On November 25th, 1976, Thanksgiving Day, San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom was the setting for the end of an era. One that had started seventeen years earlier when Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson aligned as The Hawks, a backing band for rockabilly pioneer Ronnie Hawkins.
The concert most famously known as ‘The Last Waltz,’ from the Martin Scorsese documentary and resulting best-selling soundtrack, was part fan’s, friend’s and peer’s celebration of a legendary band and a grand and final statement mandated by Robertson, who unilaterally wanted to end The Band as a touring entity.
Through Scorsese’s studied gaze, and his love of music, the film delivers an intimate and exuberant slice of music history But off-screen business maneuvering, lawyers and a fair amount of paranoia and hubris tainted the celebration and drove a wedge between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson that time, and lawyers, never remedied.
As Helm recalled in his book ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ Robertson “… was saying he was sick of it all. He wanted to keep on recording with us, but not go on the road. ‘We’re not learning anything, man. It’s not doing anything for us, and in fact it feels dangerous to me. Look what’s happening, Levon. I’m getting superstitious. Look at Dayton Stratton (a friend and associate of The Band who had died in an air crash). Every time I get on the plane I’m thinking about this stuff. The whole thing just isn’t healthy anymore.’
Set designer Boris Leven lent a deft hand in creating a cozy yet grand stage aesthetic. Using stored props from Opera Company of San Francisco’s production of Verdi’s opera ‘La Traviata’ – columns, chandeliers, crimson wall hangings – Leven grandly melded lavish pomp with living room comfort to set a fitting au revoir.
Contrast this with the ‘Cocteau Room.’ A backstage space painted white walls to ceiling, with white carpeting. Also furnished was a glass table strewn with razor blades for the express purpose of cocaine use for the gathered guests. Helm remembers Scorsese being so wired that “he talked so fast I barely understood a word he said.”
Though there’s no denying the talent and magic of some of the performances, I’m left wondering if this was a bit of thunder stealing. After a spirited full set by The Band, complete with horns arranged by Allen Toussaint, the latter portion of the bill relinquished The Band to back-up positions. Not only of their former frontmen Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan but also for Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and others who performed their own songs.
Though this no doubt broadened the marketing potential for the movie and soundtrack I personally believe it was taking the spotlight from its proper focus, The Band and their musical legacy. Wouldn’t it have been more fitting, and appropriate if these artists were brought on to support the group in their own songs and them maybe then given one of their own? I believe so.
But it’s all history now, and the music remains. This was even more poignant to me after I happened across this great raw footage of the event. Footage that shows the performances like the crowd that night experienced it.
Let us give thanks that The Band was with us, no matter how briefly, and left a rich musical trail-blazing legacy still followed, and celebrated today.