The Last Waltz

Besides just being the lead guitarist and songwriter for The Band, Robbie Robertson has also found celebration for his collaborations with filmmaker Martin Scorcese. Most notably, Robertson and Scorcese worked together on the rockumentary The Last Waltz.  

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The Last Waltz was a concert film recorded on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. This was meant to be the farewell concert from The Band and featured special guests like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters and others. The film launched a genre in which concert footage would be intercut with private moments among the band, various renditions of known songs, and talking-head style interviews. The film heavily focused on Robertson as the bands front man.  

The concert and film celebrated a 16-year career while acknowledging that 16 years is a good time to stop. “I mean, I couldn’t live with twenty years on the road” laments Robertson, “I don’t think I could even discuss it.” So when band member Richard Manuel was seriously injured and Robertson was growing weary of the road, rather than become a studio band, releasing music but never touring it, The Band threw a huge farewell concert and called it.  

 

That night, The Band came out right past 2:00am, performed “Don’t Do It” and never again performed under the name “The Band.”  

 

The film is almost constantly referred to as one of the greatest concert films in history and yet, much ado has been made about the heavy focus on Robertson rather than other band members.  

 

This brings me to today’s discussion points, sound off in the comments:  

 

  1. How much was Robbie Robertson the front man of The Band, and how much of this is simply how we remember it because of newsmedia and Scorcese’s film?  
  1. What are some other situations in which documenting something changes the central focus of the thing it’s documenting? Can documentaries choose a focus and redirect the discussion about the content being documented? Can this be used for nefarious purposes?  
  1. Scorsese and Robertson went on to collaborate on several more projects, including the music on Scorsese’s films Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and The Color of Money. What are some of the benefits of collaboration between this kind of filmmaker and this kind of musician?  
  1. Robbie Robertson and The Band is often referred to as definitively Americana, his relationship with American filmmaker Martin Scorsese further cements this standing. Does The Band’s Canadian citizenship in any way complicate this reference?

Dylan Connection

Because of the sheer cultural importance of Bob Dylan in the canon of American music, it is impossible to talk about The Band (and most music from the 1960’s, for that matter) without it coming back to a discussion about Bob Dylan. For The Band, the connection is quite immediate.  

 

In 1965, Dylan was looking for a band to accompany him on his quite controversial electric tour after his manager introduced him to their music at a live show. When they, initially called The Hawks, were billed as “Bob Dylan and the Band” they came to appreciate the title and renamed themselves The Band. Much like the original electric Dylan, they received negative press and reception as they toured – folk music was not electric and fans were not ready to change their minds.  

 

Disregarding press – negative or positive – they continued touring, pausing to help Dylan record Blonde on Blonde, touring Europe, and playing for the infamous JUDAS moment. At his most hated, Dylan – with the help of The Band – turned a musicians’ intuition into the most powerful force in American popular culture. PLAY IT FUCKING LOUD became a rallying cry for musicians who were more interested in playing what they wanted than playing what their crowds expected.  

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Due to the relatively new practice of fans bootlegging and repackaging live concerts, Dylan’s electric move gained positive momentum and when Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident and retreated from public life for some time, The Band was in prime position to take his position in Americana folk rock.  

 

The rented a big pink house in New York, not far from a reclusive Dylan who had invited them to come record, and released the album Music from Big Pink. Many of the songs featured Dylan cowriting and this release seemed to scratch the itch left when Dylan went away. While some of the band members rejected the constant association with Dylan, it was certainly a career bolster and was reflected in album sales.  

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Music from the Big Pink was widely acclaimed, hugely bootlegged, and resulted in countless rerelease and basement tapes. Dylan lent his pen to the songs and his paint to the cover art, but beyond that they decided that having him sing on the album would look too much like a Dylan and The Band release rather than a The Band release.  

 

The album’s single The Weight peaked at #63 on the Billboard charts, it was featured in the film Easy Rider, it’s been covered and released endlessly since it came out, and it holds a spot on nearly every list of America’s most important songs. And with every basement tape recording that comes out from Dylan, also comes a resurgence of The Band as an Americana benchmark in music.  

The Weight

Let’s start where most people start – The Weight. This 1968 single off The Band’s debut album Music from the Big Pink uses elements from folk, country and gospel to tell the story of a traveler in Nazareth. The characters in the song are friends of The Band despite the numerous biblical interpretations of the song. The story, cutting out the chorus goes like this:  

 

I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half past dead. I just needed some place where I can lay my heads. Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed? He just grinned and shook my hand, “No” was all he said.  

 

I picked up my bags, I went looking for a place to hide when I saw Carmen and the Devil walking side by side. I said, “Hey Carmen c’mon let’s go downtown.” She said, “I gotta go but my friend can stick around.”  

 

Go down, Miss Moses, ain’t nothin’ you can say. It’s just like old Luke, and Luke’s waiting on the judgement day. Well Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee? He said, “Do me a favor son, won’t you stay and keep Annalee company?”  

 

Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fog, said “I will fix your rag, if you’ll take Jack my dog.” I said, “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man.” He said, “That’s ok boy, won’t you feed him when you can.”  

 

Catch the cannonball, now take me down the line. My bag is sinking low and I do believe it’s time to get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one who sent me here with her regards for everyone.  

 

Levon Helms, the story’s author, reported in his autobiography that Luke, Chester and Anna Lee were friends of the band and that the reference to Nazareth refers to the Pennsylvania hometown of C.F. Martin & Company – an instrument manufacturer and undoubtedly a holy city to many American musicians.  Our narrator arrives here, to the holy land, weary from his journey, turned away from comfort and forced to go interact with the street-dwelling characters inhabiting the town.  

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(Levon Helms, photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.)

There is much discussion about the biblical nature of the lyrics, the civil rights struggle that may be referenced throughout, and the intentions of the storytellers. Rather than telling my interpretation of the song, the journey I took in hearing it, and the conclusion I’ve reached in my countless times hearing it, I want to have a dialogue with our readers in the comments.  

My questions:  

  1. How does the seemingly biblical lyrical content of the song relate to the Americana folk style of the music accompanying?  
  1. This song was released in 1968 – the same year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the same year Dr. King was assassinated – what does this song have to say, if anything, about civil rights of the time?  
  1. What about this song as cemented its place as an American classic, despite it being produced by a Canadian band?  
  1. The song was performed at 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. What does it, and its performance, have in common with some of the other famous 1969 Woodstock performances? Examples may include Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner, Richie Havens’ Freedom, and Arlo Guthrie’s Comin Into Los Angeles.