When I first saw The Last Waltz in 1978, I almost walked out, although I was a fan of both director Martin Scorsese and The Band. I admit I was one of the folks whose tickets for the original 1976 show at San Francisco’s Winterland were refunded by impresario Bill Graham in light of the scheduled movie shoot, when he decided to have a Thanksgiving sit-down dinner precede the concert, which translated into a then-hefty $25 price tag.
Twenty-four years and a new DVD version have changed, or at least made subtler, some of my reactions. But I still think two of Scorsese’s typical dynamics are in play: seeking out America’s underbellies, and monumentalizing or sacramentalizing them. And so The Last Waltz teeters between grit and awe–perhaps unintentionally but tellingly, like rock itself at the time and rock history ever since.
When it premiered, Pauline Kael famously dubbed The Last Waltz “the most beautiful rock movie ever.” As a formalist she had a point. With seven cameramen, including Vilmos Zsigmond (later famous as a cinematographer) and Miklos Rozsa (who came to be known as a composer), Scorsese professionalized the deliberately nonprofessional documentary sensibility of D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles. Now that seems a fitting sign of the times: Mainstream rock had been professionalized, from the boring arena-ready music itself to the new national distribution systems, while pop sputtered with the industry’s search for commercially viable trends, like disco. Almost in answer, new forms of folk art appeared. Breakdancers hit urban streets and Bruce Springsteen prowled stages toward apotheosis with shows that exploded somewhere between Elvis, an r&b revue and West Side Story. It was another return to the do-it-yourself folk aesthetic underlying evolutionary developments in American popular culture.
So now The Last Waltz gives me a kind of double vision: It’s an elegy to The Band that is also, perhaps unwittingly, an elegy to an era. The sense of reverence toward the motley parade of music stars trooping across its lenses is intercut with open-eyed realism during the best of the connecting interview segments–though those too are frequently tinged with Scorsese’s romanticism.
When Music From Big Pink (Capitol) came out in 1968, its album cover was a painting by Bob Dylan. Dylan had hired the quintet, then The Hawks, renamed The Band, for his revolutionary 1965-66 tour, which they spent making garage grunge of his songs while being booed by folk purists who wanted acoustic Dylan rather than the post-“Like a Rolling Stone” model. (Bob Dylan Live 1966 [Sony] is the official version of long-available bootlegs.)
After his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan had pretty much disappeared from view, and there were regular rumors of his death or disfigurement. But the smartest word was he’d been hanging out at Big Pink, a nondescript house at the foot of Woodstock’s Overlook Mountain, jamming and writing songs with The Band. (These would soon surface as bootlegs; selections have been remixed and officially reissued on The Basement Tapes [Sony] intercut with material by The Band alone.) Dylan encouraged them to find their artistic vision. No surprise, then, that Music From Big Pink opened with one Dylan track, “Tears of Rage,” and closed with another, “I Shall Be Released.”
Dylan’s near-invisibility only augmented his cultural aura, a marketing lesson his widely disliked, thuggish, Svengali-esque manager, Albert Grossman, absorbed and soon applied to his latest clients, The Band. Inside their double-sleeved first album were pictures of the members: Five guys dressed like extras in an early Hollywood western, visual kin to the road-warrior hoboes and evicted tenant farmers who peopled The Grapes of Wrath and Guthrie tunes. Their mothers and fathers and kids. Their house, Big Pink, every band’s dream–a clubhouse to jam and practice and record in, surrounded by a hundred acres of mountain meadows and woods. The Band, though, like millions of post-Beatles and post-Dylan American kids picking and singing in their cellars and backyards, still had to keep the volume down for fear of riling the neighbors.
Nestled in Big Pink, playing cards and getting stoned and writing and working out new stuff, as well as tweaking old bar-band tunes and hymns and pieces of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Dylan and The Band forged a remarkable creative symbiosis. Thanks to their Dylan-paid salaries and a rent that, depending on whom you believe, was somewhere between $125 and $275 a month, The Band played musical chairs with instruments as they groped for fresh ideas. As Robbie Robertson, The Band’s chief songwriter and guitarist, has shrewdly observed, “Sometimes the limitation of the instrument can provide originality.”
Improvising was key to their artistic process, as their shortcomings or imaginations prodded them from instrument to instrument, lineup to lineup, to find what worked with the tune at hand. The result was contemporary folk music, new-minted yet old-sounding, with strains of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, rockabilly and soul. It wobbled foggily somewhere between jug bands and Stax-Volt, surreal wet dreams and revival meetings.
Robertson’s guitar stayed mostly low profile, rearing for occasional stabbing outbursts; he rarely sang. The three vocalists were startlingly different, but found offbeat ways to blend. As Robertson has observed, “A lot of the time with The Band they were somewhere between real harmonies and, because of our lack of education in music, they would be things that just sounded interesting–or they would be the only thing the person could hit.”
Levon Helm’s singing was gritty and soulful and at times sardonic; he doubled on drums and mandolin. Rick Danko had a clear, yearning tenor, played bass that burbled like a McCartney-esque tuba, sawed a backwoods fiddle and strummed guitar. Richard Manuel doubled on engagingly ramshackle drums and pounded what has been described as “rhythm piano”; as for his voice, Robertson has said, “There’s a certain element of pain in there that you didn’t know whether it was because he was trying to reach for a note or because he was a guy with a heart that’d been hurt.” Garth Hudson was classically trained, said he learned to improvise from playing at his uncle’s funeral parlor and invented one after another “blackbox,” the kinds of soundshapers so integral to the era’s musical sensibility. Hudson didn’t sing, but the sounds he made became The Band’s sonic glue, as they fitted parts together that breathed, leaving spaces float, stepping into others, with the sort of interlocking discipline found in, say, the jammed-out music of Count Basie, Muddy Waters or Booker T. & the MGs. Not surprisingly, they cut their first two albums mostly live in the studio. (See The Band [Rhino] for an informative, if talking-head-heavy, video history of the making of the group’s first two records.)
“Tears of Rage,” written by Dylan and Manuel, kicked Music at Big Pink off-kilter from the start. Manuel’s eccentric r&b cry and falsetto staggered dangerously, seductively around the confessional lyrics; Robertson’s treated guitar approximated organ tones; Hudson’s winding, churchy organ swelled and subsided; and a drunken Salvation Army-ish horn section (courtesy Hudson and producer John Simon) punctuated the flow over the spare, Booker T. & the MGs-style bass and drums. Simon has observed of the distinctively moaning horn blend, “That’s the only sound we could make.” The rest of the album was a bit uneven but ear-opening, challenging, even wonderful. “To Kingdom Come” bounced airily, blearily beneath Manuel’s vocals; “The Weight” mixed Curtis Mayfield guitar licks into a surreal gospel setting; “Long Black Veil” tipped its classicist hat at Lefty Frizell; and “Chest Fever” was an instant radio hit, with its swelling, skirling, gnashing organ and nightmare-incoherent lyrics.
With Grossman behind them, The Band–or at least Robertson, who was rapidly becoming primus inter pares–learned to use reticence and image to enhance their music. Like Wynton Marsalis a decade later in jazz, they self-consciously looked back to tradition. “We were rebelling against the rebellion,” Robertson has said. “It was an instinct to separate ourselves from the pack.” That instinct drew the attention of the nascent rock press, which became their champions: Outlets like Rolling Stone, co-founded by jazz historian Ralph J. Gleason, fused the old fanzines and more critical and historical perspectives. These new media helped make The Band counterculture heroes.
As did the lyrics, which were increasingly written by Robertson. Enigmatic and vaguely religious and poetic, full of questions and retorts that didn’t necessarily mesh, painting realistic scenes and Dadaist laments, they clearly owed a great deal to Dylan. Robertson had also been reading Cocteau, thinking in terms of movies, wanting to replicate what he’s called Dylan’s disruption of song forms.
The look and sound, the entire presentation of The Band, evoked a notion of authenticity that has underscored writing about them ever since, usually to contrast them with the countercultural rebellion. As Grossman, who knew show business, surely understood, this was both an iconic extension and an ironic inversion of the folk revival’s would-be purity. For the counterculture, and show business, were The Band’s home. They were outriders on Dylan’s panoramic influence, mountainside avatars of the Jeffersonian “back to the land” ideal that recurred in the Woodstock generation’s ideology. As Greil Marcus rather romantically noted of their early music, “It felt like a passport back to America for people who’d become so estranged from their country that they felt like foreigners even when they were in it.”
When The Band (Capitol) followed Music From Big Pink in 1969, it cemented the group’s reputation and enhanced their Dylanesque mystique of invisibility: Refusing to tour, partly because of Band members’ car crashes and flipouts, they watched promoters’ offers climb from $2,000 a show to $50,000.
The Band were in the midst of recording their second album far from the Catskills, in Hollywood at Sammy Davis Jr.’s pool house, which they’d converted into a studio, when they decided to resist no longer. But before they debuted onstage at Winterland in April 1969, Robertson got such a bad case of nerves (he has always claimed he had the flu) he stayed in bed for three days of rehearsal, and had to be hypnotized to go onstage.
Since they’d been musically weaned in roadhouses and spent such care on recording live, it’s always been one of the odder ironies of The Band’s career that they were erratic, often uncomfortable performers. Unconsciously extending the folk revival’s ideology, reviewers tended to explain their unevenness as an emblem of honest authenticity, which, in the ways of do-it-yourself, folk-culture amateurism, it sometimes was, though this was somehow also the culture The Band was posited to be different from. “A lot of mysticism was built up around The Band,” Robertson has said. “These guys up in the mountains….” At any rate, the quality of their concerts was as fully unpredictable as that of their putative opposite numbers, the Grateful Dead.
From Winterland they hit the Fillmore East, where I can testify they did at least one good show; then they finished recording at the Hit Factory in New York City. The Band still stands as their masterpiece. Loosely built around a harvest-is-in, carnival-is-in-town feel, it’s incredibly consistent and divergent at the same time, the strength of their studies and abilities ramifying its depth and breadth. Their brand of self-consciousness of sources and sounds marked one key difference between rock and earlier roll and rock.
From “Across the Great Divide,” with its bouncy rhythms, yearning Manuel vocal, bleary horns and slippery guitar fills, to “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” the surprisingly downbeat rural closer that cuts in snapshots of union struggles, it has a rare scope and power. “Up on Cripple Creek,” with its bump-grind rhythms and allusion to an old folk tune, was all over FM radio, as were the hoedowns-in-your-basement “Rag Mamma Rag” and “Jemima Surrender.” “The Unfaithful Servant” gave Danko’s aching tenor a Dylanesque vehicle, while “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” told a moving tale of one Southern family’s Civil War hardships.
After this album, the madness and musical unevenness accelerated. In early 1970, The Band made the cover of Time–a rarity then. The group’s substance abuse, especially Manuel’s and Danko’s, deepened, particularly when they were off the road, as they were for months at a time. Robertson had become the dominant figure–embarking on self-education, dealing with Grossman, writing first most, then all the songs, disciplining the others into rehearsing and recording. The relatively equal distribution of ability at the heart of The Band’s music was coming unbalanced.
Perhaps they’d just hit the natural limits of their talent. Or maybe they were trapped by the ghosts of folkie authenticity they and Grossman had conjured. Whatever the cause, most of their later albums sound more airless, stale, fussy, strained. It was as if they were confined conceptually to an inelastic, increasingly romanticized and nostalgic space and mode. (To Kingdom Come [Capitol] offers two CDs that cull much good and some indifferent material from all their recordings.)
But they didn’t go straight downhill. The music they made when they rejoined Dylan onstage in 1974 was fierce, as if he once again sparked their creative fires. Their several tours with the Grateful Dead, though the pairing confused many reviewers, was a study in similarity and contrast that sometimes sparked great things. (In 1970, Danko told Jerry Garcia, “We thought you were just California freaks, but you’re just like us.”) And on the albums, individual songs–“The Shape I’m In,” “Stage Fright,” Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”–displayed the old dexterous touches. Overall, though, creatively everyone but Robertson, whose muse was drying up anyway, seemed content to coast–after all, women, booze and money were plentiful. The ambitious songwriter, who’d begun producing other artists’ records and thinking about movies, finally decided to pull the plug in high style. Hence The Last Waltz.
There are beautiful sequences in The Last Waltz, and the best are those of The Band itself. Scorsese’s desire to work tight means fewer establishing shots than some (including me) might want, but the aesthetic does reflect The Band’s subtle, intimate music. At its best, the film can be stunning. “Stage Fright,” for example, shoots Danko from almost 360 degrees, lit only by an overhead spot, creating gorgeous interplays of shadow and light, heightening the song’s lyrics. “Mystery Train,” to which Paul Butterfield adds harp and vocals, has a similar self-conscious beauty, which jars with the raggedy unison singing. The Staples Singers joining on “The Weight,” in a sequence filmed after the show itself, aurally demonstrates The Band’s vocal debts to them. For Emmylou Harris’s turn on “Evangeline,” another postshow scene, Scorsese fills the soundstage with blue-lit smoke, which feels hokey but redeems it a bit visually with arresting camera angles that frame the stark, lovely geometries of Hudson’s accordion, Danko’s fiddle and Helm’s mandolin.
A concert film is ultimately about the music, however. The Last Waltz translates The Band’s broad tastes into a narrative punctuated by interviews and special guests onstage. But the frame is only as strong as its content. Eric Clapton? Ron Wood and Ringo Starr? Dr. John? Neil Diamond? Joni Mitchell? Even Muddy Waters? Broad-based roots, far-reaching sounds, all spokes in the wheel of the 1960s rock resurgence that Scorsese’s narrative contextualizes and justifies via the interviews. But there’s little about the performances of these artists that is special. No particular chemistry emerges to make this a moment–except that it’s The Band’s Last Waltz. I found myself wondering if part of The Band’s artistry consisted of its ability to disappear musically. (The companion four-CD set, The Last Waltz [Rhino], has state-of-the-art sound and a bunch of added music–most of it, unless you’re a completist, better left unheard.)
Certainly The Last Waltz makes clear why The Band ended. Though Scorsese tries to balance his time with the five members, Robertson’s hooded eyes enthrall him. It’s palpable that Robertson is surrounded by good-timey, undisciplined mates who have trouble articulating or finishing their stories, and often steps into the breach. (Helm is incisive talking about music and cultural roots; the others work in a haze of fractured sentences, bits of cynicism and mysticism, and defer to Robertson.)
Robertson had become the group’s de facto manager, its public face, more and more the businessman, the guy who had the vast bulk of the publishing income and royalties from all that collaborative imaginative work that made the songs timeless. He was also the sole producer of The Last Waltz. He wanted out; if the movie is unclear what the others wanted, the fact is that the rest, minus Robertson, re-formed in various configurations over the years.
Aside from The Band’s own sequences, the best moments in The Last Waltz belong, fittingly, to Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the two front men who helped catalyze their chemistry. Hawkins is wonderfully unselfconscious during his rave-up version of “Who Do You Love,” cueing and teasing The Band as if a dozen years hadn’t passed between them. Dylan, at the film’s end, leads The Band through “Forever Young,” making it their gentle envoi. Watching him goose them through his abrupt transition to the snarling reworking of the Rev. Gary Davis’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” one of the electric tunes they’d rattled audiences with in that now-legendary 1965-66 tour, offers us a glimpse into the chemistry of their fruitful relationship, and the perfect closing bookend to The Band’s career.