Sweet William (Fritsch)
Michael McClure (see below)
Diane di Prima
Freewheelin Frank Reynolds [see below)
(Note: Poets Robert Duncan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti also read)
The Band’s Perfect Goodbye
A Behind-the-Scenes Report by Emmett Grogan
On December 6, 1969, I attended a concert at a race track in Livermore, near Altamont, California. Three hundred thousand people gathered on the grounds to see and hear rock performers on a crowded stage. Several cameramen were positioned at various angles to record the event as part of a documentary on The Rolling Stones’ concert tour of America. One of the cameramen got lucky. His lens was focused on the right place at the right time. The scene he recorded — the murder of an audience member by Hell’s Angels “security men” — became the dramatic highlight of the documentary Gimme Shelter. Like the photographing of this scene, the Altamont concert itself had happened by accident. And most of it went wrong. Nothing was planned. Everything was winged, improvised on the spot. Like life. Like death.
Six years passed before I went to another concert in the San Francisco Bay area, and this was an orchestrated event in which nothing was left to be played by ear, not even the music. The Band’s Last Waltz was as calculated as a pension. Every aspect of the production was carefully charted, as were the planets governing the stars. Nothing was overlooked or given space to simply happen. The planning was meticulous, the affair thoroughly cased, like a Willie Sutton bank job.
The Last Waltz was not only a hit, it was a major-league home run with the bases loaded. A grand slam. The Los Angeles Times called it “the most prestigious collection of rock stars ever assembled for a single show.” An elegant rambling moved Eric Clapton to remark, “Don’t think there will be anything like it ever again. Ever.” He’s right. There won’t be another gathering quite like it. In the year of Nadia Comăneci, the timing was perfect. According to a professional astrologist, the day was excessively rare. The sort of day you wait for years to happen. The kind of day that won’t happen for perhaps another decade.
Like Hotspur, I don’t have much truck with astrological charts. To those who do, however, Thanksgiving Day 1976 was special. There were four planets in Sagittarius, all being ruled by Jupiter, the planet of Great Fortune There were no negative aspects to the Sagittarian planets. The sun, Mercury, Mars and Neptune interacted with positive force, showing a tremendous amount of guarded energy, protecting the musical event from misfortune. During all the time that The Band was onstage, there was only one technical flaw: Al 10:35 p.m. The Band’s lead guitarist and composer, Robbie Robertson, broke the E string on his guitar. It was replaced in 40 seconds. Nothing else went musically wrong the entire night. For that, you can thank the lucky stars, or you can know better.
Now, the bottom line of what has been called the greatest indoor concert ever held was work — hard work, mainly by five musicians who’ve been together for 16 years and have been known as The Band for the past ten. Anyone near them during the month ol November was attracted by, then drawn into, the communal effort. Anyone who disdained hard labor was invited to leave. Amateurs were not extended an invitation.
The major way stations to The Last Waltz were choreographed at Shangri-La, a ranch-style house off the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California. The roomy residence was renovated into an austerely funky recording studio with a 24-track board and beds everywhere. It was The Band’s sixth, and perhaps final, home.
In the sound studio, The Band was working: Rick Danko on bass; Garth Hudson at the organ; Levon Helm on drums; Richard Manuel at the piano, Robbie Robertson on guitar. They had spent half their lives together this way, playing these and other instruments.
Seated in the center of the studic alongside Richard and facing Robbie, Joni Mitchell was rehearsing the three tunes she’d chosen to play at The Last Waltz. She picked at the strings with the smooth, effortless confidence that has made her so good that many musicians don’t want to play with her; their fear is that, in the company of Mitchell and her satin accuracy, they’ll sound sloppy.
The Band intended to back Joni as she’d seldom been backed before. To guarantee their success, they had composer/musicologist John Simon sit alone in a corner of the studio and transcribe the session onto sheets of paper. He’d later compose arrangements that would bridge any gaps, cancel any flaws. He’d also write in parts for a horn section.
The rehearsal lasted three hours, with Joni leaving unconvinced that The Band could play behind her properly. But by the time she returned for a second session on Monday night, John Simon had already written and rehearsed his musical arrangements with The Band. They played her music brilliantly, following her lead, maintaining her sound.
Most of the guest artists were rehearsed in the same manner during that pre-concert week at Shangri-La, including Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Other guests’ rehearsals were held in San Francisco.
There were 37 songs scheduled to be played on Thanksgiving Day in Winterland. Of these, 21 were completely new to The Band — including Robertson’s last-minute composition, The Last Waltz — and were the signature tunes of guest musicians whose sound is precious to them and familiar to the listening audience.
For two weeks, from noon to six a.m. daily, The Band learned these new songs, as well as the music John Simon arranged on the spot. They also rehearsed the horn section, led by Howard Johnson on tuba and slide; Larry Packer on a brilliant violin; Tom Malone on trombone and slide; Jim Gordon on his tenor horn; and two Hollywood studio musicians who arrived with their trumpets, complaining that the limo was dirty, that there wasn’t enough beer or coke, and reminding everyone that George Harrison had treated them each to a thousand dollar bill in appreciation of their presence at one of his concerts.
Rick Danko rose to the occasion, telling the pair of trumpeters that the remedy was on its way. “When it arrives, just get in, and it’ll take you straight to your desires.” “What is it?” asked the trumpeters. “A taxi,” Rick said. There’s only one sign posted on the wall of the studio at Shangri-La. COWS MAY COME; COWS MAY GO is all it says. And the trumpeters did, as soon as the taxi showed.
The rules laid down at Shangri-La were as strict as those in any class barroom — “Be good or be gone.” As simple as that. And if you pulled up lame, there was always someone around to direct you to the nearest hospital. Besides learning the new musical arrangements and rehearsing their own material, The Band was cutting an album for Capitol Records. And also helping director Martin Scorsese write a 300-page script for the filming of The Last Waltz. There was no sympathy for the devil at Shangri-La.
Scorsese had completed shooting his seven-million-dollar production New York, New York only a week earlier, and now he was bringing his Academy Award — winning production designer, Boris Levin, plus seven of Hollywood’s top cameramen — including Laslo Kovacs (Easy Rider, New York, New York), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver) and David Meyers (Rolling Thunder Revue) — together to film rock music as it had never been filmed before. Each line of every song was scripted so that Scorsese could focus closely with any of his seven 35mm cameras on the main protagonist of each lyric during each of the 37 tunes. A first.
The Band is familiar with firsts. On their debut album, Music from Big Pink, with a Bob Dylan painting on the cover and a group photograph of their “Next of Kin” inside, the liner notes read: “A pink house seated in the sun of Overlook Mountain in West Saugerties, New York. Big Pink bore this music and these songs along its way. It’s the first witness of this album that’s been thought and composed right there inside its walls.” Most people think that the notes are a poem. They’re right. The poem was written by the woman who is married to Robbie Robertson, a Québecoise whose name is Dominique. It was the first time she’d written anything in a language other than her native French.
The first television appearance by The Band was in 1970 on the Ed Sullivan Show. They’d chosen that show from among many more lucrative offers because The Band had decided to perform only on live television. Their second TV appearance was in 1976 on NBC’s Saturday Night, which is also telecast live. They had been absent for six years from a surefire medium for promoting record albums.
Further proof of their sense of commitment became evident over the weekend prior to the Thanksgiving Day farewell performance. After rehearsing for the concert from noon to midnight Sunday, The Band called in engineer Ed Anderson to help them lay down the final tracks for their new album, Islands.
The Band was a gang in a rumble fighting exhaustion, giving heart to one another, making every punch count.
The effort was enormous. Everyone was confidently polite, courteous without ever saying “please” or “thank you.” They were careful of one another but not skittish or overly cautious. Each individual gives his best shot. Garth Hudson strains an eerie groan while playing the organ. Levon Heln grunts as he works the drums, like a boxer laying into a heavy bag. Richard Manuel pokes the keyboard with his calloused fingers, wincing a melody on the piano. Rick Danko huffs abrupt notes, pounding the beat from his bass. And Robbie Robertson is tightlipped, his body contorted as if in a grand-mal seizure, humping his guitar, picking through chord changes. All of them in a contest with fatigue, struggling to get the tune as right as clockwork.
With Rick Danko at a microphone in the sound studio trying to punch in his harmony around Levon Helm’s taped vocal, with Robbie Robertson at the board inside the control room, they were the only ones left standing; the others had completed their parts and staggered off to bed. This is how the battle sounded:
Robbie: “You might stay on the same note.”
Rick: “But I hit through…”
Robbie: “Yeah, it wasn’t quite right.”
Rick: “Maybe just staying up there might be the thing to do.”
Robbie: “Why’n’t you come on in and hear the voices. It might be easier after listening to Richard and Levon’s tracks.”
Rick: “Boy, it’s a weird one. Like two melodies against each other. Gotta create another one. Like in unison with Levon, or maybe a straight thing ending on Levon’s unison note without bumping into him, you know.”
Robbie: “Go ahead and land an octave higher than Levon, then it might work.” Rick: “Let’s try it. Punch in as close to Levon as you can, ’cause it’s a tight squeeze. We gotta hit the mark to make this change, it’s so close.”
Robbie: “We’ll hit it once more, gotta smack dead in on the tune.”
Rick sings: “Life goes round like a wheel. You never know if it’s real.”
Robbie: “I didn’t hear a clash. You’re either singing the same note as somebody, or you got it right.”
Rick: “Got any inspiration, anybody?”
It went like this, until Rick got his harmony down perfect. It was six in the morning. Wired with nervous energy, Rick wanted to continue polishing. Robbie sat motionless, staring at the knobs on the control board. There was a long moment of silence; then Robbie said, “If I don’t go home right now, I’m going to cry.”
No one laughed. He wasn’t kidding. Everyone hurt. The weeks of long hours, the strain of orchestrating the guest artists and the horn section and the album, the Thanksgiving Day event itself was painstaking and beginning to take its toll. Yet nobody’s nerves were racked. Everyone was just overwhelmingly tired, glad to leave, perhaps to sleep, strengthening the muscles to tackle another 18 hours in the studio before departing at midnight Monday on a flight to San Francisco.
At San Francisco International, everyone climbed from the aircraft and into a rented Winnebago for the halfhour drive to the Hotel Miyako. Two members of The Band were not present. Levon Helm had decided to drive up with his children and friends in a mobile home. Garth Hudson had remained at Shangri-La to finish his work on the album. Even as the curtain was falling, they remained the two most independent members of The Band.
Consider Levon first. Levon spent a semester at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, during the winter of 1972 to increase his independence and flexibility. “Wanted to be able to do something about what I heard in my mind. To play what I was thinking. Timing is what it’s all about. Split-second timing. You get that down, you’re set.” When he did get it down, he began constructing his own production facility in Woodstock. In the middle of wooded acreage, he spent $250,000 building a spacious studio-residence entirely of prime lumber, including the wooden pegs that hold it together. The name of the company is R.C.O.: our company.
Garth Hudson took time last year to help Yamaha develop a new polyphonic synthesizer, the CS-80. A unique, two-channel instrument that will sell for about seven grand when marketed, its public debut was at the Last Waltz. Among musicians, especially those who employ synthesizers, Garth Hudson is considered a craftsman whose music approaches the cosmic. He’s also a master of dowsing, using a divining rod to locate underground water. When not working, Garth sometimes frequents a Hollywood night club called Ali Baba’s, where he watches the belly dancers and listens with pleasure to the fine oud players. Besides a deep sense of humor, Garth also has a healthy respect for eternity, which is possibly why his organ recitals linger ever so swiftly.
Rick Danko, on the other hand, has only recently discovered his chops as a soloist. Last summer he supposedly signed a million-dollar contract with Clive Davis at Arista Records to produce his own albums. Rick plays other instruments besides the bass, but none better than his own voice. He sings like an aviary.
Robbie Robertson found himself soon after he dropped Jaime from his name. As a guitar player, he ranks high among the world’s top dozen. As a songwriter, he’s more of a storyteller than a poet. He narrates the changing times, the soul of history. But it’s as a producer that Robertson’s full range of curious talent will ultimately be expressed. Whether in music or in films, or a combination of both, you can bet that Robbie will someday produce a masterpiece all his own.
Pianist Richard Manuel has long been fitted with the jacket of Poor Richard. But when he’s in shape, the voice of Richard Manuel is the voice of every human emotion all at once. After he sheds the skin of giggling adolescence, Richard will ripen into a piano-playing singer par excellence and will no longer be considered “poor” by anyone.
A short distance from the Miyako Hotel is the aging ice palace that is Winterland — an ancient auditorium located in the baddest part of a rough-and-tumble town. Employing a staff of 518, legendary producer Bill Graham worked for two weeks to prepare the interior of the spacious hall so that it would look right for what he considered a major historical event in American musical history. The transformation of Winterland meant renting the sets from the San Francisco Opera’s La Traviata (sets which themselves used seven chandeliers originally designed for Gone with the Wind and several Greek-Roman statues borrowed from the prop department at 20th Century-Fox); draping the lobby in red velvet curtains; placing a fountain amid a cluster of bushes in the ticket foyer. All of which Time magazine would later regard as “lavish trappings,” a description that does not do justice to the contrast between the sophistication of The Band’s Last Waltz and the usual outdoor free-for-all.
Marty Scorsese and his 45-member film crew had no trouble relating to the Visconti-style opera set, and they took great pains to conceal their seven cameras and not interfere with the audience. They sank one camera several feet into the subfloor to make it less obtrusive, constructing a gazebo around the base.
At five p.m. Thanksgiving Day, November 25th, the first of the 5000 ticket holders swept through the front doors, gaping at the unexpected splendor of the hall, feeling comforted that they weren’t about to be nickel and dimed, much less shortchanged. The preliminaries included a full-course meal eaten at rows upon rows of long tables covered with white tablecloths, strewn with flowers, glowing with candlelight, and with roses placed 16 inches apart. The diners consumed 220 turkeys, weighing 5600 pounds; 90 gallons of gravy; 200 pounds of peeled yams; 40 crates of lettuce; 18 cases of cranberries; 70 bunches of parsley; 500 pounds of onions; 500 pounds of celery; 240 pounds of butter; 350 pounds of croutons; five quarts of garlic; ten quarts of sage; one quart of thyme; 20 gallons of apple cider; and for vegetarians, there was a special menu of 300 pounds of Alaska salmon, courtesy of Bob Dylan and “Minnesota” Lou Kemp; a cornucopia stuffed with six crates of fresh vegetables; 400 gallons of apple juice; and a dessert of individual pumpkin or mincemeat pies.
During the meal, entertainment was provided by the 38 stringed instruments of the black-tied Berkeley Promenade Orchestra playing Viennese waltzes directly in front of the stage. The dinner completed, the tables were removed and the entire hall dimmed. Couples in flowing white gowns and tail coats waltzed in shadow on the dance floor. The orchestra left and, while the house lights slowly dimmed some more, a grand curtain of shimmering confetti lit from all sides was let down in front of the stage, like a waterfall brilliant in the sun. Chandeliers were then lowered to a position above the stage, glowing brighter and more radiant as they descended.
Suddenly, in the dimly lit darkness, strong mantralike sounds bellowed fron the depths of the stage. Then a spotligh picked out Levon Helm, who kicked things off at 9:07 p.m. with a “Good evening” — then straight into Set I, starting with Up on Cripple Creek, nonstop through The Shape I’m in and It Makes No Difference, with Garth Hudson doing a powerful saxophone solo that Robbie Robertson acknowledged to the howling audience with a simple “Thank you.”
Robertson introduced the members of the horn section, the crowd went further wild, and The Band played Life is Carnival. The Band’s fifth tune was an extraordinary rendition of This Wheel’s on Fire, sung by Rick Danko. This was followed by The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show, with Helm and Danko sharing the vocals beautifully. Then Richard Manuel nearly blew his pipes, singing Georgia on My Mind in a voice that had the crowd roaring “All-fucking-right!”
Next, the lights softened, and Levon Helm peeled the lyrics of Ophelia fron his throat like sap from a tree, and on King Harvest (Has Surely Come), Richard’s voice bottomed out, leaving Rick and Levon to carry the song backed by bristling, crisp, Robertson guitar solo. The horn section led the way into powerful The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. The crowd swayed in unison. During the thunderous applause that followed, the theatrical lighting again began to change, until Rick Danko stood in the center of a stark spotlight singing Stage Fright. The surreal lighting effects were made breath-taking by Garth Hudson’s organ solo, which nearly drowned the hall in poetic lunacy.
The Band closed Set I with the high voltage of Rag Mama Rag. With Rick on acoustic fiddle, Richard on an added set of drums and Garth at the piano they kicked out all the slots with knuckle-funky energy, blasting open Set II, greasing up the slots for their invited guests.
“As you might have heard,” Robbie told the crowd upon completion of the first set’s last song, “we got a few friends joining us tonight. We’re gonna start with someone we played with 16 years ago — The Hawk!” Onstage bounced the man who organized The Band as his backup group in 1960 (calling them first The Hawks, then The Crackers), Ronnie Hawkins, in his fabled cowboy hat, shouting “The big time! The big time! Whadda y’all know ’bout that? God-damn!”
It was 10:09 p.m. For the next 100-odd minutes, guests paraded onstage, singing one or two songs and then returning to their audience seats. Ronnie Hawkins downed through a funky rendition of Who Do You Love, fanning Robbie’s guitar with his Western hat, chastising the organ — “Take it easy now, Garth, don’t you give me no lip” — finally exiting with his back to the audience, his arms spread in a wide goodbye.
Wearing a suave beret and a pair of dark shades, Dr. John sat at the piano like a Cheshire cat, dancing his fingers across the keyboard, marvelously singing Such a Night. Finished, the doctor shuffled from the piano to plug in his guitar as Robbie introduced “another great songwriter from Louisiana. The man who wrote See You Later, Alligator, Bobby Charles!” For the first time in more than 20 years, Bobby Charles came onstage to perform, singing Down South in New Orleans with Dr. John joining him on the vocal.
Paul Butterfield arrived next, his vigorous harmonica-playing on Mystery Train tearing up the house and shifting the music into a high gear it was to maintain for the rest of the night.
Muddy Waters pushed things further with Caledonia and his dancing, jumping, smoking, searing version of Mannish Boy. The crowd became hysterical, moving Robbie Robertson to go to the microphone and shout, “Wasn’t that a man! Muddy Waters!”
Somehow Eric Clapton managed to follow Waters’ act. At first, he was stiff, nervously tight, holding back, overly conscious of The Band’s presence during All My Past Times. Then the strap slipped off his guitar, leaving Rick and Robbie to fill the lead into Further on up the Road. Clapton adjusted his strap and returned smoothly to the song, Robbie yelling “Kick the fucking shit out of it, Eric; go on!” And he did, belting out the tune with spectacular precision, ending in a fired-up guitar duo with Robertson that would’ve had them in the aisles, if there had been any aisles.
By this time, The Band had collectively lost several pounds in sweat. They were thoroughly loose, ready for anything. Neil Young fit the mood perfectly. He took a moment to frame himself for the audience: “Before I start, I’d just like to say that it’s one of the great pleasures of my life to be on this stage with these people tonight.”
Amid the applause, The Band warmed into Ian Tyson’s composition, Four Strong Winds. Backing Neil Young’s performance, The Band was fearless. Richard Manuel even managed to shout a few loud “Ho!-Ho’s!” Rick joined in on the choruses, blending lightly with Neil and Robbie on a single mike while Garth bobbed his head like a mad monk at the organ, maintaining the level of high harmony.
The audience began to realize that The Band was changing musical styles constantly. To hear them stand solidly behind Muddy Waters was one thing; to hear them provide the same quality backing a few minutes later for Neil Young, whose music is as different from Muddy Waters’ as his skin coloring, was a measure of the width and breadth of The Band’s talent. Their professional musicianship became particularly clear with Joni Mitchell’s appearance onstage. On Coyote and Shadow & Light, Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar and Rick Danko’s bass-playing lifted Mitchell’s performance beyond its normal brilliance, and, adding an exquisite touch, Larry Packer’s violin smoothed the subtle surface of her songs, while Levon Helm brushed a solid backbeat on his drums. The pure tones of Joni’s voice were superbly carried through the lyrics by John Simon’s sophisticated musical arrangement of each of the tunes.
On Furry Sings the Blues, Robbie invited Neil Young to join them onstage. He did. But during the song, he stared at Joni Mitchell, became entranced, missed his cue. It didn’t really matter, since the song didn’t work from the start. There were just too many complicated time changes that were smothered by The Band’s amplified background.
It was during this third song’s shapeless performance that the audience began speculating about what guest stars were still to appear. It was the first time that the 5000 spectators had done so aloud all evening. And it never rose above a murmur. No one yelled “Where’s Bob Dylan?” or bothered any of the celebrities sitting in the audience watching the show. The key word to describe the atmosphere was — is — maturity. Everyone at The Last Waltz acted his age. The only bones anyone chose to pick that night were the skeletons of the 220 turkeys left over from the Thanksgiving dinner.
The highest-priced entertainer ever to perform in Las Vegas was introduced by Robbie Robertson. “OK,” he shouted, “here’s somebody you all know for sure — Neil Diamond!” Wearing sunglasses, a gray suit over a pearlbuttoned shirt with only one button opened at the neck, Neil Diamond came onstage, addressing the audience. “I’m gonna do one song for you, but I’m gonna do it good”. And he did, singing Dry Your Eyes without plugging in his guitar, leaving The Band to fill in his music alone.
As Neil Diamond left the stage, John Simon took over the piano, while Richard Manuel began to sing an Irish lullaby, Tura Lura. During the first verse, the crowd started a mellow chant, softly voicing its growing expectations, mouthing a rhythmic series of strongly positive “yeses.” Then, at the sudden entrance of Van Morrison, the audience’s total affirmation of the musical event was vigorously confirmed. Clad in a maroon suit and a bright-green shirt, Morrison pumped the audience with his movements, burning up the floor boards, singing the song as a Ray Charles lullaby.
Surprised by Morrison’s first public appearance in more than three years, the audience went wild, cheering him at the song’s finish. He kept the flame up, cutting directly into Caravan with the horn section blasting, The Band’s volume high, and his voice blending triumphantly with their music. Morrison’s talented exuberance sent The Last Waltz whirling beyond its showcase-of-stars structure, transcending all categorical boundaries, crossing the frontiers of stardom to effectively celebrate The Band’s music, as well as his own.
Robbie Robertson sought to push the experience even further, shouting for Van Morrison to “turn on your radio!” demanding that he “kick the goddamn shit” out of the tune. Not only did Van belt the song to the rafters, he took Robbie literally, kicking his leg into the air, cakewalking a stylized cancan, dancing offstage.
Van’s exit caused an eruption; his performance had stunned the crowd into a frenzy. The hall was charged with emotion, and Robbie Robertson capped the electrifying moment by crediting the singer who’d already left the stage, actually introducing him for the first time: “Van the man!” was all he had to say. Then he quieted the house a bit, announcing “Gonna do another Canadian song for you. With two fellow Canadians.” Levon Helm sang the introduction to Acadian Driftwood, his voice sounding as rough as tree bark; Joni Mitchell and Neil Young formed the chorus, with John Simon conducting the horn section.
The song ended and each member of The Band looked wired, but drained. Their hair was matted with sweat; their rented “costume clothes” were drenched with perspiration. Robbie Robertson stepped forward, telling the audience, “We’re gonna take a short break. Be back in 20 minutes.” Nearly exhausted from their 155-minute, nonstop, marathon per formance, they hurried from the stage without announcing that there’d be no formal intermission, that the activity would continue onstage, that what migh have been an interval would be filled by several poets who’d accepted The Band’s invitation to represent the city of San Francisco with a recital of their poetry.
After being introduced by Bill Graham, I walked onstage and spoke for a few minutes, drawing a kind of frame around the poets, explaining who they were and what they meant to our generation. I felt honored to introduce Sweet William, the first of the poets, a Hell’s Angels of a man with whom I’d ridden to Altamont six years earlier.
After reading his poem carved in wood, Sweet William introduced Lenore Kandel, who talked of Joy! Michael McClure followed and was roundly received for his recitation of Chaucer. Then Diane Di Prima read three of her works, each poem dedicated to a specific year: 1965, 1970, 1976. Robert Duncan swooped classically onto the stage, leaving his wool cape in the wings, and read with resounding resonance. Freewheelin Frank strode out next, planting himself at center-stage in a spread-eagle stance that added power to his forceful statement. The recital closed with a satiric prayer by capo poesia, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Bookstore is the sole physical monument of the San Francisco poets’ renaissance of the late Fifties.
Within minutes of the poets’ recital the lights dimmed, the house went dark the music began again. Garth Hudson improvised a long, stately intro to Chest Fever that was followed immediately by the piece that Robbie Robertson had composed specifically for the occasion The Last Waltz. Finished earlier that same morning, the spanking new lyrics had had to be written on cue cards for the vocalists, Rick Danko and Levon Helm, in order for them to sing it. The Band then hit directly into their signature tune, The Weight, performing it with an urgent confidence.
Finally Robbie introduced the only “guest artist” to follow the San Francisco poets. “We’d like to bring on one more friend,” he said. “A very good friend of ours, Bob Dylan.” The crowd roared as Dylan came on, immediately plugged his guitar into an amp and struck the first notes of Baby, Let Me Follow You Down. Where most other guests had been overly respectful, nearly reverent of The Band’s presence onstage, Dylan hammed it up in a high-crowned, pearl-white hat, bopping about the stage like a pimp on the make. He swaggered his lyrics into the mike with a biting power that was beyond being nasty ever again. Without breaking time for even a single note, Dylan segued into the slowpaced Hazel, then noisily into I Don’t Believe You and a hard, rough version of Forever Young, then closed his performance by repeating the opening song, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.
The formal end of The Last Waltz was the grandest of all rock-concert finales, with Dylan at center-stage, backed by The Band, singing I Shall Be Released and joined by what was undoubtedly the single biggest collection of rock stars ever to perform on the same stage at the same time. All the guest artists reappeared, clustering around microphones: Ronnie Hawkins, Bobby Charles, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, and Neil Diamond vocalizing on the same mike.
Sung by that high-powered ensemble, I Shall Be Released stunned everyone, including the singers, with its strange paraphysics. Ringo Starr began laying into the drums, lickety-splitting a funky rock beat as all the musicians quit the stage except Levon Helm, who fell in on his set of drums, and the jam was on. Ronnie Wood popped up from nowhere, plugged in and picked his guitar. Eric Clapton came back, as did Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, The Band, Neil Young and, for the first time that night, Stephen Stills.
The jam went on for a half hour, ending around 2:20 a.m. The Band playing Baby, Don’t Do It, and Robbie Robertson signing off for the group. “Good night and goodbye” were the final words said onstage at The Last Waltz.
In Room 1511 at the Miyako Hotel, Sweet William had left a message for me. The words BEWARE THE DEADLY UNDERDOSE!! were written on a bathroom wall. I understood what he meant. I also understood that I need not be wary of The Band’s last waltz. It was a perfect count.