102792 Late Night with David Letterman/The Paul Reed Smith Band, New York, NY

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Back in 1992 I went to New York City to see Paul Shaffer…er…I mean David Letterman.  This was back in the pre-internet days, back when you would have to send an actual postcard to the network to request tickets for a show taping.  I put in such a request and Dave Letterman et al sent me back a postcard of his own saying there were no tickets available.  So I sent in a second postcarded request and lo and behold, a pair of tickets showed up in my mailbox.

Like, in my real mailbox.  In a real envelope with a stamp on it.

Unlike today there was no requesting a specific show date online, you just got a pair of tickets for whatever date they sent you in the mail and that was that.  So I cleared my schedule for a couple of days and so did my roommate, a fairly easy trick to pull for a couple of third-year university students.

The bigger trick was to be able to pull this off with little or no money, which was exactly what we had at our disposal.  No strangers to hitchhiking the pair of us made a sign and thumbed our way from downtown Ottawa to the bus station in Montreal, where we were accosted by a homeless dude begging for money (“C’mon man, I’m a junkeeeee,” he said over and over in a very thick accent).  But I tell you, he was barking up the wrong financial tree; we were all but broke.  Eventually we hopped on an overnight bus to New York City and arrived in the core of the Big Apple with the morning sun twinkling in our eyes.

We had several hours to kill before the show so we blew almost our entire wad on a couple of coffees and danishes at a nearby diner (I mean we had almost no money, maybe thirty bucks US between us).  It seemed a worthwhile investment though, given the place was advertised as having “The best coffee in New York City”.  After our “meal” we walked the blocks to Greenwich Village and strolled around aimlessly.  We asked someone where we could buy some rolls or bagels.  “Best bakery in New York City is right around the corner,” we were told, as the friendly local pointed us in the right direction.  

Bag of buns in hand we stop someone else.  “Excuse me,” I ask.  “Do you know where we could buy some luncheon meats?”

“Are you kiddin’ me?  The best deli in New York City is right up the street,” he tells me.  “Here, I’ll take you there myself.”

Then we sat on the best bench in Central Park and ate the best salami on a bun in New York City.  After lunch I bought a mini Statue Of Liberty to commemorate my first visit to the city (I still have never seen the actual statue) and we stopped and gaped at The Dakota (the final home of John Lennon and the spot where he was murdered) before we decided to make our way to the NBC studios early in hopes of getting a good seat for the show taping.

Arriving in the early afternoon I went straight to the NBC gift shop where I spent my last dollars on a Paul Shaffer t-shirt.  I’ve long been a huge, huge fan of the Canadian bandleader; it’s just so inspiring to see how much he Brings It every single time he plays.  Paul Shaffer is a superb piano player – the guy can play anything – but I don’t care if he’s playing the simplest rock song in the world, he still plays it like it’s the most important, intense music in the world.  

Basically, Paul Shaffer always plays like he means it.  That’s a surprisingly rare quality in a musician, and when I discover it in someone I generally become a pretty big fan (Neil Young is another good example, as is Bruce Springsteen).  In short, I was there to see Paul Shaffer.  David Letterman was just the window dressing.

We were almost first in line for the show, and easily within what was designated by security as The First Twelve.  We spent the next couple of hours chatting with the other First Twelvers and when the doors were finally opened security ushered we First Twelve into the room and down to the first two rows of the theatre before allowing the rest of the line in to seat themselves.

I was surprised a) that the show was taped on the twenty-somethingth floor of a building (30 Rockefeller Plaza or 30 Rock, as it later became famously known), and b) how small the room was.  I doubt if it held as many as 125 people, the stairwells and brick wall motif were undersized to create the TV illusion of bigness, and both the bandstand and Letterman’s desk were intimately close, especially to me, perched as I was in the very front row with a huge grin stuck to my face.

One of the show’s writers came out and warmed up the crowd before Letterman himself made an appearance.  Addressing the crowd and taking a few questions, the goofy comedian was standing right in front of me, his surprising 6’5” height towering over my seat.  

Then the band came out!  Opening the show with a half-dozen tunes, The World’s Most Dangerous Band was twice as good live; a solid unit of electrified edge-of-your-seat instrumental Muzak led by the true goofy one in the room, Paul Shaffer, who was bobbing his balding head furiously with one hand raging three chords on his Hammond organ while his other hand blindly conducted his attentive side-musicians through the barely-rehearsed mini set.  At one point Paul noticed his own giant face printed on my fresh t-shirt bobbing at him from the front row and in between chords he gave me a very clear and distinct smile and finger point.  I swooned.

When the program itself actually started I was struck by how Letterman addressed the three lurking cameras rather than the audience.  It’s something that’s immediately apparent if you watch for it on TV, but I had never before noticed how he looks up and away from the cameras when speaking to the people in the room, which by default means that when he’s directing his eyes at the cameras (as he does for 99% of the show) he’s clearly not engaging the live studio audience.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that live comedy is much funnier than televised comedy.  Whether it was the excitement in the air or the responsibility of knowing that I was part of the in-house laugh-track, what was in actuality a pretty mediocre episode was gut-splittingly hilarious for those of us in the crowd.  The guests were a comedian I’ve forgotten* and Cathy Lee Gifford, whom I had never heard of at the time.  

It was a shame, the musical guest for the next night was scheduled to be Ron Wood.  Missed it by one random day!

When the show ended the crowd started filing out, and physics being what it is we in the front couple of rows were left gaping up the aisle waiting for the crowd above us to file out.  When suddenly I heard a voice behind me, “Hey man…hey…Hey man!”  I turned towards the soundstage and there right behind me was Paul Shaffer!

“Oh, hey man!” he said, extending his hand.  “I just wanted to thank you for buying the shirt…”

Oh hey wow I’m from Canada too just like you and we came all this way just to see you not Letterman and I’ve been a fan for a long long time and wow it’s such a cool shirt can I get your autograph thanks man…

…was my response, or some other similar star-struck stream of gibberish.  In the end he did sign an autograph for me, by which time a small crowd had gathered behind me sticking out their hands for a shake and also asking for an autograph.

“Oh sorry, sorry,” Paul said, backing away.  “Sorry everybody…I’m not even supposed to be here now…” and he scurried off the stage.  And I gotta say, that seemed pretty darn cool of him.  With my back turned away from him Paul Shaffer made a point of gathering my attention specifically so he could thank me for my support and fandom (giving me the freedom to describe the experience as “the time that Paul Shaffer met me,” which is precisely how I always describe it) and further proved his loyalty to we, his fans when he refused to sign or shake for anyone else.

Once we got out of there we killed time as cheaply as we could, going to the Hard Rock Cafe** where there was no cover charge and nursing a couple of glasses of water while watching their regular Tuesday night group, The Paul Reed Smith Band.  Though the whole band was outstanding the drummer stood out as truly exceptional.  He played rock covers with such a sparsity, such an emptiness free from the steady boom-cha boom-cha that the songs seemed to call for…wow, I’ll never forget him.

(Whilst trying to piece the timeline of this trip together I stumbled across what is probably the drummer’s name: Timm Biery.  And not only was he Smith’s regular Tuesday night HRC drummer, Biery also played with Danny Gatton at the time (gasp) and he had major stints playing with Mahogany Rush and Nils Lofgren too.  Good drummer.)

When I asked the guitar player between sets if they were called The Paul Reed Smith Band because everyone on stage was playing a Paul Reed Smith guitar or bass, he said, “No, we’re called The Paul Reed Smith Band because I’m Paul Reed Smith.”  Oh, and if I remember right Tommy Shaw from Styx sat in.

Wow.  New York City is cool.

We decided to spend the night at the bus station, as if we had many other options.  There were plenty of others gathered on the benches at The New York Port Authority, but not too many of them had bus tickets in their pockets.  It’s a good thing that we did, because security guys came by several times in the night, waking us all up and kicking out everyone who couldn’t pull a pending bus ticket from their pocket.

The regular rotation of our fellow sleep-mates turned out to be pretty good news for my roommate, who had been snoring very loudly and sleeping very soundly.  The small area held maybe thirty vagrants trying to sneak in some shuteye before getting kicked out to the streets again, and my roomie was keeping them all awake and making many of them rather disgruntled.  At one point a burly man came over to our seats and started screaming right into my buddy’s face – like, inches away – telling him to wake up and shut up or get the hell out.  My roommate just kept snoring and snoring, his drooling mouth agape and his unconscious mind oblivious to the clear and present danger that was literally staring down his throat.  I jostled in my seat and pretended not to know him.  

Our return bus tickets were actually for the next evening so we spent the next day just hobnobbing around the city without a dime to our names.  We went back to the NBC Studio and got stand-by tickets for the Ron Wood episode but didn’t get in (which is why I have a ticket stub at all, and why it’s not for the right date; in fact I went to the show on October 27th.  They took my entire original ticket stub when I attended the taping).

And so after a lazy hungry day we boarded the bus back to Montreal just as night settled over the metropolis.  I remember our very funny bus driver entertaining us with commentary as we left the city.  “New York looks so pretty doesn’t it…from a distance, now let’s haul ass away from here!”  

Just before the bus stopped in the state capitol at about 2am the driver came on the PA and announced in a very comical stage whisper, “Pssst!  We’re in Allllbany.  If you’re switching busses in Alllbany wake up, but if you’re heading through to Montreal just rest your heads easy and stay sleeping.”

To this day every time I drive by Albany I hear that bus driver in my head.  “Pssst!  We’re in Allllbany.”

*The internet reminded me that the comedian was Bill Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer sixteen months after this show.  Incidentally, Bill Hicks was ranked as the 13th greatest standup comic of all time by Rolling Stone.

**Here’s the weird thing.  I just found the autograph (“C. C. Thanks for the cash!!  Paul Shaffer”; my nickname back then was CC) and it’s signed on the back of a menu from the Hard Rock Cafe – okay, it’s the list of t-shirts and hats for sale in their merch shop, but whatever.  Thing is: how did I already have a piece of paper from the Hard Rock Cafe in my pocket if we had not yet gone to the Hard Rock Cafe?  

Oh, the mysteries of life.

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