Not R.E.M. — But RHCP
R.E.M.’s Letterman debut, about which Father Taylor has inquired, was made in 1983 — several years before my arrival on the scene.
I began working at Late Night with David Letterman in 1987. On my first day I experienced a baptism by fire by being told to report to a room — in which I found Dolly Parton waiting for her pre-interview. What was supposed to be a ten-week stint filling in for someone turned into a five year gig. (It was after only a few weeks on the job that I even began using the word “gig” without hesitation or blushing.)
The most memorable of the many band debuts on my watch was that of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were far badder then than they are now (hard to imagine, I know), and I hadn’t experienced anything like them before.
The bands with which I had dealt to that time had been more, how shall I put it, restrained. Some were wild; some were crazy; but none had been this wild and this crazy simultaneously. Also, to that date, all the bands with which I had dealt had worn clothes.
That said, the Chili Peppers were perfectly agreeable and professional when I welcomed them in their dressing room and described what lay in store for them on the show. But I couldn’t help feeling an undercurrent of upheaval possibly bordering on menace. And I didn’t think that I was just imagining things —- after all, upheaval actually spilling over into menace was what RHCP was all about.
Even in those early days RHCP shows involved uninhibited energy and elaborate production. Most of the band planned to wear extravagant clothing (or extravagant lack of clothing). But Flea, the baddest of the bad, planned to cover his entire body with a grayish brown ash paste not otherwise seen outside National Geographic photo spreads on remote regions of Papua New Guinea. The look would be completed by feathers, a necklace of teeth, and a leather loincloth the size of a Papua New Guinea postage stamp.
The application of the ash paste took some time; and the drying took some more time. The tension in the dressing room, which always runs high before a show, was well nigh palpable.
The show ran over from the start, and by the fourth act I was instructed by the producer, the still young but already venerable Robert “Morty” Morton, to inform the Chili Peppers that they would have to be bumped. That only happened rarely —and never happily— but the musical acts, which always ended the show (“act seven”), were considered the most expendable.
Ordinarily I would have considered taking a long walk around the block to figure out the best way to break this bad news. But I didn’t even have a minute to delay because, by this time, the Chili Peppers would already be saying their prayers or doing their head bumps or performing whatever was their ritual of choice before being called on stage.
Suffice it to say that the lads were very, very disappointed. And it would be true to say that they didn’t make any effort to hide their disappointment. Indeed, I don’t think it would be going too far to say that there were several moments, while I was still in the dressing room and the news was sinking in, when I expected to be cold cocked by an ashen (now figuratively as well as literally) Flea.
Of course all’s well that ends well, and it wasn’t long after RHCP returned and made their very lively and successful network debut. Dave even seemed as pleased as he was bemused by the antics unfolding less than twenty-five feet from his desk. And —once burned twice wary— this time there were no ashes involved.
And that’s the story of my most memorable band debut. I’m sure that Father Taylor is sorry for having asked.