Today marks the 40th anniversary of Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz soundtrack, originally released April 7, 1978.
Documenting The Band’s Thanksgiving “farewell show” — the band would ultimately reunite five years later — at Winterland Arena in San Francisco, The Last Waltz remains one of the most cherished concert films in history for its fiery performances from ‘70s rock’s golden gooses: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Eric Clapton and many more.
But the story of The Last Waltz is also one of overindulgence, unchecked ego, shady back-door negotiations (many of which ended up financially wounding The Band themselves) and enough narcotics flowing through the building to kill an elephant. By all accounts, the concert itself was a gaudy, elaborate affair, with venue owner Bill Graham orchestrating a gargantuan white-tie Thanksgiving dinner for 5,000 attendees, while actual ballroom dancers waltzed throughout. Meanwhile, a nonstop coke party raged backstage in what was called the Cocteau Room, painted white from the floor to ceiling, with masks with cut-out noses passed out to its participants.
Even worse, The Band’s drummer Levon Helm claimed he never saw a dime from the whole endeavor after it was all said and done. “You know what The Last Waltz is?” he rhetorically asked Rolling Stone. “The Last Rip-Off. I’ve never gotten a check for it in my life. It was Robertson and Scorsese and that fucking crowd of thieves that got paid, and they still get paid, I guess. I’ve never gotten a check for it in my life.”
But it wasn’t all seedy and Dionysian behind the scenes. In fact, Graham and The Band showed remarkable shrewdness in how they promoted this unwieldy beast of an event. You would imagine a concert of this magnitude would put its murderer’s row of guest stars front and center, but in fact, not a single guest performer — not Dylan, not Mitchell, not Young — was announced in advance. “We were testing the waters to see how much people would trust us,” related Graham in his memoir My Life Inside Rock and Out — and that trust led to the surprise factor and longevity of the music that transpired.
That thought from Graham is telling, because it transcends The Last Waltz’s sweaty, soused reality and its mountains of bad behavior — at the end of the day, it really was all about the music and the bonhomie. Those who did pay the then-colossal $25 ticket price were treated to a show that would go on forever.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz’s triple-LP soundtrack, here are five highlights from the concert.
“Mannish Boy” (feat. Muddy Waters)
By most accounts, the legendary bluesman Muddy Waters was a stranger in a strange land at The Last Waltz, first being accosted by the musical satirist Kinky Friedman at a hotel restaurant the day before so Kinky could inform Waters that “people of the Jewish persuasion appreciate the blues, too,” and then hitting on Joni Mitchell backstage without knowing who she was.
Though it seems inconceivable now, Waters was nearly bumped from the Waltz altogether due to time and budget constraints, before Levon Helm fought bitterly to keep him on the bill. Thank goodness Waters got to appear, because his regal, avuncular presence classed up the program to no small degree. His performance here of the tough-as-nails, braggadocious “Mannish Boy,” featuring a bunch of rock and roll boys who grew up idolizing him, did much to class up that night at Winterland.
“Furry Sings the Blues” (feat. Joni Mitchell)
This tune, originally released on Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira, was an irreverent tribute to the bluesman Furry Lewis. However, in light of Joni’s offbeat meet-and-greet with Waters at the Waltz, it could more broadly be an incisive look at rock’s forefathers and their fading commercial capital, observing the legendary blues landmark of Memphis’s Beale Street as such: “History falls / to parking lots and shopping malls.”
Here, Joni’s a riot throughout her performance of “Furry,” really cranking up her gravelly impersonations (“IIIII don’t like youuuu!”) and ad libs (“I’ve got a woman on Monday, she shines my shoes/ I’ve got a woman on Tuesday, give me nothin’ but the blues/ Ol’ Furry’s got noooobody!”) Mitchell would go on to explore her own connection to African-American culture in far more ill-considered ways, like appearing in blackface as a hipster called “Art Nouveau” in the album art of 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, but her performance of “Furry” here displays Joni at her peak as a cultural observer.
“Dry Your Eyes” (feat. Neil Diamond)
Watching the film now, The Last Waltz really looks like a long ego-trip tribute to Band singer/guitarist Robbie Robertson, treating the group’s other members as sidemen in comparison. But much like the 2000 VH1 miniseries on the Beach Boys, An American Family, in which Mike Love went behind the scenes to make himself look like a meditative, handsome songwriting guru while his brothers descend into chaos, the Waltz film and concert were totally backseat-driven by Robertson.
Case in point: the presence of Neil Diamond, who was added to the bill personally by Robertson to the chagrin of the others. Case in point: Rumor has it that after Diamond finished his somnambulant, pretentious reading of his “Dry Your Eyes,” — a co-write between he and (who else) Robertson — he went backstage to Dylan and said “Follow that.” Dylan allegedly responded, “What am I supposed to do, go out there and fall asleep?”
“Caravan” (feat. Van Morrison)
The Last Waltz was a night full of commanding performances, but the one performance that truly brought the house down that night wasn’t by any Canadian longhair — it was by a diminutive, maroon-suited Irish soul man. Morrison couldn’t have a fierier backing group here, and he’s at his vocal peak, each chorus upshifting to a new, thrilling gear. The best part may be when the band chills out and Van growls, with his weird pronunciation, “Turn up your rah-dio,” to stadium-wide cheers. But the real headline here is the beaming smiles on Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel’s faces, as if they can’t believe their dumb luck to be up there egging on Van the Man. Turn it up!
“The Genetic Method” (feat. Garth Hudson)
Our collective memories of The Last Waltz are probably just a blur of beards, feathered hats and sweat at this point, but it’s easy to forget that the film has a weird, haunting synthesizer centerpiece that suggests an alternate universe where Goblin, Cluster and Tangerine Dream were flown out that weekend to jam, too. Garth Hudson’s intro to “Chest Fever,” “The Genetic Method,” which varied in length and tone night by night, was performed in an epic seven-minute mosaic of ancient melodies, jazz tunes, nursery rhymes and Celtic reels, but trimmed to almost nothing for the purposes of Scorcese’s soundtrack. Shame, as it shows the sheer ranginess of Hudson as a genius of the keyboard.