The Last Waltz Again

last waltz dvd boxartI’ve had the DVD of The Last Waltz sitting in cellophane for quite awhile, receiving it several years ago as a Christmas present.

Finally, on a recent night without much else to do, my wife sleeping on my lap, I pressed the remote and the Band’s opus, masterminded by director Martin Scorsese, began to play.

In 1976, the Band put on a stellar farewell performance with many of rock’s greats and invited Scorsese to record it. The theatrical release was 1978.

In the fall of 1978 at the age of 27 I flew home for a couple of weeks to the Bulkley Valley in northern BC from New York City where I’d been living for a few years. A friend of a friend had arranged a ridiculously cheap round trip flight through a merchant seaman’s association — less than $200 I recall. I definitely wasn’t a seaman journeying to my next ship, but there were parallels in my landlubber’s life.

I hadn’t seen my mother since before my several years of minor adventures. When first I saw her, I hid my shock, for during this one brief swoop of time, she had become old. I had never considered that possibility. The lines in her face, the grey in her hair, the careful way she moved, the cane she had started to rely on at the age of 51: all took me by surprise.

The cane foretold the multiple sclerosis she would ultimately be diagnosed with: she would fight it hard for almost a couple of decades.

She was a good mother – intelligent, tolerant, compassionate – although we yelled at each other irritably sometimes. These minor squalls dissipated almost immediately without any grudges.

I think a lot of the irritation arose from two very different sensibilities. She was outgoing, almost brash; I was introverted, private, stubborn in my way.

When The Last Waltz came out in 1978 and was playing at the Roi Theatre in our little northern town of Smithers, population 4,000, I was surprised to find that Ma wanted to go.

She typically liked Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, and musicals like My Fair Lady, but I suspect that my brothers and I had played enough Beatles and Stones and Neil Young in our teens to infect her with some appreciation for the rock music of the time.

So we went to see The Last Waltz together and we watched what turned out to be one of the great occasions of rock history. She liked it a lot.

Curiously, I found that my appreciation of the Band was much greater when I watched the DVD recently. I recall that I wasn’t particularly enthralled with the movie when I saw it with Ma. I think I took the whole scene for granted. Oh yeah, all these rock ‘n’ roll icons, I could see and hear them any time, in one form or another.

When I saw it at home the other night, the relative youth of Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Emmy Lou Harris made me realize my age, and theirs. But beyond that superficiality, the obvious power and commitment of the Band’s music, coming out of an age that will never be repeated, made me proud, at such a distance in so many ways, to be of that generation, to have had that music mean something at the time.

There are many reviews of that concert and its record on DVD. I won’t try to provide another one. There are moments that stand out though: Van Morrison in his spangled suit, already a little paunchy and balding, rocking the house; the guitar duel between Robertson and Clapton, enthusiastically pursued by the Band player, with Clapton, almost reluctantly, rising to the challenge; Neil Young, singing a great version of Helpless (supposedly his whitened coked-up nostril had to be specially retouched before the film’s theatrical release); and a wonderful version of The Weight, the Band accompanied by the Staple Singers, in one of several segments of the film that were done outside the concert performance.

The members of the Band lived a demanding life on the road, often drug and alcohol fueled. Richard Manuel hung himself in 1986 after a gig by the reformed Band (without Robbie Robertson), alcohol and cocaine contributing.  Still performing, in 1999, Rick Danko died, after a struggle with heroin, although he was said to be clean when he passed away.

(Here’s a moving post on the subject of the passing of Rick Danko, among other things.)

But, more happily, Robbie Robertson is still active in the music business as are Garth Hudson and Levon Helm (after a long battle with throat cancer).

LevonAt 67, Helm recently released a new CD: Dirt Farmer, his first in many years, comprised of old-time hymns and modern country, in league with his daughter Amy.

One of the bonuses added to the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Last Waltz on DVD was one long jam where people like Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield and Stephen Stills rocked out with the many other guests.

Apparently for the real completist there’s a version of The Last Waltz on CD which has that instrumental jam and yet another one, along with what sound like at least two or three songs that were inexcusably left out of the film.

I watched The Last Waltz again, the other night, pierced by missing my mother, thankful for my wife resting on me, and moved by the music.


Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, Music, Remembering

5 Comments on “The Last Waltz Again”

  1. Hi fencer–

    I love what music means to you. And a moving tribute to your mom. I just bought Dirt Farmer a few weeks ago, and back in 2002, when a friend and I were riding up together from Newark to Bennington VT for our MFA program, we got hopelessly lost looking for Big Pink :-) Thanks for sharing this.


  2. fencer Says:

    Hey mary,

    So you didn’t find Big Pink, finally? How is Dirt Farmer… I’ve got to take a listen to a track or two.

    Thanks for dropping by!


  3. qazse Says:

    So sweet is the image of you and your mom going to see the movie. Yin and yang generating memories for each other.


    PS One of my most prized album covers is an album headed by Levon Helm called the RCO All Stars.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Ah, interesting, I hadn’t heard of that album…


  5. […] I picked up this 2019 CD by Robbie Robertson after watching on TV the documentary about The Band he put together called Once Were Brothers.  I wrote here years ago about what The Band meant to me and especially The Last Waltz movie. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: