40 Years Ago: The Band’s ‘Last Waltz’ Almost Didn’t Happen
The onscreen stars of The Last Waltz are Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson, both of whom are galvanizing throughout Martin Scorsese's bittersweet 1978 film. But the project, conceived as the Band's concert farewell on Thanksgiving night 1976 at San Francisco's Winterland, would be threatened – and ultimately defined – by others.
Bob Dylan almost didn't go on, while drummer and singer Levon Helm made his enduring dissatisfaction with the whole production abundantly clear in his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s on Fire. Yet, those two ended up providing the all-star The Last Waltz with its heart and soul – something that translates just as well on the triple album, which followed in 1978.
Helm's voice is the concert's conscience (by turns bawdy, guttural and sincere), while his playing is its life blood. Despite his misgivings, nobody sounds more in the moment, more viscerally involved – likely because, as Band producer John Simon later revealed, Helm's was the only performance unaltered by post-production overdubs.
Dylan, on the other hand, was expected for rehearsals at the Band's Shangri-La studio space, but didn't appear. (Joni Mitchell did, but couldn't explain her own songs' unusual tunings; Garth Hudson, the group's canny multi-instrumentalist, stepped in to help.) When Dylan finally showed, he locked himself away in a nearby piano-lounge basement. The Band did a couple of run-through numbers with him there, but without ever getting confirmation on his participation in the film.
Somehow, you can trace none of that indecision in the nervy, if far too brief, moments Dylan appeared onstage in San Francisco. He and the Band reconnected with the same genre-rattling energy on The Last Waltz that hurtled them in new directions as the '60s waned.
It capped a night of stunning twists and turns.
Watch Bob Dylan and the Band Perform 'Forever Young'
The Band went on first, running through two hours of their best-known tracks – from "Up on Cripple Creek" to "This Wheel's on Fire," "The Shape I'm In" to "Life Is a Carnival," "Rag Mama Rag" to "Stage Fright" – while dinner was served. Promoter Bill Graham conceived of the concert as a Thanksgiving event, with a huge meal included in the price. They ended up serving 220 turkeys and 500 pounds of cranberry sauce.
Things were just getting started. "I was onstage for five and a half hours," Rick Danko told Dirty Linen in 1992. "They could do a Son of 'The Last Waltz,' because we've got some great material. We only used a small amount of it."
Dylan arrived during the Band's set, retreating to a dressing room. Negotiations on his participation continued through the intermission, apparently hung on the idea that the theatrical release of The Last Waltz would be competing with Dylan's own movie project, Renaldo and Clara. This was no small issue. Scorsese had only gotten funding from Warner Bros. with an understanding that Dylan would appear.
The entire production was, quite literally, on the line. Finally, after another round of discussions, Dylan agreed to let crews film the end of his set, starting with a bitterly ironic update of "Forever Young." Dylan cuffs it around with an acid brusqueness, curtly denying the evening's embedded nostalgia.
Dylan and the Band also resurrected a pair of lesser-known gems from their infamous 1966 electric tour, "I Don't Believe You (She Acts like We Never Have Met)" and – in a twist, Helm later admitted – "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." "Surprised, we played along, figuring that Bob realized we were missing something good by not having any of the old rock 'n' roll on film," Helm wrote in This Wheel's on Fire.
Dylan and the Band tore into the songs like hungry wolves, to the point where Dylan nearly snarls himself hoarse. As the crews tried to wrap up at the agreed-upon time, Helm said promoter Bill Graham rushed in to countermand those instructions, saying: "F--- you! Roll the f---ing cameras! Roll 'em!" And thus, the raucous and celebratory sing-along of "I Shall Be Released" was thankfully documented.
Watch the Band Perform 'It Makes No Difference'
Not that The Last Waltz doesn't still shine a spotlight on the contributions of others.
Van Morrison provides a needed spark during the lengthy concert's midpoint, Muddy Waters simply roars through a late-period rendition of "Mannish Boy," Emmylou Harris imbues "Evangeline" with a crystalline beauty and Danko's darkly emotional "It Makes No Difference" arguably outdoes the original studio version. Robertson, performing with an unfettered joy, fires off volley after volley of stiletto-precise guitar work, while Hudson creates a spectral frame for it all.
Not every guest works, including an out-of-place Neil Diamond and a simply out-of-it Neil Young. Of the Band, only Richard Manuel seems to recede in the moment. Still, the idea that anyone's star shone so brightly, in retrospect, is something of a miracle. Other last-minute planning snafus – beyond untangling Dylan's commitment issues – and recording mishaps nearly derailed The Last Waltz time and time again.
The Band ended up rehearsing for a staggering 12 hours, trying to nail down the arrangements and sound requirements for this bulging multi-artist extravaganza. Each of the songs would be performed live, in front of a sold-out crowd and a huge crew with recording equipment.
"I mean, we had to learn twenty-some-odd songs we'd never played before in our lives," Robertson told Musician in 1982. "So, every time out of the chute, it was like throwing the dice. It's hard enough to remember our own stuff, let alone everybody from Joni Mitchell to Muddy Waters."
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All of this actually ended up playing right into the hands of Dylan and Helm, two natural performers onstage.
Dylan gave The Last Waltz concert its stirring conclusion, as he ultimately managed that rarest of things: recapturing the danger and meaning of his best years. But only after Helm set the tone for the entire evening.
Helm constructed the definitive version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" with the addition of a coiled horn section. His brilliant pairing with the Staple Singers for an update of "The Weight" plumbed undiscovered depths too. He breathed shuddering new life into "Mystery Train," and snorted through "Ophelia" with a salacious grit (the latter ends with a triumphant Helm sighing with what looks like satisfied exhaustion).
The Band's lengthy Thanksgiving event eventually drew to a close with a final Helm-led flourish, as he wandered back onstage to orchestrate a loose jam. Within a half hour, the rest of his bandmates had returned. That led to the original five-man lineup's last song performance, a now-ironic take on the desperate pleas found in their cover of "Don't Do It" that ended around 2AM.
"When it was over," Helm said, "so was the Band." A relieved-sounding Robertson stepped up to the microphone and said, "Thank you, goodnight."
And then, finally, "Goodbye."
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