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Remembering Bob Dylan's first performance on 'Letterman' as his best

Bob Dylan is an icon. As an artist, he needs no real introduction. Over his six decades as a musician, Dylan has experienced each side of the coin and has risen to god-like echelons. Perhaps the most influential songwriter on the planet aside, there’s no wonder that mountains of discourse have been written on his long and celebrated career. Dylan has ditched the acoustic for the electric guitar, utilised jazz, folk and world music, and even embarked upon a brief foray into Christian music. His discography is a musical Odyssey, a testament to the meandering life of ‘The Bard’.

Given that Dylan is so eminent, it’s unsurprising that many different points in his life and career have gone down in legend. One of the most lauded, for instance, was his first performance on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1984. 

For Letterman’s penultimate episode on the show in 2015, following 33 years as its host, it was only right that America’s greatest living songwriter help to close proceedings. Although it was memorable, Dylan’s appearance wasn’t his best on the show, and it sent many fans back down memory lane, watching videos of his stellar first appearance. Some even claim that Dylan’s first appearance on the show is his best-televised performance of all time. 

If we cast our minds back, in 1984, Dylan was only starting to emerge from the wilderness, which was in effect his time upon the heath. In 1983, he released Infidels, his return to form after his three evangelical misfires that came before. Re-emerging from obscurity, and being given a spot by America’s hottest comedian, David Letterman, was a huge deal. This was precisely the platform he needed to help reassert his dominance. 

However, Bob Dylan was not just some had-been from the counterculture whose relevance had totally diminished. For the show, he was the biggest name they’d ever hosted. Introduced by Letterman as a “legend of the music world”, as soon as the camera pointed to Dylan, the audience knew they were in for a treat. This was the start of his rebirth and ascendance to the status with which he is bestowed today. 

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Significantly, Dylan’s usual backing band were nowhere to be seen. There was no Mick Taylor, formerly of The Rolling Stones, no Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, who produced Infidels, and none of The Band, who usually backed him. Instead, Dylan was alongside three unknown punks. They were guitarist J.J. Holiday, drummer Charlie Quintana and bassist Tony Marsico. The latter two were known as members of the LA punk scene band, The Plugz. 

If you were wondering how this strange convergence came about, Quintana’s girlfriend at the time was the secretary for Dylan’s tour manager, Gary Shafner. The trio and Dylan smashed through three songs that night, ‘Jokerman’, ‘Licence to Kill’ and a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Don’t Start Me Talking’. 

“Right before we started,” Marsico told Vulture, “Dylan whispered, ‘Let’s do ‘Sonny Boy.’ We all found the key fast.” Luckily for Dylan’s new rag-tag group of merry men, they’d practised the cover many times, otherwise, they’d have been “totally fucked”. After the song, Letterman asked: “Perhaps two more songs?”.

Seemingly taken aback, Dylan acquiesced, and they performed ‘Licence to Kill’ and ‘Jokerman’. Raucous, defiant and high-octane, Dylan was back. The trio of songs are perhaps the most punk Dylan ever got, so there’s no wonder that they are hailed are his best on Letterman and one of his best of all time. 

Watch Dylan and the band perform ‘Licence to Kill’ below.