Do Look Back

The Band dances The Last Waltz, but can time heal old wounds?

The way Robertson tells it, The Last Waltz was hatched when The Band--as a collective unit, to the man--decided it had come time to hang it up. They'd spent almost 20 years on the road, first as The Hawks backing up Ronnie Hawkins in shitholes throughout Canada and the United States, then as The Band. Album sales were slumping, audiences were growing restless, punk was about to dissipate all those old farts like a strong gust of wind--it was either retreat to the studio or turn into an oldies act, schlepping the shit to people who only wanted to hear "The Weight" or "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" or "Up on Cripple Creek" night after night after loathsome, lonesome night.

In 1976, keyboardist-singer Richard Manuel had injured his neck in a boating accident in Austin, and Robertson (at the time, a brand-new father) was growing superstitious about touring. Something was just wrong, Robertson kept telling Helm, the Arkansas hellion who sang like a roadhouse angel. "The numbers," Robertson insisted, "don't add up anymore."

So Robertson started planning a last hurrah during the fall of 1976--a goodbye from the very place where The Band first performed under that name, at the Winterland in San Francisco. He wanted to invite everyone with whom they'd played or were friends, from Hawkins to Dr. John to Van Morrison to Neil Young to, of course, Dylan. "It was gonna be the concert of the century, maybe the show to end the whole so-called rock era," Helm wrote in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel's on Fire, perhaps the most bitter eulogy ever penned. "That's what they told me, anyway. The only problem was, I didn't want any part of it." Which never hurt the performances: Helm, in particular, was thrilling that night, singing old songs as though he just learned them the week before; he wasn't just mumbling "Dixie" at the Winterland.

Robbie Robertson wasn't The Band -- there were five guys, you know? -- but The Last Waltz just made it look that way.
Robbie Robertson wasn't The Band -- there were five guys, you know? -- but The Last Waltz just made it look that way.

Nonetheless, since The Last Waltz, Helm and Robertson--once partners if not more, as it was the Arkansas boy who led his Canadian friend down the Delta to discover the birthplace of the blues when they were kids--have not spoken. Helm would accuse Robertson of a lot of things: stealing royalties from the other Band-mates, taking credit for songs he didn't write, even lip-synching songs in The Last Waltz. Helm, who's still touring despite having had throat cancer surgery some time back that has left his once-powerful voice a sad and raspy echo, agreed to participate on a commentary for the DVD--but he and Hudson have been banished to a track containing remarks from critic Greil Marcus and other participants. Robertson and Scorsese have their own, leaving them plenty of room to tell the story without outside interference.

"We don't get any royalties for The Last Waltz," Helm said when I spoke with him four years ago, around the time the withered Band released Jubilation. "That's the biggest rip-off that ever happened to The Band. I ain't kidding you...You thought us being white maybe we didn't get fucked as bad? Hey, let me tell you something, son. A nigger's a nigger to these motherfuckers. It got nothing to do with color. It was Robertson and Scorsese"--Helm pronounced it "Score-eatzi"--"and that fucking crowd of thieves that got paid for The Last Waltz, and they still get paid, I guess. I've never gotten a check for it in my life."

Robertson has plenty of other things to work on, besides The Last Waltz; he's signing bands to DreamWorks, helping Scorsese score Gangs of New York and working with Steven Spielberg on music for his next film. And, he says, he will begin working on another Band boxed set that will fill in the copious blanks left by the 1994 collection Across the Great Divide. The next one, he says, will be "the real, definitive collection--a fan's boxed set--because I'm thinking, this is my work, and if I don't take care of it, who the hell will? I don't have any choice in the matter."

It's almost surprising, in a way, he'd want to reopen these wounds--to answer questions about Levon, to step backward after so many years of sprinting forward with albums laden with techno blips and sampled bits.

"But there's nothing to heal from my point of view," he says. "I don't have any problems with any of it. I'm just really proud of the work, I'm proud of the people, I'm extremely proud to have been affiliated and been able to do what we had to do. And life's too short, I just can't live...I can't live." He pauses, then begins again. "I don't have time for this shit, I sure don't have time for that shit, you know what I mean? I don't know how to go there even. And I completely wish Levon all the best, and I hope that something works out for him and his health is OK and all of those things, but that's about it for me."

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