Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Last Waltz

One summer, when I was home from college, I went to the Alpha 3 Theater, where I used to work, to see a concert movie called The Last Waltz. Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz documented the farewell performance by The Band at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. At the time, I knew very little about The Band. But by the time the credits rolled, I was a big fan. I went back and saw the movie several times, soaking in every detail, memorizing every moment, savoring every note.

Although I didn't know much about The Band, I certainly recognized the guest performers who appeared with them in the film: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond and others. But even among such stellar company, The Band stood out. They were five very different personalities who came together onstage to create some of the most interesting and influential music during one of the most interesting and influential eras in rock music. They stole the show. Unfortunately, it was their last one.

For some reason, throughout their career, The Band often seemed to be behind the scenes, admired by other musicians and connoisseurs, but never really breaking into the mainstream. Their biggest "hit" was a cover version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down sung by Joan Baez -- who didn't even know the right words.

Of course, one reason The Band seemed to be behind the scenes is because they often were. They started out as the Hawks, the backup band for Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. After leaving Hawkins, they were recruited by the newly electrified Bob Dylan as his touring band -- only to be reviled by Bob's hardcore folkie followers. After the tour, Dylan and the Hawks settled down near Woodstock, NY where they recorded over a hundred songs together in the basement of a pink house shared by three of the Hawks. Bootlegs from these 'Basement Tapes' sessions became legendary among aficionados, but the material was never officialy released until years later.

When the time came for them to record their own material, they chose the name The Band, because that's pretty much what everyone called them. Their first album, Music From Big Pink, named after the house they shared, became a favorite among critics and influenced musicians like George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Robert Plant to adopt a more back-to-basics approach to their music. Dennis Hopper included one of the songs, The Weight, on the soundtrack to the movie Easy Rider, but a cover version was used on the soundtrack album due to contractual issues. The Band toured in support of Big Pink, appearing at Woodstock -- the festival named after the town they'd helped make famous -- but their performance was omitted from the tremendously popular film and soundtrack, once again due to legal complications.

They were fast becoming the most succesfully unknown band in history.

Fortunately, their second album, The Band, achieved a level of commercial success that matched their critical acclaim. After ten years, The Band was finally a headline act. But success and touring quickly began to take their toll. The title of their next album, Stage Fright, kind of says it all -- performing music in the circus-like atmosphere of the rock music scene wasn't conducive to keeping your sanity:

Your brow is sweatin' and your mouth gets dry,
Fancy people go driftin' by.
The moment of truth is right at hand,
Just one more nightmare you can stand.

Following their next album, The Band took a step back from the limelight before teaming up with Dylan again for a studio album and a tour. Eventually they relocated from the east coast to Malibu, where they built themselves a clubhouse/recording studio dubbed Shangri La. They recorded one of their finest albums there and followed it up with a summer tour, but the end was already in sight. By the conclusion of the tour they had announced that their final performance would take place on Thanksgiving at Winterland.

Of course all of this was history by the time The Last Waltz hit the screen at Alpha 3. By that time, the members of The Band had pretty much gone their separate ways. Guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson continued his association with Martin Scorcese, creating music for Raging Bull, King of Comedy and The Color of Money. Drummer and singer Levon Helm embarked on an acting career, beginning with roles in Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff.

The Band reformed in 1983, without Robertson. They toured for a few years, playing smaller venues than in their heyday. In The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson says, "the road has taken a lot of the great ones... It's a goddamn impossible way of life." His words rang eerily true when pianist and vocalist Richard Manuel was found dead in his hotel room following a show in Florida. Bass player and vocalist Rick Danko, who had continued playing and touring both with the reformed Band and various other combos, died of drug-related heart failure in 1999 just days after the end of a tour.

Levon Helm, whose Arkansas-flavored voice imbued many of The Band's best songs with country soul, died last week after a long struggle with throat cancer. One of the reasons The Band never fully reunited was because of a long-standing feud between Helm and Robertson over songwriting credits. When The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Levon did not show. Up to the very end, though, Levon kept on playing music, both on tour and in Woodstock, where he held his celebrated Midnight Rambles, featuring a wide array of guest performers, including Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, Kris Kristofferson, Norah Jones, and Phil Lesh. The proceeds of the Rambles helped to defray Levon's mounting medical expenses.

A few days before Levon died, Robbie Robertson visited him in the hospital one last time. Thirty six years have gone by since they shared the stage at Winterland. That's a lot of history. Band members don't always get along so well. There's almost always a clash of egos. What made The Band so special was their ability to put the egos aside when it came to making music. Their differences became fuel for creative combustion. But there comes a time when the differences overwhelm the creativity. Sometimes the best thing to do is just walk away.

But at least we still have the music. Those moments will live on forever. And in The Last Waltz, there are many of those amazing moments, where five very different personalities combine to form one very distinct sound. The sound of a band totally in the groove, tight as a snare drum but loose as a barrelhouse whore. Heavy with the weight of history, but light as pickpocket's touch. Chugging down the line like a mystery train heading across the Great Divide. That was The Band.

And it always will be.