Wednesday, May 20, 2015

David Letterman and Music

As David Letterman's glorious late night television career ends tonight, Dave is being properly honored throughout the media landscape for the innumerable highlights and memorable moments and so, so many goofy, sometimes surreal slices of television oddity that likely will never be seen again. At least not seen for the first time, as they so often were on Letterman's shows over the past 33 years.

And this struck me as I thought about the end of this amazing career: he gets credit for so much innovation and so much irreverent comedic brilliance (from Stupid Pet Tricks to throwing watermelons off the roof to trying unsuccessfully to bust his way in to GE headquarters to so much more).

But he doesn't get nearly enough credit for what his shows have done for, and with, music.

Because he has. And his shows have. Big time.

A lot of this is due to his being joined at the hip for the past 33 years with the irrepressible Paul Shaffer, a friend to pretty much the entire music world and a magnet for top-flight talent. You think just anyone could have gotten Hiram Bullock and Steve Jordan and Will Lee and Sid McGinnis to play in his late night band for years (and in some cases decades) at a time? I don't.

So having Paul and the band there has certainly given the show a level of rock-n-roll street cred that I'm not sure any other show has ever had. After all, one of the earliest musical performances on Letterman's show was this.

Yeah. That's maybe the single greatest performer in modern music history given a full 13 minutes—13 minutes!!!—to do his thing as only he could do it.

There was this. When a certain young Athens, GA band was invited on to perform two songs (when does that ever happen outside of Saturday Night Live?) which would soon enough become iconic in their catalogue. Only this appearance came just a few months after their barely noticed (at first) debut album was released, and the second of the two songs didn't even have a title yet.

He got this guy to come on in 1984 and play this great new song. And my understanding is this gentleman was never exactly in love with playing TV talk shows.

So many more great musical appearances have followed. Like this.

And this (from a 1980s anniversary show, and check out Paul and Carole King and the dueling organs at Radio City Music Hall at the outset!)

And oh yeah, Letterman signed off his 11 years at NBC this way.

So. Yeah. So much great music. And it included jazz and country and rap legends and so damn many others who were on their way up in the music world. David Letterman, he of the bad hair and irony-drenched humor and the self-deprecation and the inside jokes that sometimes only he would get and the sardonic and sometimes explosive mayhem he would invite, became a vehicle and advocate for the best music of his era. Paul Shaffer had a lot to do with it, yes. But I also think a great deal of it came from Dave's being a fan. Someone who appreciated music when done at its best, whether it was by a bunch of long-haired kids no one had ever heard of or by legends as big and bright as Bruce Springsteen and James Brown and Bob Dylan.

And because of that investment that Letterman made in the music on his show? The performers pretty much always brought it. This was not phone-it-in time. This was playing the room they wanted to play. And time and time again it showed. Even when those times were as much weird as they were historic.

(Even here, notice how much fun this two seem to be having. Taking the song as seriously as they can and seemingly giving it their all, smiling every note of the way).

And my favorite of David Letterman's musical guests through the years was one I don't think I ever saw on any other talk shows. At least not as often as he appeared on Letterman's.

Warren Zevon.

These two seemed kindred spirits. Both loved their outlaw images. Both eschewed convention (at least for a large chunk of Letterman's career and no doubt for every inch of Zevon's) and made the kind of comedy and music that they wanted to make. For these reasons they fit each other like a glove. Albeit maybe one with six fingers.

When Warren Zevon was dying and opted to go public with it, David Letterman was the outlet where he pretty much said goodbye to the world. The great gonzo rock star spent the entire show with Dave one night in October 2002, the only guest of the evening, and treated both Letterman and the fans to one more night of his music. Culminating in one of the most touching moments I have ever seen on television.

Warren Zevon's many appearances on Letterman's shows personified why and how so many of us love music as much as we do. It's not because it's popular, because so often it isn't. It's because it reaches us on some level that can feel entirely our own. It can make it seem for a few minutes we are the only ones hearing this, and even though it wasn't created for just for us, for a few moments it can feel that way.

That's why Zevon was always my favorite Letterman musical guest, in a canon of great, great Letterman musical guests. They brought out the best in each other, and you get the sense that if there was no audience watching, in the studio or on TV, what they did together would be just as good. Because more than anything, it was for themselves.

Here's my personal favorite Warren Zevon moment on Letterman, which pretty much makes it my favorite musical moment on Letterman. Largely because I saw it live as it aired, and this was the first time I'd ever seen Zevon on television. It's also a great song that I hadn't heard yet, another in his resume of stilted bios honoring those individuals whom he saw as being as much renegades as he was. And partly because while his backing band on the Sentimental Hygiene album (which I had purchased at this point but hadn't played is that???) was none other than Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, a backing band here of Anton Fig, Sid McGinnis and Will Lee (and Paul Shaffer, of course) really ain't a bad alternative.

Lastly, check out Paul and Sid at the 2:48 marks. And tell they are not thrilled to be doing what they are doing.

Thanks for the laughs, Dave. And just as important, thanks for the music.

Friday, May 15, 2015

RIP B.B. King

"The blues? It's the mother of American music. That's what it is. The source." — Riley B. "B.B." King

B.B. King. 1925-2015

B.B. King. Never has a surname been more apropos.

He was called "The King of the Blues" and with great reason. It is very hard to overstate how important he was to 20th century music. And 21st century music. And how important he will be to 22nd century music. Influential? How about Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler and Jimmy Page and Keith Richards? All of whom count B.B. among the biggest inspirations for their careers. How about Jimi Hendrix? How about John Lennon, who name-checked him in a song and once said that if he were teamed with B.B. King he would "feel real silly." How about Elvis Presley, who counted B.B. as a hero and a friend?

Yes. B.B. King was that big.

And that important.

And that great.

And now he is gone, passed on from this great life at age 89.


But Lord did he give us the music for these past 60 years or so. Including this, the leadoff track of easily one of the greatest live albums ever released.

I'll give the last word to a man who likely knew B.B. as well as anyone, as well as someone who knew about touching the level of greatness that B.B. touched.

"B.B. King was the greatest guy I ever met. The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the, he came out with that and it was all new to the whole guitar playin' world. He could play so smooth, he didn't have to put on a show. The way B.B. did it is the way we all do it now. He was my best friend and father to us all. I'll miss you, B. I love you and I promise I will keep these damn blues alive. Rest well." — Buddy Guy

Rest in peace, B.B. And thank you a million times over for, as Buddy said, keeping these damn blues alive.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Well this is just beyond lovely.

I admittedly haven't listened to Jason Isbell or his former band Drive-By Truckers anywhere near as much as I should. Whenever I hear alt-country, or even think about it, I make a vow to myself to listen to more. Alas, I usually don't. This is just one of my many failings.

But here's one of the many reasons I should. And a hat-tip to good pal and huge Isbell fan Steve Coates for cluing me into this.

Here is a simply stunning version of a rather obscure track by the late, great Warren Zevon, "Mutineer," by Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires during a recent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

For the most part I'll let this performance speak for itself, from the letter-perfect harmonies to the unceasing tenderness of their vocals to Mickey Raphael's harmonica work to the beautiful reverence they pay to this offbeat love song of an offbeat songwriter. But I will add one thing. Check out Dave's reaction following the performance. Warren Zevon was a friend of his, and for years Letterman was pretty much the only TV personality who would pay him any attention. The two had a bond that befit their renegade personalities. So when Dave thanks Isbell and Shires for this performance, he seems genuinely moved, almost choked up at one point.

And honestly, who can blame him?

Monday, May 11, 2015

You Held the World in Your Arms Tonight

Yet another band I somehow missed the first time around. As with the others—Low, American Analog Set, Camera Obscura, Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon, The Radio Dept.—better late than never and all that, I suppose. But man I wish I'd had the opportunity/been tuned in enough/smart enough to have been listening to this for the past decade plus.

Friday, May 8, 2015

White City Fighting/Hope

When Pete Townshend learned, back in 1983, that David Gilmour was working on a new solo album, he offered his assistance, knowing how difficult it could be to step out from the shadow as large as that of a band such as Pink Floyd (or the Who). Gilmour took him up on it, asking him to write lyrics for three songs. Townshend did, but Gilmour only used two of them, the third being too different, thematically for him.

Gilmour then sent the song to his friend Roy Harper, singer of Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar," and asked him to write lyrics. Harper did but, again, Gilmour didn't think they'd work for him, so he simply dropped the track from About Face, his second (good but not great but better than Gilmour thinks) solo album.

Both Townshend and Harper ended up using their own lyrics, recording the songs themselves, the former with guitar help from Gilmour, the latter with guitar by some guy named Jimmy Page (whose band had also relatively recently dissolved).

There are many intriguing "what if" questions in rock and roll. What if Lennon hadn't been killed: would the Beatles have ever gotten back together? What if Kurt Cobain hadn't killed himself: what would have done musically? What if Jimi Hendrix hadn't died so young: where might he have gone musically?

This doesn't rise to that level. And after decades of listening to Townshend's, it's disorienting but fascinating to hear Harper's version. But I surely do wish Gilmour had perserved and written his own set of lyrics, so we could hear yet a third varation, and hear what it would have sounded like if he himself had recorded a version.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


What's the greatest thing about this?

Is it the truly staggering lineup of musicians, with the likes of Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner and Pete Townshend on guitars, Paul McCartney, Bruce Thomas, Ronnie Lane and John Paul Jones on bass and Kenney Jones and John Bonham on drums? Is it McCartney's outstanding vocal turn? Is it perhaps one of the very few sightings ever of Robert Plant on guitar? (That's right, you heard me: Robert Plant. Playing. Guitar. Led Zeppelin is here as a power trio and the guitarist isn't Jimmy Page.)

It is none of those. No, it is the utterly transcendent performance of a presumably completely hammered Townshend as he leeringly approaches McCartney at 1:27, like a drunken Hannibal Lector ogling a fresh meal, while Macca appears significantly more amused than Clarice Starling ever was. Townshend then drifts off to rip into a typically awesome first, before seeming to lose the key and getting blessedly mixed out. Now that's what I call charity.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Bob Seger at 70

Today is Bob Seger's 70th birthday.

And Scott, guess what? We are old.

Well, you are, anyway.

But something tells me today, even on his 70th birthday, Bob could still belt this out without missing a note. A little bit older, but no less bolder.

Because he sure as hell had it when last we checked a few months ago. And here he is from 2013, when he was just shy of 68. He's still got it, Potsie!

And while the title of this leadoff track from perhaps his finest album ever (Night Moves in 1976) may suggest some kind of macho-strut rock-n-roll FOREVER posturing, it's so much more than that. It's one of the most honest and spot-on songs ever recorded about getting older in a genre originally built for the young.

Well, now sweet sixteen's turned thirty-one
Feel a little tired, feeling under the gun
Well, all Chuck's children are out there playing his licks
Come back, baby, rock -n- roll never forgets

Happy birthday to one of the most powerful and most enduring voices in rock-n-roll. Sing on, Bobby.

Monday, May 4, 2015


Time, as we all know, generally tends to have a somewhat blunting effect on events, dulling the impact of even the most awful.

Yet here we are, 45 years down the line, and the Kent State killings are still as horrifying and incomprehensible as ever.

Also, I highly recommend you check out this piece at the great Round Place in the Middle.
[Here is a g]enerally useful map, from the Nixon Administration’s investigation, of the ground on which the Kent State shootings took place. Bill Schroeder’s body is placed a long way from where he fell, perhaps to give some validity to the one truly wry element, which is the caption placed next to Step 6 that reads “GUARD HEADED BACK UP HILL–STUDENTS FOLLOW.” Never mind that none of the hundreds of photographs taken show students meeting any rational definition of the word “follow.” One only needs to note the distance to the Prentice Hall parking lot, where the fire was heavily concentrated and where, in fact, all of the dead and most of the wounded actually fell. The parking lot is a hundred yards away and fifty feet downhill. I suppose a fully accurate map might have risked representing what a true “threat” the “rioting” students at Kent State University represented to men who were armed with high-powered rifles and literally a few paces away from the safety of no longer being offended by people yelling insults and giving them the finger.
[Emphasis added.]

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Can't Buy Me Love

It's not often I say this, but: the Beatles made a mistake.

Listening to this outtake, in fact, you can hear them make a number of mistakes. It's delightfully rough, and almost sounds like they could have been playing back in the Kaiserkeller. But beyond the lack of polish, John misses a vocal cue, Paul botches the lyrics and is reduced to ad-libbing "ba doobie doobie," and George fumbles his way through the solo. (Ringo, of course, is—no surprise—flawless.)

Still and all, three things leap out: 1) it's simply incomprehensible that the lead vocalist on this song was not the band's main vocalist, and yet it's true and 2) that the writer of this song was not the band's main songwriter, and yet that's also true.

But beyond that, the lads should've kept the Beach Boys/Motown backing vocals, perfecting them as required. Those things are sheer gold, and no other rock group ever could've just tossed them away and still walked off with their third consecutive #1 hit. This damn band is the very definition of embarrassment of riches. Can't buy them love? With their talent (and bank accounts), they could buy any damn thing they wanted.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Give Blood

I almost certainly listen to the pristine pop gem that is "Let My Love Open the Door" more, but "Give Blood" may just be my favorite solo Pete Townshend song.

I'd always loved David Gilmour's playing on it, but just found out the song's insane origin:
"'Give Blood' was one of the tracks I didn't even play on. I brought in Simon Phillips, Pino Palladino and David Gilmour simply because I wanted to see my three favourite musicians of the time playing on something and, in fact, I didn't have a song for them to work on, and sat down very, very quickly and rifled through a box of stuff, said to Dave, 'Do one of those kind of ricky-ticky-ricky-ticky things, and I'll shout "give blood!" in the microphone every five minutes and let's see what happens.' And that's what happened. Then I constructed the song around what they did."
I guess that is the kind of thing that tends to happen when you have a pretty much perfect band—and it simply doesn't get better than Gilmour, Palladino and Phillips—and toss them a decent scrap of a song idea and start the tapes rolling. Of course, it does hurt to then have one of the world's great lyricists—who's also a fine singer—write over the resulting results.

Turned out pretty well, I'd say.

Gilmour's "Run Like Hell" guitar is so integral, as are Townshend's own acoustic flourishes, but (beyond the lyrics and melody, of course, and great as the horns are, and they are) the real star here is Simon Phillips' mad drumming.

Simon Phillips is what you'd get if you were to create a drummer in the laboratory using Steve Gadd's unsurpassed technique and Keith Moon's unshakable belief that the drummer should be the primary lead instrument in a rock band. Check out the sixteenth notes Phillips plays during the first few choruses, but notice just how he arranges them: his left hand is playing the hi-hat with the opening and closing disco beat so beloved by the aforementioned Gadd, while his right hand splits duties between the ride cymbal and the snare, with the occasional visit to a passing tom.

Or note the (for him) simple tension-building he does before the third verse, the back and forth on the double bass drums before two syncopated flams on the snare and a cymbal crash. There are an awful lot of drummers who could more or less pull that off. There are almost none who would have written it, and none who would have written it and played it so savagely yet crisply.

Friday, May 1, 2015

RIP Ben E. King

What a voice, what a writer, what a talent.