The Dick Cavett Show ran from the close of the ‘60s to the middle of the ‘70s, a transitional period in rock music. Rebellion became big business, bloated with money, drugs, and self-importance. Glitter, prog, and hard rock filled stadiums, but the music would be increasingly aimless until the onslaught of punk. There weren’t a lot of venues to see rock acts interviewed on television at the time; hosts like Johnny Carson were uncomfortable with the counterculture’s insularity and the network’s got nervous about their unpredictability.
Dick Cavett was no hipster, but his relaxed intelligence and wry humor won him the respect of the rock establishment and his nighttime talk show became a regular stop for top acts. He could admit to being naive about the music, but also ask tough questions about drugs and violence at concerts. Cavett was known as the thinking man’s talk show host. His effects can be glimpsed today in Jon Stewart’s issue tackling and self-effacing silliness with Charlie Rose’s wide range of interests and guests.
Shout! Factory’s first collection in a series of Cavett retrospectives focuses on “rock icons” (future titles feature repeat guests like Ray Charles and John Lennon and Yoko Ono). Rather than merely compiling great moments, the collection contains entire episodes, allowing the viewer to see Cavett’s offbeat, yet perfectly booked panel of guests smartly discussing art, politics, and sports. (The discs are also arranged by performance, should a roundtable of Debbie Reynolds, Pancho Gonzales, Senator and Mrs. Fred Harris, and Sly Stone not appeal to you.)
The first of the three discs in Rock Icons encapsulates much of what was right and wrong about rock music at the time. Probably the most referenced Cavett episode in rock history was shot the day after Woodstock ended, with guests Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Joni Mitchell. Crosby is an obnoxious ass, spouting simple-minded hippie-isms about how we could save the environment by putting the oil industry out of business and making not so sly drug references. Only Mitchell stands out from this back-slapping bonhomie. Soft-spoken, poised, and literate, she came to represent the insular singer-songwriter movement, a refreshing alternative to psychedelia.
By the early ‘70s, the use of hard drugs would start taking their toll on top acts of the San Francisco scene. In the second episode here, shot in July 1970, Sly Stone shows up late, in what would become a regular habit in his slide into coke addiction. He is nearly incomprehensible in his interview and Cavett is baffled trying to make sense of him. However, his rendition of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” with the Family Stone is spot on, done in a fragmented manner that anticipates the sound of his last great album There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
David Bowie is the only performer on the first disc who avoids the dated trappings of his era. It is he, oddly, who resists mythologizing his work. With the Diamond Dogs tour just ended, he has ditched his personas to front a Philly soul rock band, and performs the then unreleased “Young Americans” (with a back-up group that includes Luther Vandross). He is visibly nervous in the interview, yet refuses to over-intellectualize his work, claiming he’s just a storyteller and actor, and reroutes a conversation when it veers towards politics, saying he’s unqualified to talk about it.
The Rolling Stones also avoided over-intellectualizing their work; at their best they played a bare bones bar band. It was their evolution into corporate monstrosity that would see their downfall in musical quality, adequately documented in portions of an episode shot from a concert at Madison Square Garden. A performance of “Brown Sugar” is combined with backstage footage that captures the ridiculous production of a major tour. In the dressing room, Cavett goads Mick Jagger into a discussion about Keynesian economics (Jagger was a business major) and the likelihood of his singing when 60 (“Very likely,” Jagger says).
Devoting a whole disc to Janis Joplin might seem like a bit much, but her three episodes sketch an engaging portrait: Cavett and Joplin have a charming chemistry and she delivers knockout performances. Three interview combinations stand out: Joplin with critic Michael Thomas, Raquel Welch, and Gloria Swanson. She argues with Thomas on the quality of music criticism and the naval-gazing tendency of its writers, she tells Welch that she didn’t like Myra Breckenridge but tries to find a connection between their polar personalities through their mutual experiences with fame, and probes Swanson on her thoughts on censorship and the cultural climate of ‘20s and ‘30s Hollywood. Joplin is never rude; rather, she seems sure of herself and her artistry, and is trying to challenge herself and the people around her in these discussions.
In an illuminating interview with director Bob Weide, Cavett talks about his unexpected friendship with Joplin, recalling that they smoked his first and only joint together and a night on the town in New York with her after a taping. He remembers saying to her at one point, “I hope you don’t do heroin,” to which she replied, “Who would care?” Weide observes that Joplin may have liked Cavett because he treated her like a lady. Here one can see him taking her by the hand and leading her to her seat; Joplin looks absolutely tickled.
The third disc is less focused, though the three featured artists share a workingman’s approach to their craft. It opens with a mediocre episode where Stevie Wonder appears to be struggling with his nascent adulthood, and demonstrates his emerging sweet soul sound in his performance of “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” George Harrison, promoting the release of The Concert For Bangladesh, is down to earth and funny, discussing everything from the Beatles’ drug use to bad sitar music and lousy American television. On the final episode, Paul Simon reveals how he uses chord changes to provoke emotional responses in the listener and asks Cavett for help finishing a song that would become “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
For classic rock fans, the set contains some fascinating moments, and it’s a testament to Cavett’s willingness to play with format that they don’t seem dated. But while there’s obvious commercial appeal in focusing on rock stars, this theme is not the best choice to highlight Cavett’s assets as an interviewer. While he tries to probe his interview subjects, they often seem complacent, and he isn’t knowledgeable enough about the subject (as he is on literature and old Hollywood) to challenge them (he tells Weide he’s not interested in most rock music). In fact, many of the best moments—Elsa Lanchester recalling how much she hated Isadora Duncan, Jerry Kosinski talking about writing his biography—don’t have anything to do with rock. Mythologizing “rock icons” seems an inauspicious start for a retrospective of a series renowned for its unpretentious intellectualism.