David Lynch and Jay Leno: A Late-Night Love Story (Part 3)
A Story of a Man in Trouble
RECAP: My Substack Limited Event Series, David Lynch and Jay Leno: A Late-Night Love Story, is a deep-dive nobody asked for. Covering David Lynch’s five appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno over an eleven-year period, we have so far analyzed the complex and developing relationship between filmmaker and comedian as their on-air conversations span topics like habitual eating patterns and highway safety.
Part 2 of the series focuses on Lynch’s 1997 guest spot behind Lost Highway. Very little is spoken about Lost Highway, at least not directly. Instead, the bulk of the interview focuses on cars and red lights. The essential takeaway applies to this next Tonight Show appearance, too. Red means stop, but this time we’re talking about redheads and red flags.
She is filled of secrets, David, and sometimes her arms bend back. For dat azz.
Jay Leno wastes no time. “What I hear, you were recording an album,” Leno says to David Lynch seconds after they shake hands and take their seats. It’s been a while since Lynch has been on The Tonight Show, three years in fact, and this interesting project surely is the explanation for Lynch’s absence.
It’s true. “For 30 years, I have been in love with sound, and finally I got a chance to build a studio, primarily for experimentation.” Lynch’s approach to sound design has been a key signature of his film work going back to his earliest short films. “I saw a tree move and I heard a wind,” Lynch recalls when describing his interest in animation as a film student back in his previous interview with Jay Leno. Image and sound are a complete unit for Lynch — ethereal whooshing is not merely added in post for dramatic effect, it is a vital component for the construction of the work.
Construction is an important word here. This debut album, 2001’s BlueBOB, began with the construction of Lynch’s home studio by audio engineer John Neff. In April 1998, Neff and Lynch began a series of “experiments” to test the newly-installed studio equipment. In what must have been a flurry of enthusiasm and inspiration, the duo recorded an album’s worth of material which, if my timeline is correct, would have been in the finishing stages as Lynch took his seat on the Tonight Show couch next to David Hyde Pierce and his enormous suit.
Construction was also on the minds of the music critics charged with reviewing Lynch’s first full-length musical effort. Described as “industrial blues” or “factory rock,” the album received mixed reviews. Neff noted that the album was inspired by “machines, fire, smoke & electricity” as well as a generous dose of John Lee Hooker. Industrial beats and effect-laden slide guitar served as a base for Lynch’s noir-inspired lyrics, delivered by Neff in a vocal style that drew comparisons to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. Lynch describes the BlueBOB project in his own words shirtless in a mine shaft in an interview with France’s Canal+, a clip I cannot recommend enough.
“I’m not a musician, but we’re making music just the same,” Lynch tells Leno of the process. When asked if he plays any instruments, Lynch replies that he plays a guitar “just like Kevin,” pointing to The Tonight Show Band leader Kevin Eubanks and pausing just long enough for the three men to awkwardly laugh at this sudden and strange comparison.
Let’s talk about Kevin Eubanks. The Philadelphia native began playing with The Tonight Show Band when Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson in 1992. For the first three years, the band was under the musical direction of Branford Marsalis, a member of the illustrious Marsalis family of New Orleans jazz traditionalists. In a 2018 interview, Eubanks hints that a “boiling point” (an apt New Orleans metaphor if ever there was one) was reached between Leno and Marsalis which led to Eubanks’ quick ascension to bandleader — a role he held until 2010. With his fingers firmly in the world of fusion and smooth jazz, Eubanks steered The Tonight Show Band’s sound out of orthodox jazz territory into one that complemented Jay Leno’s populist approach.
Eubanks was also better suited for the role of Leno’s sideman. Johnny Carson had Ed McMahon and Leno had Kevin Eubanks, a comedic foil that he could cut to at any moment for an easy laugh. No episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was complete without a reference to Eubanks’ lackluster love life or fondness for marijuana which, night after night for 15 years, Eubanks would have to laugh off with a wide smile and a quick guitar lick. There is only one leader on The Tonight Show as we have discovered at this point, and Kevin wasn’t him.
For David Lynch of all people to cut to Kevin Eubanks is a surprise. One doesn’t detect any malice in this, it’s merely an observation. Like a power drill or a circular saw, Kevin Eubanks coincidentally is holding the same type of tool Lynch used to construct the work being discussed: an electric guitar.
David Lynch does not play the guitar like Kevin Eubanks plays the guitar. Eschewing the opportunity to show Eubanks a thing or two on his own axe, Lynch says he plays the guitar “upside down and backwards” while “working the wang bar” with his left hand. The mission, Lynch explains, is to get the guitar to talk, a sentiment Eubanks and Lynch share.
As a guitarist myself with an unusual approach to the instrument, I appreciate Lynch’s candor. The guitar is a means to an end serving a larger artistic vision than a typical white male of a certain age playing licks at Guitar Center.
Jay Leno doesn’t understand. “Is it zydeco? Is it jazz?” There is a need for labeling, for branding on the other side of the desk. Lynch relents a little and says it’s “in the heavy metal department,” though I’m confident he means it in more of a hardware sense.
The theme of construction continues. “Now I know you’re also a very talented carpenter,” Leno says to segue into their next bit. Lynch has brought a prop with him this time, a machine of his own design: a mousetrap that catches a mouse “first time every time.” The wooden device is powered by electricity, trapping a mouse inside with the press of a fulcrum. The results are proven: Lynch caught a mouse and a rat with it, safely returning them to the wild and away from his tomatoes and bananas.
It’s a cute segment but takes up a significant amount of time. Like a zookeeper bringing an exotic bird or a lemur to the show, Lynch brings his own weirdness for the crowd to gawk at. It’s a win-win situation: Leno has a punching bag to take up some airtime and Lynch, judging from his smile, enjoys being part of the bit, like an audience member chosen to participate in an improv routine.
We’re 6 minutes into a 8:45 minute interview and they haven’t mentioned The Straight Story, Jay Leno’s favorite David Lynch film.
The Straight Story
The Straight Story is the only David Lynch movie available on Disney+. Released in the U.S. under the Walt Disney Pictures label, The Straight Story is a G-rated road story with a heart golden as an Iowa cornfield. The film is based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old man who drove his John Deere lawnmower 240 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing and estranged older brother.
The journey took six weeks at the maximum speed of 5 miles per hour, yet the speed by which Alvin Straight became a folk legend was much more rapid. He was gifted lawnmowers, an opera was composed about his life, and a deal was eventually struck for the film rights to Straight’s story. Straight disliked the media attention he received after his slow pilgrimage and notably turned down an offer to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
That David Lynch was charged with telling Straight’s story sounds like a slow-moving lawnmower wreck, but the film is sincere and humble. While some scenes have Lynch’s trademark uneasiness (one extended hand-held sequence shows Straight’s lawnmower speeding out of control down a hill with a burning farmhouse in the background), the film is essentially a love story to middle America and the hardy people who make up the soul of our diverse and troubled country. It’s a film, Lynch tells Leno to laughs, “for people.”
The Straight Story is also, as we have discussed previously, a film about driving. Alvin Straight’s lawnmower is a liberating tool that allows the stricken man to beat the system and set out on his own unique version of the great American road trip. There is also danger, from the elements and from his fellow motorists as they speed by dangerously close.
In another Lynchian scene, Straight witnesses a horrible accident. A woman hits a deer ahead of him on the highway and is understandably distraught. Straight pulls over to assist. Then, this Straight story swerves.
“You can’t help me. No one can help me,” the woman cries. She’s tried everything a person can possibly do — turned on her lights, banged on the side of her door, played Public Enemy real loud — but every week she plows into at least one deer. She’s killed 13 deer in 7 weeks (about as long as Straight’s complete journey) but she has no choice. She has to drive down this particular road every day for work, 40 miles back and forth. She stops to touch the carcass. “He’s dead, and I love deer!” She drives off down the road, a woman in trouble trapped in a recurring inescapable nightmare.
Straight is left alone in silence with the deer. Lynch’s archetypal optimist turns lemons into lemonade — or rather roadkill into dinner. His Deere, the John Deere lawnmower, chugs along with antlers adorning the top of his trailer.
Our interview with David Lynch ends with a heart-warming clip of Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek from The Straight Story, but things are about to heat up. Lynch and David Hyde Pierce make room on the couch for Wynonna Judd, the night’s musical guest, after what one must assume was a sultry performance. Judd is promoting her contribution to the theme song for Super Bowl XXXIV (side-note: this clip is also bonkers and features Cyndi Lauper, Jon Bon Jovi, Lil Kim, Hank Williams Jr., Bill Clinton, Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast, Harrison Ford, Regis Philbin, Sesame Street, the pig from Toy Story, and more). Judd’s double entendres are unrelenting.
When asked who she’s rooting for, Judd responds with “the tight-ends,” a play on “the Titans” who I assume are a football team (not my beat). One can hear Lynch laughing on his hot mic which prompts Judd to turn toward the director of Eraserhead. “I know a good tight-end when I see one,” she says, slapping his thigh in the most awkward late-night moment I can think since Crispin Glover narrowly missed kicking David Letterman in the face.
Like the mouse trap bit, Lynch is delighted to be included. Far from his workaholic recluse image, Lynch is in the spotlight and enjoying every minute of it. Why NBC didn’t hire Lynch on the spot to host his own late-night talk show, I don’t know. Instead, Lynch has the free time to make Mulholland Drive, the subject of his final Leno appearance.
Next time, we conclude our extended analysis of David Lynch’s guest spots on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The road was long and fraught with danger, but we made it to our destination safe and, most importantly, together. To my early subscribers, thank you for not abandoning me as this lawnmower of a newsletter crawled along. To everyone that joined because of the David Lynch content, fret not. We have to drive down this road every once in a while, and I’ll make a meal of any deer I hit along the way.