Tom Waits’ Many Appearances on David Letterman, From 1983 to 2015

From their begin­nings as Late Night on NBC in 1982, to their end as the Late Show in 2015, David Letterman’s net­work talk show years were reli­able guides for those who shared his dis­tinc­tive musi­cal tastes. His impec­ca­ble house band was leg­endary, and he devel­oped an abid­ing love for the Foo Fight­ers in lat­er years, who played him out on his last show over an emo­tion­al mon­tage.

Oth­er stand­out musi­cal guests tend­ed toward the more off-kil­ter. Frank Zap­pa and out­sider singer-song­writer War­ren Zevon were clear favorites, their wry humor rival­ing Letterman’s own. Zevon may not have sold out sta­di­ums but made a per­fect musi­cal foil for the host, even sit­ting in once for Paul Shaf­fer.

“When it comes to music,” said Let­ter­man, intro­duc­ing Zevon, “there’s just a hand­ful of folks that I real­ly love and adore.” Sec­ond only to Zevon was anoth­er song­writer with an even more vaude­vil­lian sen­si­bil­i­ty: Tom Waits, who made his debut on Late Night in 1983 and came back every few years until one of Letterman’s final shows on May 14, 2015.

At the top, you can catch Waits’ debut appear­ance, pro­mot­ing Sword­fishtrom­bones and doing his very Bukows­ki-like spo­ken word bit “Frank’s Wild Years” and “On the Nick­el,” from a lit­tle-known 1980 skid-row themed film. In-between per­for­mances, Waits proves him­self an old hand at ban­ter, his sand­pa­per-on-asphalt voice mak­ing him sound twice as old as his ten­der 34 years at the time.

Waits returned for a sec­ond time in 1986. Fur­ther up, see his third appear­ance the fol­low­ing year, pro­mot­ing the Frank’s Wild Years, the album, a col­lec­tion of songs writ­ten by Waits, his wife Kath­leen Bren­nan, and bassist Greg Cohen for a play of the same name. (He was also com­ing off the pro­duc­tion of Iron­weed, in which he starred with Jack Nichol­son and Meryl Streep.) Just above, see Waits on the Late Show in 1999 per­form­ing “Choco­late Jesus,” a “song for those of you in the audi­ence,” he says, “who have trou­ble get­ting up on Sun­day morn­ings and going to church.”

Waits came back again in 2002 and 2004. In 2006, he released his mas­sive, three-disc Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bas­tards, which cov­ered all of the musi­cal ter­ri­to­ry he had explored over his long career, and then some. Just above, see him do “Lie to Me,” a clas­sic jazz-blues stom­per and high con­trast to his final appear­ance on Let­ter­man, below.

Waits released his last album, Bad as Me in 2011, and appeared on the show the next year. Though he’s been active since then, with act­ing roles and a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Kei­th Richards in 2013, he hasn’t released any new orig­i­nal music yet save a mov­ing new song, “One Last Look,” per­formed exclu­sive­ly on that 2015 appear­ance after his last inter­view with Let­ter­man (and an inter­lop­ing George Clooney).

Despite Letterman’s retire­ment announce­ment after the end of his Late Show run, we’ve seen him return to the small screen to do what he does best on his Net­flix show My Next Guest Needs No Intro­duc­tion. Let’s hope we haven’t also heard the last of Tom Waits. Maybe Let­ter­man will have him on again soon to pro­mote yet anoth­er bril­liant record of the music only Tom Waits can make.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream All of Tom Waits’ Music in a 24 Hour Playlist: The Com­plete Discog­ra­phy

Tom Waits Sings and Tells Sto­ries in Tom Waits: A Day in Vien­na, a 1979 Aus­tri­an Film

Tom Waits and Kei­th Richards Sing Sea Song “Shenan­doah” for New Pirate-Themed CD: Lis­ten Online

Frank Zappa’s 1980s Appear­ances on The David Let­ter­man Show

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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