If This Historian Could Time Travel
This is where I would go
Thanksgiving, 1976, the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. If this historian could travel back in time, that is where I would go, to see The Last Waltz.
What? You expect me to go kill baby Hitler or force Trump’s dad to get an early vasectomy? While those ideas have merit, I worry over the butterfly effect of fucking with time. What happens when you push the kill baby Hitler button? To quote Ren from Ren & Stimpy: “We don't know. Maaaaaybe something bad. Maaaaybe something good.” Maybe World War II doesn’t happen but then something worse does, like a nuclear holocaust.
And so, if I were a time traveler, it would be not to change anything, but to observe, and I would observe the fuck out of The Band’s farewell concert.
The Band formed in 1967 in Toronto with four Canadians: Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson. Plus, one American: Levon Helm. But that is not truly when they began. Prior to that, beginning in 1958, they were known as The Hawks, backing for Ronnie Hawkins until 1963. Personal differences and a desire for musical growth led them to leave Hawkins, and from 1965 to 67 the group toured with Bob Dylan.
Post Dylan, they wondered what to call themselves. Apparently “The Honkies” and “The Crackers” were considered, but their record label was like yeah how about fucking not? When they’d toured with Dylan they were always just referred to as “the band,” and that’s what eventually stuck.
Their first album had several hits, including “The Weight,” which appeared in the film Easy Rider. Their first performance as “The Band” was at the aforementioned Winterland Ballroom in early 1969. Almost eight years of touring later, Robbie Robertson was done. It’s generally thought that The Last Waltz was Robbie’s idea, that he forced the breakup.
But they had to go out in style, making it into a feature film. Enter: Martin Scorsese. When Martin heard that Van Morrison was part of the lineup, he was sold.
In addition to Van Morrison celebrating The Band’s farewell concert, there was the aforementioned Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young singing with a visible cocaine booger in his left nostril.
Speaking of drugs, there are times in the interviews for the film that you can tell that Rick Danko and Richard Manuel are very altered, and that Robbie Robertson isn’t impressed. I don’t know his mind, but I expect that contributed to him wanting his time with the band to be over.
But on the stage, magic happened. A thanksgiving dinner was served beforehand, and then the concert. The audience didn’t know of the near disaster than almost happened backstage with Bob Dylan deciding to be a prima donna.
At intermission Dylan said yeah actually you’re not allowed to film my performance. Scorsese flipped his shit because you know we’re making a fucking movie, right? It would be a financial catastrophe. Concert promoter Bill Graham went into Dylan’s dressing room for some intense negotiations, getting Bob to acquiesce to two of his songs being filmed for the movie. He saved the day.
It took over a year for The Last Waltz to be released, and it soon became hailed as one of the greatest concert films ever produced. It has a 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
No one can travel back in time, and that’s a good thing, but you can watch this movie and imagine what it was like to be there. I just watched it again last Saturday with my good friend Karen who edited the self-published version of On This Day in History Sh!t Went Down.
Speaking of that book, you could get a bunch of holiday shopping done right now if you go buy it at JamesFell.com/books.
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