Sights Unheard: The Music of Letterman

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Sights Unheard: The Music of <i>Letterman</i>

It’s weird to care this much about the retirement of someone on television, particularly someone who spent the majority of his time on the medium, sitting behind a desk and engaging in repartee with a never-ending stream of actors, actresses, writers, news anchors, politicians and other famous or semi-famous faces.

There’s good reason to praise David Letterman and not bury him, however. It goes beyond the impact he had on the comedic sensibilities of thousands of people who tuned into his NBC show to watch him trade jabs with Chris Elliott, get dunked into tank of water wearing a suit covered in Alka-Seltzer tablets, or welcome new standup voices to a national audience. And it goes well past the end of a regimented style of late-night talk show that eschewed virility in place of genial conversation and comforting routine.

Letterman’s shows on NBC and CBS were a proving ground for many up-and-coming bands and an open forum for already established musicians to further their fame. A well-known music lover with a penchant for loud rock and heartfelt singer/songwriters, the host relished welcoming new talent to his studio and giving a spotlight to some of his personal favorites over the years. Late Night and The Late Show became the place where a group like R.E.M. could trundle into the national spotlight for the first time, Janelle Monae could show to the nation what a fierce live performer she really is, and Future Islands could move from beyond the indie-rock world one weird, white dance step at a time. With his departure comes an end to the spirit of enthusiasm and enrichment that came week after week for the past 33 years.

Beyond the live performances, Letterman always seemed at his loosest and most gregarious when he had a musician of some caliber sitting next to him on the mainstage. And he was always willing to just let these artists be themselves, no matter how off-the-rails and off-topic the discussion became.

In the beginning of his TV run, the emphasis seemed to be on musicians who were oddballs or at least had some kind of quirky character to them. In those early days, that meant someone like Captain Beefheart, who made numerous appearances on the shows and would regale Letterman with mostly made-up stories about his childhood and strange observations
about art.

Another regular guest was one of Beefheart’s former collaborators, Frank Zappa. Just as he did on TV appearances for years afterward and before, the singular composer and virtuosic guitarist acted as provocateur, playing up the surrealist qualities of his music and art with the knowledge that it would get a big reaction from the audience. The look of delight on Letterman’s face during their many interviews together revealed that he knew what a goldmine he and his team had struck.

Let’s also not forget Tom Waits, who has been a regular guest on both iterations of the show, playing his rattletrap blues and jazz tunes and also bringing his quippy and brilliant attitude to Dave’s desk. As with Zappa, every time he would show up, you’d see something light up in Letterman because he knew he was going to enjoy the hell out of whatever came from Waits’ gravelly throat.

The feeling in most every interview Letterman did, especially as he settled into his role as the elder statesman of the talk show world, was never forced or fawning like some of the young bucks out there. Compare Fallon’s recent interview with Paul McCartney to Dave’s pleasant banter with the rock legend. Letterman just let these people be who they were.

With some artists, that meant dealing with a load of bullshit, like Madonna’s infamous cigar smoking, cursing 1994 appearance, or Marilyn Manson at his catty and bratty best/worst back in 1998. In both cases, Letterman never flinched, never got angry and never did anything but keep feeding them more rope to hang themselves with. He knew it was good television even if it was a pain in the ass.

No single episode better exemplifies Letterman’s appreciation of music than when he dedicated an entire 2002 episode to Warren Zevon. Dave was a huge fan of the late singer/songwriter and invited him on the show regularly. He even let Zevon sit in with the World’s Most Dangerous Band/CBS Orchestra when Paul Shaffer was otherwise indisposed.

For the hour, Zevon chatted with wry wit about his terminal cancer diagnosis, looked back at his long, storied career, and was given a platform to play three of his songs, including a Letterman favorite, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.” It would be his last live performance before his untimely passing in 2003.

I doubt if any of the white dudes dominating the late-night TV scene right now, or in the future, would be so bold. Shows like that and performances like Zevon’s don’t cut up easily into consumable YouTube chunks.

As with any piece of the pop culture world, TV is constantly adapting and evolving to reflect the times. That’s in part why you don’t see as many bands playing on late-night talk shows anymore. For one, there’s no need for them to do so. The convenience of YouTube and dozens of other online channels means that they can do the work of getting their music and faces in front of millions of people without the gatekeepers of network or cable channels. As well, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, James Corden and Seth Meyers are more interested in making those viral moments happen. Instead of giving an artist a platform to sing a song or play a tune, they’d rather put them in a carpool car with the host or pre-record a version of their song played on children’s musical instruments that will never appear on air.

It’s sad knowing that I’ll likely never see moments like the ones I talked about above again. Letterman’s retirement closes that door, and I don’t see any of the gentlemen of the current late-night scene making any effort to force it open again. But these twinges of disappointment will likely wane once I get caught up in the sway of what Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler and any potential new voices have to offer. That’s entertainment.

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