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The Band: Drifting Toward the Last Waltz

On the eve of their "Last Waltz," Robbie Robertson and friends talk about 16 years of stagefreight and the decision to stop touring

December 16, 1976
The Band Levon Helm Robbie Robertson Garth Hudson Rick Danko Richard Manuel
Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel of The Band.
R. Gates/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — With the Pacific breaking just below the second-floor window of his house in Malibu, Robbie Robertson reflects on the Band's decision to stop touring. The decision, coming 12 years after the Band became Bob Dylan's backup band and eight years after their first album, has shocked the group's many friends: "Bob said it made him very sad," says Robbie. "Neil Young said, 'I'm not ready for that.'

And Bill Graham, when I spoke to him on the phone, his answer was, 'Oh my God.' He was very sad. It took a lot of people a while to get behind the thing."

But Robertson is emphatic when he says that "the Band will never break up. It's not necessary. It would just be a silly emotional outburst. Not touring never dawned on us before, but when we thought about it and realized what's inside everybody, it creates an ideal situation. We don't have to break up the Band to get that sense of relief that everybody is striving for. We all really like to play together and we really like one another and that's something none of us would just want to toss away, ever."

The Band has always toured when they felt like it, rarely supporting albums with live performances. Two months into their latest tour (of middle-sized halls, mostly, but not always, sellouts) the group announced they would quit the road in November, playing their last show Thanksgiving Eve in San Francisco's Winterland, where the Band debuted in 1969.

The Band's "Last Waltz," as the group titled the event, will include a Thanksgiving buffet for 5000 thrown by Bill Graham, a four-hour concert and a gala party for all afterward, at $25 per person for the evening.

"It has to resolve somehow," Robertson says. "We feel real good and decided to have a party with our friends, maybe like a New Orleans funeral or something."

As far as it goes, the "Last Waltz" looks to be quite a jolly wake. Friends invited to play include just about everybody who's crossed the Band's path in the last decade: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Bobby Charles, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butter-field, Hirth Martinez, Dr. John, even the hypnotist hired by Bill Graham to cure an ailing Robertson for that first Winterland show.

"I've been playing with the Band for 16 years and I'm 32," Robertson continues. "It's been eight years in the back streets and eight years uptown. We're going to conclude this chapter of our life, which allows a kind of freshness a trip to Hawaii won't give. We have to bring it to a head."

Band without a Name
Except for organist Garth Hudson, with his domed forehead and Jehovah beard, the Band – bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, drummer Levon Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson – do not have well-known faces. But standing together they strike a visual chord as incisive as the one they struck in 1968 when their homespun Music from Big Pink surfaced in a tidal wave of psychedelia. They were simply "the band" – no capitalization even – out on their own after backing Dylan; and after shedding their earlier identities as the Crackers and the Hawks. They were – and are – a band in the purest sense of the word; no single personality dominates, no Jagger or Townshend to serve as a wedge to mass appeal. They never even liked color photographs on their albums. Everything was subordinated to the music – Robertson wrote the songs, but others sang them, "It keeps a balance," Robbie says. "One thing sticking out too much throws it off-kilter."

"We were on the cover of Time [in 1970] and nobody knew us," says Rick Danko. "Maybe that was the mystical side. We left something to the imagination, you know what I mean? I know what I mean," he says, laughing. "What we've been mainly trying to do is avoid the confusion."

Albert Grossman inherited the Band in 1967 when Dylan left Grossman's management stable. The protective cloak he and Dylan had woven was soon tossed over the Band. "Albert taught us something about protection we didn't even know was necessary," says Robbie. "You can protect a lot of things, I guess. Your sanity, your privacy . . . I don't know, whatever's hanging out the most."

"With Albert, you could always pick and choose," says Danko, "and if you weren't sure . . . stay home."

"We made a couple of albums," Robbie says, "and then we went on the road as the Band. Not long after that, something snapped. All of a sudden, we were in the outer limits and didn't know what was going on. Things were happening right and left and we all went off on different kinds of dangerous adventures in life.

"There's always been problems – some of them were drugs, some just pure insanity and some not understanding what we were supposed to be doing. There's probably a little self-destruction in everybody. It's not complicated, it's just wanting to get high.

"One of the reasons we didn't break up," he continues, "was that at one time or another everybody recognized what was going on. Whether it was drugs or a depression, we caught it before anybody got caught. It's a good thing to get by . . . a lot of folks don't."

By the early Seventies, Grossman had ceased to represent the group, instead putting his efforts into Bearsville Records. Since then the group has relied on unofficial managers, currently Larry Samuels, an old friend of Rick Danko.

Albums have come as sporadically as tours. There was no visible activity, for instance, between the December 31st, 1971, recording of Rock of Ages at New York's Academy of Music, and the Band's July 1973 Watkins Glen appearance. There was activity, though, particularly an album, now scrapped, of "works" based on the avant-garde classical music of Krzysztof Penderecki. "After getting into it for a while," says Robbie, "I realized it was much more involved and advanced, that it took a whole other kind of writing and attention. About halfway into it we said we got to do something." That something turned out to be Moondog Matinee, their Fifties nostalgia album.

That same year (1973), Robertson came to southern California for a few months to live in Malibu and found it "quite extraordinary. So I talked to the guys on the phone and everybody eventually straggled out. Then Bob got back from Mexico and everybody was here. We started talking about doing a tour and it seemed a good idea at the time and away we went."

The Dylan/Band tour of 1974 and the Band tour that followed that same year put a sharp strain on the group's equilibrium. The tours, Before the Flood and Planet Waves (on which they backed Dylan) made for a lucrative year but, "In our lives, it was firecrackers," says Robbie. "We just weren't specifically in the studio working on a Band album." Danko went off to work with Neil Young; Helm recorded Muddy Waters in Woodstock; and Robertson produced Hirth Martinez (of Hirth from Earth fame) and prepared The Basement Tapes for release.

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