Today David Letterman will retire, penning a conclusion to one of late night television’s most enjoyable runs this side of Johnny Carson. If you haven’t tuned in recently, you’ve been missing out. The show ends with a strong final few weeks, though not for the reason fans of the Top Ten or Letterman’s classic monologues might think.
The later years of Late Show haven’t met the comedy threshold established by the show’s early, borderline surreal episodes. Most Centennials (shudder) won’t remember watching Letterman live and laughing, and if they do know a good bit from the host, they probably saw it archived on YouTube.
But one aspect of the show has remained consistent, through good years and not so good years: the music.
We aren’t the first to highlight the marketing power of David Letterman (and whoever books musical guests). He’s brought attention to countless worthy bands that don’t typically get radio play or advertisement deals. He’s shaped the mainstream, from early performances by REM to that recent-ish barnburner by Future Islands.
You can read many eloquent recaps of the best performances and breakdowns of what Letterman’s show meant to music. And you should. On a personal level, I can remember how much it meant seeing childhood friends, The Republic Tigers, appear on the show. To me, they had made it.
What I haven’t seen mentioned though, and what I think is worth your attention today, are the incredible performances musicians have given to Letterman in the past couple months as special goodbyes. Some of the host's favorite artists have appeared and hoisted up his favorite songs. Last night, Bob Dylan sang "The Night We Called It a Day," the night before that Eddie Vedder did "Better Man," and a couple nights before that Norah Jones sang "Don’t Know Why." They are the extra oomph the show needed and deserved in these final days.
Hootie and the Blowfish, John Fogerty, Elvis Costello, Chaka Khan, Steve Martin: the list of guests is almost a joke in and of itself, but speaks to Letterman’s broad music palate. Last month, John Mayer showed up and performed all 10 minutes of "American Pie," pushing every word through his raspy, fried throat. The day before Mayer, one of Letterman’s favorite singers sang one of his favorite songs. Here’s Tracey Chapman doing "Stand By Me."
I will miss Letterman’s comedy, but I have new shows that will fill the hole he leaves behind: Colbert being the immediate follow-up, but also John Oliver who is changing what a late night show can be on HBO. Who on television, however, will take-up the title of Music Ambassador, guiding the coolest young bands into the bedrooms of out-of-touch folks like me as they drift into sleep?