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Dick Cavett's 'Rock Icons' on DVD
Flies on the wall of the '60s
by Mark Anderson

ike 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.

Walking 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 Elf Again)."

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.

Sylvester 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 day.

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.

Back in 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 opinionated guests.

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.

Thin 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 '74-'75.

Boy 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 procession.

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 spilled.

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."

Reflecting 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 third visit.

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 reply.

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.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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