When the road calls, set aside the GPS, pull out the Road Atlas, and take the long way home. These three mixes are comprised of the tunes I reached for this year when I felt compelled to exit The Interstate and examine my inner-state. And while, admittedly, my road map was not always within arm’s reach, I did find myself clicking the “Avoid Highways” button on my directional gadget, rolling down the windows, and turning up the volume knob. These are tunes for strolling and for rolling, not for reeling, nor for speeding. This is the Carefree Highway.
This all came about on an early autumn drive up the coast of Cape Cod. I was listening to a local radio station when Gordon Lightfoot’s “Carefree Highway” came on, and it was all kinds of things. It made the air smell familiar. It made my heart pang for the singer. All at once, it brought me back to high school and flung me forty years into the future. I’m not sure what it is about Gordon Lightfoot’s rock solid voice, his steady tone, his classic imagery, but I find his songs so immensely enjoyable. What follows is a mix of tunes for that mid-morning clip along your favorite road, grassy pastures to one side, coastal waters to the other.
Were the skies telling the truth, you’d be squinting past your wipers. But every once in a while the skies lie. One of my favorite times of day is when the late sun hangs low in front of me, rushing past patches of dark clouds, Westward-bound like a prophet. “It should’ve been raining hours ago,” you think to yourself breathing in the thick air of a nearly missed storm as you slam a fist on the side of the steering wheel, like a hard-driving drum beat underneath the melancholy vocals of a good sad song. Look up, take in that mix of dark and light, and croon with best of them.
Trip’s ending. The road grows narrow. Your surroundings become more and more familiar. Destination’s breath is in the air. You just want to get there. You’re not quite white-knuckling it, but the thrill of the ride is couching itself with the thrill of arrival. These tunes comprise my favorites from the last year of taking the unbeaten path. Treat them well, and they’ll be in your life forever. I find myself reaching for them, driving or not. I hope you will, too.
Before I considered devoting a week’s worth of posts to David Letterman, I intended to share this story. For some time, I have been fascinated by the evolution of Dave’s relationship with a personal hero of mine, Paul Newman. For the uninitiated, I wrote a lengthy piece a couple years ago about Mr. Newman, and I have for many years prior and since emulated Paul. I read anything I can to learn more about the man’s many efforts, I revisit his incredible film career, and by that virtue I model aspects of my pursuits after those of his.
During the Writer’s Strike of 1988, in order to kill time, Dave told the stories of his first pair of encounters with Paul. In the first part of the clip, he tells it on his own show. In the second part, you’ll also see him tell the story to Johnny Carson. There’s nothing particularly special about this story, but it hints at Dave’s adulation of Paul. Though Newman shrugs as he passes Letterman in the stands at an auto race, Letterman is starstruck. It’s clear from his multiple retellings of the story that, like me, he too holds the “persona of Paul Newman” as he put it in retellings, in high regard.
At some point in time after running into Paul Newman at a couple auto races, the two developed a friendship, one centered around a love for cars — fast, fast cars. In certain circles, Paul was known for disguising immensely powerful engines in rather diminuitive bodies, “cue cars” as they’re known in England. His Volkswagen stuffed with a 300 horsepower Ford engine is thestuffoflegend. In others, he was known as a champion race car driver. On the other hand, Dave is an Indiana boy thru-and-thru, and as co-owner of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing team, he is a fixture on the IndyCar circuit.
While Paul’s Volkswagen is inarguably cool, this is a post about my favorite of his cars, “The Paul Newman Volvo.” One day, seemingly out-of-the-blue, Paul called Dave, and asked if he wanted a specially built Volvo station wagon.
He retold his “Paul Newman Story” and introduced the world to the idea of the Paul Newman Volvo on Jon Stewart’s last-ever episode of his short-lived late night talk show. Then, helikely received a call from Paul, “Did you have to go and do that?” and revised the story, telling more of the car’s origin on Al Roker’sCNBC program, but he was careful not to name-drop, omitting any mention of Paul.
Without getting terribly personal, I’ve gone through some things this year that left me sideways, and this episode of Jerry Seinfeld’sComedians in Cars Getting Coffee[LINK] has been an immensely helpful bit of respite. I must have watched it a hundred times. If you watch no other clip in this post, take time to watch this one. It’s Dave — the Dave of present day — as unbuttoned as I can recall seeing him, and it’s just great. I love so many parts of this: the trip to the hardware store, the part where Dave asks Jerry with some seriousness, “are these people actors?” and the overall charming, humble, soft-spoken nature of their banter. Oh, and of course, I love the car, much as I love the men responsible for them.
Thank you, all of you, for humoring me as I relive some of my favorite moments from Dave Letterman’s splendid career. And thank you, Dave, for stirring the enthusiasm in a twelve-year-old boy, one who — for the past twenty-two years — has unfailingly heeded your advice: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
Like Letterman, Warren Zevon was an oft-misunderstood, feeling, thinking, snorting, spitting, mad man. Like Letterman, Zevon was born in the Midwest and found early success in Los Angeles. Like Letterman, Zevon threw it all out there.
Prior to a dive into his back catalog in college, I think I only owned Excitable Boy(likely thanks to you, dearly departed BMG Music Club), and I likely only listened to “Werewolves of London.” Fortunately, in the diving, I discovered an unheralded bard, classically trained by Igor Stravinsky and reared in the world of late 60s / early 70s Los Angeles (alongside contemporaries like Jackson Browne and David Geffen).
Around the time I was finishing up at school, Zevon announced he had cancer. I found myself in front of the television a few times over the course of the summer of 2003 where Zevon was showing up with greater regularity as he promoted a final album, a final tour, and a final round of performances on The Late Show.
Below, I’ve linked to all of Zevon’s known performances on Letterman-lead programs and the forty-five minute documentary focused on the recording of Zevon’s farewell album. Also, it’s worth checking out Enjoy Every Sandwich, a terrific Zevon tribute album.
[In 1990, he appeared to perform a cover of “Raspberry Beret,” which has been removed from all known sources for reasons obvious to those familiar with the author’s recent spate of actions to further protect his work.]
“Searching for a Heart,” 1991.
“Finishing Touches,” 1991.
“Roland, The Headless Thompson Gunner,” 1992. “One of my heroes,” says Dave.
“Mr. Bad Example,” 1993. “We’re goin’ drivin’ later, right?”
“Seminole Bingo,” 1995.
Warren filled in for Paul Schaffer a few times over the years. This was one of my favorites, the spit take music.
Another one of Warren’s plate appearances in the role of designated hitter.
Third time’s a charm.
A supercut of all those Paul Shaffer stand-in jokes.
“Porcelain Monkey”, 2000. Come for the music, stay for the Tylenol PM bit.
“Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)” Letterman appears on the album version of this song, penned by Mitch Albom, shouting, “Hit somebody!” as Paul Shaffer does in this performance.
If you’re not already a Warren Zevon fan, watch his four-part final appearance and become one.
Twenty years of complicity. Too many good moments to call out any one here.
Letterman announced Zevon’s death and replayed clips from his final appearance.
Warren’s son, Jordan, appeared on the program in 2007, performing his dad’s “Searching For a Heart.”
And finally, Inside Out, the VH1 documentary from the summer of 2003, which details the recording of Warren Zevon’s final album, The Wind.
Before Late Nightwould come to define the era, before the man who would finagle his way onto our TV sets night-in-and-night-out for an astounding thirty-three years, outlasting his mentor and all his competitors, hosting more guests for more years than anyone in television history, before repeatedly touching the zeitgeist with segments never-before-seen-on-television, segments groundbreaking in their strangeness, in their whimsy, in their stupidity, in their contribution to the art form, Dave Letterman sat down for a soft-spoken interview filmed in close-up and allowed himself to get as personal as the world would ever seen him.
Though he’d clearly been humbled by the loss of his first nationally-televised program, the elements of future versions of David Letterman are all there. He’s self-deprecating to a fault. He’s quick to speak, self-consciously explaining, “Anything you hear that sounds like a set up, you feel obligated to fill in the punchline.” And yet, he’s clearly as nervous as he’d ever be. His hands cover his face for much of the interview.
This moment in his career is most inspiring to me. When he missed the opportunity in 1992 to host The Tonight Show, while many have correctly pointed to that debacle as character building, as the catalyst that turned Dave into the misunderstood underdog of late night, I don’t think it was as hard for Dave to dust himself off and charge forward following the seemingly massive missed opportunity thanks, in part, to his experiences a decade earlier. In losing his morning show in 1980 and going without work for most of 1981, Dave learned a valuable lesson in resilience. His toughness was formed in these early flounderings where good content failed in the wrong forum. And in watching this twenty minute clip, understanding this may well be a low point, I’ve drawn inspiration to find my own grit, to face life more fearlessly, and to understand that failurehappens. It’s what we do with failure that defines us.
As Dave signs off tonight for the last time as the host of The Late Show, it’s my hope that in his ride at sunset, he glances back, if only for a moment and realizes how far he’s come, appreciates the endurance that got him here: a real American boy fully living out the American Dream.