Bob Dylan’s first concert appearance in 1992 was on the tenth anniversary celebration for David Letterman’s show, Late Night. Recorded on January 18 and airing on February 6, Dylan was the only musical performer to appear on the show. He is backed by Paul Schaefer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band (including drummer Anton Fig, who appeared on both Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded), and a collection of back-up singers that included Roseanne Cash, Nancy Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Michelle Shocked, and Mavis Staples, as he plays “Like a Rolling Stone”. Two versions of this song were recorded that day, and it says something about the other version that they went with this one.
What a difference eight years makes. During Dylan’s only other performance on Late Night he looked like one of the most exciting legendary performers in the world, doing new wave versions of songs from Infidels. It was a riveting appearance, and one of the most exciting things that I have seen from him this year. Here he seems old and lost. The wall of sound (two drummers, horn section (including Doc Severenson from Carson’s band), piano and organ, the back-up singers, is all fine, but Dylan’s voice is overwhelmed by it and he disappoints (again).
I’ve really come to see that by week thirty of this project, you’re kind of restricted to looking for something less than great shows, or even great versions of songs that you like, but to the occasional phrase. Dylan seems to perk up a bit in this version at the beginning of the fourth and final verse. I thought, well, great – big finish. But no. He tails off again almost immediately and actually blows the lyrics of the final line (he forgets “You’re invisible now”, so sings it “You got no secrets, you got no secrets to conceal”). It is a bit of a shambles on his part.
In his autobiography, Paul Schaefer notes that Dylan didn’t even bother to sing during the rehearsals and actually walked out. He didn’t want to do this song, nor did he want the all-star band, arguing that he didn’t need it. He writes that Dylan gave about 70% effort on the song, which seems about right. Afterward, well, here’s Paul quoting Dylan:
“Lemme be honest with you, Paul. When I’m in the hotel room at night, I flip on the show only to catch a glimpse of Larry ‘Bud’ (Melman) . I’ve never really keyed in on you. But tonight, man, I saw that you know what you’re doing. If I had realized this could have been something, I would have given more.”
What a way to work! Most everyone is else is good. Mavis Staples is awesome. They should have had Mavis sing this thing.
It is clear that Letterman (born six years after Dylan) is an enormous, genuine fan of Dylan’s (and of sixties music generally – watch his interview with Led Zepplin, for example; he gushes). This is no surprise given that he was a teen when Dylan was at his peak. I hope he was thrilled to have him, rather than disappointed that Dylan was unable to deliver the goods on the big (prime time) show. Letterman doesn’t seem to care about anniversaries (he didn’t even note the twentieth anniversary of his CBS show), so he probably wasn’t as bothered about this as I was.
I do remember watching this show and being somewhat dismayed by it. To me it was everything that Late Night wasn’t – big, brash, flashy (Radio City Music Hall!). They did familiar bits for a new audience, rather than catering to their fan base. In retrospect, it looks like the audition for the 11:30 show that he has, and that he wanted before, well, Leno. Everything about this show was something I wanted to like better than I did, so maybe the Dylan performance fit right in.