“Everybody who is here tonight has reason to feel superior to everyone who is not here tonight,” says Letterman. Levon Helm is the musical guest. He’s 69, his voice is ruined and he’s dying. He launches into a cover of “Tennessee Jed” with a determination nobody would demand of him. Each verse sounds like it hurts, like it’s the last time his throat will succeed in opening. But he never loses the song. He gets through the whole thing, and it’s immense – more than a song, it’s a show of survival. You can’t quite imagine it happening on any other show.
It was the musical guests that always got through Letterman’s facade. You could tell when he really believed in a musician. It was that carefully understated “oh my God” that let you know he was on board with these people, and you should be too. And sometimes, with people like Levon Helm, it seemed be the only mission statement the show still had, after time had made routines out of everything else.
Half of my taste in music came from the record collections of relatives. The other half was from Letterman. His show was a constant reminder that there were still idiosyncratic, literate voices left in American music. And he proved a trustworthy guiding hand to me, a kid without much external stimuli who definitely liked the idea of music but had no idea “college radio” or “music criticism” or “scenes” even existed. For me, it was FM radio or Letterman. That was the entirety of known music culture.
That show gave me permission to enjoy country, folk, and historical music in general without feeling like a jackass. He allowed me to enjoy old performers. Performers without flash. He got me into Warren Zevon, who I would have otherwise known as the L.A. boy with the blond hair who did the werewolf song. I discovered countless Americana acts and felt justified in enjoying them. So many people who are now mainstays of my collection, that I’ve seen play in little old blues bars in towns you didn’t know booked concerts, I discovered through Letterman. Smart, gritty, unpretentious blue collar music that didn’t have a home anyplace else.
Every once in awhile I’ll fall down some YouTube rabbit hole at 2 a.m. and find a chunk of Letterman’s legacy that will be quietly appreciated over a long period of time without ever being much discussed. For many musicians, especially those whose careers predated YouTube, their Letterman appearance constitutes the best live footage of their entire career. It’s almost uniformly the best shot, best sounding performance of one of their best songs. There is no better footage of Joe Strummer’s solo career than his Letterman episode. Warren Zevon’s visits are his only comprehensive live document. He did his songs more justice on Letterman than he did on his own albums. Even when he had cancer, he re-arranged “Mutineer” and made it the classic you couldn’t quite make out in the studio version.
Letterman always stayed exciting to me, even after the show settled into its comfortable groove of being bemused that it was still on the air, because there was always the chance I’d discover a musician I’d fall in love with immediately. When I watch any other televised music performances, I feel fortunate to see acts I already know getting some publicity, but the sense of discovery isn’t there. I don’t discover music through TV anymore. Letterman was the last guy who did that.
Now, rather than subject anyone to my predictable favorite Letterman performances, which is so predictable that it includes Bob Dylan’s version of “Jokerman” and omits Paul McCartney playing on that marquee, I figured I’d list some musical guests Letterman booked who aren’t around anymore. This list makes no attempt at being comprehensive. I just wanted to underline the fact that a whole bunch of music history played on that show. It’s worth underlining.
Ben E. King