David Letterman showed his fondness for Pearl Jam when he inducted the grunge rockers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band had been a staple on his CBS Late Show since 1996, when they made their debut performing the No Code tune “Hail, Hail.” They went on to make six more appearances on the program. In 2006, they played a special 10-song set for Letterman’s audience. The talk-show host agreed to induct the band after Neil Young dropped out, citing an undisclosed illness.
Letterman, who called the band’s “Hail, Hail” performance a “big thrill” on his show in 1996, delivered a speech that was typically witty, wry and heartfelt. Here’s what the retired late-night host had to say about the long-running band.
David Letterman: Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it is to be out of the house. 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.
I’m so excited and you people know this but for 33 years every night I got to experience the blessing of live music. For 33 years. From the people 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 using a copier and fired me.
When I came here to rehearsal 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 and that’s the message I can bring you folks tonight. It’s a delight to be back here for this. 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 who were all in a band called Mother Love Bone. [Applause]
Then, in 1991 things in the world of musical culture changed with an album entitled Ten. It was like a chinook coming out of the Pacific Northwest. It had an anger to it and it appealed to twenty-something people who felt displaced and unemployed and left out. I was almost 50 and even I was pissed off and it was also easy to dance to but that’s another deal.
Then, it turned out that these guys in Pearl Jam were something more than a band. 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.
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. As I’ve got to know these gentlemen, they are very generous in spirit. As a matter of fact, listen to this, tonight the entire balcony is full of former Pearl Jam drummers. Stand up.
I wanted to say a couple of things about the music of this group. 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 one day I hope to come back here for the induction for my friend Warren Zevon.
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.”
These guys, I used to have a television show, they were on my show 10 different times over the years. 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 over the goddamn theater.
You know the song “Black.” There was a period in my life when I couldn’t stop doing this *mimics song* Great. Now we owe them a lot of money. Honest to God that’s all I could hear running through my head. I kept wondering how many times does this refrain occur in the song. I finally had to go to my hypnotist to get it to stop *mimics song again.* 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 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. 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.
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“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.
Find out five things you didn’t know about Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’.