`Waltz' bittersweet for many, but not Robbie Robertson
by Greg KotFrom The Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2002. Greg Kot is a Chicago Tribune rock critic. Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune. Please do not copy or redistribute this article.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Punk was looming as the new sound, and memories of the Woodstock-era rock aristocracy were fading. On Thanksgiving Day in 1976, "The Last Waltz" was to be the last hurrah of the old guard -- the final concert by one of the most revered rock ensembles of its time, The Band.
Now, 25 years after that performance in San Francisco, Robbie Robertson speaks fondly of a band and an era that in his opinion still haven't been topped.
"To this day that film is unsurpassed, the talent on that stage is unsurpassed," he says in an interview at the South by Southwest Music Conference, where he has been busy crowing about what it all meant to industry tastemakers and fans.
"I don't want to be one of those people saying, `Remember when things were better?' But somebody, please, step up! Because nobody has."
The occasion for all the bravado is the theatrical re-release of "The Last Waltz," the Martin Scorsese-directed movie of The Band's farewell concert (it opens April 19 in Chicago); the first-time availability on May 7 of a DVD version featuring new interviews and additional footage, and the release on April 16 of a four-CD box set that augments the original 30-song soundtrack with 24 previously unreleased rehearsals and performances.
"The Last Waltz" was hailed as the greatest rock 'n' roll movie ever made, and its stature has only increased, providing a snapshot of legends and cult figures from the quarter-century when blues, country and pop merged into rock, as epitomized by The Band's rhythm-and-soul eclecticism. Here were Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Ronnie Hawkins and Paul Butterfield sharing a stage with The Band's Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko on a night that would be captured on film by Scorsese, one of America's greatest filmmakers.
But for a movie intended as a celebration, "The Last Waltz" now also can be seen as something of a wake: a monument to self-importance that virtually excludes the audience, a look backstage at the fissures and tensions that had begun to consume The Band, and a portrait of five men walking their separate ways after a divorce that only one of them (Robertson) had fully endorsed.
Little remainsThe Band today is in tatters. Danko died in 1999 and Manuel hanged himself in 1986, victims of the road life Robertson had come to loathe. Helm has turned into Robertson's bitter enemy, in a dispute over songwriting credits. Robertson, meanwhile, has steadfastly refused to rejoin the remaining members of The Band for live performances, even at Dylan's 30th anniversary party in New York in 1993. In the movie, he claims to be sickened by the decadence of touring life after 16 years in a rock 'n' roll band, and the "Waltz" is his way of waving it goodbye. He hasn't looked back since.
"I understand why the Eagles get together and say, `I really don't like the rest of you guys, but the money is too good to pass up because next year nobody may be offering me that,' but this isn't about prostitution for me," Robertson says of his ongoing indifference to a Band reunion, even for a potential big-bucks tour with Dylan.
At 57, he is a dapper presence in a suit jacket; the face is puffier, but the jet-black hair and hooded eyes still smolder like they did in "The Last Waltz," the movie that opened the door to his career in Hollywood.
Never looked backHe is currently an executive at the entertainment giant DreamWorks and has scored numerous Hollywood movies, starred in one ("Carny"), and released four solo albums.
"I'm really lucky because I found myself in a position where I can do whatever I want to do," he says. "I can make records, produce records, make movies, or I can do nothing. I'm not a slave to the dollar."
Helm claims the opposite in his 1993 autobiography, "This Wheel's On Fire," in which he claims that Robertson ripped off his bandmates by claiming the lion's share of songwriting credits in The Band (he could not be reached for an interview): "I even confronted Robbie over this issue during this era," Helm wrote. "... I cautioned that most so-called business moves had [destroyed] a lot of great bands and killed off whatever music was left in them. I told Robbie that The Band was supposed to be partners ... Well, it never quite worked out that way. We stayed in the divide and conquer mode."
Robertson claims not to have read Helm's book, but he nonetheless responds to his former bandmate's accusation with a mixture of empathy and indignation: "I know that Levon's had a tough time, he's had health problems, but it's not my fault and I wish him the best. To say that it was an issue [while they were together in The Band] is just nonsense, utter nonsense, after all these years. Who did the work? I tried, I begged Levon to write songs or help me write songs -- all the guys. I always encouraged everybody to write. You can't make somebody do what they don't want to do or can't do, and he's not a songwriter.
"With The Band he started to write one song, `Strawberry Wine,' the whole time and couldn't finish it, and I helped him finish it. And there were some other songs that I wrote and he was there when I was writing them, and just because he was being supportive, I gave him credit on a couple of songs. He didn't write one note, one word, nothing. What he's saying now is the result of somebody thinking about their financial problems. I wrote these songs and then 20 or 30 years later somebody comes back and says he wrote the songs? It never came up back then, and it's preposterous that it's coming up now."
The end was nearViewers catch a whiff of the acrimony that began to tear The Band apart in its waning years during the interviews sprinkled throughout "The Last Waltz."
Robertson dominates the screen time; he stands at center stage through most of the songs, and offstage he is clearly the most eager to respond to Scorsese's questions. He isn't just a participant in the film, he is its catalyst; it was Robertson who enlisted Scorsese to make the film six weeks before the concert and later became the director's roommate in Hollywood while the movie was being readied for release in 1978. The rest of The Band were unenthusiastic participants at best. They slouch or mumble through the interviews, and Helm is sometimes downright hostile, his blue eyes like knives piercing the camera lens. He is even more unsparing in his autobiography:
"As far as I was concerned, the movie was a disaster. ... For two hours [at a screening] we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut. The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck. The muscles on his neck stood out like cords when he sang so powerfully into his switched-off microphone."
Helm claims that he and other band members never received a royalty from the movie. "Today people tell me all the time how much they loved `The Last Waltz,'" he writes. "I try to thank them politely and usually refrain from mentioning that for me it was a real scandal."
It's a shame, because Helm sings his heart out in the movie, particularly his moving performance of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." His yodeling and drum volleys on "Up on Cripple Creek" are spine-chilling in their intensity. The Band attacks its world-class batch of original songs with gusto, and affirms for the last time what made them great: Robertson's stiletto guitar incisions; Hudson's Mad Professor whirlwind of keyboards, pump organ and saxophone; Danko's dancing bass lines and high, lonesome vocals; Manuel's Ray Charles-like soul inflections; Helm's growling baritone and painterly drum grooves. Scorsese scripted the camera angles with Robertson as if directing an elaborate play (the DVD shows instructions such as "general amber lighting on band on downbeat" plotted for every turn in the music), and the stunning lighting effects and crispness of the stationary-camera 35-mm. images set a standard for rock movies that still stands (previously most concert films had been shot with shaky hand-held 16-mm. cameras).
Scorsese shinesScorsese's editing ensures a galvanizing viewing experience that, by most accounts, surpasses the actual event, which was marred by a number of indifferent or ragged performances. But the heart of the performance is undeniable: Waters' growling "Mannish Boy"; the doomed Manuel howling, "How in the world do ya get to heaven," on "The Shape In" and summoning tears with a wrenching "Tura Lura Lural (That's an Irish Lullaby)"; Morrison's "Caravan," punctuated by Rockettes-like kicks from the normally reserved Irishman; Dylan's anthemic roar during "Forever Young"; the Robertson-Clapton guitar duel on "Further On Up the Road"; the Staple Singers trading fevered hosannas with Danko and Helm on "The Weight" (one of two postscript performances shot on a sound stage).
Yet the movie is also oddly distant and cool. There are few pictures of the audience, which paid a then-scandalous $25 (more than triple the going rate) to attend. Scorsese's cameras instead train on the musicians and cast them as beautifully lit rock gods looking down on their anonymous worshipers. There was also an attempt to sanitize the event's reality: the cocaine powdering one of Neil Young's nostrils was edited out, and some of The Band's more ragged instrumentals were overdubbed. And then there is the air of drug-induced burn-out and spiritual exhaustion that hangs over the various members of The Band -- except Robertson. Robertson is a man with a future, a man with plans, who would go on to preside over projects such as "The Last Waltz" reissues, and its inevitable re-canonization as The Greatest Rock Movie Ever Made.
Robertston legacy safeIt just might be, and Robertson remains a brilliant songwriter and guitarist whose best songs -- "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Stage Fright" -- tower over the last half-century.
But for his former bandmates, their future is typified by Danko, who when asked by Scorsese what he plans to do next, mumbles a reply, tucks his shaggy head inside his hat, and sinks into the darkness while a mournful song plays from his forthcoming solo album. In the movie, Robertson calls the touring band "a goddamn impossible way of life" and "The Last Waltz" would be his doorway to a different, more lucrative and comfortable world. But for his former band members, the "Waltz" was just a pause in the endless grind.
Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune