I can’t quite remember how I eventually got introduced The Last Waltz. I can tell you for sure that it was a little later in life, my early 20s and I’m pretty sure I was drunk. I feel that it was either on in the background at a party or perhaps I caught it after a party. What I can say is that whenever it was, I defiantly only half paid attention to it. But the strength of The Last Waltz is enough that even that half-remembered memory drove me back to it while catching the DVD in an HMV aisle.
“Hey, I know that from somewhere… I think I like it… 10 bucks? What the hell.”
I knew of The Band of course and as previous chapters have noted, I had become a big fan of Robbie Robertson’s solo career. But I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love The Last Waltz. It became arguably my favorite record in The Band’s cannon and it’s my favorite concert film of all time.
For those who aren’t familiar, The Last Waltz was supposed to be the end of The Band. Depending on whose story you fall in with, it was supposed to be a short-term thing that became a long-term thing or it was just an ending. Performed and recorded in 1976, The Last Waltz transcends the band that it was set to celebrate and becomes the final word on the music of the 60s.
Anyone who tells you that Woodstock is the final musical word on the 60’s is only doing so due to the date that it occurred, while The Last Waltz came much later, it’s also much better. Let’s take a look at the lineup, shall we?
The Band was just a beast of music that defied most of the musical conventions of their time. While they had songs that did rock, they weren’t a rock band. They also owed much of their music to the blues, and country music and gospel music, rockabilly, traditional bluegrass, and even a bit of soul. More than any other band of their era, The Band represented the music that had come before and turned it into a new sound that was familiar yet fresh.
They were also incredibly good. When Ronnie Hawkins started assembling these guys into his backing band, he cherry-picked the best from other bands. Once Robertson and Levon Helm started helping with that process, the players became better. Add in the fact that these guys played with each other for years, they were tight but not so tight a bit of improv couldn’t be thrown in. They could roll with each other’s musical movements but still keep on track. So at its core, The Last Waltz has The Band as it’s engine, a big old workhorse of a V8. Then you add the bells and whistles.
Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins. These guys all came to play and all brought something different with them. Van Morrison came in and brought a further element that one doesn’t associate with the time period. While Neil Young allegedly played with a cocaine boogie hang out his nose, he did so with an incredible rendition of helpless, with an off-stage Joni Mitchell contributing great backing vocals for a back and forth. Ringo was brought in because, as Robertson put it, it felt like the needed a Beatle. Musically, he doesn’t add much but it’s kind of the cherry on the top of the sundae.
Now for the elephants in the room.
If you’ve ever seen or listened to The Last Waltz, you will know that there are a few weird blips on the radar. There are two poems which seem to come out of nowhere. From what I understand, the idea was to add something a little artsy to the proceedings. I’m sure some people like it, for me, eh, not my thing. The second thing is Neil Diamond. At the time, Robertson was producing Diamond’s next album and I’ll be the first to tell you, Neil Diamond is a great performer and is a better songwriter than most give him credit for. I will also tell you that the minute he starts up in The Last Waltz, the only thing I hear in my head is the song from Sesame Street, “One of these things I not like the other…” but after that, we return to your regular program.
I know from doing some research that the various members of The Band have different thoughts on the concert and the film that came out of it. All of those involved have gone on the record with their thoughts in various books and interviews. But, as a fan, separating all of the possible politics from the situation, they should be incredibly proud of recording the produced. There is just something infectious about it that once you hear it, you have to hear the rest of it.
A few months ago, my father in law dropped by for a quick visit. We get along quite well but we never really talk music. To be fair, he really loves classical music and early 50s and 60s rock. Early Beatles are probably where our musical crossover begins and ends. But I had The Last Waltz on when he came in. He wasn’t familiar with it but he sat down and began to listen to it with me and was impressed with it and was kind of surprised that I was so fond of that type of music. We ended up finishing the concert just before my wife got home from work. Once again, The Last Waltz got someone unexpectantly.