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.

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