Cavett's 'Rock Icons' on DVD
on the wall of the '60s
an acid flashback without the acid, recent release on DVD of unedited
episodes from Dick Cavett's late-'60s and early-'70s talk show approximates
dropping in on a string of Summer of Love after-parties.
the talk: "Rock Icons" is like dropping in on a series
of Summer of Love after-parties.
Among many available episodes is a three-disc box
called "Rock Icons," which features nine full-length programs
(even Johnny Carson did 90 minutes back then) and allows the likes
of David Bowie, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin and George Harrison to perform,
then interact at length (sometimes in living room furniture) with
Cavett and his quirky parade of offbeat guests.
Imagine a hazy summertime dream. It's July 1970 and
Sly and the Family Stone show up late for a taping, then deliver
a knockout-punch rendition of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice
Afterward, the 26-year-old Stone, dogged at the time
by drug-related rumors, is all over the place in his interview with
Cavett. Later still, Stone gamely joins in on an unlikely discussion
group where Debbie Reynolds, Pancho Gonzales, a white senator and
his Native American wife all rap informally about the crazy state
of Richard Nixon's nation.
Stone manages a winning performance overall, coming
off as good-natured and keeping the brainy Cavett on his toes with
unexpected barbs and a few sharp observations both one-on-one
with the host and in the freewheeling roundtable setting.
the cat: a 26-year-old Sly Stone in summer 1970.
And that makes us the equivalent of flies on the wall,
which, in such a transformative era, can be an amazing place.
In fact, the first "Rock Icons" episode
is an August 1969 taping at Cavett's New York City soundstage, a
few hours away from where Woodstock had wound down the previous
Jefferson Airplane and Joni Mitchell are Cavett's
guests, while David Crosby and Stephen Stills do a walk-on. Stills
shows off some actual Woodstock mud on his pant leg, then steals
the show with an album-quality version of "4 + 20," alone
with acoustic guitar. In this particular episode, guests perch on
modish red-and-yellow mushroom cushions scattered around a Peter
Max-like paint job.
Rock history says that Mitchell, on advice from her
agent, skipped the landmark festival on behalf of the show
choosing instead to stay in Manhattan and ensure her booking with
Cavett doubly ironic for the woman who wrote the festival's
eponymous signature song.
the day: Joplin did three shows.
Surprisingly, though, the episode is a bit of a dud.
The Airplane never really gets off the ground and Mitchell, despite
a memorable version of "Chelsea Morning," is somewhat
unremarkable performing another pair of songs. Even so, such nostalgic
ambiance alone is worth the price of admission.
All the while, the boyish host looks barely old enough
to buy a pack of smokes, much less moderate a worldly slew of highly
But Cavett, urbane, witty and seemingly somewhat sane
(he later suffered bouts of self-documented depression), had toiled
as a comedy writer for Carson, among others before
landing his own network gig. Cavett usually began with the obligatory
five minutes of stand-up, sometimes coming across as the erudite
boy wonder, other times like a self-conscious twit.
white dukes: Bowie and Cavett in '74.
Generally, though, the Yale-educated host was likeable
and his show won a handful of Emmys while providing an alternative
to Carson (oddly, both are Nebraska natives; Carson born a decade
earlier) by often snagging the counter-culture guests that Johnny
couldn't (or didn't want to) get.
Meantime, the '60s didn't really end with 1969. Much
closer to reality, the '50s essentially lasted until the early-to-mid-'60s,
while the '60s aligned more with the stateside arrival of the Beatles
in '64 until the Vietnam pullout and Nixon's resignation, circa
wonder: an alternative to Johnny Carson.
That coincidental time frame is what makes Cavett's
show so compelling although back in the day, of course, many
of the episodes were less than memorable. But there were only three
networks (plus Public Broadcasting), no VCRs, not a lot of choices
and, often as not, Cavett matched Carson in documenting history's
Even so, everything across America wasn't all paisley
power and love beads. Lots of folks were preoccupied with mowing
lawns, shopping at Sears and worshipping the genesis of Monday Night
Football not burning bras, protesting war and flaming cities
over civil rights.
But eventually the military draft, a great common
denominator, raised the nation's collective hackles. And, especially
if you were a boy reaching his teens before 1975, that draft was
forever in the back of your mind.
Cavett's show sometimes reflected that edge
and often brought the turbulent times into living rooms of calmer
corners across the country. In that regard, some of the shows were
legendary. And although many of Cavett's interviews take an excruciatingly
long time to get moving, the good stuff eventually winds up getting
In a 1974 episode on disc three, Cavett gets Paul
Simon talking about songwriting. Before long, Simon grabs a guitar
and plays a tune he's been working on, stops halfway through and
says the song isn't finished, plays a few samples of directions
the unfinished composition could go then explains the musical
reasons why. What song? "Still Crazy After All These Years."
an edge: taking the turbulent times into calmer corners.
The present-day Cavett, soon to be 70, introduces
each vintage episode with a brief recollection, putting that particular
show into context. Joplin, he recalls, died mere weeks after her
Other discs promise to be equally fascinating: Two
shows with John and Yoko. Two with Jimi Hendrix. Three with Ray
Charles. On one show, Cavett supposedly asks Mick Jagger if he'll
still be singing at 60. "Probably," is Mick's prescient
In other words, many more trippy trips await. And
now, just as then, we don't have to leave our living rooms, damage
brain cells or openly flout the law. Plus, the episodes are all
without commercial interruption and especially easy to find for
those of us whose friends belong to Netflix.
History awaits. Power to the people. Right on.