In 1976 The Band staged a farewell-to-the-road concert, “The Last Waltz,” at Winterland in San Francisco. Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson played a dozen of their own great songs — starting with “Up on Cripple Creek” — and backed performances by Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Bobby Charles, Pinetop Perkins, Emmy Lou Harris, Neil Young, and Dr. John (who, of course, sang “Such a Night”
• Mid-November, 1976 — At Shangri La studios in Malibu, which was once the setting for “Mr. Ed,” a TV show about a talking horse, the Band begins rehearsing with some of the musicians they’ve invited to join them for Thanksgiving in San Francisco. At the same time, they’re racing to finish a sixth and final record for Capitol. By fulfilling this contractual obligation they’ll prevent the record company from claiming a piece of The Last Waltz action.
Incredible physical stamina and a coke-supplying entourage help them pull it off. On Sunday, November 21, the Band’s unofficial manager, Larry Samuels, declares the Capitol album “finished” and everyone heads for the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco’s Japantown
• The wee, small hours of Tuesday morning — On stage at Winterland, the Band is soaring through “Who Do You Love?” behind Paul Butterfield’s harmonica. Film director Martin Scorsese is changing his mind about where one of his crew’s seven cameras should be placed. He is a small, bearded, very intense man in a black coat that comes almost to the floor. Looks like he stepped out of Dostoevsky.
Scorsese had been an assistant on the Woodstock film in 1966. He has taken time off from editing “New York, New York” because he and executive producer Jonathan Taplin think they can make “the best rock and roll movie ever” (Taplin’s phrase). Certainly the most thorough. Each of the seven camera operators has a script with the lyrics to every song, annotated line-by-line as to who will be soloing and what to shoot.
Bill Graham, looking relaxed strolls around with a clipboard, checking details, discussing logistics with Scorsese, rapping with aides and co-workers. In the course of an hour he confirms arrangements to repair a chipped statue (one of the props rented from the San Francisco Opera Company); provide music so that people arriving early Thursday don’t get too bored waiting outside; distribute posters at the end of the event; put up more bunting; obtain several full-length mirrors.
The impresario heads for a room backstage he calls “the Cocteau room” in honor of Robbie Robertson’s favorite filmmaker. Graham wants to make the room look “more surrealistic.” He had it painted stark white but that’s not enough. Now he’s got it: “Noses! I want noses sticking out from the wall. Lots of them. Nothing but noses.”
An aide nods as if this is a simple instruction, and heads off.
• Wednesday night — At Winterland, a final run-through for everybody except Bob Dylan. Joni Mitchell looks bored and asks, “What’s happening? Anybody having a party?” Nobody seems to know.
Emmett Grogan, a leader of the Diggers a decade earlier, has been busy lining up San Francisco poets to read their work at intermission. An acquaintance from the ‘60s gives Grogan some copies of a political newspaper. Grogan looks at the yellowed newsprint and asks, “This isn’t gonna bring me down, is it?”
Jonathan Taplin explains Last Waltz finances. He was the Band’s road manager, 1968-71, then produced “Mean Streets, “ Scorsese’s breakthrough film. Taplin says The Band has put up $300,000 of its own money to shoot the raw footage. “Ordinarily you would try to get a studio to front the money,” he says. “But in this case everyone is confident that the concert’s going to be sensational and that studio financing can be obtained on more favorable terms afterwards.” None of the musicians have been promised anything at this point. They’re involved because they like and respect the Band; their lives have intertwined.
The concert is a separate event, financially, bankrolled by Bill Graham. He is going into the red — even with tickets at $25 — because the production is so lavish. It will include a catered turkey dinner with a special spread available for vegetarians.
In Malibu, Bob Dylan’s film-making friends are worried that The Last Waltz film might somehow compete or conflict with a film version of The Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan withholds permission for Scorsese to film him at Winterland. This is all very amicable, done through lawyers. In fact, Dylan’s lawyer and the Band’s lawyer are one and the same: David Braun, esq.
The night of the concert Dylan makes a last-minute decision to allow himself to be filmed, signaling Taplin with a nod just before taking the stage. But he wants to look at the footage of his performance before deciding whether it can or can’t be used.
So immediately after the concert David Braun walks into the film crew’s trailer and requests that the Dylan tapes be given him forthwith. What would happen, a crew member wonders, if Dylan ultimately decides he doesn’t want to appear in the Last Waltz film? Will David Braun call himself on the phone on behalf of his Band clients and yell, “Give us back those fucking tapes!”
• Winter ’76-’77 — The Band heads unobtrusively back to the recording studio to put the finishing touches on their finished record, “Islands,” for Capitol. They are perfectionists. “Can’t tolerate no slack,” as Levon Helm puts it.
United Artists outbids Warner Bros. for the rights to distribute The Last Waltz film. UA reimburses the Band for their original outlay and leases production facilities from MGM (now primarily a hotel company). Arrangements are made whereby all the performers will get equal shares of the film’s earnings. Bill Graham will get some points, too.
Robbie Robertson, who intends to get into filmmaking and wants to learn everything he can about the business, is sharing the producer’s job with Jonathan Taplin. They and Scorsese decide they want to make “more than a concert movie” (Taplin’s phrase). Taplin is frank about his motivation: “There seems to be a limit to what a concert film can gross these days. No more than five million.”
Scorsese takes time off from directing “Shine It On” to shoot seven “bridging scenes” in which the Band members reminisce about their 16 years on the road. The prospect of competing concert films recedes as Dylan augments his Rolling Thunder footage with diary-note scenes dealing with his disintegrating marriage.
• Summer ’77 — The other Band members are leaving decisions about The Last Waltz to Robertson. Levon Helm has been splitting his time between Woodstock and Santa Monica, cutting a record with Butterfield, Mac Rebinak (Dr. John), Fred Carter, Booker T., and “a few other people I’ve always wanted to work with.” It will be out this fall, probably with the title “Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars.” Helm pronounces “our” as “R” and “CO” stands for “company.’
Helm says his life hasn’t changed that much since the Band said its goodbye to the road. He wants to tour this fall with the RCO All-Stars. “My life’s the same, it’s about the same. Playing music.” He says his goals in life are “gold and platinum records. Preferably platinum. And to keep playing.”
Rick Danko has a record coming out on Artists, to be called “What a Town” or “Rick Danko.” All the tunes are his own. Emmett Grogan wrote the lyrics on a few.
Garth Hudson is living on a farm in the hills above Malibu, writing music and designing new instruments. He has built a kind of piccolo/organ with a remarkable range. Yamaha has used some of his idea for their new organs and synthesizers.
Richard Manuel is living in Malibu, writing. “I hope he really gets back into it,” says John Simon, the arranger who served as “musical supervisor” for the Last Waltz. “Richard used to write beautiful songs in the early days. I wouldn’t say he was intimidated out of writing, but there was a dynamic to their personalities that resulted in Robbie writing moreand more of the Band’s material.” It follows that Robertson made the most money. “But don’t get the idea that anybody’s suffering,” Simon says. “They all have property in Woodstock, L.A., and Canada, and ownerships shares in recording studios in all those places.”
Coda: Levon Helm
Although best known as a drummer (and mandolin player), Levon Helm was also a terrific singer. His voice was both forceful and wry. He sang lead on the Band’s most southern-sounding songs — “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” When Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, he opted for removal of the tumor from his vocal cords and extensive radiation treatments, instead of surgery to remove his larynx.
In 2004, recovering his health but faced with devastating medical bills, he began staging “Midnight Rambles” — high-end jam sessions — at his barn in Woodstock, to which he invited the neighbors. They brought food and drink to share, and the income helped him hang onto his property. Word of the Rambles quickly spread, and musicians from New York City and beyond began making the scene. When Helm died last week, my friend Dave Berger sent this recollection:
Helm’s barn is a large, modern stone and wooden multi-level structure that’s equipped with recording facilities, a stage, balconies, and lounge areas. There were about 150 paying guests. Guests bring their own food and drink to share. Folding chairs are set up for the audience, but many sit on the floors, lean against walls, or stand for most of the evening.
Alexis P. Suter and her group and Little Sammy Davis and his group performed the night we went, for about an hour each. As I recall, Levon’s band consisted of 3 or 4 horns, 2 or 3 guitars, a keyboardist, a bassist and 3 or 4 backup singers. Many of the musicians were regulars in Conan O’Brien’s band. The house drummer played on the first couple of tunes, and then Levon Helm was introduced.
It was an incredible, nonstop, two-hour performance. Levon sang and played drums throughout, except for one or two tunes when he played mandolin. There was never a dull moment. As a drummer, he reminded me of the late Gary Chester: you always knew he was there. His playing was intentional, from the deep, full sound of his always-steady bass drum, to his subtle open fills, he was the constant that drove the rest of the music. Watching him play that evening, gloves on, was a joy.
In jazz, musicians who have never played together before and who may not speak the same language, are able to play and sound good together because they share a musical vocabulary. They know the chord changes to the blues and to a set of standards, and they’ve heard the classic versions of those tunes. That night at the Ramble you could see that a similar set of rules and understandings are shared by rock n’ roll musicians. The music was spontaneous, unique, and energizing.