‘Dick Cavett: Rock Icons’

Cavett’s Creation

New DVDs capture ’70s music icons

By Greg Cahill

Dick Cavett has taken his share of knocks. On Randy Newman’s 1974 song “Rednecks,” the singer-songwriter skewered the priggish TV talk-show host–a former Tonight Show writer who, from 1969 to 1974, enjoyed a reputation on a par with Larry King and David Letterman–for humiliating guest Lester Maddox, a defiant segregationist who used to distribute wooden axe handles from his Marietta, Ga., restaurant so neighbors could beat black protesters. Maddox recently had been elected governor of Georgia.

In Newman’s scathing song, Cavett’s mocking tone earned him a slur as “some smart-ass New York Jew” and led the songwriter to point out that northerners, like the quip-prone Cavett, were just as racist as their Southern counterparts, locking blacks away in impoverished ghettos in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere.

A trio of terrific new music DVDs from Shout Factory! casts Cavett in a much more favorable light–and, no, Randy Newman is not among his guests.

Unlike so many other music-related DVDs flooding the market, most of which feature just concert excerpts, these discs include entire shows that put the performers in cultural context. Sure, Cavett’s snobbishness, sexism and rather desperate attempts at hipness can be annoying, and the sets and production values are archaic, but for music fans, this is adventurous late-night TV programming that is seldom, if ever, matched in today’s prefab, PR-driven environment.

Dick Cavett: Rock Icons features nine episodes on three DVDs. The Jefferson Airplane, Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell join Cavett in the round and seated on Naugahyde hassocks in a 1969 telecast taped one day after the end of the first Woodstock Festival. “I still have the mud on my boots,” says Stills.

Despite Cavett’s best attempt to belittle singer Grace Slick as a child of privilege, pointing out that her father was an investment banker, the Jefferson Airplane perform several anthemic songs designed to rally the era’s emerging youth movement. And Mitchell, a Canadian, performs her obscure antiwar song “The Fiddle and the Drum,” a scathing song that blasts America for its arrogance.

In the self-censorship and media ridicule imposed in the post-9-11 world, it’s hard to imagine a performer taking so bold a stand on network TV (look what happened to the Dixie Chicks for far less), and few would offer them the opportunity. At the time, even Tonight Show host Johnny Carson rarely invited rock acts on to his program, and he never engaged them in conversations about Vietnam and their drug-taking habits.

That willingness to play fast and loose allowed Sly Stone, obviously coked up but complaining of a cold, to take over the program and interview fellow guests Sen. and Mrs. Fred Harris about the nation’s shoddy treatment of Native Americans (Mrs. Harris was a Cherokee and fledgling activist). On a separate segment, Janis Joplin, who appeared three times on Cavett’s show, sips sloe gin from a Dixie cup and spars with ’70s sex symbol Raquel Welch, who nervously tries to steer the conversation away from the fact that her new film Myra Breckenridge was bombing.

But it is the one-on-one interview that is really the heart and soul of these discs. In a 1971 program, George Harrison discusses the Beatles breakup, his benefit concert for Bangladesh and America’s cultural handicaps. In a similar vein, David Bowie, on the verge of his Young American tour, sits down for a revealing hourlong chat that would send shivers down the spine of any PR flack. Other musical guests on Rock Icons include Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and David Crosby.

The two-DVD set The Ray Charles Collection gathers three episodes and 14 live performances taped in 1972 and 1972 that find the idiosyncratic song interpreter in top form after kicking his heroin habit. Among the topics, the blind singer talks about what he would do if he had eyesight for one day. Priceless.

And you even get Cavett struggling to perform a duet of “Am I Blue.”

Not so priceless.

The soon-to-be-released two-DVD set The John and Yoko Collection captures the acerbic Beatle in his first U.S. television interview after the band’s messy dissolution. It also includes performances by the couple with their Elephant’s Memory band and excerpts from Ono’s experimental films Fly and Erection.

Try to imagine Larry King giving Yoko Ono that kind of exposure.

From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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