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10 things you should know about the Band's Last Waltz
By
Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Published

November 23, 2016

Genre

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On Nov. 25, 1976, the Band performed its last concert as a full unit. Dubbed the Last Waltz, it was a decadent, celebratory, star-packed affair held at San Francisco’s Winterland Theatre. It was the end of an era for one of the most influential bands of the day, and it featured guest performances from the likes of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, the Staples Singers, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. Oh, and Neil Diamond, of course.  

Filmed by Martin Scorsese, then a young director fresh off the hype of his film Mean Streets, it’s been called one of the greatest concert films ever recorded, a fitting swan song to the groundbreaking group of Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and their brother-in-arms from Arkansas, Levon Helm.  

To celebrate the 40th anniversary, The Last Waltz is being reissued. Below, we look at 10 things you may not have known about the legendary performance.

1. The last supper

We’ve all seen the film, but what many people don’t realize is that the concert, held on American Thanksgiving, was a long celebratory farewell, which included a Thanksgiving feast for 5,000 people who paid $25 for tickets — an astronomical price at a time when tickets normally sold for between $4-$7. People dressed in their finest, sat at long tables draped in white table clothes and ate while dancers did the waltz in the middle of it all.

Bill Graham, who owned the Winterland Theatre where the performance was held, took great pride in the feast, easily recalling the specific quantities to anyone who asked throughout the evening. All while in a white tuxedo and top hat, no less. Both Robertson and Helm list the cornucopia in their bios, Testimony and This Wheel’s on Fire, respectively. The feast included:

  • 6,000 pounds of turkey (over 200 of them).
  • 300 pounds of Nova Scotia salmon.
  • 1,000 pounds of potatoes.
  • 90 gallons of gravy.
  • 500 pounds of cranberry sauce.
  • 400 gallons of cider.
  • 400 pounds of pumpkin pie, and so on.

2. Secret guests before secret guests were cool

Drake and Taylor Swift may have made it their calling cards to bring out a range of surprise guests on their tours, but 40 years earlier, the Band already had it perfected. Despite the fact that listing the likes of Dylan, Mitchell and Young on the bill would have easily made the ticket prices worth the cost, promoter Graham chose to not list any of the celebrity guests on the bill. The ads simply said, “Bill Graham presents The Last Waltz: the Band and friends.”

“We were testing the waters as to see how much people would trust us,” he said in his 1992 memoir, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. For those who were fortunate enough to trust in them, they ended up with tickets to one of the most pivotal live moments of the era, and certainly the best farewell show ever recorded.

3. The white room

Robertson was asked to help prepare Scorsese's film crew by recommending a movie they could watch. He suggested Jean Cocteau's avant garde film The Blood of a Poet, for reasons he still doesn’t remember. That said, the influence of the film was felt mostly in the green room for the artists backstage, which was dubbed the Cocteau Room. As Helm writes in his memoir, it was floor-to-ceiling white, with cutouts of Groucho Marx’s nose postered to the walls and glass tables with razor blades “artfully strewn about.”

“Cocaine was a big, big deal at the time,” writes Helm, adding that the room was “often filled with people tapping razors on the table.”

4. Neil Young’s cocaine booger

Young must have spent his fair share of time in the Cocteau Room, as he reportedly came out to perform “Helpless” with a large cocaine rock stuck up his nose. You can see it in the teeth-gritting intensity of the performance, but you can’t physically see the rock. Robertson has admitted to spending a fair amount of money in post-production editing it out, as per Young’s manager’s request. “The most expensive cocaine I ever bought,” he once said. As he recalls in his memoir, “as soon as Neil Young took the stage, I could tell no one at Winterland was feeling better than he was.” According to Robertson in a recent interview with CBC Music (which you can read tomorrow), the original, unedited version of the concert will appear on the 40th anniversary reissue.

5. Joni Mitchell comes in from above

Despite the rock, or maybe because of it, Young’s performance of “Helpless” was one of the most affecting moments of the concert. His vocals were incredibly moving, but what really makes it stand out is Joni Mitchell’s soprano accompaniment, even though she wasn’t actually onstage. Because she was scheduled to perform next and they didn’t want to ruin the surprise, she was singing behind a curtain backstage, her voice floating about the audience like an angel. As Robertson writes, “when Joni’s high falsetto voice came soaring in from the heavens, I looked up, and I saw people in the audience looking up too, wondering where it was coming from.”

6. The other Neil

A lot has been made about Neil Diamond’s presence on the stage, clearly the only act that didn’t really fit in with the lineup of folk singers and rockers. For Robertson, he writes that he wanted artists there to represent various styles and eras of music, and Diamond represented the Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition. In that vein, Diamond even performed a song that Robertson co-wrote with him, “Dry Your Eyes." The decision, however, created tension during the show. The rumour is that when Diamond came offstage he remarked to Dylan, "Follow that," to which Dylan simply responded, "What do I have to do, go onstage and fall asleep?"

7. Muddying the waters

Just as Diamond was there to represent Tin Pan Alley, Muddy Waters was there to represent the blues and, while we’re at it, the foundation of rock 'n' roll itself. Shockingly, he was almost cut from the bill because the show was running too long, according to Helm. When told that someone had to be cut, Helm reacted. “I was in a mood,” he writes. “I snarled, ‘Go tell Robertson to tell Neil Diamond we don’t even know who the f--k he is!” Helm was then asked to tell Muddy that he was being taken off the show, to which Helm replied with a threat that he would instead leave with the blues legend to do “the goddamn Last Waltz in New York. Him and me” (he also threatened to have his Arkansas buddies stomp the man suggesting the cut). Needless to say, Muddy stayed in the picture, and was incredible.

8. Dylan steals the show, literally

As is well documented, the Last Waltz ran for more than four hours, and once the initial concert was over, Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood of the Stones, as well as a number of artists who performed that night, continued to jam onstage with the band. Robertson handed off his guitar to Stephen Stills and went backstage for a shower while an overzealous fan stole his shirt, he writes in Testimony. That wasn’t, however, the only thing stolen. Dylan’s manager, who for various reasons didn’t want him to appear too much on film (one reason being that he was in the midst of making another film, Renaldo and Clara), went back to the recording truck immediately following the show and seized the tapes. “There would have to be negotiations,” wrote Helm in This Wheel’s on Fire.

9. Levon hated it, but gets the best quote

Perhaps it goes without saying at this point, but Helm truly hated the Last Waltz, calling it the “the biggest f--kin’ rip-off that ever happened to the Band,” mostly because nobody but Robertson received any royalties from home-video sales. Helm saw it instead as a vanity project for Robertson, criticizing Scorsese's “long, loving close-ups” of Robertson’s “heavily made-up face” and “expensive haircut.” He also disliked the “nervous” and “fast-talking” director, and during the first screening, sat with Ronnie Hawkins and openly laughed and mocked the scenes in which Robertson was interviewed about life on the road. “I was in shock over how bad the movie was,” he writes.

Despite all this, Helm gets the best quote in the film.

“Bluegrass or country music, if it comes down to that area and mixes with the rhythm, and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music,” Helms explains during one of the film’s interview segments. Scorsese, off-screen, asks him, “What’s it called then?” Helm simply laughs and says, "Isn’t it obvious, man? Rock and roll.”

10. The next waltz

The Last Waltz wasn’t really supposed to be the Band’s last dance. In fact, Robertson imagined it as a farewell to their touring life, but a beginning to a studio-only life, not unlike the Beatles, who quit touring in 1966 to focus on making some of the greatest studio albums ever recorded. That wasn’t to be, however, as Robertson would soon learn. He had booked studio time in California to finish up the suite that concluded the album, plus some cuts off their next album, Islands, but no one showed up. “I had to read the writing on the wall,” he recalls in Testimony. Islands was the last studio album released by the group’s original lineup.

Bonus

For fans who have already watched The Last Waltz but wish they could see the full, four-plus-hour concert complete with every single performance (and not just the ones edited for the film), you can watch a bootleg recording captured from the venue’s in-house cameras. The footage isn’t as polished, the harmonies are off and the tape just isn’t as good because it didn’t get the benefit of post-production dubbing. But cook yourself a turkey dinner and it’s the closest you can get to actually being there.

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG

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