The Last Waltz:
Tall Tales and Unknown Beasts
We’re stuck in an unending period of rain on the coast of North Carolina. Days where you have to turn on the lights at 1 p.m., where the house is strangely void of the hum of air conditioners. One day melds into the next, and I find myself returning to familiar comforts—music, films, foods—that make me feel that spark of newness that well-loved things provide. It’s odd that one of those things would be The Last Waltz, considering in my first viewing was no less than traumatic.
It’s a beautiful movie, even independent of the exceptional caliber of the performances and musicians involved. Scorsese methodically planned the thing out, storyboarded it down shot by shot, solo by solo—excepting moments like Muddy Waters’s fantastic performance of “Mannish Boy,” which, due to communication errors, was nearly not filmed at all.
But more exciting to me is the actual concert, the show. The lush red curtains of the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving night. Robbie Robertson’s gold Strat and soulful solos, including the extended one he’s forced to take when Eric Clapton’s strap malfunctions and nearly sends his own Stratocaster to the floor. The feeling of excitement in the crowd.
Yet all I remember from my first viewing is one performance. One that caused in me a minor schism, a more than slight break between my perception of reality and reality itself. This minor childhood existential crisis was caused by Van Morrison and his performance of “Caravan.”
My mom listened to Van constantly when I was young. Her favorite album—and now, my favorite—was Moondance. Nothing evokes my childhood more vividly than the opening chords of “And It Stoned Me.” Immediately, I’m in the apartment we lived in while my mom was in graduate school, I am four, dancing among the cheap hand-me-down furniture to the tape deck on the metal shelf. Van and I got along. I pictured him tall and bearded.
When I was young I had a thing for men with beards; I liked them, trusted them implicitly. From the worn cassette tape cover I knew Van had a red beard, and I also knew he was from Ireland. As a redhead of Irish descent, I believed it was reasonable to assume we might be related.
I first saw The Last Waltz when I was eight or nine and living in Maine. It was the year we got cable, and I barely saw the sun all summer. VH1 was playing the film in the late afternoon. I remember my mom calling me for dinner, me staring dumbfounded at the body that was attached to that bearded cheek and powerful voice. A troll of a man. Tiny, frumpy, visibly intoxicated. Rolling around the stage like a little drunken berry. I recall feeling vaguely infuriated, misled.
Today, I couldn’t feel more warmly toward the whole performance. Van trotting out, unleashing that fierce animal voice, singing the “na-na-na” parts with Robbie and Rick at the microphone, teetering sloppily between verses. Sliding the mic back onto the stand and walking off stage before the band even finishes the song.
The concert is all about Van Morrison’s tie-front wine-red pants, with slightly mismatched purple bedazzled jacket. And the skintight dishwater grey tank top tucked into all that. In the ranking of fashion from the evening—even if Clapton’s crushed velvet jacket and Robbie Robertson’s snazzy red scarf are counted—it is superlative. But moreover, the show is about Van’s voice on “Caravan,” which is so absolutely perfect, wild and unchained.
One of The Band’s most iconic songs, “The Weight,” wasn’t included in the film or on the 1978 soundtrack, even though The Band played it that night. We have to assume they played it well enough, so the reason it was dropped from the film was due to issues with the footage. The movie, in this way, is not an accurate record of the event; it’s the artistic narrative we’ve been given.
We’re left with a soundstage version of “The Weight” with The Staples Singers. We’re left with Robbie’s fantastic doubleneck Gibson. Levon’s tight polo shirt and slight shuffle each time his right foot hits the bass drum pedal. That moment right before the fade where Mavis Staples whispers, Beautiful. Because it is, and it continues to be.
Robertson said that with “The Weight” he was “experimenting with North American mythology.” It’s a song that is, on first blush, a country or folk song. Yet it would go on to be covered most famously by artists like Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, and The Temptations. A song that no one completely understands—a quick Google query will give you myriad conspiracy theories, most involving drugs, but some wild ones involving illegitimate children and, oddly, excrement.
I feel a distinct kinship to the song. When my boyfriend, Matt, and I were moving down the coast from Maine to North Carolina, we added forty-five minutes to our eighteen-hour trip, abandoning I-95 for a detour into Pennsylvania. Our destination was Nazareth. We stayed in a small mill town called Bethlehem, which, unlike its Biblical namesake, had lodging available. We were there following the same star that led Robbie to write that opening line of “The Weight.” “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half past dead.”
Martin is one of the most successful family businesses in America. It has remained continuously family-owned since Andrew Jackson was in the Oval Office—through six or so generations, numerous depressions, and huge advances in technology. The factory in Nazareth has almost continually produced instruments integral to every musical tradition from bluegrass and country, to rhythm and blues and rock & roll. Most Martins have that town name written somewhere inside them. The story goes that Robbie looked into the soundhole of his Martin and wrote that opening line.
I have the Martin logo—in particular, the one that graced the headstock of a 1942 pre-war D-28—tattooed on my upper arm. I got the tattoo when I was eighteen, committed to music and enthralled with the guitar I purchased from the Martin Custom Shop that arrived on my doorstep out of nowhere, after six months of waiting, like a gift from God.
I forget it’s there, and mostly people are oblivious to its meaning. Yet, once in a great while, someone not only knows it isn’t the name of an ex-lover, but also feels the need to stop me to tell me how much they appreciate it. It somehow has led to a number of great friendships. Once, while walking through a music store in Maine, one of the employees stopped me to talk about it.
“It’s so important—not just for music history, you understand,” he all but gushed, “but, for—you know—American history.”
On that morning in Pennsylvania, we awoke early and faced our second day of travel: nine hours worth of southeast yet to unfold in front of us. Still, we were there when they opened the factory doors. We were two pilgrims among the tens of thousands who made their way to that industrial city that year. Each of us trying to claim our small part of this great American folk narrative.
There are moments of The Last Waltz that are downright uncomfortable. Levon Helm reportedly hated the movie, hated the attention it gave to Robbie, believing it incorrectly labeled him as the leader of the group. So often when you try to look behind the songs, you find only consternation and fighting. Arguments over who wrote what, who deserved credit for which arrangement or song. Looking beyond the pettiness: A Canadian—of Jewish-Mohawk descent—could only create such fantastically rootsy, purely American music when in union with a rural boy from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.
Yet the film is undeniably structured in a way that places a great emphasis on Robbie and his decision to be done with the iconic band. It’s a plaintive and uncomfortable scene when Rick Danko plays Scorsese a track from his forthcoming solo album. The song, “Sip The Wine,” sounds like it could be a missing track from Northern Lights—Southern Cross. It’s clear that The Band’s sound springs not only from Robbie’s guitar or Levon’s voice. It’s also clear Danko isn’t ready to leave the road quite yet.
Frankly, there are a lot of ugly things about The Last Waltz: backstage negotiations, petty arguments over film rights, the massive amounts of drugs taken by all participants including Scorsese, Neil Young’s infamous coke booger that had to be edited out in post-production. Not to mention the decisions of which performances would be kept in—which ones were relevant to the narrative being constructed—and which ones would be left out.
And Neil Diamond, who apparently wasn’t informed that Bob Dylan would be bringing the Bob Dylan for the evening, and that no matter how hard he emoted during his performance of “Dry Your Eyes” it would come off hackneyed and awful. Levon wrote in his autobiography that Neil Diamond, as he walked off the stage, turned to Bob and said, “Follow that.” To which Bob replied, “What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?” He either said that or he didn’t. This is a Bob Dylan quote, so we’ve entered the realm of mythmaking.
Robbie keeps himself buoyant, he seems fired up, while the rest of The Band goes through the motions. It feels shallow and trite—a rousing, political anthem that hints at religious universality and comes up completely empty. He’s trying to force a moment to happen. The sheer transparency of the effort tanks from the start.
But these moments only make the concert stronger. The fact that this communion of such a large number of stellar musicians and large personalities playing happily together happened at all is almost unfathomable. Of course there was some ugliness. There’s a brilliant moment when Levon describes the tent shows of his youth, in particular the after-hours “Midnight Ramble”:
The songs would get a little bit juicier and the jokes'd get a little funnier. And the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times. A lot of the rock & roll duck walks and steps and moves came from a lot of that. Everybody did it, and so, when you would see Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley really shaking it up, it didn't come out of nowhere, it didn't come out of the air. It was like the local entertainment everybody was going to see. So when they exposed it to the rest of the world, it was like this unknown beast that had come out, the grotesque of music that the devil had sent, you know?
I think back to my first viewing, my expectation of how the mere men attached to these voices and guitars should look and carry themselves in the world. Then the shock of these bizarre forms, these unknown beasts, that emerged on stage in front of my eyes. I’ve come to accept these beasts as part and parcel of the beauty of that night. Robbie spends half the show with his head pointed up, playing his guitar solos with his eyes closed, as if deep in a trance. It’s an ecstatic experience to watch it and feel its goodness.
At root, that’s what good folk music does. Why everyone who hears “The Weight” for the first time—whether in 1969, watching Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper cruise through the desert, or any year since—can’t shake the feeling that it is a sound that already exists inside of them. It appeals to its listeners on the level of the human—with all our monstrous imperfections.
The Band’s music has always made sense to me, whether I was listening to it in Canada, Maine, or North Carolina. After almost ten days of solid rain, there’s nothing as comforting as Rick’s voice singing “It Makes No Difference,” some of the saddest and most redemptive words Robbie ever put to paper: “And the clouds / never hung so low / before.”
It’s a sound rooted deeply in rural America, the revivals and tent shows that set up shop in the humid Southern nights, aiming to win converts or just make people dance. No matter if that spirit was grace-filled or grotesque, it liberated that urge in all of us that cries to be in communion with one another and something greater. On Thanksgiving night 1976, the Winterland Ballroom became a host to that spirit for a one-night-only ramble. Then the trucks came and carted it all away in the morning. With the competing myths, agendas, and oversized egos that clashed and came together during the creation of the film, it’s incredible the moment was ever preserved. I, for one, feel fortunate that it was caught on tape.