Forty Years After The Last Waltz: The Enduring Appeal of The Band


This November 25th will mark the 40th anniversary of one of the most celebrated rock concerts of all time.  It was on that date in 1976 that The Band played a fantastic show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom that was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s rock documentary The Last Waltz.  Conceived as a farewell to touring by Band member Robbie Robertson, the show featured a slew of the group’s best songs, plus a hall of fame slate of guests each of whom were invited to perform one of their well known numbers (Bob Dylan actually got two songs).  Though later generations would get accustomed to the gathering of all star musicians for benefit songs like USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” and Band Aid’s “Do they Know it’s Christmas?”, an argument can be made that there had never been a more star studded collection of rock and roll musicians in one place prior to the Winterland show.  The list is legendary and included Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Van Morrison and Dylan, among others.

I was lucky enough to attend a replication of the film part of the concert last Thursday by Classic Albums Live.  If you’ve never heard of Classic Albums Live, you are missing out.  The concept started in Toronto in 2003 and saw a core group of very talented musicians perform a classic rock album, note for note.  The success of the venture has seen them play in numerous cities across North America.  They often perform classic albums by rock legends with adoring fans such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but have also performed iconic albums that could hardly be characterized as rock ‘n roll such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.  Choosing The Last Waltz was daring, as not only do the members of the band play a huge number of instruments, but the addition of all the guest artists demands a wide range of vocal and instrumental replication.  The concert was spectacular and reminded me of how gifted The Band was.  Back in 1976, I was a thirteen year old junior high student who was probably unaware The Band was even playing this momentous show.  Forty years later, I am so thankful I was able to attend the Classic Albums Live version which was both a splendid tribute and a celebration of fantastic contemporary musicianship.

Of course The Band’s story is not as well known as many of the super groups of the 1960’s and 70’s.  In fact, mention of them to many people today elicits the bewildered response of ‘what band?’  Though many middle aged radio listeners would recognize iconic tunes such as “The Weight”, “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek”, it would be a select few who could name the five key members of the group that wrote and recorded those songs:  Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson (in order of their left to right position in the photo above).  All were born in Ontario with the exception of Helm, the group’s lone American, who was born in Arkansas.  They are the furthest thing from an overnight success I can think of; but their hard work and decade long internship eventually resulted in something both unique and remarkable.  They honed their craft in the early 1960’s under the demanding Ronnie Hawkins, a native Akansan who found Rockabilly success in the Toronto area music scene.  Hawkins had an eye for talent and would frequently coerce talented musicians in other bands to join his band “The Hawks”.  But though he could teach them about honing their craft, he couldn’t hang onto them forever.  Still, the fledgling band members learned a lot from Hawkins about a musician’s life on the road, moving from bar to bar and adapting to the specific tastes of the audience.  They learned too from Hudson, the classically trained musician who would only consent to be in the Hawks, if in addition to the money he earned playing rock n’ roll, the band members each paid him ten dollars per week so he could teach them music; thus, he could tell his parents he was earning his living as a music teacher and not be entirely fibbing.  They left Hawkins in 1963 and would eventually catch the eye of another demanding musician by the name of Bob Dylan.  After Dylan went electric, he was looking for a backup band and so the Hawks eventually found themselves as the house band for the most gifted songwriter of their generation.  For some, that might have been success enough, but after touring and recording extensively with Dylan, the Band (the name they eventually settled on because it was the moniker people knew them as in relation to Dylan) started writing more and more of their own music and set off on their own.  Rather than conform to the psychedelic experimentation so in vogue at the time, The Band embraced a combination of roots, blues, country and early rock n’ roll, incorporated the traditions of the midnight ramble (Helm’s familiarity with Southern medicine shows), and included an eclectic mix of instruments like full horn sections, accordions, organs and mandolins.  They were adored by music critics, particularly Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus and earned a legion of enthusiastic fans.

The music has aged well.  At the concert on Thursday, it wasn’t the well known tunes of the guest artists like Neil Young’s “Helpless”, Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” or even Van Morrison’s “Caravan” that I was humming after the show, as fine as they are.  And it wasn’t the well known Band tunes like “The Shape I’m In” or “The Weight” that I went back to either.  Rather, it was songs like the achingly beautiful “It Makes No Difference”, and “Stage Fright” (both sung with such vulnerability by Rick Danko), the fun and horn filled “Ophelia” which the band onstage Thursday admitted was their favourite number in the show, and the haunting “Evangeline”, loosely based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem of the same name.  Another feature of the concert that made it so enjoyable was how much fun the musicians seemed to be having.  Perhaps they were just in role, but it sure seemed to me that they were having a ball.  As Neil Young says in the film without a trace of irony, it is one of the highlights of his life to be on the stage getting to play with these people.  Sometimes, art is so powerful that even thrice removed (a tribute concert based on a film documentary of a concert of songs), it still provides you with the utter joy and wonder of the creative act.  Do yourself a favour and listen to songs like “The Unfaithful Servant”, “Where Do We Go From Here” and “Acadian Driftwood” and you’ll be amazed at the unique vocals, the masterful musicianship and the relevant human story on display.  I’m so glad that I’ve rediscovered these fantastic artists.

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate!


I was as surprised as anybody when I heard that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature today.  Not that I think he is unworthy.  On the contrary, I have been a Dylan fan since my brother introduced me to him some 45 years ago.  For decades, I defended Dylan against various allegations made against him including ‘he can’t sing’, ‘he steals from others’, ‘he doesn’t communicate with his audience during live performances’, ‘he’s a self-hating Jew’, and ‘he’s overrrated’.  After a while, I stopped defending Dylan and just smiled at his detractors.  I guess I had come to the realization that nothing I was going to say would likely change their mind, just as nothing they could come up with was going to transform my opinion.

That Dylan is a superior lyricist who influenced countless musicians who in turn have had a significant impact, is, I believe, abundantly clear.  Now whether I would classify his work as literature is not as clear.

Part of this is due to the fact that “literature” is not an easy concept to pin down.  A rather basic definition of literature is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit”.  So, now we run into language problems.  What makes something “superior”?  Who decides this?  How long does writing need to last to be considered “lasting”?  What qualities loan something “artistic merit”?  Answering these questions is probably something a great majority of both Dylan detractors and defenders would be loathe to do.  Nonetheless, I will try to do so.

I hazard that what makes something “superior” in terms of writing is its originality and effectiveness in utilizing words and literary techniques to forward a theme or thought.  Literary techniques in songwriting could include vivid imagery, symbolism, alliteration, oxymoron, pun, rhyme, rhythm, irony, allusion and tone among many others.  Here’s a frequently quoted example of Dylan’s prowess with imagery:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.              _”Mr. Tambourine Man”

Is it superior?  Well, who has the expertise to answer this?  One would think that the Nobel Prize Committee might.  Does Dylan master other techniques besides imagery?  Well, here’s an example of allusion in his work:

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row.                            “Desolation Row”

As for Dylan’s use of pun, consider this from the much beloved album Blood on the Tracks:

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell                  “Tangled Up in Blue”

Here’s an example of symbolism in Dylan’s early anti-war work:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.                        “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”

One more example, because even I’m tiring of this now, but here’s Dylan employing some interesting rhyme and rhythm:

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get your facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To all give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations.          “Ballad of a Thin Man”

Not that this clears anything up really.  Some of you might be impressed, others not so much.  The same holds for professors of literature, musicologists and poets.

Then there is a separate problem of how long does a literary work have to last to be considered “lasting”?  The term is bereft of specificity.  Some might say Dylan has already passed this test as his early work is over fifty years old now.  Others might argue that unless his work is still being listened to fifty years after Dylan’s death, then the popularity could be more due to marketing or nostalgia than to artistic merit.

So while I’m not certain Dylan’s work is worthy of a prize for literature, no matter how esteemed, I am certainly glad if it means more people will listen to his songs, take a close inspection of his lyrics and actually attempt to evaluate artistic merit.

Congratulations Bob from a fan and a lover of literature.