David Letterman wasn’t supposed to induct Pearl Jam at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony on Friday night. In fact, the late-night retiree was a last-minute replacement for Neil Young, who came down with an illness days before the ceremony. But that doesn’t mean Letterman hasn’t had a speech prepared for Eddie Vedder and Co. in his back pocket from the moment Pearl Jam first stepped on the Late Show stage in 1996. Since then, Pearl Jam played for Letterman a whopping six more times, including for his third-to-last show.
Their bond was such that Letterman told a moving story about how Vedder surprised Letterman’s son, Harry, with a guitar and a thoughtful letter encouraging him to play music after Vedder appeared on one of Letterman’s final shows. Naturally, Letterman lightened the mood of the emotional moment by displaying a photo of “Harry” now, after Vedder’s influence: a young boy smoking a cigarette. (“Look at that, we’ve had him at all the best clinics taking a gap year in middle school,” he joked.)
Letterman’s speech was arguably the highlight of the night, one filled with revelations about how much he has missed hearing live music nightly since retiring, and that time he drove Vedder insane by repeatedly singing the chorus to “Black.” He even saved some poetic words for Ticketmaster and Neil Young. Here are the best excerpts from Letterman’s speech and Vedder’s bonkers response to the “Black” story.
His theories for why Neil Young was a no-show:
I know Neil Young was supposed to be here. People are looking at me like I had something to do with it. Why isn’t Neil Young here? The truth of it is the poor guy just can’t stay up this late. That’s what it is. Either that or he swallowed a harmonica. I’m not sure.
The letter Vedder wrote for Letterman’s son:
“Hi, Harry. My name is Eddie Vedder and I’m a friend of your dad’s. I wanted you to have this small guitar to start with. Try it out, make a little noise, and I’ll make you a deal: If you learn even one song on this guitar I’ll get you a nicer, bigger one for your birthday. Maybe an electric one. You let me know.” And my son loves to fish, so Eddie adds here, “Playing guitar is kind of like fishing. Fishing for songs. Good luck, Harry, in all things. Yours truly.”
It turns out that my son does play a string instrument, but it’s the violin — close enough. There are quite a few reasons why these people are in the Hall of Fame, but forgive me if this personally is the most important reason.
On Pearl Jam’s storied battle with Ticketmaster and their awkward drummer controversy:
In 1994, these young men risked their careers by going after those beady-eyed, blood-thirsty weasels. I’m just enjoying saying that. And because they did, because they stood up to the corporations, I’m happy to say, ladies and gentleman, today, every concert ticket in the United States of America is free. As I’ve got to know these gentlemen, they are very generous in spirit. As a matter of fact, listen to this, tonight the entire balcony is full of former Pearl Jam drummers. Stand up.
On the last time Vedder played for him:
I want to tell you a story that I’m very fond of. It’s about friendship with a guy who has done something for me that I’ll remember my entire life. I had three shows left to go and Eddie Vedder was on that show and he sang “Better Man.” I like to tell myself it’s because it rhymed with Letterman. There was something emotional in the air because, as the show wound down the realization that we were saying good-bye — as I said before, the experience that I miss most is the experience of live music every night. But that was in the air. It was palpable.
On being hypnotized by “Black”:
You know the song “Black.” There was a period in my life when I couldn’t stop doing this [mimics the refrain]. Great. Now we owe them a lot of money. Honest to God that’s all I could hear running through my head. I kept wondering how many times does this refrain occur in the song. I finally had to go to my hypnotist to get it to stop [mimics the refrain again]. One night on the show I’m doing it and the stage door bursts open, in walks Eddie Vedder. He sings the song with Paul [Shaffer] and the band. Then he comes over to me and looks me right in the eye and he says, “Stop doing that.” And I was cured, ladies and gentlemen.
Being the friends that they are, Vedder reserved some time in his own induction speech for Letterman, mostly to set the record straight about that “Black” story. His version involves a lot more drugs:
The first time on the Letterman show, and I’m just going to tell you my side of that quick story when I came into his studio and took the mic and sang, “Black.” He was doing it, “do-do-do do-do do.” He was doing that every night for about three months. And I was always watching the show and it was starting to make me fucking crazy. And then it started getting weird. I remember I smoked a little something. I’m sitting there, end of the night, kind of relaxing, and he kept asking, “Paul, when is this band going to be on the show?” “I don’t know. I haven —” “Did you call?” “I haven’t.” And he starts looking in the TV. And I’m stoned. And Dave Letterman … he just looks into the camera like he’s looking into my bedroom … “Eddie? Eddie? Come here, Eddie.” It was fucked up. I thought the TV was talking to me. I lost my mind. Serious thought, you know, you might have to go to rehab. You’re tripping balls right now.