Friday, March 23, 2007
Jokermen: Dylan and Liberace Do Letterman
As we continute to mourn the passing of Larry “Bud” Melman, this week marks another Late Night with David Letterman milestone: the 23rd anniversary of one of television history’s most bizzare talk-show lineups. On March 22, 1984, Dave’s guests were Bob Dylan and Liberace. Together, they make three of the most unique products of American dream.
Dylan was enjoying perhaps the third of his many “comebacks.” His new album Infidels was being hailed as his strongest since Blood on the Tracks. Indeed, Infidels featured some of Dylan’s strongest material in years: “Jokerman,” “License to Kill,” “Neighborhood Bully,” “Sweetheart Like You.” But more remarkable was what Dylan left off the record: “Foot of Pride,” “Need a Woman” and the song routinely — and deservedly — described as his best of the 80s, “Blind Willie McTell.” Reportedly, producer Mark Knopfler was so frustrated by Dylan’s refusal to release these tracks that he vowed never to work with him again. They were finally released in 1991 in the first edition of the Bootleg Series.
Infidels boasted the type of band that only Dylan could put together. Sharing axe duties with Knopfler was former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. And the rhythm section was the famed reggae duo Sly & Robbie.
But rather than bring his band of legends for his high-profile TV appearance, he got the LA Latino punk band The Plugz, who had also been known as the Cruzados, to back him up. They played three tracks. The first, a blazing cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking,” wasn’t even on Infidels. And “Jokerman” received an aggressive attack that bore little resemblance to the studio versions. "License to Kill" was a little closer to the album version, but rawer. In some ways these versions were actually superior to the Knopfler-produced versions, which have that slightly sterile “80s sound” that has aged about as gracefully as David Lee Roth. (YouTube also has rare footage of Dylan & his band's rehearsals for the show which also include a run-through of "My Guy.")
Sadly, Dylan and Liberace did not take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to duet. In fact, Liberace baked a casserole. Alas, one can only fantasize about what a Dylan-Liberace medley of “Chopsticks” into “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” would sound like.