“Do you want to go to New York City to photograph a band on Letterman?”
And so began an unpredictable 48 hours that I swear is 100% true.
It was the last Saturday in April 2011 when I got an email from a friend. A British band, Brother, were doing a small U.S. tour and he was assisting the tour manager. The band were playing in Brooklyn the next day and would be on Letterman on the Monday and he wanted to know if I wanted to go to NYC to shoot their show and Letterman performance. Of course I said yes. I said yes because I wanted to be in the house that Letterman built and to go to New York City for the first time.
David Letterman had a huge influence on me from an early age. I discovered his show during a public school summer vacation and was instantly hooked. With the TV in my bedroom and the volume set as low as possible so my parents wouldn’t hear, David Letterman took a skinny, quiet kid and turned him into a smart ass kid. (You owe my parents, teachers and friends either an apology or a “You’re welcome,” Mr. Letterman.) I continued to watch the show for years, seeing Dave turn from a snarky, rule breaking, velcro-wall-jumping revolutionary who didn’t have time for this shit to … well … pretty much an older version only without the velcro. But he also became a skilled broadcaster and interviewer whose voice of reason–especially after 9/11–had a tremendous effect on the nation.
I got up at first light Sunday morning, hopped in the car and headed southeast to NYC, arriving at my hotel in the early evening. Stopping just long enough to drop my luggage, I grabbed a quick dinner and a cab and crossed the Williamsburg Bridge to meet the band at a cool venue in Brooklyn and check out their set. It was late when I got back to my hotel and after a long travel day and a lot of walking I was ready to let the TV lull me to sleep.
“BREAKING NEWS: Osama Bin Laden is dead.”
This particular Sunday evening was May 1, 2011: the night that President Obama announced on a live address to the nation that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I was in New York, my hotel happened to be close to Ground Zero and I had my camera, so what was there to do but get dressed and walk. I headed along on deserted streets thinking that maybe people weren’t out, but as I got closer to Ground Zero I could hear the sounds of chanting and cheering. When I got there I was astounded by the multitude of people, all waving American flags and revelling in the news. Some people were jubilant. Some were overcome with emotion. Strangers hugged and shared their flags and candles. Watching it unfold at Ground Zero–the epicentre of an American tragedy–was a tremendously moving event even for a Canadian onlooker.
After a few hours I headed back to my hotel and made a quick edit of the photos I’d taken. I was able to catch an hour or two of sleep and then headed to Times Square to check in at the Late Show.
Brother, Biff, Bleary Mind and Bill Murray
I knocked on the stage door, (Biff Henderson answered it) and was given my photo pass. An intern led me upstairs to the dressing rooms where I found the band. There were two shows being taped that day: the normal Monday one and another one to be aired that Friday which would feature the band. The Bin Laden announcement had really mixed things up and they brought in NBC newsman Brian Williams to share his thoughts and feelings along with NFL coach Rex Ryan. The band was given an early soundcheck so we were taken down to the stage and while they set up a stage manager showed me around, the Letterman “fan boy” in me soaking it all in. I would be allowed to shoot their rehearsal and any backstage/dressing room stuff but not the live performance. We decided to clear out while the Late Show taped the Monday episode and return to the band’s hotel, doing an impromptu photo shoot in Times Square. Running on very little sleep and a mix of coffee, euphoria and adrenalin, I was grateful to have my camera capturing the things that my bleary mind might forget.
Once back at the Late Show, the band headed to hair and makeup and I tagged along to grab a few photos. To my left the singer was getting his makeup done, in front of me two band members sat on a small sofa waiting their turn, and on my right a woman I didn’t recognize was getting her makeup done while speaking to a man who’d entered the room and was standing behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and didn’t immediately register who/what I’d seen (like I said…bleary) and after doing the fastest double take realized that Bill Murray was chatting with the woman in the chair. He was dressed in a horse jockey outfit and gave me his signature smile, amused by the “What in the Hell is going on here?” look I wore. The woman he was chatting with was getting up to leave with him so I quickly said “Nice outfit. Have a good show.” and Bill disappeared into a dressing room.
After makeup, I did a few phone interviews from the band’s dressing room with press from back home who wanted to know what it was like being at Ground Zero on such a significant day. Finally the second taping began which the band and I watched from there.
The time came for them to head downstairs to the stage and I had an entire dressing room to myself. I put my feet up, ate some cookies and watched Brother perform.
And after that…it was done. The only person I didn’t see the entire day in person? David Letterman. (Dave makes his way from his office to the stage with no stopping at the guest’s dressing room.)
I packed my camera gear, the band got their instruments and clothes and we headed for the exit only to be surprised again by Bill Murray, still dressed as a jockey, who shook our hands and wished us well. I stepped out in Times Square, said goodbye to the band (whom I’d see the next day for their performance in Toronto) and thought about everything that’d happened in the past 48 hours: David Letterman, Osama Bin Laden & Bill Murray dressed as a jockey.
As Bill has been known to say, “No one will ever believe you.”
But believe me. Every word of this is true.
Thank you David Letterman for the Ph.D in humour you gave the world during your career. And for the groundbreaking work you did in the wee hours of the night that changed the face of late night television.