Neil Young couldn't make last night's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn due to illness (his representatives say he's fine, no need to fear). Retired Late Night host and now-heavily-bearded charmer David Letterman stepped in at the 11th hour to honor the band, who were a staple on his show for a little over two decades. His induction speech was, Inevitably, charming, self-effacing, and funny-as-heck.
"I can't even begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it is to be out of the house," he said in his introduction, reports Rolling Stone. "I know Neil Young was supposed to be here. People are looking at me like I had something to do with it. Why isn't Neil Young here? The truth of it is the poor guy just can't stay up this late. That's what it is. Either that or he swallowed a harmonica. I'm not sure."
The 69-year-old kept circling back to the "blessing" of hearing live music on his show, telling the crowd to "never take the opportunity for live music for granted […] that's the message I can bring you folks tonight." He poked fun at the mild controversy over Pearl Jam's many drummers being first snubbed and then invited to the ceremony. "As I've got to know these gentlemen, they are very generous in spirit," he said. "As a matter of fact, listen to this, tonight the entire balcony is full of former Pearl Jam drummers. Stand up."
Letterman's pioneering gifts as a Late Night host came in part from his ability to switch between mocking humor, searing satire, and heartfelt sincerity without letting the seams show. So, last night, he first honored Pearl Jam's sense of justice. "It turned out that these guys in Pearl Jam were something more than a band," he said. "They're true living cultural organisms. They would recognize injustice and they would stand up for it. Whether it was human rights or the environment. Whether it was poverty. They didn't let it wash over them. They would stand up and react."
Immediately after, he was able to attack Ticketmaster and then comically congratulate Pearl Jam on their attempts to challenge the ticketing behemoth: "In 1994, these young men risked their careers by going after those beady-eyed, blood-thirsty weasels. I'm just enjoying saying that. And because they did, because they stood up to the corporations I'm happy to say, ladies and gentleman, today every concert ticket in the United States of America is free."
He rifled off Pearl Jam songs one after the other, setting the band apart as both prolific and consistently brilliant:
Now, I'm going to start reading a list of the songs and you're going to start applauding and we won't get out of here until Sunday so: "Jeremy," "Corduroy." Now, here's one I like, the song, "Yellow Ledbetter." It 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 of this other really good material. So, later it's released, as like, a B-side. Twenty-five years, it's an anthem. It's a musical icon. For a lot of people, that song would be a career. "Sirens," "Given to Fly," "Kung Fu Fighting."
The sweetest moment, however, was his closer, a story about frontman Eddie Vedder, the end of Late Night, and Letterman's son, Harry.
I want to tell you a story that I'm very fond of. It's about friendship with a guy who has 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. There was something emotional in the air because as the show wound down the realization that we were saying goodbye, as I said before the experience that I miss most is the experience of live music every night. But that was in the air. It was palpable.
At the end of the show, Eddie Vedder came up to me, he handed me this, and I don't know if you can see that but that's the name of my son. He gave me this letter and said, "This letter, it's for your son I want you to give it to Harry." I think we have a picture of my son, Harry. [Shows picture of young boy smoking a cigarette from his old show.] Look at that, we've had him at all the best clinics taking a gap year in middle school.
So, if you're in show business it's 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 made me keep 2015, three shows left. I'll read you this letter now if you don't mind.
"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."
It turns out that my son does play a string instrument, but it's the violin—close enough. There are quite a few reasons why these people are in the Hall of Fame, but forgive me if this personally is the most important reason.
You can read the entire speech over at Rolling Stone. David Letterman is a treasure and Pearl Jam is cool.
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