a performance of something from that record – but this ended up leading to a discussion of Tom Joad, and the acoustic tours, and ended up with Elvis asking him if he’d mind performing “Galveston Bay.” “Galveston Bay”? Seriously? If you’d handed me a list of songs and asked me which ones I thought would be performed, this would not be on it. It was so out of left field, so unexpected, and it felt like you had never heard the song before. You were certainly never going to hear it with an audience this attentive. (While there were boorish morons who kept trying to get their voices on television, gratefully they managed to not ruin any of the performances doing so.)
I thought I was going to explode with happiness when Elvis started talking about soul music – continuing the discussion about the E Street Band being a show band – and Bruce talking about how much he learned from people like Sam and Dave – calling out whatever idiot yelped at the mention of the Satellite Lounge: “I *know* you’ve never been there.” (He talked about this, of course, at the 2003 Christmas shows, and we would see it at the end of the night as well.) They talked about the Apollo – I was somewhat surprised to hear that Bruce had never been there, but it’s the kind of thing that probably would have surfaced before now – and I wasn’t surprised to hear that he had never played there. And then they started to talk about Sam Moore, and this was the moment where Bruce dissolved into being not Bruce Springsteen, rock star, but Bruce Springsteen, passionate fan of soul and rnb, and his description of Sam and Dave, how Sam went up to the heavens with his voice, while Dave anchored them to the earth. Elvis asked if he didn’t think Sam wouldn’t have gotten more attention as a solo artist, and Bruce very decisively said that the duos and the trios and the groups – they worked, and while Sam would have always have been a titan, who’s to say if it would have worked as well if Dave hadn’t been there.
I don’t remember at what point I realized they were going to do a Sam and Dave song. I do remember the two of them discussing who was going to sing who, and Bruce made it very clear he was taking Sam’s part, and he got off the stool and put the jacket on – and if you were at the 2003 Christmas shows you will remember how that jacket just seemed to transform his performance – and there was some silliness about how they were about to do this on stage at the Apollo Theater where all the greats had performed and that they were probably going to make fools of themselves and that they were more than a little bit intimidated.
I am personally just grateful that they did Elvis’ version of “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” and not the original, soul ballad version. I don’t know if either of them had the voice to do it straight, and as it was, it was like watching two thoroughbreds run for the finish line at the Kentucky Derby. It was Bruce in that otherworldly voice he had those nights in Asbury (and can bring when he chooses to at other moments, like this one), it was Elvis reaching for every last vocal chord he had, it was watching two accomplished artists of their stature seem just a little bit cowed by the room and the material and the shoes they were filling.
When it was done, the production assistant called for a break, and I looked at my watch, and it was 10:30. It seemed impossible that it had only been two hours. It seemed impossible that it had been that long. It seemed impossible that it had only been two hours.
Coming back from break, Elvis lost his focus a little bit. This is where Bruce started telling a dirty joke: “A guy and a girl walk into a bar.” He eventually finished the joke, which confirmed that he is still just as much of a horndog as we ever thought he was – although at one moment there was a little bit of feeling like you were watching your uncle tell a dirty joke at a party in front of your friends. (The joke wasn’t that good.) There was a long rambling discussion about Catholicism, which didn’t get much out of Bruce, and then a longer discussion about horses, and then Elvis doing one of Patti’s songs. He talked about his kids, and what he got out of listening to their music. We’ve heard him talk about Evan before, and the bands he’s into, and he’s talked about Jessica being into Top 40, but the story about Sam getting into acoustic Dylan and watching the Newport Folk Festival DVD with his son, and then going out and buying him the records, and Sam saying – “It’s epic, Dad. Epic.” How much he gets out of his kids enjoying the music that meant so much to him.
“I wanted to do something that had been done for me,” he said at one point. “Dylan was the father of the country I recognized.”
Selfishly, I was glad that Elvis asked him about playing at the Lincoln Memorial. (Selfish because we were there for it.) Mentioning Pete Seeger getting to be there at age 90, and everything that he had seen. And Elvis talking about “The Rising” and how people look to Bruce. “I’m just trying to figure something out. And I figure, if I figure it out just a little bit for me, maybe it’ll help someone else figure it out.”
Elvis at this point looked like he was exhausted. Bruce hopped up as quickly as he could, saying, “Even I’m tired of talking about me.” Elvis wandered off stage, and Bruce said, “Did Elvis leave the building?” and then giggled maniacally.
Nils and Roy came out with the members of the Attractions, and Bruce put on an electric guitar. I didn’t expect to hear “The Rising” and I’m still undecided whether “Seeds” was lazy or some tie-in to the discussions about writing about what you see and hear and think, and not being ungrateful, I’ll go with the latter. And here’s where the night came full circle – you’ve seen Bruce lead E Street, you know how he can tell Max something by stomping his boot on the stage or direct the band by shrugging his shoulder. You expect it, you see it, it’s part of the performance, it’s subtle at this point, he almost doesn’t need to do it. But when he was up there with three musicians who weren’t in his band, it became more obvious, although just as seamless and just as masterful. It gave me hope for the time in which he needs to go out with a band that is not the E Street Band – provided that they are stellar musicians, it will rock. It will be righteous. It will be fun.
I have mentioned people in the audience yelling. It was so hard to get into this taping, it was such a once in a lifetime event, I cannot understand why anyone who calls themself a Bruce Springsteen fan would not appreciate the opportunity and would, instead, feel the need to ruin it for others with continual yelping or hooting and hollering while they were talking. You are not cool. You are not funny. You are rude, boorish, ill-mannered and immature, and you are not a fan. This goes for the idiot who kept desperately trying to get acknowledged by Bruce by continuing to yell “60” or “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”. Then someone yelled “PLAY ONE MORE” and a guy a few rows in front of us yelled, “PLAY FOUR MORE! PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T STOP!” You, sir, I salute.
They had to restart playing ‘Radio Nowhere’ twice – and Elvis asked us to sit down so we could jump back up again – and even though I probably thought about it subconsciously and made some inside jokes with friends, in three million fucking years I never thought I would hear “Radio Nowhere” segue into “Radio, Radio”. But god it made sense. It fit. It was unbelievably logical. Elvis didn’t really have much to do during the rock songs – we joked later that his guitar likely had the same volume settings in the mix as Patti’s did – but after three hours of getting Bruce Springsteen to talk like no one else has in decades, he more than deserved it.
And then it was 11:45, and we had been there since 7pm, and I put my high heels back on, staggered out of the theater, and turned back into a pumpkin. I have been lucky enough to see some incredible nights with Bruce Springsteen, but I do not think it is untrue when I say that I believe it will be hard to top this one.
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