Dick Cavett’s Epic Woodstock Festival Show (August, 1969)

Even if you nev­er tuned in back then, you need only watch a few famous clips of Dick Cavett in action to under­stand why he earned the rep­u­ta­tion of run­ning the first major Amer­i­can talk show that qual­i­fied as “cool,” “smart,” or “hip.” His oper­a­tion show­cased some of the most impor­tant ele­ments of late-six­ties and sev­en­ties Amer­i­ca, those that the oth­er talk shows tend­ed to ignore, mis­rep­re­sent, or sim­ply mis­un­der­stand. Cavett him­self embod­ied a sen­si­bil­i­ty, nei­ther strict­ly friv­o­lous nor strict­ly high-toned, that allowed him the widest pos­si­ble cul­tur­al range. “The idea that one man could be both play­ful and seri­ous was nev­er deemed to be quite nat­ur­al on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion, and Cavett was regard­ed as some­thing of a freak even at the time,” wrote crit­ic and Cavett guest Clive James. “Even­tu­al­ly he paid the penal­ty for being sui gener­is in a medi­um that likes its cat­e­gories to be clear­ly marked.” For an idea of what that posi­tion enabled, just watch Cavet­t’s musi­cal guests: he had Frank Zap­pa, he had John Lennon, he had Janis Joplin for her final inter­view.

And then we have the “Wood­stock episode.” Aired on August 16, 1969, the day after the fes­ti­val, but taped mere hours after the last notes rang out in Bethel, it brought Cavett togeth­er with Jef­fer­son Air­plane, David Cros­by, Stephen Stills, and Joni Mitchell. (Jimi Hen­drix, though sched­uled to show up, played long at the fes­ti­val and wound up too “zonked” to appear on tele­vi­sion.) Specif­i­cal­ly, it brought them togeth­er on a strik­ing­ly elab­o­rate, aggres­sive­ly col­or­ful one-off set that seat­ed host and guests on a cir­cle of what look like Nau­gahyde marsh­mal­lows. What­ev­er the aes­thet­ic trans­gres­sions of this broad­cast’s design, they lead to more than one mem­o­rable moment in talk-show his­to­ry, as when Cavett tears off in frus­tra­tion the tacky scarf his staff insist­ed he tie on for the occa­sion. Pull up the Wood­stock episode on YouTube for the per­for­mances — Mitchel­l’s “Chelsea Morn­ing” and Jef­fer­son Air­plane’s “Some­body to Love” fea­tur­ing Cros­by, to name two — but stay for the con­ver­sa­tion, espe­cial­ly the part when Cavett responds to Grace Slick call­ing him “Jim” one time too many: “You’ve got to learn my name, Miss Joplin!”

Relat­ed con­tent:

George Har­ri­son in the Spot­light: The Dick Cavett Show (1971)

John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the Dick Cavett Show

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • SimonE says:

    I believe the date of the Cavett show was tues­day august 19,1969, not the 16th, which would have been the sat­ur­day before the sun­day morn­ing when Jef­fer­son Air­plane per­formed on stage at Wood­stock.

    Jimi Hen­drix per­formed his set mon­day morn­ing, august 18 and was the clos­ing per­for­mance of the fes­ti­val. That was the per­for­mance that end­ed with his cli­mac­tic ren­di­tion of the Star Span­gled Ban­ner.

  • gconeyhiden says:

    I was addict­ed to the Dick Cavett show. would nev­er nev­er miss it. every­body was on his show. One of his guests, know­ing how great the show was, decid­ed to go out on it lit­er­al­ly, this old guys act of dying was real­i­ty TV yrs aHEAD OF ITS TIME. NOBODY QUITE LIKE HIM..WELL MAYBE GROUCHO MARX.

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