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.
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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.
By the time Robbie had been with the Hawks a few months, the original Arkansans, except for Levon, had been replaced by Canadians. Earnest young Rick Danko, who knew some country fiddle and mandolin but had been smitten by rock & roll fever when he was in his early teens in the Canadian tobacco belt, was first. Then came Richard Manuel, a smoky-voiced screamer and master of the art of rhythm piano. “The piano was used as a rhythm instrument, with solos on organ or guitar or sax,” Robbie explains. “So when you stopped playing rhythm to play a solo, the rhythm wouldn’t drop out — the piano was still holding it.” The last to join was Garth Hudson, who’d been classically trained and agreed to come only after the others promised him a token fee in exchange for regular lessons in music theory and harmony. It seemed to satisfy his parents, who imagined a different kind of musical career for their son.
The musical director was Levon, who’d come to the Hawks from a Helena group called the Jungle Bush Beaters and liked his rock & roll hard and raw. Hawkins had had some hits in the brash rockabilly vein of the late Fifties and early Sixties — “Odessa,” “Mary Lou” — and liked Levon’s style, but by 1961 or ’62 there were changes in the air. The band added saxophonist Jerry Penfound so it could play soul tunes like Bobby Blue Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight.” With Garth on organ they sported two keyboards and a sax; with Garth on sax they had a soul band’s horn section. And despite his classical training. Garth developed a saxophone style in the classic mold. Even today, he will tell you that the art of rock & roll saxophone playing was all but lost in the late Fifties and the early Sixties with the introduction of the Otto Link metal mouthpiece and the arrival of King Curtis and Boots Randolph and their strangled, chicken-clucking sound.
“When the music got a little too far out for Ronnie’s ear,” Robbie remembers, “or he couldn’t tell when to come in singing, he would tell us that nobody but Thelonious Monk could understand what we were playing. But the big thing with him was that he made us rehearse and practice a lot. Often we would go and play until one a.m. and then rehearse until four. And I practiced incessantly; I could go for it until my fingers were just raw. I was interested in doing what those other people couldn’t do; I really wanted to be good.”
They all drove from gig to gig in the Cadillac, with their equipment in the trailer. The circuit extended from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee up through Missouri. Then there was the Canadian part: Toronto and out into Ontario. Sometimes they would drive hundreds of miles, from warm, almost tropical weather into sheets of freezing rain or snow. Levon remembers Hawkins looking out at an icy Canadian landscape from the speeding Caddy, turning to him gravely and saying, “Son, it’s as cold out there as an accountant’s heart.”
But Arkansas, Ronnie’s and Levon’s home state, was their headquarters and prime stomping ground. Across its length and breadth they were legends, and not just for their music. Local bands did copy their arrangements note for note, and budding guitarists got both their kicks and their licks from catching Robbie at national guard armory dances or country roadhouses. “But the Hawks could eat and pop pills and fuck with the best of ’em,” remembers a veteran Arkansas rocker. “Ronnie knew every whore between Helena and Toronto.”
The lifestyle was decidedly fast. In central Arkansas, for example, they often played the Club 70, a big barn of a place just off the two-lane blacktop of highway 70 between the Little Rock city limits and the Jacksonville air force base. There was a brisk business in amphetamines in the parking lot. To get into the club you had to get past a bouncer who sat in a little glassed-in booth under a blue light, checking IDs. Sometimes a local with his T-shirt sleeves rolled up to his shoulders would sit down in front of the bandstand, chug-a-lug a quart of vodka, chug down a quart of beer for a chaser and dare anybody to start a fight. Sometimes a gang of tough Yankee slum kids from the air base would mock the Arkansas Razorback cheer, “Sooiee Pigs,” by yelling “Soooieee, Pigshit,” and then there would be real trouble: chairs and tables flying, bottles breaking, black eyes and more money out of the till to pay off the cops. After a night of that, the Hawks would pack, get in their Caddy and drive up into the Ozarks to Fayetteville, Razorback Valhalla, where they sometimes had to wade across a floor that was literally knee-deep in beer cans in order to get to the stage. Mostly, though, they played roadhouses. “You’d just be driving along,” says Robbie, “and there’d be this place, out on the road somewhere. At night people would come from all around, it would be packed. You could tell by looking at it that it was only gonna be there for a short while, that somebody was gonna torch it at any given moment. It happened a lot. We’d play in a club and go back a year later and they’d have burnt it down and built a new one.”
The Hawks split from Ronnie Hawkins in 1963 and worked for a time under Levon’s feisty, determined leadership. And they almost became Sonny Boy Williamson’s backup band instead of Bob Dylan’s in the mid-Sixties.
“We were in West Helena, just hanging out and talking about the music,” says Robbie. “Levon had grown up listening to Sonny Boy on King Biscuit Time [broadcast over KFFA radio in Helena] and we thought about him and said, maybe he’s here. So we went down to the holler — Levon knew where everything was — and we asked some people if Sonny Boy was around. They said, ‘Yeah, he’s playing down at the cafe.’ We went down and there he was, a big tall man in a bowler hat, white hair and a white goatee, wearing a suit he’d had made in England that was gray on one side and black on the other, and the reverse on the back. He looked kind of…fine.
“Levon introduced himself and said, ‘Can we go somewhere to play some music?’ Sonny Boy took us to these friends of his, this woman had a place where she sold bootleg corn liquor. Well, that stuff is outrageous. We got drunk, drunk, and we all played. Man, he played the harmonica inside out. He’d put the whole thing inside his mouth and play it. I kept noticing him spitting in this can. I thought maybe he was chewing tobacco. I was wandering around at one point and I looked in the can and it was blood, he was spitting blood. It was a gruesome sight, and I was so drunk ….
“Things got a little weird there. There were all these young guys around trying to hustle us, and they were afraid of Sonny Boy — he was the only legend around the neighborhood, and it was also a known fact that if you fucked with him he would cut you. But eventually there were just too many people. So we all left and smuggled him into our motel — they didn’t allow black people in there, you understand — and we just played and played, and he couldn’t believe it. He’d been to England and played with the Yardbirds and some other groups, and he told us, ‘They’re awful. They want to play the blues so bad and they play it so bad….’ Anyway, we really got on, and we made all these plans, things we were gonna do together. Then we went to play in New Jersey and we got this letter from Sonny Boy’s manager or whoever he was, saying that he had passed. Tuberculosis.”
Levon and the Hawks didn’t spend all their time in the South, not by a long shot. They would play in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and pop into New York to see some of the Brill Building songwriter types they’d met when they recorded there with Hawkins: Neil Diamond, Doc Pomus, Leiber and Stoller. They spent some time in Chicago, where they got to know Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield and went with them to blues clubs on the South Side. They gigged regularly in Canada. It was on one of their northern swings that they met John Hammond Jr. Hammond and Mary Martin, who worked in Albert Grossman’s office and knew a lot of Canadian musicians, both told Bob Dylan about them.
“Dylan called when they were working in New Jersey,” says Jonathan Taplin, who was the Band’s company manager from 1968 to 1971 but knew their music much earlier. “Evidently, he went down to listen to them, returned to New York and called up Levon. He asked if they’d like to play with him at the Hollywood Bowl and at Forest Hills Stadium. And Levon’s reply was, ‘Who else is on the bill?’ Because they were just beginning to hear ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ on the radio. They never bought albums, they just listened to the radio, so they had no idea how big Bob was. The way it ended up, just Levon and Robbie went to the Forest Hills gig, and Dylan got Harvey Brooks and Al Kooper to play bass and organ. See, Levon and Robbie wanted to be sure that he’d really sold out these big places….Then they got the other three guys to come on up.”
“We’d heard a couple of his records and we knew he was really good,” Robbie says of Dylan, “but we were a rock & roll band. We didn’t play his kind of music, we just appreciated it in the same way you would listen to Big Bill Broonzy and appreciate it. But once he started wanting to change his music, it was an interesting challenge. It was easy to play with him, but it was hard getting everybody to play with him at the same time because he would break meter, and all of a sudden you wouldn’t know where you were, you’d get mixed up. Sometimes we didn’t know if we were playing great music or nonsense. A lot of it had to do with….Well, it was a strange experience, going around the world in a private plane and getting booed. An interesting way to make a living, but definitely strange. Everybody was telling Bob to get rid of us, that we were sent from the devil and putting this dirty, vulgar music on a pure folkloric tradition. That’s what the attitude was. And then everybody just forgot about that and accepted the whole thing as if it had always been accepted.”
When Dylan’s first electric tour hit Memphis — Highway 61 was on everyone’s turntable; Blonde on Blonde was still several months in the future — some of the Arkansas rockers, hearing that this new kid Dylan was playing with the Hawks, drove up along the twisting delta highway to see them. It was an unforgettable show. Dylan did the first part unaccompanied, introducing. “Visions of Johanna” and driving everybody half crazy with lines like “the ghost of electricity howled in the bones of her face.” Then he brought out the Hawks, who looked pretty much like they’d always looked, street casual, not too much hair, jeans, old sports jackets. The music was loud, intense, possessed. Robbie played wrenching solos from back near Levon’s drums, hardly moving a muscle. Dylan, playing rhythm, mimed the throes of a convulsion whenever Robbie tore into a break, and everybody but the Arkies thought he was soloing.
Jonathan Taplin caught the group later in that same 1965 tour. “It was astonishing,” he remembers. “They were louder than any band I’d ever heard. At that time, there was nothing like it. As it went on, into 1966, they got even more daring. I have live tapes from England with Robbie playing outrageous high-note blues guitar. Nobody was playing like that. Then, when everybody else got into that kind of style, he began to look for a new sound, a more delicate, less bluesy kind of thing. He’s just a killer musician. On that record he made with John Hammond in 1964, they had Robbie playing the guitar and Mike Bloomfield on piano. I mean, it was obvious who was the better player then. But you know, they’re all killer players. The funny thing is, when they became the Band, they constantly tried to play down solos, musicianship, that kind of thing, in order to be an ensemble, when in fact they were the best solo players in the music at that time. Whenever there would be a jam session, Garth was a far better organ player than anybody, and Robbie, when he’d get together with other guitar players, would amaze everybody with his rides.”
Taplin was going to Princeton and acting as road manager for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, another Albert Grossman act, when he met the Band. Dylan was in seclusion following his motorcycle accident, but they all were seeing a lot of each other in Woodstock, getting together, trading songs, making the recordings that later surfaced as The Basement Tapes. “By then,” says Robbie, “the give-and-take was an everyday procedure, whether we were traveling around the world or hanging out in somebody’s kitchen. It was an education for all of us, and it was fun.” You can hear a strong mutual fascination on The Basement Tapes. Dylan, the urban-folkie-turned-rocker, found in the Hawks a direct connection with the roots of rock — blues, country, rockabilly — and the Band found in Dylan a new understanding of what rock could become. Robbie was writing songs again. “Bob taught me a certain liberty,” he says. “How to tell a story in a short form without necessarily having to go from point A to point B. I mean, he broke down a whole lot of the tradition of songwriting right before my very eyes. With all the rules broken, you could go ahead and tell the truth without having to do some kind of fancy dance. But I was never too hot for the messages and the poetry, that side of it, because I just didn’t come out of that school. I never thought I was writing poetry; they were songs.”
The songs Robbie ended up writing came out steeped in the South’s bottom lands and shacks and cotton fields, steeped in the Baptist and Holy Roller churches where folks in the throes of religious hysteria invented the duck walk and all the other classic rock & roll moves. During the first months in Woodstock the songs had come slowly, and maybe that was because Levon, who’d tired of the road shortly before Dylan’s European tour and gone back to the South, wasn’t with them. They recorded a lot of the music on The Basement Tapes without him, but they found that they needed that razorback spirit and never-say-die Confederate orneriness to be a real band. When Levon rejoined them and sunk roots in Woodstock — today he is the only member who still lives there — the transformation was complete. They were no longer the Hawks, a band; they were the Band.
Taplin helped the Band move into Sammy Davis Jr.’s old house in Hollywood to record their second album in the winter of 1968. They built a makeshift recording studio in the pool house, where Levon lived for the duration of the sessions. Once the place was set up, Jonathan went back to finish at Princeton. When he returned, the Band sat him down and played him “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
“It was May,” he says, “and they’d just finished it the night before. They said it’d come out fast and hard and clean. It was just the most moving experience I’d had for, God, I don’t know how long. Because for me, being a Northern liberal kid who’d been involved in the civil-rights movement and had a whole attitude toward the South, well, I loved the music but I didn’t understand where white Southerners were coming from. And to have it all in just three and a half minutes, the sense of dignity and place and tradition, all those things….Well, the next day, after I’d recovered, I went to Robbie and asked him. ‘How did that come out of you?’ And he just said that from being with Levon so long in his life and being in that place at that time…. It was so inside him that he wanted to write that song right at Levon, to let him know how much those things meant to him.”
To the world at large, Music from Big Pink and The Band were the remarkable beginnings of a remarkable new group. In reality, they were the crowning fruition of a career that had spanned almost a decade. Of all the rock groups making music during those heady years, the Band was the one that was most in touch with the music’s history and its heartland, the one that realized most clearly how inseparably music, past and place were linked. After they completed the second album, they went out on their first tour as the Band, a tour that has been chronicled elsewhere, most notably in Greil Marcus’ book, Mystery Train, and, perhaps, in some of the lyrics on the Band’s third album, the aptly titled Stage Fright. When one suggests to Robbie Robertson that the tour really was the beginning of a new ball game, he nods his head. “You’re right. For us it was, anyway. The first two albums were really like the fulfillment of something.”
Cut to Los Angeles, early 1978. Robbie is in his small office on the MGM movie lot, taking care of detail work, fulfilling his responsibilities as producer of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. In the office next door, Jonathan Taplin, who went on from his work with the Band to produce Scorsese’s Mean Streets, is serving as the new film’s executive producer. “The road didn’t really change that much,” Robbie says over a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a chain of cigarettes, “just different-class hotels, different-class transportation. I guess the first stage could have been more deadly just in terms of how physically dangerous it was. The second stage was dangerous too, but more on a head level. It really was kind of a mindfuck.” And so is the movie. All those faces from the early days, the period with Dylan, the second stage. The energy in the music and its weathered, lived-in quality — every phrase, every note sighs from sixteen years on the road — are almost too intense. “We would watch the footage and not be able to watch it again for a day and a half,” Scorsese said the night before. “We would come home drained.”
The important thing is that the Band didn’t go down in a plane crash or on the highway, or down in spirits and chemicals like so many of their contemporaries. They flirted with the edge, some members more hungrily than others, but in the end they set a date for their demise as a touring unit, arranged for it to take place where they played their first engagement as the Band, threw a party instead of a wake, got to do some of their favorite songs one last time with their favorite artists and friends, and captured the whole thing for their grandchildren. How many other rock & roll bands have been able to say as much?