November 25, 1976. Thanksgiving Day. Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Last Waltz.
Today is the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz. It was the final concert for the original members of the legendary rock group, The Band. If you’re not familiar with the story, The Band had been together for close to two decades and spent much of that time on the road touring. Band leader and guitarist Robbie Robertson had enough of that life style and also of babysitting his band mates who had major issues with drugs and alcohol.
He put together one final memorable show. It included a Thanksgiving turkey dinner for 5000 concert goers and a list of guests performers which included Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and many other.
The concert was filmed by budding director Martin Scorsese. It featured the music performances plus interviews that told the stories of The Band’s music, upbringing and lifestyle. It’s widely considered the greatest rock film ever made and has influenced other rock documentaries including those done by The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads and you can even see it in the current Ron Howard Beatles film “Eight Days a Week”.
The concert and the film was the end of an era as the original members of The Band never toured again.
It also increased the hard feeling that were developing between Robertson and The Band’s singer/drummer Levon Helm. Helm felt the film was focused too much on Robertson while ignoring the other members. He also was angry about not getting enough money from the proceeds of the movie, album and merchandise sold. The bad feelings lasted until Helm’s death in 2012.
There is a lot of new merchandise out to celebrate this anniversary. New packages of the film and the album with booklets to go with both. Plus not so coincidentally is the release of Robbie Robertson’s memoir “Testimony.”
The book has been anticipated for many years because Band fans and music industry people wanted to hear Robertson’s version of the feud with Helm. If that’s why you’re reading the book, you’ll be disappointed.
Robertson early on idolized Helm. He had a younger brother-like relationship with him. He makes it clear the break was due to the overindulgence on drugs and also that they just grew apart. Robertson wanted to be involved the songwriting/business part of the industry while Helm just wanted to play music. As far as songwriting goes, Robertson was interested in that from his teenage years and always tried to get the others to do that but without much success.
The contents of the book are typical of music autobiographies.
Sex: Ronnie Hawkins told Robertson “You won’t make much money but you’ll get more pussy than Sinatra.”
Drugs: Many stories about pot, heroin and cocaine. Pretty typical for a rock star.
Rock & Roll: Lots of meetings and playing with legends like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan among other.
If you want to know more about the Robertson-Helm feud, you’ll have to wait for the next book. This one ends at the time of The Last Waltz. Robertson is expected to start the second volume next year.
I give the book a slight thumbs up. It’s entertaining although it doesn’t break any new ground or give much new information plus it’s a little long at close to 500 pages. More entertaining is watching the film of The Last Waltz. You can find that on most PBS stations this weekend.
You can read more about The Band in this piece about Sad Story of Richard Manuel.