Elvis Costello stands at the back of the elevator with the George Gershwin songbook tucked under his arm. “I’m not nervous,” he says, slowly descending from the dressing rooms to the stage. “I’m terrified.”
Downstairs, Dinosaur Jr’s frontman, J Mascis, slouches into the Sony Music Studios carrying a velvet suit in a bag, like a sophomore shuffling off to the prom. “I’m scared s—less,” admits Mascis. “He’s a star of the highest caliber, man.”
Costello and Mascis have come to this soundstage on West 54th Street (along with chanteuse k.d. lang and Lemonhead Evan Dando) to trade notes with a 67-year-old man who doesn’t have a single rock song in his set list, a man who says weird stuff like “Bing Crosby was America” and “I feel like Babe Ruth sometimes,” a man who wears a toupee the color of pewter, a man who, not so long ago, was a walking punchline: Tony Bennett. And they’re afraid. They shouldn’t be. If anything, Bennett is trespassing on their turf. This is a rehearsal for MTV Unplugged, a show that has ascended to a holy, Stonehenge-like status in rock. But from the minute Bennett strolls into the studio, tan as a moccasin and nattily attired in a blazer and khakis, the guy who left his heart in San Francisco before these alternative rockers were born leaves no doubt who’s in charge. As Ralph Sharon, his pianist of 30 years, puts it: “Each guest had to come into his sphere.”
“The people that watch MTV are curious about him, but it’s not because he’s had to do anything modern,” observes Costello. “It’s as if he were already modern and the rest of the world caught up with him.”
Suddenly, a searing bolt of feedback roars through the room. Everyone flinches and ducks — except Bennett. Brushing off the ear-splitting intrusion as if it were a gnat, he stretches his legs and gives Sharon the signal. “I’ve got the world on a string,” Bennett begins, warming up the room with a song. “I’m sitting on a rainbow.”
Which is precisely how Tony Bennett feels these days. Just a decade ago he was a relic. Cut loose from Columbia Records in 1971 when he balked at a rock repertoire, Bennett kept busy with regular gigs on the grandparents circuit and kicked around England, where he cut a handful of jazz records on his own label, Improv. “The critics adored the albums,” Bennett rightly recalls, “but I didn’t have the distribution, so it went under.”
But that was then, long before one of the strangest comebacks in the annals of pop music. This is now, and Unplugged is only the latest improbability. Quick quiz: Over the past year, Tony Bennett has (a) put on funky duds and clowned around with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the MTV Video Music Awards, (b) watched the video for his Fred Astaire tribute, “Steppin’ Out,” break into regular rotation on MTV, (c) stolen the show from acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Belly at a spate of alternative-rock Christmas shows, or (d) all of the above. The answer, remarkably, is (d).
Consider his two back-to-back Grammys (for the albums Perfectly Frank and Steppin’ Out) and a burgeoning career as a pitchman (he’s popping up in ads for shirts and software), and “world on a string” sounds just about right. Even the record company has changed its tune. “The guys at Columbia,” Bennett marvels, “they treat me like a now, happening thing! I’m 67 and I’m accepted by the young people!”
You might see Bennett’s metamorphosis as a testament to hard work and enduring talent (his voice still retains a husky power), but you can’t rule out a quietly aggressive marketing campaign mounted by his 40-year-old son, Danny. The change began in 1979 during Bennett’s sojourn in obscurity, when Danny signed on as his father’s manager. “It was just a very natural thing,” Danny says, surveying the rehearsal from the wings. “I said, ‘Let’s have the marketing fit the artist, instead of the other way around.'”
The strategy: Don’t change a thing. No synthesizers, no Miami Vice wardrobe, no disco singles with “crossover potential.” Bennett would keep doing what made him happy-performing chestnuts from his “great American songbook” — and Danny would find someone to listen. “You just put him in front of enough people, they’re gonna get it,” Danny explains. “It doesn’t matter what age.” First, Danny convinced Columbia to welcome Tony back as a catalog artist. Next, he landed his dad on hip TV shows (Letterman, The Simpsons), hoping a generation of young ironists would click with Tony’s swank, swingin’ brand of cool.
Bennett remembers when he first started plopping down in front of boot-stompin’ throngs of Lollapaloozans: “I had a few more butterflies than I usually get. I always have butterflies, but these were big butterflies, like ‘What’s going to happen?’ But once we hit, it was better than any audience we’ve ever played to.”
Costello offers one clue to Tony’s ageless appeal. Cooling down in a hallway after their run-through of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” Costello marvels, “He gives you complete confidence. He just makes you feel like you can do it.” In an age of anxiety, there’s something seductive about confidence.