It’s funny how time flies even when your not having as much fun as you’d like. My wife brought me home a present last night, a copy of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. I flipped over the DVD cover to check out the rest of the package and saw the date: 1978, 27 years ago.
I guess somewhere in my mind I knew that it had to be that long ago, but it was still shocking to do the math. I still think of “The Band” as one of my favourite groups and to realize that they had stopped officially playing that long ago sort of took me by surprise.
You see that was the premise of The Last Waltz. The guys were burning out from being on the road for close to twenty years and this was going to be their final hurrah. They had started playing back in the late fifties with Ronnie Hawkins at the old Nickelodeon bar on Yonge St. in Toronto. Four Canadian kids, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel plus one Arkansas ex patriot Levon Helm.
They had been promised not much money but “more pussy than Frank Sinatra” by Romping Ronnie as enticement for playing in the juke joints of Ontario and New York. Initially they were called the Hawks as have been all bands ever since that play with Ronnie, but that was changed to “The Band” when they began playing with Bob Dylan in 1965.
They called themselves that because that’s what they were, the band that played behind the front man. They went from being Ronnie’s band to Dylan’s band. Robbie was the lead guitar player, Rick bassist, Garth was on organ, Richard Manuel piano, and Levon Helm drums.
They were the band on Bob Dylan’s infamous 1965 tour where he was booed off stages across England and North America for plugging in a electric guitar. (a person I know who was at that Newport Folk Festival in 65, says the problem wasn’t that the people didn’t like the music, but the sound system was so bad that those not sitting in the first two rows only heard a garbled mess of noise) Here they were on their first big break playing for more than drunks in bars and they were getting booed at every show.
It’s funny how we now think of albums like Highway 61 Revisited as classic, but it was the material from that album that was the cause of all the fuss. People wouldn’t even listen they were so irate. It seems the only good that came out of that British tour, if rumours are to be believed, was Dylan smoking up with The Beetles.
It was on their return to the States that The Band first began recording their own material. Part of the reason being that after Dylan nearly killed himself in a motorcycle accident he went into seclusion and they were at loose ends. It has been suggested that perhaps the accident was not nearly as severe as has been thought but he played it up to get away from the madness that had been spawned by him going electric.
No matter what the reason they were without a front man for the first time since they began playing together. As accomplished musicians they must have always felt some desire to “do their own thing” but the opportunity had never been there until now.
So they rented this funny pink house up in Woodstock New York and the rest, as they say, is history. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “The Weight”, “Crippled Creek” and other classic rock tunes were written in that house. Dylan joined them and the resulting tapes were bootlegged for a while, than they edited them up and released them as the great Bob Dylan and The Band double album The Basement Tapes.
Interestingly enough that was one of only two albums ever officially released as Bob Dylan and The Band, the other being a double live album featuring one disc of The Band and one of them backing up Dylan. They wouldn’t appear in public together again until The Last Waltz.
That’s what the concert and the movie were about after all. A chance for them to get together with people they played with and some of the friends they had made over the years. Sing a few songs, and be “The Band” for some famous front people one last time before packing it in and going their separate ways.
From their very beginnings there was Ronnie Hawkins clutching his heart and bouncing around the stage. Joni Mitchell elegant and cool, singing on her own, and than sitting backstage harmonizing with Neil Young on “Helpless”. The sound of his eerie falsetto and her soprano mingling as they sing about Northern Ontario still sends shivers up my spine.
There are moments of absurdity: Neil Diamond looking like some lounge lizard who got lost on his way to Las Vegas, and moments of awe: Muddy Watters singing “Mannish Boy”, Eric Clapton’s famously starting a guitar solo and his strap breaks and Robbie Robertson picks up the solo without missing a note. But no matter who’s playing in front of them “The Band” relentlessly proves they were the best at what they did.
On occasion Scorsese takes the cameras away from the live concert and onto a sound stage. Emmylou Harris joins the boys to sing “Evangeline”, her sweet voice providing a delicate counterpoint to Rick Danko’s gravel. “The Weight” becomes the gospel tune it was always meant to be when The Staple Singers bring their soulful presence to bear and let their voices soar.
Back on stage things are starting to draw to a close with Bob Dylan making his long awaited appearance. Looking relaxed and at ease he runs through “Forever Young’ smiling and nodding at people in the audience who he knows. Then suddenly it’s over. Everyone comes on stage, with Ringo and Ron Wood putting in appearances to help out, they join together to sing Dylan’s anthem “I Shall Be Released.”
“The Band” was definitely a group that was the sum of all it’s parts. Of all of them only Robbie Robertson has enjoyed the kind of success as an individual performer that he did as a member of the group. Richard Manuel ended up committing suicide because of depression, assumed to have been brought on by the dissolution of his career. Every so often some of the survivors attempt to reform for a gig or two, but usually it’s without Robbie Robertson.
This has to be one of the best concert movies I have ever seen. One thing that was of interest for me was that the last time I saw the movie Woodstock I happened to notice the name of the 1st assistant director; Martin Scorcese. He seems to have a history of being involved with notable concert films.
In September of this year on P.B.S. his three hour plus documentary on Bob Dylan will be airing. Interestingly enough it focuses on the years 1961- 1965. So we will get to see footage of “The Band” at hard at work doing what they became famous for. Making others look good