One of my fondest early memories is a night spent at a Howard Johnson's off Interstate 95. I was 5 or 6 years old, and a long day of traveling with my parents meant I got to stay up late, eating Krystal burgers and watching TV. Of course, I had to watch what my parents were watching, which was The Dick Cavett Show, and wow it was boring, but I was up late, sucking on a milkshake, so I didn't really care.

Turns out I was watching the PBS version of Cavett's show, which was heavy on cardigans, pipes and "importance" and light on Day-Glo rock stars, dying guests and impossibly awkward moments. The show's previous incarnation – as a late-night attempt to draw smart, young-thinking viewers away from Carson – was just the opposite. Airing on ABC from 1969 to 1973 (and struggling through 1974 as the occasional Wide World of Entertainment special), the program was definitely modeled on The Tonight Show, complete with a witty Midwestern host and a creepy bandleader. So while Carson cornered the market on helping big-ticket superstars promote their wares, the guests on Cavett's show were an odd mix of B-list and counterculture that meant some sort of zaniness was always in store. (Cavett to Timothy Leary: "I think you're full of crap.")

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But what made The Dick Cavett Show required viewing for younger people was the incredible variety of excellent musicians he presented. He earned the respect of most rockers by hosting acts such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and a "Woodstock" special, all during a two-month span; Cavett's was the show to be on if you were a happening rocker. And the 10 episodes on these three DVDs bear that out. Joplin's three show-stopping appearances and the "Woodstock" special (with Joni Mitchell and an expanded Jefferson Airplane, featuring David Crosby and Stephen Stills) are in this set, along with other jaw-dropping specials centered around David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and George Harrison (who brought along Ravi Shankar and Gary Wright). Stevie Wonder performs "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave Me in Summer" a year before it was released and is followed by Tex Ritter. Sly Stone proves a legendarily difficult interview, while a totally hot Debbie Reynolds looks on, clucking sympathetically for a clearly flustered (but nonetheless game) Cavett.

Moments like these don't happen in today's tightly scripted and PR-controlled world of television, and the unabridged presentation of these music-heavy episodes makes it hard to overstate just how revolutionary and freakish rock & roll must have seemed at the time.

The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons
(Shout Factory)


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