The Mainstream: David Letterman, Music, and Me
My mother is 68 years old. That’s the same age as David Letterman. Now, my mother isn’t as obviously plugged into pop culture as much as the recently retired and 33 year tenured late night talk show host is, but she is the owner of a nice collection of vintage vinyl. She bequeathed the majority of my late father’s collection to me, but only upon promising that I would make her CD copies of the music so she could still listen to it when she wanted. The point being, she was quite up to date on popular music for many decades-and still is in many ways (she insists Lady Gaga has a better voice than Madonna-a point we hotly contest), but now I’m sure she couldn’t tell you the names of the members of Foo Fighters, even if the she doesn’t mind their music. As we all know now, and have been reminded of relentlessly over the past few weeks by a deluge of listicles on the topic, Foo Fighters is David Letterman’s favorite band. The point here being that David Letterman was obviously, all the way up to the end of his tenure as the king of late night (and he WAS the king of late night-nay sayers be damned) a fan of great music. He never lost that teenage-like joy at hearing a band he really enjoyed play live on his show, nor his delight and palpable emotional reaction to a band that he might not have been impressed with at first, but ended up a fan of after hearing live for the first time. The majority of music fans often lose sight of popular music after 40. Letterman never lost sight. In fact, Letterman never grew up in this sense and plenty of MTV deprived youths, such as myself, owe him a great debt because of it.
Growing up in Rock Hill, SC (my family moved their from Pittsburgh in 1986), the only way that I was able to quench my desire to see my new favorite bands (and in the late 80s and early 90s I was already quite the new rock music junkie) was to catch them performing on Saturday Night Live, Late Night (and later on The Late Show) with David Letterman, and a smattering of any number of other late night talk shows or variety programs. The cable company that serviced Rock Hill wouldn’t carry MTV due to a Sunday morning church campaign against the station. Yeah, this was (and still is) the Bible Belt, and that devil music and sex(ual freedom) wasn’t welcome in our town. Thank God for Letterman, and Lorne Michaels. I remember racing home from my job at (the then Paramount’s) Carowinds to catch The Smashing Pumpkins’ first appearance on SNL (I still have the video tape of it), as well as Pearl Jam’s and multiple others. The same applied to Letterman’s shows. In fact, Letterman often had the cutting edge acts way before they were big enough to land a spot on SNL. Not every act that he had on his shows had to be indie or alt(ernative) to be influential though.
To a 13 year old, bursting with hormones and already in love with music, Joan Jett’s appearance on Late Night was stimulating to say the least. Besides stoking my young libido, it also helped open up my mind to the idea that a girl rocking out with a guitar was not just hot, it was liberating.
Speaking of the liberating power of women in music, L7’s 1992 performance on Late Night with David Letterman still ranks as one of the greatest “women in rock” moments in the history of rock music. With Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden getting all the grunge airplay, and Generation X in full musical revolution, along came the women of L7 with their “more grunge than Kurt Cobain” looks and sound. I still consider my catching the original airdate of the episode the night they appeared on Letterman as one of the most lucky, and influential, music experiences of my young life. L7 demonstrated that women in music didn’t need to be sexed up to get your attention. Musical talent and ability trump image. Sadly, that’s an idea that hardly exists anymore in popular music. I have no idea if they ever appeared on or had one of their videos played on 120 Minutes (we still didn’t have MTV), and frankly I don’t care. Nothing matches their appearance on Letterman.
Letterman’s snark was pretty much always anti-establishment, but also at times a bit snobbish (he most assuredly sat at the cool kids’ table in high school), but his allowing for, tolerance of, (except in the case of Crispin Glover’s boot kick), and open-mindedness to the intellectual, the nerdy, and the other, especially where music was concerned, was classic. Green Day would later on try (and somewhat succeed at) being politically savvy, but when they first appeared as unwashed punks on Letterman, you almost got the sense that he was dismissing them while introducing them, then falling over himself to tell them how much he enjoyed their performance with a genuine sense of astonishment and admiration shining through. It was these moments of honesty, when Letterman’s skirt of snark got accidentally hiked, and his slip of honest emotion was left showing that made for such moments on his program. It was another moment I considered myself lucky to have caught as it unfolded.
Like most of my generation, at some point in my college days I declared that there was nothing worthwhile recorded musically before 1989 (well, maybe 1983 at the absolute earliest). I have David Letterman (and by proxy Lou Reed) to thank for helping save me from that narrow minded view. It’s amazing how open minded I considered myself, while being so close-minded about music (my affection for Dad’s old, late era Beatles’ LPs hadn’t taken nostalgic root yet). When Lou Reed appeared to perform “Sweet Jane” on Letterman in 1994 (he was at that point as progressed past his prime moment of fame as Eddie Vedder is now), I can point to my catching this episode the night it aired as the moment that I began to rethink my “1989 as the birth of music that mattered” theory’s validity.
Not every musical act that I caught on Letterman was a bolt of lightning out of nowhere hurled by some musical rock god up in the sky meant to enlighten me. Many times I knew what act was scheduled and purposely made an effort to see it. This was the case with Pearl Jam’s 1998 appearance on The Late Show where they performed “Wishlist.” Pearl Jam was pretty much already solidified as my favorite band of all time, but while No Code (the album the preceded Yield-which is still one of my favorite PJ albums of all time) didn’t nearly as affect me as their previous albums did, so I was overjoyed to be moved by Yield as much as I was. This performance has stayed with me over the years as one of my favorite musical guest appearances on Letterman, even if Mike McCready missed a note during the performance. I remember it as a moment where Pearl Jam went from “pretty much” my favorite band of all time to my favorite band of all time.
So while many have thanked David Letterman for his humor, his snark, his savvy, and his honesty-and I do as well-I would like to also thank Dave for all the great musical guest appearances on his show over the years-which ever show he was hosting. I also want to thank him, as I now turn 40 years of age myself (and have decidedly not “grown up” either as far as my musical tastes are concerned) for not giving up on new music and letting us all know that it’s more than cool or progressive to be a Foo Fighters fan (or fan of any new rock music that has substance) at 68. It’s natural.