Thirty-four years ago, tomorrow, four Canadians and a wiry guy from Arkansas played their final concert as The Band at Winterland. Martin Scorcese made a magnificent concert film of the proceeding—perhaps the best rock’n’roll film ever. The Band played their own funny, heartbreaking songs (“It Makes No Difference”; “The Shape I’m In” (pouring out of Richard Manuel); “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (maybe Levon Helm’s finest moment); and a transcendent “The Weight” along with The Staple Singers, who inspired The Band’s multipart vocals), then blithely served as some of the world’s greatest sidemen to a parade of defining voices of the era: Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, and others, including a guy named Dylan, who gave The Band a break when they were billed as The Hawks, having split as Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band.
Not too long ago, a four-CD set from the concert was released, and it’s filled with wonderful pieces never included in the film or the original, three-LP concert album. Listening to it now, with distance and time, the choice of material is striking: nearly every song can be viewed as a reflection on time’s passing. The Sixties were done, consciousness expansion gone in a blur of Quaaludes, coke, and smack. The world had certainly changed, but the revolution failed, done in by Nixon, Vietnam, oil shocks, recession, and its own, inherent contradictions.
Even the music, once so high and wild, had degenerated into shadows of itself; the same year The Last Waltz celebrated what had been, The Ramones were busy burying it three chords at a time.
What you do hear in The Last Waltz is the blues. Blues and R&B underlies most of the cuts and The Band’s sound. Muddy Waters’ time onstage is all too brief. The Sixties may have been a bright flare that had burned itself out, but the blues are forever, relevant, and timeless. And the blues still have the power to cut through rock industry bullshit and coked up egos.
Still, just a look at the song titles, played in addition to The Band’s songs (which gloriously reflected the past as in a funhouse mirror), carry the sense of an era’s closing: “Such a Night”; “Down South in New Orleans” (one of the simplest, best songs ever written: ‘my ship’s at anchor/my suitcase packed/got a one-way ticket/ain’t comin’ back’); “All Our Past Times”; “Further on Up the Road”; “Helpless”; “Furry Sings the Blues”; “Tura Lura Lura”; and “Forever Young.”
And the closer. Everybody came out to sing it. Ringo sat in on drums, Ronnie Wood on lead guitar—respectively representing the Beatles and the Stones. You don’t get much more iconic than that, unless you could drag out Lennon and Jagger (not bloody likely). It was a song from The Basement Tapes, when Dylan had dropped off the circuit and holed up in Woodstock, New York. Informally, he would get together with his neighbors, The Band, and they would have a few drinks, roll the tape, and see what happened. It’s amusing to wonder what Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson thought one apocryphal evening when Bob Dylan unfolded a piece of paper and said something like: “Uh…I got this thing called ‘I Shall Be Released.’ Wanna’ try it?”
It was, as they say, a long time ago. A lot of those folks—Muddy, Butterfield, Bill Graham, Bobby Charles, Danko, and…oh man…Richard Manuel—are no longer with us. Everything had gone to hell and was fucked up. Everybody was fucked up. Everything’s still fucked up. But, if you angle your head just right and look down into yourself, you can still see your reflection somewhere so high above that wall.