Saying goodbye to the ritual of The Late Show with David Letterman


Two nights ago, I actually set an alarm for 11:30 p.m.

The alarm hit my phone and I tapped it off as soon as it made a sound. Already in bed, I turned the TV to Channel 4 and waited for David Letterman to start his third-to-last episode of The Late Show before he walks off into retirement, lured in by that night’s musical guest, Eddie Vedder. I watched the Top 10 list, then Tom Hanks launch into a bit on Ron Howard screaming at him about drones. Finally, Vedder came on backed by the CBS Orchestra and he performed “Better Man” for his last appearance on the show.

I haven’t done any of that in years. I haven’t missed a musical guest that I’ve wanted to see in that time, though, I just found it online later like the rest of the world. But it was reminder of how important the entire process used to be, and what an impact Letterman and his musicians had on me, especially in my teens as I started gobbling up music everywhere I could.

For that fertile time, Letterman’s show was one of my favorite sources for live music. There was constantly a blank tape near the VCR ready to capture anyone and everyone that piqued an interest back then — The Red Hot Chili Peppers in their eskimo suits, Pete Townshend performing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with the band, Pearl Jam making their late-night debut on his sponsor free episode in 1996. When Warren Zevon announced that cancer had put him on the clock in 2002, Letterman dedicated an entire episode to him. That he was also miles funnier than Jay Leno kept me tuned in throughout.

He’s obviously come back into view for me a bit recently, and that love of music seems to be more pronounced. A few months back, he gave Foo Fighters the keys to the studio for a week. He’s let a number of artists record webcasts after their regular one-song slot on the stage. When Ryan Adams brought “Gimme Something Good” to the Ed Sullivan Theater last year, he liked what he heard enough to just have him rewind and do it again.

And for the past few weeks, many of those artists have been coming back to perform one more time before he hangs them up. Adams reprised “Starting to Hurt” from his first appearance in 2001, and Vedder put his suit back on and ran through his oldest song with the band. Before all that are the Top 10 lists, retrospectives of all the dry comedy that confused and captured audiences, actors and celebrities sitting down on the couch one last time to crack jokes and pay their respects. I’ve been making it a point again to tune in at 11:30 and work my way through it all.

The bits were obviously great and inventive, the prizes to the audience just as random. It was a strange side of life given a national stage and repeated with varying rhythms for more than 30 years. And more often than not, it ended with a song, often hand-picked by the slightly reluctant host who wanted to end his bizarre display with a tune.

It’s not the most efficient delivery method, for sure, and maybe the format is moving past its time. But for that time, it was perfect little window into this weird world of sound. And you had to be there and be ready, or it could disappear.

May 20, 2015

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