How The ‘Most Epic Concert Of The 1970s’ Earned Its Infamous Reputation

The Last Waltz was intended to be a farewell to legendary rock act The Band. Far from being just another live performance, though, it’s a gig that’s gone down in rock ’n’ roll history. The show was epic in scope and spawned one of the most spectacular concert movies ever produced. But at the same time, it was chaotic in the extreme and generated strong negative feelings in many of those involved. All in all, it was a truly crazy evening.

This epic concert was envisioned to be bigger and better than anything that’d gone before. With little expense spared, a galaxy of stars performing and one of the greatest bands of all time at its epicenter, what could go wrong? Well, plenty as it turns out. And it all left a sour taste in the mouths of many, including a host of those very same VIP performers.

But it was never supposed to be this way. The event had been conceived by The Band’s Robbie Robertson and legendary promoter Bill Graham just a couple of months before it occurred. It was to be “a no-expense-spared adieu that started with a Thanksgiving feast and ended with everyone from Neil Diamond to Neil Young accompanying the quintet.” So said Rolling Stone magazine, which also called it “an all-star spectacle.”

As well as the undoubted epic scale and grandeur of The Last Waltz concert, there was something else. Thanks to a filmmaker by the name of Martin Scorsese, this was a gig that would be captured for posterity. It became what Rolling Stone called “the single greatest concert movie of all time.” But that still wouldn’t save it from infamy.

It may not have all gone to plan, but The Last Waltz still succeeded in achieving what it meant to: saying goodbye to The Band. This was a North American group that would never be forgotten. From being Bob Dylan’s backing band to creating hits including “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” to some this is Americana’s greatest band. Perhaps even modern music’s greatest band. The Band.

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Buy why the goodbye? The Last Waltz was to be a farewell to touring for The Band’s original lineup: Robertson on guitar, Levon Helm on drums, Richard Manuel on piano, bass player Rick Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. The venue for the gig was to be in San Francisco, the very same hall in which the group had made their live debut as The Band.

The whole concept was the brainchild of Robertson and Graham. Robertson was also keen for the concert to be captured on film, mostly because The Band’s performance at Woodstock hadn’t been included in the documentary that helped seal its legend. Robertson identified Scorsese – director of Mean Streets and part of that Woodstock documentary team – as the man to deliver it.

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Despite their popularity with audiences, The Band had decided to call it a day – at least to live touring. Robertson explained the reasons why in his memoir Testimony, which was adapted for an article in Vanity Fair. “Our rock ’n’ roll lifestyle was passing the point of no return. The examples of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison – and more recently Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, and Tim Buckley – brought home the dangers of the road,” Robertson wrote.

Robertson decided to pay heed to those dangers. “We’d heard this story about so many musicians, it was almost part of the ritual. All around us, bands we knew were imploding, trying to live what they thought was the rock ’n’ roll high life,” Robertson recalled. “We saw them falling by the side of the road, but through a one-way mirror. We saw everything but ourselves.” A halt to touring seemed the sensible – and safe – thing to do.

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Since the late 1950s the members of The Band had been working hard. The majority of the group came together as the backing group for performer Ronnie Hawkins. A Southern rock ’n’ roller, Hawkins and his fellow Arkansan Helm went north to Toronto to play some gigs, and it was there that they picked up Robertson. Danko, Manuel and Hudson were added in the early 1960s to complete the unit.

Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks became one of the most-respected live rock ’n’ roll acts on the circuit. But by 1963 – despite the band’s name – Hawkins had become surplus to requirements. The Hawks endured, continuing to win respect among audiences and peers. The group were then to become bona fide legends by hooking up with Bob Dylan, just as the folk star planned to go electric. It was a controversial move but also incredibly rewarding for Dylan’s new backing band.

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After their collaboration with Dylan, which included the recordings that would eventually be released as The Basement Tapes, The Band was born. The group laid down an early marker as a force in the golden age of rock with their debut album, Music from Big Pink. Further critical and commercial success followed with subsequent long-plays The Band, Stage Fright and Cahoots. The group’s legendary status had been secured.

Unsurprisingly, though, the excesses of rock ’n’ roll and a heavy touring schedule began to take their toll. The group took a break but came back strong, collaborating with Dylan again on 1973 album Planet Waves. Two more records as The Band followed, but by 1976 the group were ready to call a halt to live performing. One last show was planned, with The Last Waltz to be an epic swansong. The concert was slated for Thanksgiving 1976.

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Scorsese was brought on board to direct the gig. The director’s film would later be released with the same name: The Last Waltz. Robertson also wanted appearances from many of The Band’s collaborators, mentors, heroes and contemporaries. The list of performers at the legendary concert reads like a who’s who of music royalty: Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Hawkins, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison and more.

The 5,000 punters lucky enough to have a ticket weren’t just going to be treated to an incredible smorgasbord of live music, either. As it was Thanksgiving, a slap-up meal was to be served as well. It was to be a feast with all the usual accompaniments, followed by a live orchestra performance – the Waltz. And then The Band, of course.

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But as it turns out, not all the members of The Band were into the concept – especially the film proposal. “When they first told me about making a movie out of The Last Waltz, I was against the idea,” Levon Helm wrote in his autobiography. But Robertson and management heaped on the pressure. “And so the film was more or less shoved down our throats too, and we went along with it,” Helm added, with a trace of bitterness.

Watching Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, you’d be forgiven for thinking the concert went pretty much perfectly. What more could a band ask for from their last gig? The songs were mostly tight, there was a sprinkling of stardust with the guests, and events had been recorded by one of the world’s finest up-and-coming directors. But behind the scenes, all wasn’t well.

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To start with, almost inevitably there were technical glitches, particularly with Muddy Waters’ performance. “All but one camera had been turned off. We almost missed his entire segment,” Helm recalled. “As he was walking offstage, I stood up to applaud, and Muddy grabbed my head in his big hands and kissed my forehead. What a feeling! But the director hadn’t bothered to walk Muddy on and offstage, so there was no film of this.”

And then there was the fact that, due to the epic nature of the gig, it was almost unbearably long for the main musicians involved. “We were pretty much wrung out, but we did ‘Acadian Driftwood’ as the last tune before intermission, with Joni and Neil Young singing along in a gesture of Canadian solidarity,” Helm explained. “We’d been on for more than three hours by then, and my hands were bleeding. We were all half past dead.”

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There were disagreements about the special guests as well. Robertson stated in his autobiography, that he’d invited Neil Diamond because he liked the idea of different genres being on display. Diamond was there to represent the Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition, but the choice left some members cold. “What does Neil Diamond have to do with us?” was Helm’s reaction.

Another man there to represent a specific genre was the legendary bluesman Waters. But as the show went off-schedule, Waters’ set was due to be cut, much to Helm’s chagrin. The apoplectic singer-drummer later recalled his response: Helm would do “The Last Waltz in New York. [Waters] and me.” Tempers were flaring behind the scenes.

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Some of the guest appearances left a little to be desired, too, although this isn’t obvious in the film. Writing in the Chicago Tribune to mark the 25th anniversary of the epic concert, Greg Kot said as much. “Scorsese’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,” Kot writes, also adding that the night was “bittersweet for many.” Tickets prices were a steep $25, too, which was more than triple the standard cost for gigs at that time.

And then there was Bob Dylan. This legendary figure proved to be a problem all of his own. Dylan was integral to the show as it was his collaboration with The Band, then known as The Hawks, that had helped propel them to greatness. Dylan had to be in the show. And as the show was being filmed, Dylan had to be in the movie. But that didn’t sit well with him.

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Helm recalled the incident in his book, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band. “Bob Dylan had come in with his people during the first part of the show and retreated to a dressing room off-limits to everyone else. Halfway through the intermission, about 15 minutes before we were due back onstage with Bob, he decided he didn’t want to be in the film,” Helm wrote, adding that he “wasn’t that surprised.”

Always an awkward artist to work with, things with Dylan were complicated further by the fact that singer had his own movie coming out: Renaldo and Clara. Fortunately, though, Bill Graham stepped in and saved the day. Dylan would play, but not all of the songs could be used in The Last Waltz movie. In the end, just a couple of tracks were committed to tape.

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Dylan went on stage. The crowd went wild. Scorsese got his shots of at least some of Dylan’s performance. Drama over… Except it wasn’t. “Bob Dylan’s lawyer had gone into the truck immediately after the show and seized the tapes Bob was on, so there would have to be negotiations,” Helm recalled. “I thought that was pretty funny.” You couldn’t make it up.

So it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that everything ran far from smoothly behind the scenes – or even in front of the cameras – at The Last Waltz. But these things rarely do, do they? It was a rock ’n’ roll concert, after all. But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end quite there. Because perhaps the saddest legacy from that night was the splitting at the seams that occurred within the band itself.

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One member of The Band was particularly unhappy with Robertson’s decision that the group would stop touring. In Levon Helm’s view, Robertson was trying to “destroy” the quintet. In fact, Helm was so angry about the whole affair that he didn’t even want to participate in the concert that was to become The Last Waltz. Helm was only persuaded to play by the words of his lawyer, who told him to “do it, puke, and get out of the way.”

Helm wasn’t at all happy that Robertson wanted to stop the wheels turning on The Band. “Sometime in September 1976 we got word that Robbie Robertson and our management wanted to put it away. Robbie had had enough, and they decided to kill The Band and go out with a bang. I thought it might be a joke,” Helm admitted. “I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t want to break up The Band.”

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Perhaps the end of The Band had been coming, though. Fractures had certainly been showing for a while. Helm believed that Robertson was ripping off the other members by securing most of the writing credits – and royalties – for himself. “I even confronted Robbie over this issue during this era,” Helm confessed.

Helm clearly had a real bee in his bonnet about the whole issue. “I cautioned [Robbie] that most so-called business moves had [destroyed] a lot of great bands and killed off whatever music was left in them,” he recalled. “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.”

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Robertson’s response was categorical. “To say that [money and songwriting credit] was an issue [in The Band at that time] 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,” Robertson wrote scathingly in his own memoir, Testimony.

“What [Helm’s] saying now is the result of somebody thinking about their financial problems,” Robertson added. “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.”

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The fissures that existed within The Band could also be picked up on in The Last Waltz. Perhaps the most obvious sign is how Robertson – whose idea it was to shoot the concert – dominates the screen throughout. And in the intertwining interviews that pepper the movie, it’s mainly Robertson who holds court, with the other members of The Band seemingly reluctant to get involved.

And to lay any doubts to rest about how The Last Waltz wasn’t the unqualified success Robertson later made it out to be, we have the words of Helm. “As far as I was concerned, the movie was a disaster,” he wrote. “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.”

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Helm’s feelings towards Robertson were laid bare. “The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck,” the drummer continued. “The muscles on his neck stood out like cords when he sang so powerfully into his switched-off microphone.”

Helm was also adamant that the film didn’t earn any money for either him or any of his band-mates – other than Robertson. And that rankled. Hard. “Today people tell me all the time how much they loved The Last Waltz,’” he explained. “I try to thank them politely and usually refrain from mentioning that for me it was a real scandal.”

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For anyone who loves The Band or is a huge fan of The Last Waltz, Helm’s words are hard to hear. The concert movie seemingly shows these talented musicians doing what they do best and with a camaraderie that had been on display for much of the group’s existence. It just goes to show that you can’t always believe everything you see. Or hear, for that matter.

But remember, the concert and film weren’t intended to mark the end of the group’s existence. Robertson saw it as a goodbye only to the road and envisaged the group continuing to make records. In fact, sessions were scheduled to take place shortly after the show. Events surrounding the epic gig had clearly taken their toll, though.

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Somewhat sadly, Robertson was the only member of The Band to turn up at that California recording session. “I had to read the writing on the wall,” the guitarist later wrote. And he did, because Islands was to be the final recording that the original members of The Band ever released. Robertson’s choice of name for the legendary Winterland Ballroom concert was prescient: it was indeed the iconic lineup’s last waltz together.

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