So Long, Dave, and Thanks For the Music
When Bob Dylan took the stage as David Letterman’s last musical guest, a glorious chapter in television music history came to an end, just as it did a generation before in the very same theater where the Ed Sullivan Show wrapped up its legendary run.
I was too young for Sullivan. Stories of the Beatles, Elvis and the Doors appearing on that show felt like ancient history to me. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was the really big show when I was a kid. It was great, but the musical guests were usually pretty square. Watching Johnny was like peeking through my cracked bedroom door at my parents’ cocktail party.
Late Night With David Letterman was alternative television, and kids like me adopted it immediately. Letterman was sarcastic and often an a–hole, as frequent guest Cher famously described him on air.
He was alternative music friendly, too. From Late Night’s beginning through the Late Show’s end, Letterman hosted enough alt-indie acts to fill a book, and that doesn’t include musicians who sat in with the band or whose appearances were limited to interviews.
We don’t have room for a book, so instead we’re going to give you one legendary performance for every year that David Letterman ruled late night television. The 30-plus acts below don’t even scratch the surface of the show’s musical legacy, but we think Larry “Bud” Melman would approve.
The run up to the Late Show’s last episode has turned Letterman into a must-see music showcase. How are we supposed to pick just one 2015 performance? It’s tough, but the Suffers’ network television debut was nothing less than brilliant.
2014: “Life of Sin”
If you like country, it just doesn’t get any better than Sturgill Simpson. He appeared on Letterman’s show a couple of times — too bad Dave won’t be around to host Simpson when his major label debut drops.
2013: “Cut My Wings”
Seasick Steve doesn’t get anywhere near the love in the U.S. that he does in Europe. That’s a shame, because he lays down some of the best blues of anybody out there right now.
2012: “Blues Hand Me Down”
A few years ago I saw Vintage Trouble open for the Who. They owned the crowd before they even got to the chorus of their opening cut. It was the same story the night that they played for Letterman — check out Dave at the end of this clip.
2011: “Shakin’ All Over”
Jack White dominates our list, but that’s only because he backed up a couple of true legends when they made their Letterman appearances. Here’s the first, the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson.
2010: “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)”
Whether you call him Phosphorescent or by his given name, Matthew Houk, he’s one of the best artists working in the alt-indie space. This is another great example of how important Letterman was for indie bands.
2009: “We Share the Same Sky”
Man, how great is it to hear Johnny Marr? As tempting as it is to talk about his former band, let’s just let this Cribs performance stand on its own.
2008: “Call It Off”
Tegan and Sara hit the Letterman stage a couple of times, but this performance of “Call It Off is particularly great.
2007: “Fake Empire”
The number of bands who made their network television debut on Letterman’s show is impressive. Here’s the National‘s coming out party.
2006: “Heart In a Cage”
Being local to New York City seemed to help with Letterman bookings. The Strokes appeared on the show a lot, and they rocked it every time.
2005: “Let It Ride”
Ryan Adams was another repeat offender, but really — who can blame Dave for having him back so many times?
2004: “Portland, Oregon”
Here’s your second Jack White sighting, this time with Miss Loretta.
2003: “2 2=5″
As great as this Radiohead clip is, that little James Brown bit at the beginning with Paul Shaffer and Wolf Blitzer makes it even better.
2002: “Fell In Love With A Girl”
Your third and last Jack White sighting, but come on: We had to have some White Stripes on this list.
2001: “Short Skirt / Long Jacket”
The finest from Sacramento, Calif.’s finest. Cake are set to release a new album this year. Let’s hope it happens.
If you’re only allowed one Eels album, make it 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxy. Also, figure out who is limiting you to one Eels record and get that person out of your life. You deserve better.
1999: “Guerilla Radio”
A performance so big it couldn’t be contained in Letterman’s studio. Rage Against the Machine still sound as fresh and relevant today as they did in 1999.
1998: “Walking After You”
Foo Fighters appeared on Letterman so many times they should have requested their own dressing room. The band even did a weeklong residency in 2014. What did Dave like best about them? Listen to his intro for the answer.
1997: “Outtasite (Outtamind)”
1996: “Again / We Die Young”
Grunge was in decline in 1996, but Alice In Chains weren’t. This mash-up of “Again” and “We Die Young” rocks hard.
One Hot Minute isn’t the most popular album in the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ catalog, but “Aeroplane” is a great cut. What was up with the parkas, though?
1994: “13 Steps Lead Down”
As “long time friends of the show” go, they didn’t come much longer than Elvis Costello. Costello’s time on Letterman spans the show’s entire history, but this reunion appearance with the Attractions is particularly special.
1993: “Wicked Garden”
1992: “Live at PJ’s”
The Beastie Boys‘ first appearance on Letterman, made all the better by Dave’s insistence that he “don’t want no trouble.”
1991: “Pet Semetary”
Da Boyz — well, two a dem — are on da TV! Gabba gabba hey!
1990: “Hard to Handle”
1989: “King For A Day”
XTC were new wave royalty, and then it all threatened to fall apart when lead singer Andy Partridge developed a crippling case of stage fright. This appearance was a long overdue welcome back to live performance.
1988: “Cold Metal”
Iggy Pop was another longtime musical friend of the show. Was this his best performance? Come on, it’s Iggy. They were all his best performance.
1987: “We Three Kings”
Will anyone know who Iggy Azalea was a hundred years from now? Probably not. Will they know Miles Davis? Absolutely, and yet this bona fide legend played the Letterman stage.
1986: “Smoking Gun”
B.B. King‘s recent passing has created a bunch of bandwagon blues fans. That’s not a bad thing, but here’s a tip for you freshly minted aficionados: Robert Cray is still alive and awesome. Go see him now rather than waiting until he’s gone to express your admiration.
In retrospect maybe we shouldn’t have been so excited about Sting‘s first solo album, but at the time it meant more Police-related music, and what’s not to love about that?
It only seems fitting to include Dylan’s first Letterman appearance since he’s the show’s last musical guest.
1983: “So. Central Rain”
R.E.M. made their national television debut on Late Night. They opened with “Radio Free Europe,” but for their second cut that night they chose to debut a song so new they hadn’t even named it yet. Best. Letterman moment. Ever.
Bill Murray was Letterman’s first guest and, technically, his first musical guest. He pretty much set the tone for the show: silly, irreverent, more than willing to defy the conventions of the talk show genre. It may be hard to imagine, but even something as small as letting the boom microphone creep into the shot was cutting edge in 1982.