New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 16, 2010
Who was that geeky white guy with glasses
Perhaps you missed my cameo in Sunday’s Treme premiere on HBO. I didn’t appear in person, or even by name. Only by reputation.
In a scene at the Bywater nightclub Vaughan’s, Steve Zahn’s hyperkinetic character, Davis, button-holes local jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Davis has spotted Elvis Costello — like Ruffins, the rock star plays himself — in the crowd.
"See that geeky white guy with the glasses?" Davis says to Ruffins.
The trumpeter glances at Costello and replies, "That cat who writes for The Times-Picayune?"
I’m pretty sure that’s a reference to me.
Geeky white guy with glasses? Check. Writes for The Times-Picayune? Check. Could conceivably attend a Kermit Ruffins gig at Vaughan’s? Check.
I visited the Treme set the day that scene was shot at Vaughan’s last year. It was early afternoon; heavy blackout curtains rendered the club’s interior dark. Between takes, Ruffins poked his head outside and blinked at the sun.
"It’s still daylight?" he said, his internal clock skewed by the faux twilight. Moments later, he slipped around the corner and inhaled more than the oysters smoking on his barbecue rig. Maybe that facilitated the illusion.
Seated on director’s chairs under a tent canopy, Treme co-creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer watched the action on monitors. They loved the "cat from The Times-Picayune" line.
A dose of Big Easy ambiance had already permeated the production. Despite the enormous stakes of the pilot episode in production that day — HBO execs would decide whether to greenlight the series based in large part on the pilot — the mood was remarkably relaxed, if focused.
At one point, Ruffins asked to see a playback: "If I could see it, I’d know how to act better."
That’s not what Simon wanted. "I need Kermit to be Kermit. Don’t act."
HBO has already renewed Treme for a second season, so many more local people and places will take turns in front of the camera. Reality frames, informs and intermingles with fictional story lines. The exchange between Zahn and Ruffins is one of many insider details stitched into the script, the result of the creators’ and writers’ longtime fascination with and/or residency in New Orleans, augmented with extensive research and fact-checking.
Ruffins is notoriously disconnected from the popular music world at large. His scene with Costello plays on that disconnect. The irony is that Ruffins might not recognize Elvis Costello or even Mick Jagger but, because I have written about him for 20 years, he does know me.
Except for the cameras — and the sunlight — the fake Ruffins gig felt like a typical evening at Vaughan’s. During a break, Ruffins coached Wendell Pierce, the veteran New Orleans-born actor who plays hustling trombonist Antoine Batiste, through the song "Skokian," just as he might for any new musician wanting to sit in.
Costello stood nearby in the middle of Dauphine Street. He and I met in late 2005 when he recorded "The River In Reverse" with Allen Toussaint at a studio blocks from Vaughan’s. That Bywater recording session is the historical pretext for Costello’s cameo in Treme, which is set three months after Hurricane Katrina. In real life, he’d never seen Ruffins at Vaughan’s.
We — myself and my British brother from another mother — sized each other up. Both unshaven. Both sporting glasses with thick frames. Both of a Caucasian persuasion.
It was as if we were separated at birth. Except Costello’s shoes were much nicer.
Seeing the two of us side-by-side amused the Treme crew. Overmyer snapped a photo with his cell phone.
Costello was in a jovial mood. A young woman approached and asked to take a picture with him. She wore a T-shirt depicting a large rooster and the motto "Big Cock."
A grinning Costello couldn’t resist: "With that shirt, of course," he said, before cracking, "How’d you know?"
Soon he was summoned back inside Vaughan’s. But first we showed each other pictures of our kids, gushing over each other’s offspring and bragging about their exploits.
Just like two geeky white guys with glasses.
The Times-Picayune, April 16, 2010
Keith Spera talks to Elvis Costello on the set of Treme.
Times-Picayune writer Keith Spera with EC. Photo by Eric Overmyer.