The Last Waltz blends concert and sound stage footage with director Martin Scorsese's interviews with members of the Band. They discuss the group's history, including its early-Sixties beginnings as the Hawks, backup band for rockabilly trouper Ronnie Hawkins. Robert Palmer played saxophone in many of the same Southern clubs as the Hawks and relived that era with Robbie Robertson as work on The Last Waltz was being completed.
The long black Cadillac ground to a stop in the Delta Supper Club's dusty parking lot and gave a shudder, as if it were glad to be rid of the weight of the trailer it was pulling. The six young men who got out, squinting in the bright Arkansas sun, were dressed for the road, in blue jeans and plaid or cowboy shirts. The older one, Ronnie Hawkins, was in his late twenties, beefy, filling his tight clothes, his hair teased and greased with a spit curl hanging down over his forehead. The others were kids in their late teens, gangly, miming the by-now-ritualized attitudes rock & roll cool. They looked around at the West Helena afternoon for a minute, sizing up two locals who were giving them the eye from a weather-beaten Chevy pickup truck, and then Hawkins led them into the club and over to the bar, not to drink, though they could hold their own at that, but to look.
Ronnie felt along the wooden bar until he found a jagged seam. "Well boys," he said in his rangy Ozark drawl, "here it is." The seam ran all the way down the bar and all the way through the thick wood. It seems that one night a Billy Bob or Jimmy Lee from the country around Helena had gotten into a fight and been evicted from the establishment. Being smashed on rotgut whiskey and not about to take that kind of treatment, he stumbled to the back of his pickup, pulled out his chain saw, burst through the front door of the club and let the thing rip. All the good old boys went scrambling out the windows and the door, but Billy Bob didn't even see them. He just went straight for the bar, lowered that whirring blade, and sawed the bar in two. That was the genesis of the famous chain-saw story, which musicians all over the South heard and told, even if they didn't believe it. "Yep," said Hawkins, almost reverently, "this is where it happened. See, here's where they glued it back together."
It was 1961, and Robbie Robertson, who'd replaced Fred Carter Jr. as lead guitarist in Hawkins' backup band, the Hawks, just a few months earlier, was still walking around this fabled country in a daze. He was seventeen, but he'd been around, playing rock & roll in his native Toronto since he was thirteen, writing a couple of hot tunes and going to New York when he was fifteen to watch Hawkins record them, getting that call when he was sixteen — "We need us a guitar player, come on down" — and riding a Greyhound from Toronto all the way down to Fayetteville and then to West Helena, on the Mississippi River, smack in the middle of the delta. It was blues country. Those gravelly voiced singers and storming black metal guitarists Robbie had been hearing on the radio, on clear Toronto nights when he could pull in John R.'s show on WLAC from Nashville, actually stalked these dark bottom lands, cypress swamps, clusters of board and tar-paper croppers' shacks and cotton fields baking in the sun.
Robbie knew the music; along with James Burton, Dale Hawkins, Roy Buchanan and a few other punks, he was one of a handful of white guitarists who were playing it. But the music was one thing; the place was something else. Levon Helm, the intense, wiry drummer who was to initiate him into its mysteries, met him at the Helena bus station and took him out to the Helm farmhouse, which was built on stilts to keep it dry during spring floods when the Big Muddy overran its banks. Levon's dad, a cotton farmer, told tales that made them split their sides laughing, and his mother cooked food that made them split their sides eating. Later, with Levon at the wheel, Robbie had a look at the town. There were black folks everywhere — he could remember seeing only a few in his entire life — and even the white folks talked like them, in a thick, rolling Afro-English that came out as heavy and sweet as molasses but could turn as acrid as turpentine if your accent or behavior were strange.
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