Trying to put rock and pop musicians in a standard television setting often means some aspect of the music performance is diminished. That is not the case with the performances on The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons. To the contrary, this three-DVD set contains slices of rock music history.
The set, released this week, features among others, Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon on The Dick Cavett Show, ABC’s entry in the late night talk show wars from 1969 to 1974. Each show is preceded by recently recorded introductions by Cavett. Many of the performances succeed both musically and historically.
That is especially true with the opening show of the set. It consists entirely of performances by and interviews with Jefferson Airplane and Joni Mitchell, with Stephen Stills and David Crosby also dropping by. The show was taped hours after the Woodstock Festival ended and, thus, has become known as “The Woodstock Show.” And Cavett’s show was in part responsible for a Woodstock irony. Mitchell, who would pen the song “Woodstock,” did not perform at the festival. The reason? Her manager at the time feared she would miss her appearance on this Cavett show if she went to Woodstock.
The episode captures a unique time in American rock music. The audience is young, many sitting on the floor. Cavett, in his early 30s at the time, is a bit more establishment than the audience or his guests. Semi-seriously, he asks the artists generally, “Do your parents all know where you are?” and follows up by asking Grace Slick what her parents do for a living. Then, when bassist Jack Casady entices the Airplane into a show-closing jam, audience members get to their feet, many dancing, while Cavett stands in the centrally located interview area, looking somewhat bewildered or adrift.
The audience reaction to the jam and the tenor of the artists’ discussion seem to capture the emotional resonance generated by Woodstock. The freedom and spirit of the time is also reflected by an incident that would cause a seismic uproar today. Although ABC was concerned about what any rock artist might do or say, the censors were asleep at the switch during the Airplane’s performance of “We Can Be Together.” As a result, the show may be the first and only one in network television history to air the phrase, “Up against the wall, motherfucker.” (The same phrase was causing controversy with Airplane’s record label before the band managed to have the song released in its unexpurgated form on Volunteers three months later.) Throw in the psychedelic light show accompanying the Airplane’s opening performance — provided by Glenn McKay’s Head Lights, one of the innovators of the art form — and it is plain this show conveyed the ethos of a different generational mindset.
This disc also includes a 1970 appearance by Sly and the Family Stone and a 1974 appearance by David Bowie. Sly and band perform “Thank You (Fallentinme Be Mice Elf Again),” followed by an interview with a seemingly chemically mind altered Sly that also reflects a a touch of the cultural or age gap between Cavett and such guests. The Bowie episode features performances of “1984” and “Young Americans.” The extended interview reveals a nervous Bowie, whose band at the time included such future music notables as saxophonist David Sanborn up front and Luther Vandross amidst seven back-up singers.
The first disc is the only one containing bonus material. In addition to an interview with Cavett, there are excerpts from Cavett going to Madison Square Garden to interview Mick Jagger during the Rolling Stones 1972 tour. In addition to rare clips of performances at MSG, this feature is notable today because Cavett asks Jagger if he could see himself performing at age 60. Jagger says without hesitation, “Yeah, easily.”
Despite all that Disc 1 offers, the highlight of the set may be Disc 2. It is devoted entirely to Janis Joplin’s appearances on the show in July 1969, June 1970 and August 1970. Joplin opens each of the shows, performing two songs on each. In the first, she and the relatively short-lived Kozmic Blues Band perform “To Love Somebody” and “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder).” It also includes Joplin’s insights into rock criticism during Cavett’s interview with Michael Thomas, a rock music journalist of the time. On the latter two shows Joplin performs four songs with the Full Tilt Boogie Band that would appear on the posthumously released album, Pearl.
These straight-on, nothing fancy, performances are quintessential Joplin. The bands are tight and Joplin displays the full range of her talent, energy and soul. These moments serve as almost unequaled visual verification that she truly deserved her status as one of, if not the first, female rock superstars. In addition, Cavett’s interviews with Joplin reveal a side the public did not often see. She and Cavett appear to develop a rapport over the course of the appearances. Joplin not only seems uncomfortable with the superstar designation, asking that she simply be called “a singer,” but she becomes animated as she talks about her plans to return to her hometown for her 10-year high school reunion after being “laughed out of class, out of town and out of the state.” The final episode is particularly bittersweet as we now know she would be dead just two months later.
While the third disc also contains some excellent music performances, it stands out largely for a November 1971 interview with George Harrison. Other than a video clip of Harrison performing “Bangladesh” at the Concert for Bangladesh about four earlier, Harrison performs only as a slide guitarist for Gary Wright and Wonderwheel, whose album Harrison had produced. The bulk of the episode consists of the interview, in which Harrison comes across as forthcoming and open. Moreover, in addition to letting Harrison talk about the plans to release an LP and film of the fundraising concert, Cavett covers topics with Harrison ranging from the Beatles to Harrison’s relationship with John Lennon and Yoko Ono to whether Harrison and the other Beatles should feel some responsibility because their use of drugs may have led many others to use them. While the latter question brings scattered boos from the audience, Harrison defends Cavett’s right to raise the issue.
Harrison’s appearance is sandwiched by a then-20-year-old Stevie Wonder’s appearance in 1970 performing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” and a lengthier appearance by Paul Simon in 1974. The latter is interesting not only because of the performances, both solo (“America Tune”) and with the Jessy Dixon Singers (“Loves Me Like A Rock: and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), but Simon’s discussion with Cavett of the process of songwriting.
All told, the entire collection clocks in at about nine hours. That is due to the fact that, with the exception of the Bowie episode (of which significant portions of the original tapes were lost or erased), these are complete episodes. Thus, in addition to the music performances, each episode contains Cavett’s monologues and interviews with other guests, such as Debbie Reynolds, Pancho Gonzales, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Chet Huntley, to name a few. The Woodstock, Bowie and Harrison episodes are the only ones limited to the musicians and the Bowie one apparently only because of the loss of the original tapes.
Joplin leads off each of the programs she is on and stays till the end of each. It is interesting to see her interact with people like Gloria Swanson and Raquel Welch (honestly telling Welch she found Myra Breckenridge, the movie Welch was promoting, “too choppy”). Whether that is sufficient reason to include the entire episode is, however, another question. The justification is even more suspect with the Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon episodes as the musicians do not take part in the program after their performances and interviews.
That is, however, a minor annoyance in light of the contents of this set. Likewise, while a couple of the performances reveal the problems inherent with television audio of the time, those flaws serve more to reinforce that this is history and truly live music, not the latest pop sensation lip syncing his or her way through their latest release.
Cavett’s show was and is recognized as substantively and critically different from other talk show contenders of its time. Part of that difference undoubtedly stemmed from Cavett and his producers providing somewhat extended national television time to pop and rock musicians. Fortunately, some of those efforts remain today to show us why these musicians truly were and are icons in their art.