It doesn’t have to be Thanksgiving to stuff & deep fry an extra juicy Rock ‘n’ Roll Storytime.
We can’t begin without saying grace to a few sources that more than inspired this piece: Barney Hoskyns’ Across The Great Divide: The Band and America was an amazingly thorough and quick read that was found after watching Levon’s documentary Ain’t In It For My Health. Needless to say, both are a must. Amen. Now let’s get to the show.
After attending Ron Hawkins Elementary & Bob Dylan Middle School, The Band was a standout in the 1976 graduating class of Woodstock High. On Thanksgiving that year they threw an unforgettable graduation party celebrating the end of 16-years on the road – a farewell concert “along the lines of a New Orleans funeral” featuring the “different spokes of the wheel that make up rock ‘n’ roll.”
A fitting end for The Band (capital ‘T,’ capital ‘B’) – an unlikely group of musicians who influenced their peers and helped navigate rock ‘n’ roll back home from its long strange ‘60s trip.
At the Winterland Ballroom on Thursday, Nov. 25, 1976, the starting five of The Band played their final show together and invited over 20 artists representing blues and jazz to gospel and soul to whatever you call Neil Diamond.
The Last Waltz is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great excesses, the turducken of rock ‘n’ roll stuffed with music, ego, questionable fashion and all washed down with a lethal dose of coke.
Ironically the band whose final show is considered the greatest concert films of all time wasn’t particularly known for great live shows.
Unlike most acts of the day, The Band lacked a true front man and rarely strayed from their recorded versions. They often neglected the crowd to concentrate on their craft of musical storytelling. Compared to the acid freak-out rock & virtuosic playing of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors or Cream, The Band was basically the Country Bear Jamboree of rock ‘n’ roll.
Not so much this:
But more like this:
Before we dive into The Last Waltz let’s get to know the top five students from the 1976 graduating class of Woodstock High.
Known as Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins’ eager apprentice, Robbie met Levon on the first day of school and became deeply interested in his Southern upbringing.
Robbie’s favorite moment was the time they followed Bob Dylan into the electric abyss as his backing band in ’65 & ’66. This is where he learned songwriting & storytelling firsthand and became the band’s de-facto leader while Levon sat out the European leg because he preferred to avoid nightly showers of “boos” & thrown bottles.
Robbie always gets teased about the first ever show as The Band. Whether it was the flu or the ‘Stage Fright’ he later wrote about, Robbie was too sick to play the sold out show at The Winterland. Luckily their manager found a hypnotist in the yellow pages to convince Robbie he could perform, which actually worked…for seven songs before stumbling off stage to chorus of “boos” from a pissed off crowd.
Robbie is going to most miss leading the group but is excited about his future in Hollywood.
Levon was the first to show up for class when The Hawk was playing in their home state of Arkansas. The Hawk took the lanky young talent to make money selling rockabilly to Canadian teens.
One of Levon’s favorite moments was after rejoining the boys and playing a little festival near their newly adopted hometown of Woodstock. While their small sound and lack of crowd interaction didn’t necessarily jive with a “ripped army of mud people,” Levon found the excess brown acid and had himself a ball.
The Band’s legacy wasn’t cemented at Woodstock: they were sandwiched between rockers like Ten Years After & Johnny Winter, and what hurt even more, their manager didn’t want them in the movie and subsequent soundtrack. That didn’t matter to Levon, he didn’t care too much for all the hype. He had played music to hundreds of thousands of people on a farm, rather than working on one. He knew he had made it, as all of America would soon know. The month after Woodstock, The Band released their self-titled album.
Garth joined The Band on a musical scholarship. Mainly keeping to himself, he was the go-to when the guys had questions about their music homework. Most of the time you could find him in the lab cooking up musical concoctions, but he enjoyed his time on the road too.
One of Garth’s favorite memories was in the summer of ’73, when they played between The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers. Early estimates were way off when 600.000 people came to the Watkins Glen Raceway in New York ready to party. The festival turned out to be the largest U.S. gathering at the time. And it wouldn’t be a summer festival without a sporadic downpour. Envision this: while the rest of The Band darted off stage, Garth simply moseyed his way off; returned after “a few social pulls” of Glenfiddich and proceeded to play the rain away with his musical wizardry.
Watkins Glen actually gave The Band comfort knowing they could appease a large crowd. But more importantly, the festival’s success brought Dylan out of hiding as he hadn’t toured since The Band was his Band. So Dylan and The Band began Tour ’74 – the beginning of the end (clearly not for Dylan) and one of Rick’s favorite memories he’d never remember…
Rick, like Levon, was just a farmer’s son, playing music with the family when they came in from the fields. He was ecstatic to join The Hawks and get paid to make music. His sense of wonder never faded and he enjoyed every moment as a big time rock star.
Needless to say he loved being a part of what was dubbed rock ‘n’ roll’s first mega-tour. With The Band’s newfound fame and Dylan in tow, no expense was spared. The grueling tour schedule of 40+ dates in the first two months of ’74 was made a little easier with their own traveling pharmacist as well as everyone’s favorite flying tour bus, Starship One.
Which brings us to Richard.
Richard was a Hawk the day they heard him sing as the opening act. With his soulful voice he was dubbed the band’s lead singer, though you don’t know the shape he was in. Richard was the wild card. And Robbie knew the only way to keep the band intact was to keep everyone on the road or in the studio. He knew that if you keep Richard busy, he’d stay somewhat sober.
Yup. Richard would be more sober on tour than at home.
So further down that endless highway they went.
And when you get Richard on the road, or on the water, he’s going to take the waves at full throttle.
That’s not just a metaphor. He nearly broke his neck doing just that on Lake Austin during the ’76 tour. Instead of cancelling the tour, a team of Tibetan-trained healers were hired to work on his neck while he laid in bed for three days.
This was the point when Robbie was ready for graduation and called his new buddy, Marty, about a little A/V project. Once that was set it didn’t take too much convincing for people to give up their Thanksgiving to participate in the biggest rock ‘n’ roll orgy of all time:
Rehearsals started two weeks prior to The Last Waltz. The Band began prepping for the show and tried to learn twenty-one songs they had never played before. Their old pal Ronnie Hawkins was there to witness the beginning of the binge. “All these heroes of the world pulling up in their limousines, coked out of their heads, smacked out of their brains, bumpin’ into walls.”
Produced by Bill Graham and billed as “The Band and Friends” this wasn’t going to be an ordinary graduation party. The $25 ticket included a seven-course meal, an orchestra, San Franciscan poets and professional waltzers in a revamped Winterland made to look like a ballroom.
$42,000 of food was ordered for the event, including modest items such as:
- 220 turkeys (and 400 lb. of fresh salmon for non-turkey eaters)
- 2,000 lb. of candied yams
- 800 lb. of mincemeat & pumpkin pies
- 6,000 rolls
- 400 gallons of apple juice
- 90 gallons of gravy
- Hundreds of pounds of stuffing & cranberry sauce
The stage is set for a good time. Now, let’s meet the other graduates.
During the editing of the film Robbie & Marty tried desperately to hide Neil’s coke booger, hiring someone to mark it out frame by frame. Robbie said it was “the most expensive coke he ever paid for.”
Per Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond came off stage after performing ‘Dry Your Eyes’ and said to Dylan, “top that.”
The graduation was quite the spectacle and if you thought your family Thanksgivings were grueling think about the “poor” people who attended The Last Waltz. Just look at the schedule:
- Doors open at 5 p.m. with Thanksgiving dinner
- 38-piece Berkeley Promenade Orchestra & formal dance until 8 p.m.
- Concert begins at 9:08 p.m.
- The Hawk lands at 10 p.m.
- Set break at 11:45 p.m.
- Dylan lands after 1 a.m.
- ‘Don’t Do It’ finishes at 2:20 a.m.
Some would argue Robbie used The Last Waltz to boost his image in Hollywood. You’ll notice he’s the only one interviewed alone…oh yeah, and he’s basically in every shot. Maybe it had something to do with him living with Marty during the editing of the film, where the two apparently didn’t see the sun for six months while engaged in a late-‘70s-Hollywood-style bender.
Regardless, after The Last Waltz the starting five of The Band never played another live show together, but being the new darlings of the silver screen there was only one place to go: HOLLYWOOD!
Levon became The Coal Miner’s Father.
Robbie became a Carny.
And the rest of The Band, as usual, were cast in supporting roles.
The Band reformed in the ‘80s without Robbie due to frustrations over songwriting credits & royalties. Though the original magic was gone and few highlights came from that time, sometimes you just have to Free Your Mind. (It’s highly suggested you click on that link.)
Where Are They Now?
Robbie continues to work with Marty and has been a music producer/supervisor for movies like Raging Bull, The Color of Money, Gangs of New York and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Levon continued playing music and released a few Grammy-winning albums despite battling, and later succumbing to throat cancer at the age of 71.
Garth still shares his creative genius working with artists ranging from Neko Case to Tom Petty, Nora Jones to Roger Waters. Though he’s faced multiple bankruptcies and lost most of his possessions to evictions, he still plays today.
Rick continued playing but didn’t experience the same renaissance of his “musical soulmate” Levon. Getting busted for mailing himself smack in Japan probably didn’t help. His heart gave out on him at the age of 55.
And good ole Richard. Without the structure of The Band he never stood a chance. He continued to be a wild card until he decided to hang it up at the age of 42.
This has been Rock ‘n’ Roll Storytime.
We have an extra helpin’ of playlists for this gut-busting Storytime…mainly so we could make more puns…
Cover Band (songs covered by The Band & artists covering The Band): https://open.spotify.com/user/1237741119/playlist/0gOFyctlHpj2HfdsOx9WpT
The First Waltz (since Spotify doesn’t have The Last Waltz, we’ve created our own adding [most of] the original versions of the songs on the setlist): https://open.spotify.com/user/1237741119/playlist/4YFo42Hx5rasK1Uzjh7JQM
(Spotify now has The Last Waltz, so listen frequently. Particularly to Levon singing his soul out on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” https://open.spotify.com/album/7uqVE9qWdqjtDeLpdHyMxP)
With The Band (songs featuring/produced by members of The Band…shocker, there’s a lot of Bob Dylan): https://open.spotify.com/user/1237741119/playlist/1hgvsPPQrHBWXFTkJr6p7d
And of course, these playlists should be played LOUD!
Yes, you’re excused from the table now.