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The Last Waltz: Thanksgiving Day, 1976
Revised, with Notes on the Passing of Robbie Robertson, 1943-2023
The passing of Robbie Robertson at age 80 yesterday was sad, of course. The first two friends I text messaged with were unsentimental. One, an avid reader of rock biographies (I am not), declared himself “more on the Levon Helm side of that fracas.” I thought this an impolite first reaction to anyone’s death, but I value this friend’s candor and directness. The other, with whom I had a quiet Zoom conversation an hour later, had first-hand knowledge of the desperation of one of The Band’s members post-Last Waltz heroin hunger. He acknowledged the gray area of any group’s potential for conflict over songwriting credit and money, the monkey on the back of The Band, and the reason for the taking of sides between Levon and the others, and Robertson.
Robbie took most of the songwriting credit and music publishing ownership (that’s where the money is), while Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson appeared to have felt that the songs were written collaboratively, Robbie’s lyrics and musical ideas fleshed out in the studio an essential aspect of the group identity. This friend cited U2 and R.E.M. as examples of groups that solved this problem early by agreeing to songwriting credit for all members because that is the way they worked. This may be one reason neither Bono nor Michael Stipe feel the need for solo records: They know they need the input of their longtime partners to do their best work. The Band, without Robertson, or Manuel, who had died of suicide in 1986. released the album Jericho in 1993 that had what I believe is the definitive version of Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City and a superb reading of the best Bob Dylan song that never fit on one of his conventional albums, “Blind Willie McTell.” But there were no new songs by the surviving band members, save for a Levon co-write. Robertson released some solo albums, notably Robbie Robertson (1987) and Storyville (1991) that both received some modest critical praise but little commercial success.
The Band’s deserved claim to history is in the releases in the four monumentally influential studio albums it released on an annual basis, beginning with the counter-culture reframing Music from Big Pink in 1968, and the timeless sound of The Band in 1969. These albums went against the current of long, loud, solos and rock star moves, with Robertson’s quietly electrifying guitar playing the antidote to what was becoming an era of musical excess. Followed by the underrated Stage Fright (1970), and the less commanding but still excellent Cahoots in 1970, these recordings were ground zero for what became known as “Americana” or “roots rock” or any other source material for the country-imbued rock to come. That Helm, from Arkansas, was the only American in the group (the other members were Canadian, and Robertson the off-spring of a rogue Jewish dad and raised by his First Nation, or indigenous, mother) gave them a great deal of fresh perspective on the U.S. music they loved and improved upon. Working for many years with Bob Dylan, recording what was known as The Basement Tapes, and acting as his touring band for years, did not hurt.
Having been on the road since Robertson and others began backing Canadian rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins since the late 1950s, they threw a famous retirement bash in 1976 on Thanksgiving Day in San Francisco. I was there, curiously unmoved by the music and the self-congratulatory and drug-addled performances by many of the all-star musicians.
The Last Waltz, the legendary retirement party for the group known as The Band, was held at Winterland in San Francisco on November 25, 1976: Exactly 45 years ago. Since it was Thanksgiving weekend, it was easy to get a hotel room at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown a day earlier. I also had friends and relatives in the Bay Area, so I enjoyed a special Thanksgiving dinner with my Uncle Jack Edelson, who passed away many years ago, much too young, after the sudden onset of pancreatic cancer. Jack was one of San Francisco's first boho capitalists, with a house in posh Pacific Heights.
On my first trip to San Francisco in 1969, on the lam across America after a stop in Madison, WI., to protest the war and throw some rocks, I hitched a ride to Denver, wondered if I should visit Kerouac's holy Larimer Street. Instead, I flew to SFO, took the bus to the San Francisco city terminal. I stepped outside and was groped for spare change by the aggressive sad sacks outside the station in the heart of what was then skid row, the Tenderloin district. I was frightened out of my wits: Where were all the hippies?
I hadn't told anyone I was coming, but I had Jack's phone number. He gave me his address and told me to take a cab. Half an hour later, unable to figure out how one hailed a cab in San Francisco, I called him again. This time he came and picked me up himself, took me to his home, stuck a joint in my mouth, served me a lavish dinner, put me up for a few days.
In 1976, I had Thanksgiving dinner again with Jack and his wife Joyce and their young family. I had flown in the day before and stayed at the Chinatown Holiday Inn. A record company had paid for my ticket: I'm uncertain which one it was, because all the major labels had decided to pay for the airline tickets for the rock press corps to cover The Last Waltz. I could not cover it for Newsday, because the paper did not allow junkets or gifts of this kind. I was a full-time freelancer for the paper, but I was not yet on staff. I would go on the payroll five weeks later. My editor said if you want to write about it for some rock magazine, he couldn't, and would not, stop me. I called around and got an assignment from the Jean-Charles Costa, who was then editor of Gig magazine. (J-C, one of the nicest people in the business in those days, died near the start of the pandemic in 2020.)
At The Last Waltz concert, I was accompanied by two friends: the late Ed Ward, and Tom Vickers, my college roommate from Bard and classmate in Boulder.
Tom, Ed and I were a perfect unholy trinity at "The Last Waltz" concert. We had already developed a healthy skepticism about the "prestige" of rock stars. We all liked The Band, loved Van Morrison and Muddy Waters, and dug most of the artists individually, from Bob Dylan to Paul Butterfield to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. But the concert ceremony reeked of rock star sanctimony, and we were cynical enough to call it like we saw it. As one seemingly perfunctory star-turn followed another, we began to look at each other, like, "What is this, 'The Gong Show'?"
The idea empowered us: With each tepid performance, one or the other or all three of us would smash the invisible gong, giving psychological closure to each sappy performance. Dylan, in his "Renaldo & Clara"-type white fedora with red feather, was at a particular creative low point. It was with great relish that 30 seconds into "Forever Young," the three of us looked at each other and simultaneously gonged Bob Dylan.
A few months before he died, I asked Ed if he remembered our Gong Show routine. He did not; remembered dodging puddles, plastic buckets on the floor catching water dripping from the leaky ceiling, and constantly staying on the move to avoid getting wet.
We were over the top cynical, but we weren't wrong. It was the end of 1976: punk rock was banging on the door, funk was kicking it on the dance floor. The nostalgia of The Last Waltz was curdling. What bothered us wasn't the music, it was the sense of entitlement with which it was performed. There was no checking egos at the door here: Egos were the door. The most humble guy on the roster was probably Neil Diamond, who got some boos and a smattering of whos and whys, and was a good sport because he knew it wasn't his crowd. (Dylan does a sturdy version of Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" in the latest bootleg series, Summertime in New York.) I think he was there because Robertson and Dylan and Diamond were all neighbors in Malibu.
And in retrsopect, weren't we conned? Wasn't it all, as The Band would say, a shuck? The idea of The Band was unity, an equal partnership, a brotherhood, an antidote at the end of the sixties to the electric noise, the acid, gigantic gestures of rock stardom. And what had we here: A gigantic gesture of rock stardom.
And we know since, of course, that there was little love and unity, as any number of books by or about members of the Band will tell you.
When I wrote about this on my blog in 2002, the DVD of The Last Waltz movie, directed by the Martin Scorsese, had just come out. I was hoping it would make me realize what a shallow cynic I was, that it was wrong to mock this magisterial moment in rock history. Unfortunately, the DVD of Scorsese film, though it sounded great, only affirms that Tom, Ed and I were right the first time. Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun-Times, captured the tone perfectly:
Drugs are possibly involved. Memoirs recalling the filming report that cocaine was everywhere backstage. The overall tenor of the documentary suggests survivors at the ends of their ropes. They dress in dark, cheerless clothes, hide behind beards, hats and shades, pound out rote performances of old hits, don't seem to smile much at their music or each other. There is the whole pointless road warrior mystique, of hard-living men whose daily duty it is to play music and get wasted. They look tired of it. . . These are not musicians at the top of their art, but laborers on the last day of the job. Look in their eyes. Read their body language.
We could read the whites of their eyes, and sometimes, the white powder on the tips of their noses. There are some moments of real musical excellence: Van Morrison's joyous "Caravan," Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris teaming up on "Evangeline." Muddy Waters brought his best stuff.
But "I Shall Be Released," by the ensemble at the end, sounded as hackneyed as "We Are the World." And Scorsese, devotee and fan that he was, keeps interrupting the music flow with his gushing questions, exceeded in their banality only by The Band's smug, world-weary responses. Remember, this was the model for This is Spinal Tap, and Rob Reiner's parody remains the better movie.
After the show, I stayed at Ed Ward's house in Sausalito. Whenever we woke, Ed cooked up a big skillet of huevos rancheros and I made Bloody Marys.
The Record Plant was there, so Sausalito was like a rock star company town. Ward reveled in being annoyed at how annoying the rock stars were.
The next night the rock stars had abandoned their headquarters, the Japantown Miyako Hotel. I booked a room for a few nights. There was room service sake to sip in the deep Japanese baths. I think they told me that I was sleeping in Joni Mitchell's room. And the sushi was as good as it got in 1976.
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