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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

There is a boxed set of DVDs just out of what this baby boomer must painfully admit is now considered vintage television.

(Soundbite of "The Dick Cavett Show")

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen...

(Soundbite of drumroll)

Unidentified Man: ...Dick Cavett!

(Soundbite of music and applause)

SIEGEL: From 1969 through the early 1970s, ABC television's late-night show was hosted by a literate, buttoned-down Yaley from Nebraska named Dick Cavett. In the 10 programs on the newly released DVDs, Cavett plays his own squareness to the hilt with some of the least buttoned-down people who had ever been on television, a pantheon of rock icons.

(Soundbite of "The Dick Cavett Show")

Mr. DICK CAVETT (Host, "The Dick Cavett Show"): My first guest is one of the most exciting singers there is, some think the most exciting. We have extra stagehands to hold the roof down when she sings. Here is Janis Joplin.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Ms. JANIS JOPLIN (Singer): Hey! This song's about rock 'n' roll.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAVETT: He's the only person I know who has appeared the same year on the best-dressed man list and the worst-dressed woman list, someone's idea of a joke, ladies and gentlemen, David Bowie.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. CAVETT: Everybody is always trying to define today's rock music, and there are phrases like hard rock and folk rock and acid rock and revolution rock and schlock rock and, I don't know. We have none of that on the show today, but we do have some giants in the field. Will you welcome one of the greatest exports ever to come out of San Francisco, the great Jefferson Airplane.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

SIEGEL: Aside from Joplin, Bowie and the Jefferson Airplane, the new DVD set also features performances and interviews with George Harrison, Sly & The Family Stone, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell. It's a list that surprises Cavett to this day. He never considered himself a rock icon interviewer.

Mr. CAVETT: Well, I do now. I hadn't, and since I didn't do all these great rock stars all at once, it wasn't until someone pointed out to me that, `Do you know you have had more of the rock world on by far than anyone, and you talked to them?' `What a foolish idea,' everyone thought. `Smelly hippies' was a common phrase in those days, and outside the merriment and some of the sadness of some of the music, we must remember that this was--well, outside seething were the Vietnam War, the great unindicted co-conspirator. What was his name?

Mr. CAVETT and SIEGEL: (In unison) Nixon.

Mr. CAVETT: And other very colorful and traumatic things.

SIEGEL: And you were bringing some real--well, they were hip people, but they were outsiders for network television, who were getting on...

Mr. CAVETT: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...some pretty big play here.

Mr. CAVETT: Oh, then it caused a lot of anxiety, too. There was a man who apparently had been assigned the unenviable chore of being sure nothing to upset anyone of a right persuasion or modest persuasion even. Nobody ever wanted to offend anybody, which explains a lot about television. But this man came one day, and he said, `What are you going to say to them, the Jefferson Airplane?' And I said, `How would I know? I mean, it's not a scripted show. I've got six or eight subjects here I might bring up,' and he eagerly grabbed the paper and looked at them and said, `Are they going to burn a flag?'

SIEGEL: (Laughs)

Mr. CAVETT: `Well, I'm sure they will if you want them to. Do we have time to get one between now and airtime?' Anyway, he went around dutifully, trying to find out what he could do and--`You don't think they're going to say anything really awful about the White House?' And I said, `Who could?'

SIEGEL: (Laughs)

Mr. CAVETT: And that didn't go very far, either. Well, finally, he was content. He had checked everything except the lyrics of the song.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. CAVETT: And that's why a startled nation, most of whom didn't understand, know what they were hearing, and others who did and were just astonished as the band went, (singing) `Up against the wall (makes muffled speech noises),' and those last four syllables made television history.

SIEGEL: That Woodstock show which, by the way, was on August 19th, 1969, one of my favorite moments in it is when you turn to Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, you just ask her, say, `Are you comfortable?' and with absolutely no artifice, she says to you, `Not really, no.'

Mr. CAVETT: Yeah. Grace Slick can be prickly. I had her on way back in the morning show, most of which have been erased. And somebody said, `They just finished, and we don't have so-and-so ready yet. Go out and say hello to Grace Slick.' Well, there were two women there, and I didn't know which one was Grace Slick. Can you imagine being so square?

SIEGEL: On November 23rd, 1971, you had George Harrison on the program, who was, I guess, at that point, no longer a Beatle. He was a former Beatle.

(Soundbite of "The Dick Cavett Show")

Mr. CAVETT: Is this confusing you a little bit, this setup?

Mr. GEORGE HARRISON: It is, all these cameras. Don't know which one I'm supposed to be looking at.

Mr. CAVETT: It must be exciting for you to be next to a famous person...

Mr. HARRISON: It is.

Mr. CAVETT: ...and on television.

Mr. HARRISON: It's every exciting. I don't do this every night, you know.

Mr. CAVETT: No. I do, unfortunately.

Harrison was reticent at first, and I, watching that now, think, `Ooh, Cavett's in trouble. What will he do?' And I found that with both him and David Bowie, it started sticky. I could almost--you could hear people in the audience going, `Ooh, this isn't going to go anywhere.' But they both mellowed. Somehow, with an unconscious technique that I must have, I looked absolutely more and more relaxed the tenser it got until finally the real relaxation came through. And at the end, you couldn't shut Harrison up, somebody said. He was just delightful.

SIEGEL: I was always wondering during these interviews, some of them back in 1969 and 1970, and once again as I was watching them on DVD, whether you were going with the role of square interviewer with hip rock musicians, whether you could have been more in tune with your guests if you'd wanted to be, or whether you decided this was a pose that you would maintain with them, or whether that, indeed, was the only choice you possibly had in talking with the likes of George Harrison and Janis Joplin.

Mr. CAVETT: Well, that's interesting. I almost never plan anything out. And you're right, they--well, yeah, my nightclub act, I was having a very hard time with. And I suddenly hit on, `Wait a minute. I'm from Nebraska, and I went to Yale. I would be a boob to the people here.' And that let go a lot of good material, and I have a letter from Groucho Marx, you know, the famous comedian?

SIEGEL: Yes, we've heard of Groucho Marx, yes.

Mr. CAVETT: And Groucho said in it, `I think you've hit a mother load with this rustic in the Ivy League. Pan that for all it's worth.' And in a way, I was doing that with these people. I knew that I should have a suit and tie and not a flowery scarf on while interviewing them.

(Soundbite of "The Dick Cavett Show")

Mr. CAVETT: Janis, it's a shame you couldn't do an up tune for us, but a ballad like that will do.

Ms. JOPLIN: Later in the show.

Mr. CAVETT: Yeah, maybe later we can talk you into it. You're really shot after a number, let alone a whole evening, I would think.

Ms. JOPLIN: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. CAVETT: Do you tend to kind of collapse after the show...

Ms. JOPLIN: Well, I think...

Mr. CAVETT: ...when you do a show?

Ms. JOPLIN: No, usually because I get so turned on by doing one that it's hard to stop after one, to tell you the truth, because it just makes you want to do more.

Mr. CAVETT: Your engine is revved up?

Ms. JOPLIN: Yeah, sort of. I had a...

Mr. CAVETT: I know all the hip expressions, you see. Engine is revved up.

Ms. JOPLIN: You're a real swinger. I could tell by your shoes, man.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. CAVETT: Hence, much of the comedy was, you might say, a little contrived in the sense that I would plead ignorant to things in some cases I really knew. But I don't know what they liked about me. I don't know why I suddenly was invaded by volunteer appearances by all the rock stars.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Cavett, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. CAVETT: Mr. Cavett. My God.

SIEGEL: It's not that I've forgotten your first name. It's just (unintelligible) No. Dick Cavett, thank you very much for talking with us today...

Mr. CAVETT: You're more than welcome...

SIEGEL: ...about these DVDs.

Mr. CAVETT: ...whatever that means.

SIEGEL: "The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons" DVD set was released this week. To watch clips of performances by and interviews with David Bowie and Janis Joplin, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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