THE NIGHT CYNDI LAUPER TRIED TO SAVE ROCK AND ROLL (Memory Lane….1989)

I must have been channel surfing. I usually preferred somebody jabbing at my eyeballs with red-hot needles to watching David Letterman define a-holery. Once in a while, though, there was a decent musical guest. There weren’t enough of them for me to check the listings or anything, but if I tuned in at just the right moment, I might linger.

That night I lingered. Cyndi Lauper was on.

It had been two years since her last sizable hit–and that had been a cover of “What’s Going On” that nobody seemed to like but me (and plenty of people thought was sacreligious). I had heard and liked her new one, which would turn out to be her last sizable hit ever, a few times on the radio.

It’s hard now, to describe just how bleak the musical landscape felt then, when, unlike now, a glorious past was still so near that it seemed impossible it could be gone.

Still, the possibility was real: Whitney Houston had defined the new ballad style and it owed more to Kate Smith than Bessie Smith. The seventies’ era artists who had defined the eighties–Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince–had all gone a bit stale for everyone but their most devoted fans (of which I wasn’t one, though I liked them all). Any chance that the old New Wave might change the world had gone a-wasting because the big talents–Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde–either didn’t care about being stars (their excuse) or were afraid of the burden (the stronger likelihood).

Cyndi herself had clearly lost the fake battle the media staged between her and Madonna.

It was the eighties. Selling twenty-five million albums was chump change.

Of course, I wanted her to defy the odds and go on and on–for this one to spark a massive comeback.

So I wouldn’t have changed that dial, no matter what.

But the thing that had me holding my breath was waiting for the answer to the really big question.

Could she hold….that note?

I don’t remember what I thought while I waited. In memory, for years after, she stood still for the whole performance. When I finally thought to pull it up on YouTube a few years back, I guess I was surprised–maybe even shocked–that she bopped around for most of the song. I say I guess I was surprised because, in the memory I had built since, she was still standing in one spot.

So when I pulled it up again today, I was surprised all over.

I imagine if I wait a few more years, I’ll be surprised again.

I don’t think I really saw her the first time even though I had my eyes open. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember how, or even if, she moves.

Because whenever I watch it, then or now, the question is still the same.

Can she really, on live television, sans production tricks, hold that note?

I mean, she can…

But can she really?

I know she can. I know she’ll do it every time, but it still sends a tingle down my spine. Not just because it was her last big hit, and I somehow knew it would be as I watched her that night. But because, even as I imagined her standing still as a stone, I felt like I was watching somebody fight to keep the last ember lit, in the vain hope that it could reignite the fire.

Fight, you know, with every breath. Including the last one.

 

WARREN ZEVON DOES ELVIS AND THEN WARREN ZEVON DOES WARREN ZEVON AND THEN DAVID LETTERMAN, ALAS, DOES DAVID LETTERMAN (Segue of the Day: 7/1/15)

Okay, enough with the sunshine and lollipops. A little YouTube trolling and I’m back to being curmudgeonly.

Warren Zevon was notoriously hard to pin down, so it’s hard to say if his first little number here was meant as an homage to Elvis’ famous intro to the ’68 “Comeback” Special or a high stakes game of one-upsmanship played straight against E’s corpse with a pair of deuces and a smile. But, as the lead-in to the best version of “Lawyers, Guns and Money” I’ve heard, (and, I think I can confidently say, the best version ever heard on network television) it works either way.

Then Dave Letterman walks in at the end and, by merely being himself, basically announces that he and Rock and Roll can’t both exist on the same planet.

Rock and Roll won that night. But we know who took the long game. John Lydon and Kurt Cobain weren’t really signifiers of the Apocalypse. They were just silly pawns in Dave’s game.

And, for all their celebrated friendship and what appeared, for so long, to be truly mutual rounds of epic ass-kissing, so was Warren Zevon.

The guys who are good at that sort of thing always do come out on top. Everybody else gets eaten.