Dylan v. Elvis? Stop the fight, referee. It’s no contest

Theatre of the imagination. That phrase sums up the reason why Bob Dylan’s weekly show works so well on radio, and why Elvis Costello’s new program is such a dreary flop on TV. (Those unfamiliar with the Dylan audio extravaganza can check out a pirated MP3 version here, providing they have no scruples concerning intellectual property protection.)

Without pictures, the listener is left to imagine Dyl, sitting in a darkened broadcasting studio, illuminated only by a scattering of red and green LEDs, wearing Ray-Bans, in front of a pair of well-used turntables, puffing Old Golds and chuckling to himself while he spins 45s and 78s from his own collection.

A bad habit, and one that could stunt your growth
A bad habit, and not to mention, one that could stunt your growth

We know that’s not at all how his Theme Time Radio Hour comes together on XM Radio, and that it’s more a matter of ISDN lines and digitized voice-tracks. Well, of course we know that. But the point is that we can’t actually see old Bob in reality, being handed his script by a flunky and then straightening his reading specs and patting down his toupee, and muffing one line after another, sputtering while he tries to pronounce Hawkshaw Hawkins. So we visualize him the way he should be: as a reincarnated Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins, sharing intimate knowledge and magical tunes with a secret fraternity of those wide-awake at four in the morning in the Bay Area and beyond. Or as a latter-day Herb Jepko, a bemused, calming presence in the middle of the Salt Lake City night, as in the days when Herb would offer solace to brother and sister Nightcaps in 38 states and Canada. Dyl deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraph as those radio legends. He’s that fine a disc jockey, no less impressive for having all the while maintained and sharpened his songwriting and performing talents. And, yes, you’re listening to a fan talking.

Herb, now as always, on the night shift
Herb, now as always, on the night shift

I’m also an admirer of Mr. Costello’s music and lyrics, but his new chat-show offering on the cable network Bravo is — let me put this delicately — not good. Part of the problem is that Elvis has placed himself on visual display, and you kind of wish he hadn’t. A decade younger than Dylan, Elvis is missing the ironic fashion sense of the man from Hibbing, but, sadly, that doesn’t stop him from experimenting. He covers his bloat and pudge with an Edwardian frock coat and tablecloth-sized cravat, and tilts his trademark porkpie hat at a rakish angle over his unshaved, swollen punim. The effect is more than a bit tragic. You have yesterday’s angry young man coming across like J. Wellington Wimpy, about to cadge a hamburger today, promising re-payment tomorrow. As the familiar saying goes, his is a face designed for radio.

The Elvis show, called “Spectacle,” is a reminder of those small-market syndicated gabfests of two generations back, hosted by third-tier TV curios such as Al Capp, and sceened on the uppermost part of the UHF dial. These programs, seen by the few in the small hours, attracted oddball guests who started out removed from the mainstream, and mostly stayed that way. On the other hand, here were venues where performers of the level of Sir Monti Rock III could show up and let their hair down.

Mr. Costello
Mr. Costello, sans spectacles

Mr. Costello’s stilted formality provides no such promise, in Norm Crosby’s words, that Everything Goes. He comes across like a man channelling David Frost, and not the acceptable version you saw in the Frost/Nixon movie. He’s the creepy Frost you remember the Westinghouse network distributing from the Little Theatre Off Times Square: an insecure, distracted Englishman in New York, fervently wishing he had somewhere else to be, and someone more interesting to talk to. (In Elvis’s case, he at least appears grateful that he has a studio to hang around, and that he doesn’t have to spend any additional time listening to his wife, Canada’s own Diana “Makes Your Skin” Krall, punish their children by murmuring show tunes to them.)

Elvis’s guests are either big-shot megastars who leave the impression that they’re humoring the host by appearing on his wee program, or non-entities who get the full-out Costello fawn. One such talent-free visitor recently was Bob Dylan’s kid, who made fifteen minutes seem like an all-day telethon. Jakob Dylan has supported himself in the business-of-show for a decade now, and seems to think of himself as a revered fixture on the entertainment scene. He told Elvis a pointless and petulant story about how his mother once threw out one of his articles of clothing without his permission. Okay, the vest was a gift from Joe Strummer of the Clash, but that still doesn’t elevate this thin gripe to a story worth re-telling. Yet, the interviewer, Mr. C., seemed captivated by Jakob’s yarn, in the fashion of Art Linkletter marvelling over how kids say the darnest things.

It must be pointed out to Elvis and his producer that, for certain, Bob Dylan wouldn’t dream of having his son as a guest on his own radio show. So, what is this? A feeble effort to butter up Papa, hoping Dyl will reciprocate by playing one of Ms. Krall’s cornball sides on Theme Time Radio Hour? Won’t happen, Jackson.

The promise of “Spectacle” is that it has nowhere to go from here, except further down — and that’s when things might get interesting. Elvis presiding over an old-timey Al Capp-style TV freak show sounds like a more promising concept than whatever it was they originally had in mind. When Sting and James Taylor refuse the invitation to drop back for second appearances, Elvis will turn to the C-list of bygone days. I, for one, would love to see, and not just hear, Elvis interview Sir Monti Rock III, and the Capp parade of put-on artists, along with the genuinely deranged, damaged, and deluded. Now, that would be something worth imagining.

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  • Now meet one of the New Dylans who might be ready to stage a comeback, 40 years after her not-so-smash debut
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