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Colbert On Musical Moments And 'America Again'

Dec 28, 2012
Originally published on December 28, 2012 4:23 pm
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. This week we've been revisiting some of our favorite interviews of 2012, and we conclude the week by presenting two more: Terry's visits with Stephen Colbert and Doris Day.

We'll start with Colbert, in an interview which focused exclusively on his musical interests and influences. His Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report" is largely political satire, but Colbert loves music and loves to sing, so he often has on guest performers and sometimes sings with them.

Last year, Colbert performed in the New York Philharmonic's production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company." Terry interviewed Colbert in the fall, after the publication of his latest book, "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."


So I've made it clear to you several times on FRESH AIR when you've been a guest in the past that I love it when you sing. I love it when you sing onstage. I love it when you sing on your show. I love it when you sing with guests on your show. So someday I hope maybe you'll sing on our show. But in the meantime...

STEPHEN COLBERT: That'd be fun.

GROSS: In the meantime, we asked you to bring some of your favorite recordings so we could talk about music. And so you sent us, you know, the names of a few recordings; we have them ready to play. So I thought we'd start with the first one, which is a song from "Jesus Christ Superstar," which I assume you first heard when you were very young.

COLBERT: Yeah, I think I was probably seven or eight when I first heard it, the Broadway cast recording.

GROSS: The Broadway cast recording, OK. And how did you hear it?

COLBERT: One of my brothers and sisters had it, maybe my sister Lulu(ph) or something like that. And just for the record, Terry, the three songs that I sort of, I picked for today, they're not necessarily my favorite recordings. I just felt like, oh, what are three songs that mean something to me and almost specifically aren't my favorite recordings.

I just thought of three different aspects of my life, and I thought, OK, are there any songs that just speak to that. And the first one would be Herod's song, "King Herod's Song" from "Jesus Christ Superstar," and I just remember hearing it as a kid. And, you know, it's an upbeat, contemporary song in an otherwise very, very serious, you know, musical.

And it's the only song that's sort of comedic in "Jesus Christ Superstar," and as a child, I remember thinking it was scandalous because, you know, the lyrics go - Herod is facing Jesus, and he says:

(Singing) Oh, so you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're no fool, walk across my swimming pool. If you do that for me, then I'll let you go free. Come on, King of the Jews.

And I thought as a kid, like, oh that's so blasphemous, that's so scandalous.


COLBERT: And yet I loved the song. Because I was from a fairly devout family. But even as a young kid, my mom said no, no, that's fine, that's exactly how they would have spoken to him. That's just...

GROSS: Far worse, yes.

COLBERT: That's just - you know what I mean, but that's like a theatrical expression of contempt. And that opened my eyes as a kid that you could actually be - well, you could be wrong in character. You could be blasphemous in character, and it doesn't negate how you feel about the subject. You know, like...

GROSS: Oh, so...

COLBERT: The greatest example is just because I play a murderer doesn't mean I'm a murderer. In the same way, you could actually mock Christ in this song, effectively mock Christ, and, you know, comedically mock Christ, and yet it's not a mockery of the story.

GROSS: Wow, that's kind of like you were seven and figured out what it means to be in character, which you now are so much of the time on your show. It's like this is the roots...



GROSS: This is the roots of your character.

COLBERT: Well, certainly my ability - certainly it's the first time I thought, oh, you can make jokes about religion that aren't anti-religious.

GROSS: Right, great, OK. So let's hear the version from the original cast recording, 1970, "Jesus Christ Superstar," and here it is.


MIKE D'ABO: (As King Herod) (Singing) Jesus, I am overjoyed to meet you face to face. You've been getting quite a name all around the place. Healing cripples, raising from the dead, and now I understand you're God, at least that's what you've said.

(Singing) So you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're divine, change my water into wine. That's all you need do, and I'll know it's all true, c'mon King of the Jews.

(Singing) Jesus, you just won't believe the hit you've made around here. You are all we talk about, the wonder of the year. Oh, what a pity if it's all a lie. Still I'm sure that you can rock the cynics if you try.

So you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me...

GROSS: So that's "King Herod's Song" from the original Broadway cast recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar," one of the recordings that Stephen Colbert brought with him when we asked him to bring some recordings that have meant something to him over the years. And we did this because...

COLBERT: I could do that whole musical, by the way. You just start the...

GROSS: Really? Were you ever in it? It's one of the musicals everybody - you know, like "Hair," like everybody was in "Hair."

COLBERT: No, no, I'm not really a musical guy, but if you just started like the opening, (vocalizing notes), like the opening of "Jesus Christ Superstar," I could probably sing every note and every word from beginning to end. I love that musical.


COLBERT: I don't even know if it's good. Do you know what I mean? At this point, I have no idea whether it's even a good musical. It's just, it's just too much, like, in my DNA.

GROSS: Right, right, OK. So let's move on to another recording that you named as one that's been important to you, and this is Elvis Costello, who unlike King Herod has actually been on your show several times, including on your great holiday special a few years ago.


GROSS: And tell us what this recording is and why you chose it.

COLBERT: This is a recording - this is a demo that Elvis Costello did in a hotel room. It wasn't released on an album originally. I think it was - I've loved this song for about 20 years. It was released as an album extra off of "My Aim Is True," a reissue in the early '90s. And it's called "Jump Up."

And what I like about it is - one of the nice things about having a show is I've gotten to meet a few of the people, artists that I really love, and Elvis and I have become, you know, somewhat friends, which I just can't believe that occasionally there'll be a voicemail on my phone from Elvis Costello, telling me he just ran into Bill O'Reilly in Reykjavik.


COLBERT: You know, that's a completely surreal message to get on your cell phone to a kid who was rocking out to, you know, "Armed Forces." But I love the song because it's sort of a satirical song. It's got a parodic nature to it, or not a parodic nature, but it's really, it's got sort of a political, satirical song.

And I've never discussed this song with Elvis, so I might get a message from Elvis Costello after this interview with you, saying: You know nothing of my work. What are you talking about?


COLBERT: But I've always thought of it as a - it's sort of like a - it's a person who is talking about insignificance in the name of power or of something that they want, and also talking about the hypocrisy of politicians. The second verse goes:

(Singing) Candidates talkin' on the radio from the Cheaters Jamboree. He must be their latest fool, 'cause it's a two-horse race, and he changed his bets like it was just another brand of cigarettes. Some people judge, then they just guess the rest. They can't understand it don't mean that you're blessed.

(Singing) They got to catch the express, next stop: nowhere. That way you can't forget. Jump up, hold on tight. Can't trust a promise or a guarantee, 'cause the man around the curve says that he's never heard of you or me.

And I've always loved that line, you know, it's a two-horse race, and he changes bets like it was another brand of cigarettes. And back long before I did political satire, I thought, yeah, isn't that interesting, there are only two choices, and people flip back and forth as if it doesn't matter, when there should be bold lines between these two people.

And it's just got one of my favorite lines of any song in it. The poetry in this line about - it's a young man, he says - I'm not sure who the character is, but the young man says: I was a statue standing on a corner. Tell me, how else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats?

And that seems like a young man who does - like, has no personal power. He's a statue standing on the corner. No one's noticing him. But he's looking at the girls going by, and he's trying to figure out how I am someone significant enough to be noticed. How else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats, which clearly means their skirt?

But also it's got the word pretty please in it, and so by describing what he wants, he's also describing how he feels about what he wants. You know, let me see your skirt, pretty please. And those kind of lyrics are all through Elvis Costello's work, and I'm sort of in awe of his ability to often write in character, like as, you know, Spike the Entertainer. He sort of writes in that character. He's wry. He's sort of sardonic.

And I'm not a musician, but his music speaks to me and is - if there was somebody's songs I wished I had written, it would be Elvis Costello's songs, and this is a song, one of the first songs I can remember thinking, God, I wish I had written that.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear it. This is Elvis Costello, "Jump Up." It's a demo recorded in a hotel room or a bedroom or something in the mid-'70s, very lo-fi Elvis Costello, a great recording.


ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) Everybody's talking like they can't sit down and looking like they can't stand up. It must be the latest style, and they've seen a lot of things that you never see back on the mile up to the hanging tree. Some people can't keep their fingers clean, just clicking their heels to the beat of the scene, trying to keep careen until the first edition of last night's obituaries.

(Singing) Jump up, hold on tight, can't trust a promise or a guarantee 'cause the man 'round the curve says that he's never heard of you or me.

(Singing) No tombstone would ever surprise me when I'm locked in a room about half the size of a matchbox. Got holes in my socks. They match the ones that I got in my feet. I put my feet in the holes in the street, and somebody paved me over. I was a statue standing on the corner. Tell me, how else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats?

Candidate talkin' on the radio from the Cheaters Jamboree. He must be their latest fool, 'cause it's a two-horse race and he changes bets like it was just another brand of cigarettes. Some people judge, then they just guess the rest. They can't understand it don't mean that you're blessed. They ought to catch the express, next stop: nowhere. That way you can't forget.

Jump up, hold on tight, can't trust a promise or a guarantee, 'cause the man 'round the curve says that he's never heard of you or me.

GROSS: So that was an Elvis Costello recording from the mid-'70s, which was chosen for us by my guest, Stephen Colbert. We asked him to bring some of his - some recordings that mean a lot to him because I love his music so much, because I love Stephen Colbert's singing so much. We wanted to go musical today on the show, and the occasion for this interview is Stephen Colbert's new book "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."

Something else you want to say about Elvis Costello?

COLBERT: Oh, well, yes. I had a conversation with Elvis maybe about six months ago, which again is a very weird thing, sentence for me to say. But I had a conversation with Elvis about six months ago, and we were talking about the song "Radio Radio." And I don't - you know, this is Elvis' story, so I hope he doesn't feel like I'm stealing something from him, but he said that the song "Radio Radio" was originally sort of anthemic.

It wasn't sort of a biting, kind of aggressive song. It was about how great radio feels. I said oh, that's interesting. And he said, yeah, people don't ask him much about it but that he was trying when he was younger to try to write Bruce Springsteen songs, and he really, he liked Bruce Springsteen's sound.

And he said, but then he eventually stopped doing that because he would try to write these songs like Bruce Springsteen, and he would end up writing things that were a little bit wry, sardonic or even sort of character-based, and they didn't have that sort of sincere, anthemic quality that Bruce Springsteen's songs sometimes has.

And that was - that kind of blew me away because he is describing his relationship to Bruce Springsteen kind of like my relationship to Jon Stewart, and Jon's favorite artist is Bruce Springsteen, and probably my favorite rock artist is Elvis Costello. So there's an odd parallel between Elvis' evolution from what he was trying to do, like Bruce, and my evolution from what I was trying to do when I worked with Jon.

GROSS: That's actually really interesting.

COLBERT: Oh, God, I hope so.


COLBERT: Because I just stole Elvis Costello's story, and if I didn't make it interesting, God, I'm in trouble. All right.

BIANCULLI: Stephen Colbert, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: We're repeating some of our favorite interviews of 2012. Let's continue Terry's interview with Stephen Colbert, discussing not politics but music.

GROSS: OK, so let's go another recording, and this is a Ben Folds Five recording and perhaps not coincidentally, he was just on your show.

COLBERT: Yeah, he was on my show two nights ago, and I really like Ben Folds. Every night, actually, on my show, just for fun at one of the commercial breaks, we usually play his song "Steven's Last Night in Town." And we'll sometimes play - I love the song "Philosophy" by Ben Folds. And I mean, I like a lot of his stuff.

But there's one particular song that is - that I just love called "The Best Imitation of Myself." And there's sort of an obvious resonance for me because I do an imitation of myself professionally. And the lyrics go: You know, I feel like a quote out of context, withholding the rest so I can be for you who you want to see. I got the gesture and sound, got the timing down. It's uncanny. Yeah, you'd think it was me.

Do you think I should take a class to lose my Southern accent? Did I make me up or make the face till it stuck? I do the best imitation of myself. And when I first heard the song, it was just a few years ago actually, somehow this song had escaped my notice, I just thought he had written it for me.

But then when I listened to it more, I though it's just a beautiful expression on how we are toward each other as people. We don't think that we are sufficient for each other, that no one wants to know the real me or the whole me. I just want to give you the part of me that I think you expect to see from me and almost as if that little part of me is more than the whole of me, 'cause I don't want to give you any of the poison, I only want to give you the meat of me. Do you know what I mean?


COLBERT: And this constant slight changing of our mask, or as Eliot says in "Prufrock," time to prepare a face for the faces that we meet. I just hadn't heard in a song in the same way as this one. And I just, I couldn't love this song more.

GROSS: Were you already doing "The Colbert Report" when you heard this?

COLBERT: Yeah, I had already done the show for a few years when I heard this song. And, I mean, even it says, like, you know: If it's all the same, I have people to entertain. You know, I'll juggle one-handed, do some magic tricks and the best imitation of myself. And...

GROSS: You could probably do that. I know you could stand on your head.


COLBERT: Right, yeah. You know, it's a great song for an entertainer to listen to, but what's beautiful about the song to me is that we all play the entertainer for each other, just some of us do it professionally.

GROSS: And some better than others. OK.


GROSS: So this is the Ben Folds Five, "Best Imitation of Myself," one of the songs chosen by my guest, Stephen Colbert.


BEN FOLDS FIVE: (Singing) I feel like a quote out of context, withholding the rest, so I can be free what you want to see. I got the gesture and sounds, got the timing down. It's uncanny, yeah, you think it was me. Do you think I should take a class to lose my Southern accent? Did I make me up, or make the face till it stuck? I do the best imitation of myself.

(Singing) The problem-with-you speech you gave me was fine. I liked the theories about my little stage. And I swore I was listening, but I started drifting around the part about me acting my age. Now if it's all the same, I've people to entertain. I juggle one-handed, do some magic tricks and the best imitation of myself. Maybe you think...


GROSS: That's Ben Folds Five, "Best Imitation of Myself," and it's one of the songs Stephen Colbert brought with him today because we asked him to bring a few songs that really mean something to him, and we did that because I really love Stephen Colbert's singing so much.

So what's some of the music you grew up with in the house, that your parents or older siblings were playing?

COLBERT: Well, I'm the youngest of 11 kids. So a lot of the music I listened to was, like, hand-me-down albums from them. As a kid, I listened to a lot of James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot and Deep Purple. I mean, it was pretty eclectic. It's whatever the older ones left behind: Nancy Sinatra, Paul Anka, Elvis Presley, you know, Creedence Clearwater.

It's - because my eldest brothers and sisters, my brother Ed bought an original 45 of Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," but my closest brothers and sisters, you know, left behind Cat Stevens' "Tea For the Tillerman." So I listened to all that because those albums were just laying around.

So basically from the beginning of rock 'n' roll through the, you know, mid-'70s soft-rock, folk, post-folk, Feel Good Festival, I listened to all of it. I don't - I didn't really have a singular music that I listened to. I can't say that I was like, I was a Who guy, or I was - I mean, The Beatles were gigantic. They just, they eclipsed, The Beatles still, they eclipse everything on the musical landscape.

It's hard to imagine a band more important than them to me. I don't know musically, but that argument can be made, obviously, but The Beatles were the biggest and most important, but I wasn't, you know, I wasn't sort of slavishly devoted like some people. Their identity was associated with a single group.

BIANCULLI: Stephen Colbert speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His latest book is "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't." We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. This week, we've been revisiting some of our favorite interviews of 2012. And one of them is Terry's interview with Stephen Colbert, when she talked to him about his musical background, influences and passions. Let's get back to that conversation.

GROSS: So when you were very young, did your parents play music in the house?

COLBERT: No, not really. No, not really. We sang. We were all encouraged to sing at all times. And...

GROSS: What, around the piano or a guitar?

COLBERT: No, just around the house.

GROSS: So when you sang around the house did you sing harmony? And what songs did you sing?

COLBERT: No, we didn't sing harmony. Like, we have a few family songs, like, you know, at a drop of a hat, anyone in our family will sing...

(Singing) I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha. My destiny calls, and I go.

Or we'll sing, you know, we'll sing "Men of Harlech" from the movie "Zulu," which is kind of our family movie. We'll sing, you know, this is what they're singing when the Zulus basically breach the line and kill everybody, and Michael Caine, you know, dies in his movie debut. You know, how does that go?

(Singing) Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming. Can't you hear those - men of Harlech, stop your dreaming. Can't you see their spear points gleaming?


COLBERT: (Singing) See the warrior banners streaming through this battlefield.

At weddings, at family weddings, the men will get on one side of the room and we'll sing "Men of Harlech," and the women will be across the room and do the "Zulu" chant, and they'll attack us.


COLBERT: And then we'll meet in the middle of the room and hug. It's really lovely.

GROSS: That's so funny.

COLBERT: True story. True story.

GROSS: Now, were you ever in summer camp or anything like that, where you had...

COLBERT: No. No. No. I mean, I - well, 11 kids, it was always camp.

GROSS: Were you ever in a band?

COLBERT: Yes. Oh, yeah. I was in two bands. I was in a band in elementary school. I was in a band called Nebula Five, and there were only three of us in Nebula Five.

GROSS: Cosmic. Yeah?


COLBERT: And - because nebula was a cool word and a cool thing. And five, I didn't - we kind of picked five because we thought five was the best number. It never occurred to us that the Jackson Five were because they were five of them. You know, as an elementary school kid, you're always, like, what's the best color? It's blue. Wrong. It's red. It's blue, stupid. Or, like, what's the best number? It's three. It's five. Five is definitely the best number.

And so we thought five was the best number. So we were Nebula Five. It was me, Tommy Whittle(ph) - who, at the time, in third grade, called himself Tommy London, that was his stage name - and Gray Motsinger(ph) on drums. And I sang.

And then in high school, I was in a band, briefly, called A Shot in the Dark, is what we called ourselves. And we did mostly, like, Rolling Stones covers. And we would, like, play at a party for free beer or something like that.

GROSS: So did you do Mick Jagger parts?

COLBERT: Yeah, yeah, yeah, like "Honky Tonk Woman" and stuff like that, "Brown Sugar," all that kind of stuff. It'd strut around on stage in New Jersey.

GROSS: Would you really?


COLBERT: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, you got to move, baby. You gots to move. You got to give the ladies what they want.


GROSS: Did you sing in church?

COLBERT: Uh... No. I was never in a choir. I was in my school choir. I was a bass in the school choir and, you know, we did a lot of religious music. And my church was - it was a religiously affiliated school, and so we did things - we would do like Mozart's "Mass" kind of religious music. And I still remember the bass line to things like the national anthem.

You know, in my mind I almost can't sing the national anthem, the melody anymore. I have to sing, you know...

(Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light? What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? And the...


COLBERT: You know, I can't remember the melody anymore.

GROSS: You have quite a range, though, because I wouldn't imagine you being able to get that low...

COLBERT: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: ...because I know you have a nice high range.

BIANCULLI: I'm actually much more comfortable really low.

GROSS: Seriously?

COLBERT: I'm much more - oh, yeah, yeah. I'm much more comfortable singing, you know, oh, "Jesus Christ Superstar," Caiaphas, great bass role, is...

(Singing) No, wait. We need a more permanent solution to our problem. What than to do about Jesus of Nazareth? Miracle, wonder man, hero of fools?

That's the part for me, is Caiaphas.


GROSS: Well, now you just need to be in a production. So one more music question: If you could perform in any kind of music venue, would it be a Broadway show? Would it be a rock band? Would it be a country band? Would it be an opera with Audra McDonald?


GROSS: What would it be?

COLBERT: Probably a show, you know, because I'm an actor and I like a story, so a show. I mean, King Herod. Man, playing King Herod: one song, it's in my range. Call me.


GROSS: OK. Well, Stephen Colbert, thank you for bringing music with you. Thank you for singing for us. It was just such a treat. Thank you so much.

COLBERT: It's always a pleasure. Thanks, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Stephen Colbert speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His latest book is called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."

Coming up, another of our favorite interviews from 2012 with Doris Day. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.