The Last Waltz was nearly derailed, time and again: ‘It was like throwing the dice’

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The on-screen stars of The Last Waltz, simply galvanizing throughout, are Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson. They come off in Martin Scorsese’s bittersweet 1978 film, conceived as the Band’s concert farewell on Thanksgiving night at San Francisco’s Winterland, like rock ‘n’ roll updates of Johnny Boy and Charlie from Mean Streets.

Meanwhile, Bob Dylan almost didn’t go on — and Levon Helm made his enduring dissatisfaction with the whole production abundantly clear in his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire. And yet, the latter two ended up providing the all-star The Last Waltz with its heart and soul — something that translates just as well on the triple album, issued via Warner Bros. on April 7, 1978.

Levon Helm’s voice is the concert’s conscience (by turns bawdy, guttural and sincere), while his playing is its life blood. Nobody sounds more in the moment, more viscerally involved — likely because, as Band producer John Simon tells us, his was the only performance unaltered by post-production overdubs.

Bob Dylan, on the other hand, was expected for rehearsals at Shangi-La, but never appeared. (Joni Mitchell did, but couldn’t explain her own songs’ unusual tunings; Garth Hudson stepped in to help.) When Dylan finally showed, he locked himself away at Miyako’s piano-lounge basement. The Band did a couple of run throughs there, but without ever getting confirmation on his participation in the film.

Somehow, you can trace none of that indecision in the nervy, if far too brief, moments Dylan was on stage in San Francisco. He and the Band reconnected with the startling, genre-rattling energy on The Last Waltz that hurtled them both to previously unimagined places as the 1960s waned. Bob Dylan pushed back, and hard.

The Band went first, running through two hours of their best-known hits, from “Up on Cripple Creek” to “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “The Shape I’m In” to “Life is a Carnival,” “Rag Mama Rag” to “Stage Fright,” even as dinner was served. (Promoter Bill Graham conceived of the concert as a Thanksgiving event, with a huge meal — they served 220 turkeys and 500 pounds of cranberry sauce — included in the price.) Things were just getting started. “I was on stage for five and a half hours,” Rick Danko told Dirty Linen in 1992. “They could do a Son of ‘The Last Waltz,’ because we’ve got some great material. We only used a small amount of it.”

Bob Dylan arrived during the Band’s set, retreating to a dressing room. Negotiations on his participation continued through the intermission, apparently hung on the idea that The Last Waltz would be competing with Dylan’s own film project, Renaldo and Clara. The problem was, Warner Bros. had funded Scorsese’s movie with an understanding that Bob Dylan would appear. Finally, after another round of discussions, Dylan agreed to let crews film his last two songs, starting with a bitterly ironic run through “Forever Young,” which Dylan cuffs around with an acid brusqueness, curtly denying the evening’s embedded nostalgia.

Together, Bob Dylan and the Band resurrected two lesser-known gems from their infamous 1966 electric tour, “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts like We Never Have Met)” and — in a twist, Levon Helm once said — “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” “Surprised, we played along, figuring that Bob realized we were missing something good by not having any of the old rock ‘n’ roll on film,” Helm wrote in This Wheel’s On Fire.

Bob Dylan and the Band tore into them like hungry wolves — to the point where Dylan nearly snarls himself hoarse. As the crews tried to wrap up at the agreed-upon time, Levon Helm said Bill Graham rushed in to countermand those instructions, saying: “Fuck you! Roll the fucking cameras! Roll ’em!” And thus, the raucous and celebratory sing-along of “I Shall Be Released” was thankfully documented.

Not that The Last Waltz doesn’t still shine a spotlight on the contributions of others. Van Morrison provides a needed spark during the lengthy concert’s mid point, Muddy Waters simply roars through a late-period rendition of “Mannish Boy,” Emmylou Harris imbues “Evangeline” with a crystalline beauty, and Rick Danko’s darkly emotional “It Makes No Difference” arguably outdoes the original studio version. Robbie Robertson, performing with an unfettered joy, fires off volley after volley of stiletto-precise guitar work, while Hudson creates a spectral frame for it all.

Of the Band, only Richard Manuel seems to recede in the moment. Not every guest works, including an out-of-place Neil Diamond and a simply out-of-it Neil Young. That anyone’s star shone so brightly, in retrospect, is no small miracle. Last-minute planning snafus — not least of which was Dylan’s unwillingness to commit — and recording mishaps nearly derailed The Last Waltz time and time again. Ultimately, the Band rehearsed for a staggering 12 hours, trying to nail down the arrangements and sound requirements for this bulging multi-artist extravaganza. Each of the songs would be performed live, in front of a sold-out crowd, and a huge crew with recording equipment.

“I mean, we had to learn twenty-some-odd songs we’d never played before in our lives,” Robbie Robertson told Musician in 1982. “So, every time out of the chute, it was like throwing the dice. It’s hard enough to remember our own stuff, let alone everybody from Joni Mitchell to Muddy Waters.”

That actually played right into the hands of Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, two performers born to the stage. Helm was always most at home there; Dylan still is.

If Rick Danko nearly bested a signature performance from his own studio career, Levon Helm did one better — constructing the definitive version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with the addition of a coiled horn section. His brilliant pairing with the Staple Singers for an update of “The Weight” plumbed undiscovered depths of meaning. He breathes shuddering new life into “Mystery Train,” and snorts through “Ophelia” with a salacious grit — the latter of which ends with a triumphal Helm sighing with what looks like satisfied exhaustion. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, managed that rarest of things — recapturing the danger and meaning of his best years, no small thing.

That Thanksgiving evening, some 37 years gone, concluded in the only way it could, really. Levon Helm wanders back out on stage, leading a loose jam for about 30 minutes before the rest of his Band mates eventually return, as well. That leads to the five-man lineup’s last song performance, an ironic run through the desperate pleas of “Don’t Do It” that ended around 2 a.m. “When it was over,” Levon Helm said, “so was the Band.” Robbie Robertson stepped up to the microphone and said, “Thank you, goodnight.” And then: “Goodbye.”

Want more Band stuff? ‘Across the Great Divide’ is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. Check it out here!

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • tl

    An over-examined documentary but indeed a powerful collection of music and stars. While he is often dismissed, I think Neil Diamond’s performance is among the highlights. He was working with Robbie Robertson at the time for his album “Beautiful Noise,” which is not a typical Diamond record. I know it’s tragically unhip to say it, but Diamond shines in this flick.

  • Scott Meyers

    By 1976, Neil Diamond had become very commercialized, and to most true rock fans, he was not considered important any longer. Having been at the Last Waltz, I can say the crowd did not welcome him, except with some polite applause. The look on Joni’s face with Neil Diamond sharing her microphone was telling. And The Band, except for Robbie, just did not want him singing at the show. Neil had previously been a respected artist at the turn of the decade, but by 1976, he was not. But, hey we all enjoy different stuff.

    But to correct the writer of the article, while the film came out in 1978, the show was Thanksgiving Day, 1976, making it 39 years ago, not 37.

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