Reliving the Last Waltz with a book on The Band’s final gig
The Band’s final gig turns 40; and a book brings back memoriesbrunch Updated: Nov 19, 2016 20:33 IST
In the pecking order of the cinema halls in Calcutta’s Chowringhee-New Market area then, Tiger featured pretty low down on the list. It was crummy, the seats came with a free complement of unforgiving bed bugs, there were mosquitoes aplenty, and the crowd was usually rough. But Tiger had its other USP for us teenagers. Its entry policy was elastic, no questions asked. So at 15, face still devoid of any hair, I slipped in to watch a matinee showing of Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Ieri, Oggi, Domani). A-rated and erotic, and starring the stunning Sophia Loren, it had three stories, each about a couple and Loren played the woman in all three. But Tiger is embedded in our memories for another film we watched, half- crazed, dazed and drunk as only 20-year-olds can get. It was The Last Waltz. Tiger had a bar attached to the hall and its serving policy was as lax as the cinema hall’s admission norms. So that helped. The Last Waltz blew our minds. It was, as you probably know, a film on the last concert of The Band, a Canadian-American country/folk-rock, roots and Americana group that had cut its teeth by backing others, notably Bob Dylan on whose The Basement Tapes (1967) I first encountered their sound.
The Band came into its own properly only after that and released many albums, including my favourite, Music from Big Pink. The Last Waltz was special. Robbie Robertson, the bandleader had got Martin Scorsese, the storied film director, to shoot what was going to be The Band’s last concert, a breakup gig, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Rock’s legendary impresario, the late Bill Graham organised the gig on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 (almost 40 years back to the date), preceded by a turkey dinner for thousands and with a galaxy of guests jamming on stage with the band: Bob Dylan played; so did Muddy Waters; Eric Clapton was there; Ronnie Hawkins showed up; as did Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Diamond; Paul Butterfield was there, as was Stephen Stills, Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr. It was a mega gig. The film shot by Scorsese on 35-mm cameras was a little short of two hours. The album is much longer and if you have the deluxe copy that I do, it has 54 songs and runs for more than four hours. I took it out last Saturday, pairing it with a bottle of The Balvenie and proceeded to treat myself to a bender. The Last Waltz, right from the first song, Up on Cripple Creekto the encore (and on this version of the album, outtakes, rehearsals and so on) can be described pithily as a trip. A trip you have to go on.
I played The Last Waltz that weekend after beginning to read Testimony, Robbie Robertson’s recently published memoir to mark that concert’s 40th anniversary. Robertson played guitar in The Band; and his bandmates included Rick Danko on bass and violin, Levon Helm on drums, Garth Hudson on the sax and keyboards, and Richard Manuel on percussion and keyboards. All of them, with probably the exception of Hudson, also sang. It was an outstanding band and Testimony is a captivating memoir. Robertson writes about his first meetings with Scorsese who was then in the midst of shooting New York, New York. In one of those, at an after hours nightclub, the film director came with the star of the film he was shooting, Liza Minnelli. He had a cold and a blocked nose and asked if anyone had a nasal spray. Robertson took a chance and offered some cocaine that someone had given him. Here’s what he says Scorsese did: “Without skipping a beat, he answered, ‘No I’ve got that,’ showing me his own little bottle of coke. ‘I just need some Afrin or something.’” The two obviously hit it off and the film was made.
The Band is a sadly underrated band. I don’t really know why. The four Canadians and one American (the late Helm was from Arkansas) were geniuses. Their music was at once folky and psychedelic. And when they backed Dylan, it boosted his songs to even higher levels than where they already were at – which is, as we all know, pretty high. And when they evolved as a proper band on their own, they touched yet another pinnacle. In Testimony, Robertson writes of the meticulous planning and rehearsals for the last one night stand that he and his mates had planned. Of persuading Dylan to agree not only to play but also to be shot on film; about how Van Morrison shunned the rehearsals and winged it; how Paul Butterfield superhumanly held a note on his harmonica for nearly all of Muddy Water’s brilliant rendition of Mannish Boy; and of how he (Robertson) dipped his Stratocaster in molten bronze for the show. I could go on, sprinkling this with more anecdotes from the book, but I’d recommend you read it.
And here’s the thing, if you haven’t heard or watched The Last Waltz yet, don’t tell anyone you haven’t. And quickly get a copy. I’d recommend a bender. It was rather satisfying.
From HT Brunch, November 20, 2016
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