So much of David Letterman’s humor depends on a certain level of sardonic distance from the material itself—a winking acknowledgement that the entire enterprise (television, entertainment, life) was ridiculous—that he became an icon of ironic detachment almost without trying. (David Foster Wallace, who called him “the ironic eighties’ true angel of death,” wrote an entire short story about a Letterman-induced case of irony poisoning.) But as anyone who watched the night he gave to Warren Zevon knows, sentiment isn’t as alien to him as he sometimes makes it seem. The sincere Letterman and his sincere retirement beard were both on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Pearl Jam Friday night, as Rolling Stone reports. Letterman—tapped at the last minute to sub in for Neil Young, who was ill—delivered a funny, sincere, and deeply moving speech about what Pearl Jam had meant to him over the years, including an anecdote about his son that was positively sappy.
Of course, Letterman’s still Letterman, so he did tell the crowd that he and Neil Young “met a long time ago on farmersonly.com” and took the time to call Pearl Jam’s nemesis Ticketmaster “bloodsucking, beady-eyed weasels.” But Letterman’s utterly sincere enthusiasm for Pearl Jam’s music is charming and contagious, and it’s nice to see him working the other side of the irony fence for once. Pearl Jam’s next big cause should be getting him back on television.
Here’s the complete text of Letterman’s speech:
Thank you. I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor and privilege it is for me to be out of my house, honest to God. I know Neil Young was supposed to be here. And people are saying to me, like I had something to do with it, “Why isn’t Neil Young here?” And the truth of it is, the poor guy just can’t stay up this late. That’s what I heard. Either that, or he swallowed a harmonica, I’m not sure.
I am so excited—and you people know this—but for 33 years, every night I got to experience the gift and the blessing of live music. For 33 years. From the people who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and people who will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And then, for two years, that went away. CBS caught me abusing a copier and fired me.
And when I came here to rehearsal this afternoon and heard live music again, I was reminded: Oh my God, what a gift live music is. I know all of these people. And my band and Paul Shaffer were tremendous. Never take the opportunity for live music for granted, that’s the message I can bring to you folks tonight. It is a delight to be back here for this.
I—by the way, I’ve known Neil Young for many, many years. We met a long time ago on farmersonly.com. In 1988 is when I first met most of the people involved in Pearl Jam. We were all in a—we were in a band called Mother Love Bone. I wanted to change it to Mother Soup Bone and they said, “Get out.” And then in 1991, things in the whole musical culture changed with the album titled Ten. And it was like a Chinook coming out of the Pacific Northwest, and it was, it had anger to it, and it appealed to twentysomething people who felt displaced and unemployed and left out. And I was almost 50 and even I was pissed off. And it was also easy to dance to, but that’s another deal.
And then it turned out that these guys in Pearl Jam were something more than a band. They were a true, living cultural organism. They would recognize injustice and they would stand up to it, whether it was human rights, whether it was environment, whether it was poverty, they didn’t let it wash over them, they would stand up and react. In 1994, these gentlemen risked their careers by going after those beady-eyed, bloodthirsty weasels at Ticketmaster. Those bloodsucking, beady-eyed weasels! I’m just enjoying saying that. And because they did, because they stood up the corporation, I’m happy to say, ladies and gentlemen, today every concert ticket in the United States of America is free.
As I’ve gotten to know these gentlemen, they’re very generous of spirit. As a matter of fact, listen to this, tonight the entire balcony is full of former Pearl Jam drummers. Stand up! I want to say a couple of things about the music of this group. And the nice thing about knowing them for as long as I’ve known them, I know them as friends as well as cultural icons. And I would just like to say that one day I hope to come back here for the induction of my friend Warren Zevon.
Now I’m gonna start reading a list of songs and you’re gonna start applauding and we won’t get out of here til Sunday. “Jeremy.” “Corduroy.” “Rearviewmirror.” Now here’s one I like: the song “Yellow Ledbetter.” Doesn’t make Ten, the first album. Doesn’t make Ten because they have too much good material, they decide, “We don’t want to put this song on there with all this other really good material.” So later, it’s released as like a B-side. 25 years, it’s an anthem, it’s a musical icon. This gives you an idea of the quality of the gentlemen behind this music. For a lot of people, that song would be a career. “Sirens.” “Given to Fly.” “Kung Fu Fighting.”
These guys, I used to have a television show, they were on my show for ten different times over the years. And every time they were there, they would blow the roof off the place. And I’m not talking figuratively. They actually blew the roof off the place. For two years, I did a show without a roof on the goddamned theater.
You know, the song “Black”—there was a period in my life when I couldn’t stop doing this:
Letterman sings the riff from “Black” then stops abruptly when the crowd joins in.
Great, now we owe them a lot of money. Honest-to-God, that’s all I could hear running through my head, and I kept wondering, “How many times does this refrain occur in the song?” I finally had to go to a hypnotist to get it to stop. One night on the show, I’m doing it, and the stage door bursts open. In walks Eddie Vedder. He sings the song with Paul and the band, then he comes over to me and he looks me right in the eye and he says, “STOP DOING THAT.” And I was cured, ladies and gentlemen.
I want to tell you a story that I’m very fond of, and it’s about friendship with a guy who’s done something for me that I’ll remember my entire life. I had three shows left to go, and Eddie Vedder was on that show. And he sang “Better Man.” I like to tell myself it’s because it rhymed with “Letterman.” And there was something emotional in the air, because as the show wound down, the realization that we were saying goodbye—as I said before, what I miss most is the experience of live music every night—but that was in the air. It was palpable. And at the end of the show, Eddie Vedder came up to me and he handed me this.
Letterman holds up a child-size acoustic guitar with the name “Harry” painted on it.
I don’t know if you can see that, but that’s the name of my son. He gave me this letter and he said, “This letter is for your son. I want you to give it to Harry.” I think we have a picture of my son, Harry?
A photo of a young boy lighting a cigarette appears on screens, labeled “Harry Letterman.”
Look at that. We’ve had him in all the best clinics. Taking a gap year in middle school, I don’t know.
So if you’re in show business, likely there’s a good strong streak of cynicism in you. And I would be the president of that club except for things like this. This letter to my son from Eddie Vedder, May 18, 2015. Three shows left for me. I’ll read you this letter now, if you don’t mind.
“Hi, Harry.” This is Eddie talking to my son. “Hi, Harry. My name is Eddie Vedder and I’m a friend of your dad’s. I wanted you to have this small guitar to start with. Try it out, make a little noise. I’ll make you a deal: if you learn even one song on this guitar, I’ll get you a nicer, bigger one for your birthday—maybe an electric one. You let me know.” And my son loves to fish—Eddie adds here, “Playing guitar is kind of like fishing. Fishing for songs. Good luck, Harry, in all things. Yours truly, Ed.”
It turns out that my son does play a stringed instrument, but it’s the violin. But close enough! There’s quite a few reasons why these people are in the Hall of Fame, but forgive me if this, personally, is the most important reason they’re in the Hall of Fame.
And so here we have them, ladies and gentlemen. Guitar: Mike McCready. Rhythm guitar: Stone Gossard. Drums: Matt Cameron, Dave Krusen. On bass, the guy that [inaudible] Montana: Jeff Ament. Vocals and guitar: Eddie Vedder. I am honored to induct into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the legendary Pearl Jam.