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

The Band Levon Helm Robbie Robertson Garth Hudson Rick Danko Richard Manuel
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Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel of The Band.
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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.

In the meantime, they built a studio at Shangri-La, a rambling, one-story former whorehouse in Malibu, still decorated with mirrored walls and a padded Naugahyde bar. Eventually they began to record an album of new songs there, but "of all our albums," says Danko, "Northern Lights/Southern Cross took the longest. We had our own studio and everybody would just saunter in. It was hard to all arrive in the same place at the same time. We've played together a long time and we like to leave as much space in our lives as we leave in our music."

The album was their best in many years, but the group's low profile and inability to break a single let it slip away without really penetrating the market. "There've been times when I've felt Capitol could have sold more records for us than they did," Helm says. "But, hell, I guess that's a pretty common thing to feel. They probably felt we weren't active enough."

The Band is currently preparing their last album for Capitol. With that commitment filled, their declaration of an end to touring takes on added meaning. By the end of the year, the Band will owe neither product to a label nor road trips to each other.


Manuel's Medicine Show
"Confusion! Confusion! I love the confusion," Larry Samuels said as the Band slowly organized themselves for a sound check before an August performance in Santa Cruz, midway out in the tour.

Yet, a little more than a month later, the tour was beset with problems. Most crucially, Richard Manuel had seriously injured his neck in Austin when a powerboat he was in took a big wave at full throttle. His doctors prescribed six weeks in traction, but a team of Tibetan-trained healers from a foundation in Dallas – used in the past by NASA to treat astronauts – relieved the pressure on Manuel's neck. Though ten dates (out of 40) were canceled, the $2500 the healers charged was worth it; after 12 minutes of therapy and three days' bed rest, Manuel was able to continue the tour.

At the Palladium in New York – the first show after Manuel's accident – the tension was thick. Robertson's fully loaded limousine had traveled the 40 blocks to the theater in deathly silence and, as he walked into the dressing room someone admonished, "Smile, Robbie."

"I'm saving my smiles tonight," was his tight-lipped reply.

That night, the Band opened with the complex, subtly Dixieland "Ophelia" from Northern Lights and delivered it without a flaw. "The Shape I'm In" was next, with Manuel wailing so effectively through the first verse that everyone, even Robertson, was smiling. With the tension broken, the Band started flying, each member drawing on some buried reservoir of emotion to charge the songs with urgency and freshness.

Georgia on Their Minds
"We first started talking about it when we canceled the ten shows," explains Danko. "I knew we were going to put it away, but I wasn't planning on announcing it. It's a good sign. We're putting it away for a while – we've done that before. We've brought the old ship back in. We took it out again and now we're bringing it in and I feel real good all of a sudden.

"Have you heard 'Georgia'?" he asks suddenly. "I'd love for it to sell 20 million copies because that would buy the Band more time." ("Georgia," the Band's not-so-subtly pro-Carter single, was released in October.) "We'd been getting letters from Phil Walden [president of Capricorn Records]," says Robbie, "asking us to do something for Jimmy, but just sending $1000 seemed a little cold. So this seemed to be the thing to do."

On the eve of the election, the Band played "Georgia" on NBC's Saturday Night. Yet two months after the song was released, it hadn't even made the charts.

The Shape They're In
Of the Band members, Danko was the first to go solo, signing with Arista Records during the summer. Danko plans to start his album early next year and then produce Rendezvous, a group which includes his brother Terry. He also intends to tour. Helm and Robertson are also planning solo projects, and Robertson will continue to produce Neil Diamond – he just finished Diamond's soon-to-be-released live album.

For Garth Hudson, the change will mean more time to work on longer pieces. "For me," he says, "there are two kinds of work, the kind you do with other people and the kind you do at home. I'll be working more at home, that's all."

As for Richard Manuel, according to Danko, "Richard's coming out of a period and it's really nice. Now he's going to have some real choices to make." Manuel's "adventures in life" have been among the group's most dangerous and extended. On the early albums, he wore a Howdy-Doody grin and a silly hat. Then, he nearly destroyed himself in a long bout with alcohol and drugs and began camouflaging his face behind a thick beard. Despite his neck injury, he performed well on the last tour. And he's still the Band's court jester.

One day at the studio he sidled up to me to ask conspiratorially, "Do you want a three-hour egg?"

What could I say except, "Sure."

Manuel handed me a golf ball and walked away, giggling.

"You know," says wiry Levon Helm, "I wish that everything was more." Helm has always been the most independent of the group. He alone kept his base in Woodstock, where he's almost completed building a studio in an old barn.

"I wish we'd been able to put out 20 albums," he continues, "and play twice as much and touch ten times as many people, but I don't have any regrets or any horseshit about it."

This story is from the December 16th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 228: December 16, 1976