The Band (Part 4) – The Last Waltz

“There is a view that jazz is evil because it comes from evil people, but actually the greatest priests on 52nd Street and on the streets of New York City were the musicians. They were doing the greatest healing work. They knew how to punch through music that would cure and make people feel good.” – Garth Hudson, The Last Waltz

In 1970, The Band were riding pretty high. Their albums sold well, they had the respect and admiration of fans, musicians, and critics alike and their tours were successful. I “saw” them that year. By that I mean I did not have a ticket but instead listened to their Central Park concert while sitting under a tree on a warm summer night.

That same year, they made the cover of Time Magazine with the headline, “The New Sound of Country Rock.” Yeah, sorry. There are certainly country elements. But it seems to me that country rock was the Byrds, New Riders of the Purple Sage, any band Gram Parsons was in and early Eagles. Roots rock and Americana fit better I think.

Between August of 1970 and September of 1998, The Band were to release eight more (contractual) studio albums. The last non-compilation album to have all the original members was 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross.

Here’s a tasty number from 1970’s Stage Fright:

In 1973, The Band, The Allman Brothers, and the Grateful Dead played at a raceway outside Watkins Glen, NY drawing a crowd of 600,000. At that time, it went into the Guinness Book of World Records for largest audience at a pop festival. (I have a one-disc vinyl bootleg of this show somewhere.)

And their relationship with Dylan continued. In 1974, they toured with him and they were his backing band on the album, Planet Waves. That’s them you hear playing on its biggest hit, ‘Forever Young.” (Both versions.)  Let’s just say that eight or so years after the dread 1966 tour, the reception to Bob Dylan and his backing band was quite a bit more accepting. They jointly put out a fine live album called Before the Flood, which is heavily weighted towards Dylan songs.

But as happens in pretty much every rock band about which I read or write, the wheels started to come off the train once fame (and money) rolled in the door. Many musicians seem completely ill-equipped to deal with fame or the adulation that comes with it.

In the case of The Band, drugs came more heavily into the picture. Levon doesn’t deny that people gave them heroin and that that took its toll. Robbie says that at one point he had to deal with three junkies in the band. Levon also says that band-wise, it was over after the second album. “Over” in terms of that all-for-one and one-for-all collaborative feel the band had until then generated.

Wikipedia: “At about this time, Robertson began exerting greater control over The Band, a point of antipathy, especially between Helm and Robertson. Helm charges Robertson with authoritarianism and greed, while Robertson suggests his increased efforts in guiding the group were due largely to some of the other members being unreliable. In particular, Robertson insists he did his best to coax Manuel into writing or co-writing more songs, only to see Manuel’s talents overtaken by addiction.”

Before we dig deepr into the songwriting quagmire, a pause here to play one of my favorite songs, “Saved,” (written by Lieber and Stoller) from their 1973 album of ’50’s songs, Moondog Matinee. They did this contractual album of oldies because they just could not get it together to do new songs:

I used to lie
I used to cheat
I used to lie and cheat and step on people’s feet
Now I’m steppin’ on to glory
Salvation is my beat

As to royalties, the ugly point of contention here is the matter of who wrote what song. Robertson claims that the songs attributed to him should be attributed to him. Levon says that many of those songs were collaborations between band members and that credit (and royalties) should be shared equally.

This is why for this series I read books by Helm and Robertson, to get both perspectives. In Levon’s opinion, the band members (except Robertson) were naive about how publishing rights worked. And so when Robbie started getting the lion’s share of royalties for songs they truly felt were collaborative, it was not only unfair but broke down the essential all-for-one nature of the band. And many of these songs were ones that Robertson shaped out of Levon’s Southern experience.

So the question revolves around “What is songwriting?” To me, if Robertson is walking in the door with a fully formed song like, say, “The Weight” and the other guys help shape the arrangement, it’s his song. If, however, they’re adding lyrics or a bridge or a chord progression, they should get credit. In hindsight, it’s easy to say they should have sat down and figured out who wrote what. And maybe Robbie would have gotten slightly more credit as the more prolific songwriter but the others would have felt a more equitable split.

But all that said, ask yourself this question – if the other guys were such great songwriters, why did they rely so heavily on cover versions after Robertson’s departure? Certainly, they were free of his “authoritarianism” and could write to their heart’s content. But they didn’t. For two straight albums. And hardly at all on the third.

And the industry has spoken as well. Robertson has been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters. Is that because they saw his name on the credits and accepted it? I think the truth on this one lies somewhere in the middle.

By 1976, Robertson was tired of touring and I guess they were all tired of the bullshit. According to Levon, Robbie just sort of thrust the idea of a final show on him. “The whole thing just isn’t healthy anymore,” Robertson said. “I’m not in it for my health,” Levon rejoindered. So they decided to have one final show at Winterland, the same venue where they’d first appeared as The Band.

On Thanksgiving Day 1976, The Band held their final concert ever and invited a veritable Who’s Who of rock stardom: Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, Staple Singers, Stephen Stills, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield. The horn section’s arrangements were done by Allen Toussaint.

Their old bandleader Ronnie Hawkins came back and sang “Who Do You Love,” fences having been properly mended. Oh, and some guy named Dylan came and did a couple of tunes. It would be incredibly irresponsible of me to chronicle the Band/Dylan relationship and not post a song showing them performing together. So here’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” a traditional folk song Dylan did on his first (1962) album:

I know this is supposed to be a tribute to The Band’s songs but I could not resist using this (mostly) all-Canadian performance from Waltz. Neil Young sings his tune “Helpless” with the guys, along with Joni Mitchell providing high harmony. Exquisite:

The (lucky) audience of 5,000 ($25 USD/ticket) was served turkey dinners, Martin Scorsese hung chandeliers and made a damn fine movie of the show. Basically, it’s a handful of the performances interspersed with band member interviews. I just re-watched it and while the guys seem to be getting along fine, Levon details some pissy interviews that didn’t make the movie. To say he was bitter about suddenly ending The Band in its prime would be an understatement.

One more Last Waltz tune, “It Makes No Difference,” from Northern Lights. Love this song. It would have fit in well with my “Songs About Heartache.” Nice sax work from Garth, vocals by Rick Danko. These guys are just flat-out soulful:

As mentioned, The Band minus Roberston produced several more post-Waltz albums but never really recaptured the limelight in the way they had prior to that. The times they were ‘a changing. In 1994, they played the second Woodstock to a whole new generation who, frankly, were probably more interested in Nine Inch Nails. They made it all the way to 1999 with a variety of formations but after that, they had truly danced their last waltz.

Coda: Ronnie Hawkins is still active, perhaps less in music these days and more, from what I read, as a television and film actor. In 2013, he received the prestigious Order of Canada.

Bob Dylan continues to tour and most recently released an album called Fallen Angels, an album of standards. In 2016 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mark Lavon Helm kept playing music but also did some acting, even playing Loretta Lynn’s (Sissy Spacek) father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. For years he held Midnight Rambles (named for shows he saw as a kid) at his barn in Woodstock. Every musician he ever encountered seemed to show up to play. He won three Grammys for his post-Band works. Levon died in 2012 at the age of 71.

Rick Danko did a couple of solo albums but they were unsuccessful. He later toured in various configurations of bands including touring with Paul Butterfield. He continued to play on all The Band albums. Rick died at the age of 55 in 1999 of heart failure, brought on largely by years of drug and alcohol abuse. This is the scourge of musicians everywhere.

Richard Manuel played with The Band until his death in 1986 at the age of 42. He had had years of drug and alcohol abuse. Depressed in part, perhaps, by that and by the fading star of the group, on March 4 1986 he hanged himself.

Jaime Robbie Robertson has continued to be active, releasing occasional solo albums, scoring films, even once appearing at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival. He has also received the Order of Canada and is on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists. Duane Allman put Robbie in the top category of guitarists. Robbie recently published his autobio, Testimony, which I can personally advise you is one hell of a ride.

Garth Hudson, now almost 80, has continued to play largely as a session man. He is one of the most well-respected keyboard artists to come out of the rock era and the list of artists he has performed with is as long as your arm. His web site calendar shows him having toured New Zealand as recently as late last year.

The Band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked them No. 50 on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time, and in 2008 they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2014, the Band was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ronnie Hawkins’ online bio; Testimony, Robbie Robertson; This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm; The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese; Ain’t In It For My Health, (movie bio about Levon Helm.)

14 thoughts on “The Band (Part 4) – The Last Waltz

  1. Interesting questions you raise, Jim, about songwriting and how credit should be dispersed. I just covered the Velvet Underground on my blog, and I remember Sterling Morrison saying once that, although Lou Reed was the most important member and did the lion’s share of the writing, both he and John Cale deserved co-credit for several early songs. But they didn’t fight it, since they wanted to keep the peace. I also remember Robbie, in an interview, shaking his head at the Band’s re-forming after “The Last Waltz.” He was incredulous that they’d do this, not long after holding a big party to celebrate their retirement! I’ll have to read “Testimony” some day.

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    1. BTW, almost forgot. This comes from the Wikipedia page re “The Weight.” Maybe if they had just gone with this ….

      The songwriting credit to Robbie Robertson for “The Weight”, like credit for many of the songs performed by The Band, was disputed years later by Levon Helm. Helm insisted that the composition of the lyrics and the music was collaborative, declaring that each band member made a substantial contribution. In an interview, Helm credited Robertson with 60 percent of the lyrics, Danko and Manuel with 20 percent each of the lyrics, much of the music credit to Garth Hudson, and a small credit to himself for lyrics.

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  2. I think there was some level of “keep the peace” within the Band as well. Plus musicians aren’t always the most assertive people business-wise even when it’s in their own interest. Let us now have a drum roll for all the musicians who signed crappy contracts with no representation!

    That thing about Robbie shaking his head tells us, I guess, how out-of-touch he was with the rest of the guys. The retirement was his idea, not theirs. I think when Robbie started getting closer to management, he at the same time got further away from the Band. At one point he just up and moved to Malibu when Dylan and some others did.

    In a podcast that was posted on one of the comments, Robbie says it took two to feud and he never felt like he was in a feud with Levon. And yet Levon says when Robbie came to Danko’s funeral, he “had Rick’s money in his pocket and he knew it.” And then Robbie says he held Levon’s hand on his deathbed! These things are complicated.

    ‘Testimony’ is quite the ride. I didn’t even get into all the personal stuff Robbie talks about with his, shall we say, outlaw relatives.

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  3. Enjoyed your take on ‘The Band’ immensely. Reminders, new info and just a real good ode to a great band. Too much to comment on. I have probably seen the ‘Last Waltz’ more than any other film (Even more than ‘The Good,Bad Ugly’). Just watched a Doc on Mavis Staples. She goes to see Levon in the coarse of the movie. All I’ll say is you can see and feel the love between the two of them. Something real and heart felt about it. The creative process can be a tricky deal and The Band was not immune to it (There’s a laundry list of bands with bad feelings). It’s too bad. Having spent a lot of time listening to this music and watching and hearing the members talk, CB has formed some opinions which he will spare you from.
    The Band made music that moved CB in so many ways. They all continued to make good music and still do. They left a shitload of some of the best and timeless music I’ll ever hear. We won’t feel the same way about a lot of the music we hear Jim but I think we are on the same page with these guys.

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    1. Your perspective from up North was helpful. What a great band! I was reminded of my affection for them. So glad I grew up during that period. I wasn’t at The Last Waltz but I was part of that vibrant community of listeners that knew what was going on at that time and for whom these bands played. None of this stuff is ancient history for me, not even the oldies. It all happened yesterday.

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      1. The Band is never far from a listening device at CB”s pad. Never out of the rotation. I just went for a walk and took the second album (CD) with me. It was a very good walk. Close to 60 degrees. Hows that for a Canadian winter. I hear you’re getting nailed down there.

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        1. I might have mentioned this in the series but I just bought the 40th Anniversary “Last Waltz.” Nice traveling music. We got hammered with a little over a foot of snow. Neighbor’s house got whacked by a tree. They had to move in with in-laws till it’s safe to go back. Spring only six days away.

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        2. Not familiar with the “40th” but I’d bet there’s some gems on it. (Big Earl played hockey in Watertown NY a couple years ago and had never seen a winter like it. They used to tease him about Canada being snowy and cold. He’s from the wet cost, mild traditionally).

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        3. CB, just got the box set of the 40th anniversary. Here’s what’s in it per Robbie’s notes:

          Remixed, including full-length versions of all songs (some had been clipped for vinyl), 16 previously unreleased tracks from the concert, five from a rehearsal and some “tracks of the writing process that became the Last Waltz Suite. I would have sworn there was a DVD too but I guess that was a different box set.

          Haven’t listened yet, saving it for the car. Should be a treat.

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        4. That will be a treat. You sound like me. Take my music with me for the ride. Just listened to the Band’s second album yesterday. Sooooo good! Enjoy the Ride! ( I see some good posts for me in your Oct takes. I’ll take a bash on the weekend. Just listening to Peter Green ‘Me and the Devil’. Traditional blues by a guy you like.

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        5. I’ve enjoyed listening to music since I was a kid riding in my parents’ car, listening to what are now oldies. I still remember later, maybe in high school, driving around in a buddy’s car and grooving to a Johnny Winter song. There’s something about driving around listening to tunes, especially rock, that really gets me going.

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