Wednesday, June 05, 2002

"The Last Waltz"

by Wayne Robins

I was at "The Last Waltz," the legendary retirement party for the group known as The Band, in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Then a freelance writer based in New York, not yet hired full-time at Newsday (that would occur January 3, 1977), I was able to get free airfare from the then junket-mad music industry because I had an assignment from a rock magazine called Changes, if my memory serves me well.

Since it was Thanksgiving weekend, it was easy to get a hotel room, at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown my first night. I also had friends and relatives in the Bay Area, so I enjoyed a special Thanksgiving dinner with my beloved "Uncle" Jack Edelson, who passed away a few years ago, much too young, after the sudden onset of pancreatic cancer. (Jack was the younger brother of another favorite uncle, Stanley Edelson, who has been married lo these nearly 50 years to my mothers sister, Lenore). Jack was one of San Francisco's first boho capitalists. On my first trip to San Francisco, on the lam across America after my sophomore year at Bard College, I simply called him up, out of the blue, from the bus station in the grungy Tenderloin district, frightened out of my wits: Where were all the hippies? He gave me his address and told me to take a cab. Half an hour later, unable to figure out how one hailed a cab in San Francisco, I called him again. This time he came and picked me up himself, took me to his home in Pacific Heights, stuck a joint in my mouth, served me a lavish dinner, and, after another primo joint, took me to an all-night supermarket so clean, so bright, so full of fruits and vegetables of every color, that I thought I was in Shangri-La. (We didn't have shiny all night supermarkets then, even on Long Island).

At "The Last Waltz" concert, I was accompanied by two good friends: Ed Ward, the famous critic from the earliest days of Rolling Stone, who now lives and writes in Berlin; and Tom Vickers, my college roommate not just from Bard, but with whom I shared a house in Boulder one summer when, after a year and a continent apart, we both transferred, unbenownst to one another to the University of Colorado. Tom lived in the city. Ed, a wonderful, generous, and thoroughly unkempt guy, lived in Sausalito, and now the very sight on their pristine streets would probably have him ticketed for being a human violation of the recycling laws. (I slept at Ed's Sausalito pad the night of the show; I'm still picking the fleas from my skin). Tom was starting his rise in the record business: He was Minister of Information for Parliament/Funkadelic during the great "Mothership Connection" years, when P-Funk was the greatest show with the greatest on Earth or elsewhere. (When I spoke to Tom a few days ago neither of us had yet seen "Undercover Brother," something I look forward to seeing with him in whatever format the next time our coasts coincide: He's lived in Los Angeles for the last many years).

Tom, Ed and I were a perfect unholy trinity at "The Last Waltz" concert. We had already developed a healthy skepticism about the "prestige" of rock stars. We all liked The Band, worshipped Van Morrison and Muddy Waters, and dug most of the artists individually, from Bob Dylan to Paul Butterfield to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. But the concert ceremony reeked of rock star sanctimony, and we were cynical enough to call it like we saw it. As one seemingly perfunctory star-turn followed another, we began to look at each other, like, "What is this, 'The Gong Show.'?" The idea empowered us: With each torpid performance, one or the other or all three of us would smash the gong, giving psychological closure to each sappy performance. Dylan, in his clownish "Renaldo & Clara"-type white fedora with red feather, was at a particular creative low point. It was with great relish that 30 seconds into the execrable "Forever Young," the three of us looked at each other and simultaneously gonged Bob Dylan.

I was really hoping that watching the recently-released DVD of "The Last Waltz" movie, directed by the usually peerless Martin Scorsese, would make me realize what a shallow cynic I was to mock this magisterial moment in rock history. Unfortunately, the Scorsese film, though it sounds great on my mini-home theater system, only affirms that Tom, Ed and I were right the first time. (Read the disappointed dissection of the release by Roger Ebert. There are some moments of real musical excellence: Van Morrison's extravagantly joyous "Caravan," Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris teaming up on "Evangeline," Joni Mitchell's predatory "Coyote," that really stand out. One still can't understand what Neil Diamond was doing there: He may have been a friend and even a peer, but his music represented the Tin Pan Alley style of emotive songwriting that the music of The Band explicitly rejected. "I Shall Be Released," by the ensemble at the end, now sounds as hackneyed as "We Are the World." And Scorsese, devotee and fan that he was, keeps interrupting the music flow with his gushing questions, exceeded in their banality only by The Band's smug, world-weary responses. Remember, this was the model for "This is Spinal Tap," and there's little doubt that Rob Reiner's parody remains the better movie.

(c) Wayne Robins 2002. All rights reserved. Comments?

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