April 7, 2002

The Band Is Gone, the Waltz Plays On

album cover

When the Band first sauntered onto the music scene in 1968, the group's impact could not have been more profound. Playing haunting songs that explored age-old themes of guilt and redemption, of individual will and the responsibilities of community, the Band drew on the deepest currents of blues, R & B, country, gospel and the essential force of rock 'n' roll pioneers like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

"Music From Big Pink," the Band's still-gripping debut album, helped end a baroque period of psychedelic excess. Eric Clapton was just one of many musicians on whom the Band's influence was decisive. Mr. Clapton was a member of Cream when "Music From Big Pink" came out, and the ego-free ensemble eloquence of the Band's music made him feel ashamed of his own group's grandiosity. He remembered hearing the album and thinking, "This is what I want to play."

Now, at what seems to be the end of a similar period of extravagance in pop music, the Band's honest, unadorned music is back. With a bit of fuzzy math, the 25th anniversary of "The Last Waltz," the original Band's final performance in an all-star concert in 1976, is being celebrated with a fanfare that rivals both the lavishness of the original event and the hoopla surrounding the release two years later of the acclaimed movie and soundtrack album that documented it. The film, "The Last Waltz," which was directed by Martin Scorsese, has begun a 10-city theatrical run. A DVD version, set for release on May 7, offers performances from the concert not seen in the original and commentary by musicians and critics. And the album is now a remixed 54-track boxed set on Rhino Records due for release on April 16.

The artists performing with Band are legends in their own right. Among them are Mr. Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters and Van Morrison, every one of whom, like the Band itself, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Scorsese film is regarded as one of the greatest music documentaries. "Scorsese has caught the exciting spirit of the concert in a brilliant rhapsody of images," the Newsweek critic Jack Kroll wrote in 1978.

But the concert and soundtrack drew mixed reviews. Greil Marcus declared the concert "overblown" but allowed that the Band had "escaped the pretensions that surrounded them." In a Rolling Stone review, Jim Miller dismissed the soundtrack as a "coffee table" album "destined merely to quench a momentary craving for nostalgia, only to be stuffed away on a shelf, unlistened to and forgotten."

But this seems to be precisely what has not happened. As an elegy — the marking of "the end of an era," as Mr. Scorsese has said — "The Last Waltz" now seems premature. Virtually all of the performers at the concert were only in their early or mid-30's, including the members of the Band: the guitarist and main songwriter Robbie Robertson; the keyboardists Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson; the bassist Rick Danko and the drummer Levon Helm. Mr. Young (who has an album coming out this week), Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Dylan, to mention just a few, remain vital and engaged. And while the group's surviving members — Mr. Manuel died in 1986, Mr. Danko in 1999 — have not made much of an impact as solo artists, its music has not been forgotten: it's still regarded as essential to understanding one of rock 'n' roll's most creative periods.

Whatever its flaws, "The Last Waltz" returns at a moment in which it can be received far more generously than it was in the mid-70's. However self-serving "The Last Waltz" might have seemed back then, no one familiar with the meretricious spectacle that the music industry has become in the last two decades can seriously criticize the film and album for glitziness. And at a time when audiences both young and old are discovering music with a connection to something more meaningful than a record company's bottom line, as shown in the success of the soundtrack album "O Brother, Where Art Thou," the artists in "The Last Waltz" represent a rare integrity.

In 1976 it was difficult to understand what "The Last Waltz" really meant. At the time, the Band intended to stop touring but to continue recording. Did such a decision really require a large-scale "farewell" concert? The road had become "a goddamn impossible way of life," Mr. Robertson declares in the film. Drugs, alcohol and sheer fatigue had exacted a toll. Still, he insists that "The Band will never break up." And it didn't immediately. It released an album of new material in 1977, a slipshod collection called "Islands." But practically speaking, the group as it existed was done for.

"Everybody drifted from the nest and never came back," Mr. Robertson said last month in an interview in a Midtown hotel. "I slowly realized that I didn't know how to retrace my footsteps. After a while, we just stopped talking about it."

Eventually, though, the other members not only talked about regrouping but did so, minus Mr. Robertson. On March 3, 1986, they were on tour and had played two sets at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Winter Park, Fla., when, after the show, Mr. Manuel hanged himself in his room next door at the Quality Inn.

I was writing Mr. Manuel's obituary for Rolling Stone and had spent days tracking down Mr. Robertson, who finally called right before the article was to go to press. He sounded shattered. I asked him why he hadn't rejoined the Band with the others. "We had come to a conclusion quite a while ago," he said, exasperated. "I mean, we made a movie about it and an album about it. I just felt funny saying, 'Just kidding!' "

So now we have the revival of a farewell. In many ways, this ostentatious anniversary celebration contradicts the powerful point the Band made in 1968. Rather than the lengthy jams, rococo arrangements and trippy lyrics that were so prevalent at the time, songs by the Band like "The Weight" and "Chest Fever" were at once carefully structured and rhythmically loose, plain-spoken and receptive to endless interpretation. Other than Mr. Helm, who is from Arkansas, all the members of the Band were Canadian. But the group's morally ambiguous songs harked back to the oldest traditions in American music — to medicine shows and spirituals, to murder ballads and eccentric folk character portraits.

In contrast to the polka dots, paisley and dizzying op-art swirls in fashion at the time, the Band dressed like village preachers and were almost invariably photographed in black and white. Their dark hair, beards and mustaches rendered them nearly indistinguishable from one another, and they seemed to like it that way. And while other groups sported playfully surreal names like the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Chocolate Watch Band, these five nearly anonymous men were simply the Band. The message was understated but clear. As one of the Band's ads put it, "The Band Plays the Music."

The group's pedigree only enhanced its reputation. The members had done their apprenticeship as teenagers in the Hawks in the early 60's, backing Ronnie Hawkins, a R & B wild man from Arkansas, as they toured in burned-out bars throughout Ontario, along the East Coast and across the South.

Then Bob Dylan recruited them for his tumultuous, groundbreaking tours in 1965 and 1966. Inveterate rockers at the time, the Hawks were initially suspicious of Mr. Dylan's folkie origins. "None of us had any idea what it meant, outside of a consistent paycheck," Mr. Robertson said. "We didn't have Tom Paxton's latest record. And when people referred to this whole thing as Bob 'going electric,' that was a strange concept to us. We didn't know there was any other way to go."

With the Hawks behind him, Mr. Dylan revolutionized both folk music and rock 'n' roll on those tours. And when Mr. Dylan, craving solitude and peace, retreated to Woodstock, N.Y., the Hawks joined him. There, at the $125-a-month house they called Big Pink, they and Mr. Dylan recorded the elliptical, fragmented songs that became known as the "The Basement Tapes" while also working on the songs that would become "Music From Big Pink." It was then that the Hawks renamed themselves. Mr. Robertson explained the reason for the change in 1968: "Our friends and neighbors just call us the band, and that's the way we think of ourselves."

The Band's record sales were far from dramatic. Only last year was "Music From Big Pink" certified gold, indicating sales of a half-million copies. The group, championed by critics, discerning fans and, most significantly, other musicians, was an emblem of connoisseurship. The Band's second album, "The Band," came out in 1969 and raised the group's stature even further. Even Time devoted a cover story to the group, a level of recognition the magazine seldom accorded rock bands in those days.

Before long, however, the music scene began to shift in ways that made the Band seem isolated and irrelevant. Glam-rock artists like David Bowie and T-Rex came along to spoof 60's-style earnestness with music and fashions that blurred gender boundaries and exalted artifice and theatricality. When Mr. Robertson responded to such incursions with statements like, "We don't have fancy outfits or sparklers on our eyes, and we don't cut off our heads," he sounded like a disapproving parent.

On another front, the charged, soul-baring confessions of singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne began to make the Band's sepia-tinted chronicles of rural America seem fussy and old-fashioned. And at the time of "The Last Waltz," disco, punk and hip-hop — three movements with which the Band shared little in common — all loomed.

And then there was the Band's stage presence. However raucous it could be performing behind Mr. Hawkins or Mr. Dylan, the group could come across as uncomfortable and aloof on its own. In the 1970 song "Stage Fright," Mr. Robertson commented on the group's legendary performance anxiety. "Your brow is sweatin' and your mouth gets dry," the lyrics run. "Fancy people go driftin' by/ The moment of truth is right at hand,/ Just one more nightmare you can stand/ See the man with the stage fright."

The Band's shows were "almost more like classical music," Mr. Robertson told Barney Hoskyns, who wrote a book about the group. Such fastidiousness, an insistence on rendering songs as faithfully to the recorded versions as possible, made the group's performances sometimes seem like museum pieces, more to be respected and admired than enjoyed.

Those problems all contributed to the Band's decision to stop performing live — a decision that was primarily Mr. Robertson's in any case. The concert to mark that occasion ended up being something between an Irish wake and a New Orleans funeral. Many of the performances in "The Last Waltz" were spectacular. Mr. Morrison, for one, delivers his best live performance on record — a galvanizing version of "Caravan." A 61-year-old Muddy Waters, his cheeks quivering and his fists pumping, storms through "Mannish Boy." And Mr. Dylan's 20-minute set, framed by a searing "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," is incandescent. His stops, starts, improvised transitions and lurches force the members of the Band to play by their wits, not just their skills.

Mr. Robertson views the anniversary celebration as an opportunity to bequeath this wealth of music to younger listeners. "I think that if you don't pass something on, I don't know what good it is," he said. "So in the back of my mind I've been thinking, 'This is for younger generations,' for them to be able to look at this and say: 'I get it. I understand why this music was so powerful and why it's had such a tremendous influence. And why most of these people are still doing brilliant work today.' "

It remains to be seen what those "younger generations" will make of "The Last Waltz." At one point in the film, Mr. Scorsese asks Mr. Robertson whether the concert represents "the celebration of a beginning or an end." Mr. Robertson replies, "The beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning."

That may have just been rock star insouciance, a flip way of saying, Who knows? to a question he may have considered corny. But as audiences today continue to consider the significance of "The Last Waltz," it may be as true an answer as he could have given, for reasons he probably could not have imagined at the time.

Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine.

© New York Times 2002


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