Tonight is David Letterman’s final Late Night show. Over the years, I’ve found him to be funny, exasperating, insightful, annoying, angry, caustic, generous, and very very entertaining. The early years, when he was still on NBC, are some of the most creative television ever. The main reason Letterman doesn’t make headlines the way he used to is because just about every other late night talk show is patterned after his. (They all realized long ago that no one was ever going to come close to Johnny Carson’s greatness. And Letterman was always edgier anyway.)
I loved the Top Ten lists. I loved the wonderfully cantankerous give and take he had with his regular guests, many of them also his friends. Dave wasn’t the best interviewer, but he would give his guests the room to fly or fail (both were equally entertaining). His running bits and video remotes and all the other stuff will go down, rightfully, as one of the biggest influences on the late night comedy genre. But one of my favorite parts of the show was also one of the least original.
Everybody on late night has a band (Craig Ferguson was the only exception I know of). They introduce the star, lead into and out of commercial breaks, and serve as back-up for some of the musical guests. There isn’t anything special about having a band, or that they’re a good group of musicians. But Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band were special. Please note that I didn’t call them the CBS Orchestra, because that name never really suited them; they were dangerous. Not because there was any sense that they would suddenly go off the rails, but because they were the smartest, tightest, most versatile group of musicians ever to grace the small screen. They could play anything with anyone, and they were Dave’s not-so-secret weapon. Even if everything else on the show fell flat, you could count on Paul and the band to turn in a wicked good performance. Monday night’s performance with the great Eddie Vedder should be proof enough of how terrific this group is. I know they can all probably retire and live comfortably, but I hope they keep playing–preferably together.
Let me tell you how I got here. I was thinking about posting something from Jackson Browne’s 2003 solo acoustic tour, which I caught at UCLA’s Royce Hall with the BFF. It was hands down one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. Browne played by himself onstage, surrounded by a handful of guitars, a baby grand, and an electric piano. His set list was to take requests from the audience. (I remember at one point someone shouted out a request for “Somebody’s Baby,” and his reply was “Really?” He played it.) It was one of those amazing, transformative experiences that makes life worth living.
It was also his first tour after the death of his longtime friend Warren Zevon. For those of you who are only familiar with Zevon for “Werewolves of London,” I feel kind of sad for you. Zevon’s wry, dry sense of humor and resigned sadness are things of beauty. He was a little too quirky for much mainstream success–kind of like Randy Newman, but less political (see this post for more on Zevon). But for his fans and friends, there was no one better. On Jackson Browne’s tour, one of the few planned moments of each show was when he would play one of Zevon’s songs. The show I saw, Browne sat at the electric piano, and began playing the opening notes to “Frank and Jesse James”, but stopped, saying he couldn’t play that one (not sure why, but it seemed kind of emotional for him). Then he played the gorgeously sad “Mutineer.” It was a lovely and loving tribute.
Which brought me to The Late Show with David Letterman. Like Browne, David Letterman was a longtime friend of Zevon. Zevon was a regular guest on Letterman’s show, often filling in for Paul Shaffer with the band; Letterman appeared on Zevon’s 2002 album My Ride’s Here. Not long after Zevon announced he was terminally ill, Letterman devoted an entire show to his friend. It was one of the sweetest, saddest things I ever watched. I’m tearing up a little right now, thinking about it. They joked around and Warren played several songs, including “Mutineer.” I’m not going to analyze or explain this song. I’m not sure I could do this gentle song justice, anyway. But the chorus ends with the line “You’re my witness, I’m your mutineer.” That night, everyone who watched witnessed something unspeakably beautiful.