One moment on the DVD set The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons shows what was lost when Cavett's late-night talk show went off the air in 1975. Network anchorman Chet Huntley is in the middle of explaining the reasons for his retirement, when Janis Joplin abruptly leans past Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and complains that the news doesn't tell the people what's really going on, citing the Kent State shootings. Then Raquel Welch—whom Joplin had previously upbraided for the general crappiness of Myra Breckinridge—jumps to Huntley's defense, while Cavett sits back and watches, enjoying the friction that his bookers have generated.
Granted, there's no shortage of shows today where an eclectic panel of semi-celebrities and pundits shout at each other, but there wasn't much shouting on The Dick Cavett Show. The guests just spoke their minds, and they genuinely wanted to hear each other out. That courtesy started with Cavett, a '50s-mold hipster whose preference for high-toned comedy and sophisticated pop didn't squash a healthy appreciation for the low arts. By the time the former stand-up comic and Tonight Show writer entered the host business in 1969, the nature of hipsterdom had changed, and he rode the flower-power tide, giving rock stars the same keen attention he paid politicians and Hollywood legends.
On Rock Icons, Cavett chats up an incomprehensible Sly Stone, a jittery-but-erudite David Bowie, a grumbly George Harrison, and a helpful Paul Simon (who shows Cavett how to write a song by workshopping the unfinished "Still Crazy After All These Years"). The DVD set contains the legendarily sloppy post-Woodstock prime-time show, where Cavett entertained Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Joni Mitchell—all but Mitchell coming straight from Max Yasgur's farm. (Unsurprisingly, the fresher Mitchell steals the night.) Rock Icons presents full episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, including the host's slick, Johnny Carson-style monologues, plus interviews with the likes of Debbie Reynolds and Alain Delon. The topics of the day are Vietnam, astrology, gay rights, and drugs, and the shows are full of retroactive "wow" moments, like when Cavett gets Mick Jagger to admit that he'd still like to be on stage at age 60, "like Marlene Dietrich."
But the star of the set is clearly Joplin, who belts out six ridiculously great songs, then carries that dynamism back to the guest seats. The rockers on Cavett's show were often mumbly and shy, but he felt they had something to say that wasn't being heard on network television, and in the trio of Joplin episodes, Cavett masterfully integrates her blunt weirdness into the mainstream. Even if it the Huntley incident had never happened, Rock Icons would be mind-blowing for the moment when Raquel Welch tries to describe the "Keep On Truckin'" T-shirt she just bought, and Joplin's voice can be heard off-camera, interjecting, "R. Crumb? R. Crumb! He's great."