A few thoughts on David Letterman’s final show

Last night was the end of an era, David Letterman’s final Late Show.

Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC when I was 9 years old. I remember quietly staying up well past my bedtime on many school nights in the 1980s to catch Letterman’s crazy antics. It turns out I had a penchant for absurdist humor of a kind that I may never have known existed until I saw David Letterman. Growing up in a rather socially conservative small town in the midwest, Letterman was one of a few key figures in opening my growing mind to the possibilities in a larger world. That sounds a bit overblown, but really, it isn’t. Letterman’s show on CBS has become such an institution over two decades — something that I’ve taken for granted, really, and not watched much in years — that it’s easy for me to forget just how huge David Letterman was to me in my formative years.

All of that came into sharp relief for me last night as I just barely managed to catch Dave’s final show. I knew he was retiring, and I had been reading enough about him lately to know that his final show was coming up sometime soon, but I didn’t know it was going to be last night until about 20 minutes before the show came on the air.

I found out about it because my college jazz band director mentioned it on Facebook.

I was lying in bed a little after 10 PM, idly checking Facebook on my iPhone, intending to set the phone down and settle into a crossword puzzle before going to sleep. Seeing that Letterman’s finale was imminent, however, I quickly changed my plans and turned on the TV. This was probably only the third time our bedroom TV has been turned on since we moved into the house last November.

There’s a lot packed into that last paragraph. The futurism of constant communication and instant access to the world of information via the ubiquitous pocket computers we call smartphones. How old I sound when I think of myself sitting in bed doing a friggin’ crossword puzzle. The shifting (and diminishing) cultural significance of broadcast television.

When Carson retired, it was a momentous event. It seems like from the ’60s to the ’80s, everyone watched — or at least had on the TV — The Tonight Show, on a nightly basis. As much as David Letterman revolutionized late night television and shepherded in a new era, he also came at a time of change he couldn’t control, and was both a victim and agent of a cultural shift that ensured his legacy would never be as great as that of his hero and mentor.

And yet, Letterman is the Carson of his generation, at least as much as anyone could have been. (Leno? Give me a break!)

Without a doubt my most vivid memory of Letterman, and honestly one of the most vivid memories of my youth, altogether, was Crispin Glover’s notorious, possibly drug-fueled, appearance in 1987 when he tried to kick Dave in the face.

I was delighted to see that moment in the rapid-fire montage of stills from 33 years of Dave’s show at the end of last night’s finale. It just wouldn’t have been complete without it.

That montage was a nearly perfect conclusion to a lifetime of late night TV. According to some reviews I’ve read this morning, it was the main portion of the show that Letterman had direct involvement in producing. And it was apparently Dave’s personal wish to have the Foo Fighters perform “Everlong” behind the slideshow, because that song touched him personally in his recovery from open heart surgery 15 years ago. (Fifteen years ago!) It occurred to me that this conclusion was almost like Dave’s life — his television life — flashing before his eyes. But not just Dave’s life, our lives, as his audience. Even though I haven’t watched his show regularly since I was in college in the mid-’90s, there were so many familiar sights in these final few moments that I realized that in a way, this was all of our lives. For 33 years millions of Americans have invited this weird guy into their homes on a nightly basis, and he has shared moments of absurd delight with all of us.

Thanks, Dave.

M83: Midnight City

Normally (in a rather narcissistic fashion, I suppose), I listen to my own music when I run. But today I listened to one of my favorite albums of 2011, by one of my favorite bands around today, M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. It turned out to be pretty great to run to.

I’m not a hardcore runner. I’ve rarely, if ever, gotten a “runner’s high,” but I think it happened today, about 2 miles into my run, while listening to “Raconte-moi une histoire.” Is the fact that the song’s lyrics are spoken word, by a child, describing (I think) psychoactive toads? Perhaps. Whatever it was, the music was a perfect tempo for me to lock into, and as the music built up, I lost all sense of physical limitations. My limbs were tingling and I felt like I was floating up off the ground.

Then as soon as the music faded and I rounded a corner, I crashed back to earth and was slogging along again, but at least I kept at it.

Anyway, there’s no official video for “Raconte-moi une histoire,” but here’s a live performance of “Midnight City,” the big single from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. It first aired on Carson Daly’s extremely-late-night show. Enjoy!

Air (and Georges Méliès) fly us to the moon

Earlier this month, the French electronica/rock band Air released an album of soundtrack music to accompany the restored color (yes, color) release of the legendary 1902 Georges Méliès silent film, Le voyage dans la lune (A Voyage to the Moon).

Spoiler alert, I guess: This is the film that plays a central role in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant 2011 film Hugo. It is great to be able to see the film in its entirety, especially accompanied by Air’s brilliant soundtrack.

An excerpt is available on YouTube:

I purchased the album, which includes the full-length (15-minute) video, on iTunes, but it’s also available as a CD/DVD set from Amazon. I’m considering buying the CD/DVD set anyway, as the music is that good and the download version of the video contains some annoying compression artifacts (horizontal stripes that appear whenever something fast-moving appears, which I have to assume were a result of the process of compressing the video for download, and are not inherent to the version on the DVD).

I watched the full video last night, and found myself more profoundly moved than I would have expected from the film’s light and fantastical story. I’m not sure if it was because the hand-coloring brought the film to life in a way that black-and-white couldn’t, but there were two thoughts I just couldn’t shake as I watched it, which I don’t normally think about when I’m watching very old film footage:

1. Everyone involved with this film is dead.

This is not a profound revelation. But again, I think the color brings the film to life in a unique way. There’s nothing realistic about the color, so it’s not seeing people in color that makes it more vivid. I think it’s the simple fact that it’s in color, and the way it was colorized. That the creators of the film put in the incredible effort of hand-coloring each frame of the film. That they imbued it with their personality. And, beyond all of this, that it conveys a sense of frivolity and wonder that I don’t often associate with the early 1900s.

Grainy, black-and-white film of the era feels dark and dismal. Since that’s how we’re accustomed to seeing it, that time period, for me, exudes grit and grime, the ugliness of early, soot-choked industrial cities. This color, literally, casts these times in a new light, and brings out a joy and humor I would not have seen or felt otherwise.

2. We have learned so much about the universe in the last century.

It is obvious, I think, that Méliès was not attempting to create a realistic depiction of a journey to the moon, or of what people would find there. If Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of him in Hugo is accurate, his goal in filmmaking was to explore realms of fantasy, to bring dreams to life. And that’s just it: in 1902, the idea of traveling to the moon was pure fantasy. But just 67 years later, people actually walked on the moon for the first time. (And, 70 years later, possibly for the last.) The amount of scientific knowledge humanity gained during those intervening years is hard to comprehend, and as someone who was born after those final moon landings of 1972, it’s something that for me has always been and forever will be in the past. But for those who worked with Méliès on Le voyage dans la lune, it was still the distant future, one most if not all of them never even lived to see.

It is an amazing time to be alive. Not only to immerse ourselves in the technologies of now, but because we have unprecedented access to what it looked and felt like to be alive over 100 years ago, via the motion pictures of pioneers like Méliès. The restoration of the color version of Le voyage dans la lune is amazing, and it’s made even more wondrous by its pairing with some of the best music our era has to offer.

Takin’ it to 3-2-1 Contact

I’ve been thinking this for years, but I finally decided to put it to the test. I tweeted the results, but it felt like something worth commemorating here as well.

First, a confession: I am a Michael McDonald fan. Not the latter-years, “songbook”-type crap Paul Rudd’s character made fun of in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But the classic, late ’70s/early ’80s stuff with the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and countless other backup vocals and solo tracks that inspired Yacht Rock.

As a Michael McDonald fan, I’ve listened to his work with the Doobie Brothers probably more than anyone should. Tracks like “Takin’ It to the Streets.” And another thing I’ve done a lot of in my lifetime — again, probably more than anyone should — is watch shows produced by Children’s Television Workshop for PBS in the late ’70s and early ’80s, right around the time of Michael McDonald’s peak.

So, no, I don’t think it’s an accident that what I’ve anecdotally observed is now, here, for you, concretely proven: the 3-2-1 Contact theme song is almost a direct ripoff of the transitional bridge of the Doobs’ 1976 hit “Takin’ It to the Streets.” But don’t take my word for it… your ears will tell you.

Listen to “Takin’ It to the Streets,” particularly, the section beginning at 0:47 in the clip below.

And now, the legendary title sequence of 3-2-1 Contact, whose music and imagery is indelibly etched in my brain.