Rock & Roll Angel

Rick Danko In The Last Waltz

This blog post is not insightful or reflective. Not at all. November is The Last Waltz month, and as I already wrote Caught In The Spotlight last summer, I tried to find a new angle, and thought it would be a good idea to profess my love for Rick Danko in The Last Waltz. Okay, I already have professed my love for Rick Danko, and not only in The Last Waltz. Yet, this time, I want to focus entirely on that concert and the Martin Scorsese documentary. Even though Robbie Robertson was meant to be the star of the movie — it’s obvious in the way Scorsese interviewed him and in the shots from the concert at the Winterland Ballroom — Rick stole the show. The Last Waltz’s prestige serves him well. He is outstanding throughout the documentary and is a movie star for two hours. In a letter to Rolling Stone, Bernie Taupin wrote: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Rick look that good. He was trim, fit and handsome, and played and sang beautifully. Demons may have chased and consumed him years later, but on that glorious night, he looked like a rock & roll angel.” Beautiful words and so true. Sexy as hell, singing like a bird, playing bass with his dance moves, Rick looked like a rock & roll angel. 

When I laid eyes on Rick for the first time in The Last Waltz, it was a revelation. I didn’t fall in love with The Band first — I fell in love with Rick first because he opens The Last Waltz, playing pool in the Shangri-La Studios. “The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off.” He also introduces Don’t Do It, which The Band play as an encore, and which is the first song we hear in The Last Waltz. “All right. Happy Thanksgiving!” 

As if under a spell, I couldn’t take my eyes off him the first time I watched the movie. And I still barely can now. I am bewitched every time I re-watched The Last Waltz. There is, of course, the heartbreaking and iconic It Makes No Difference, but also Rick’s radiant smile when The Band play with their old mentor Ronnie Hawkins. And there is the way he gazes at Joni Mitchell during the first notes of Coyote, and when he looks up at the sky during Helpless with Neil Young. I have always loved the blissful expression of Rick, Robbie and Neil in that scene. Like Robbie explained in Testimony: “When Joni Mitchell’s high falsetto voice came soaring in from the heavens, I looked up, and I saw people in the audience looking up too, wondering where it was coming from.” 

Rick is fascinating throughout the entire movie, like in the touching Sip The Wine scene, where he talks about just making music and trying to stay busy. It’s a moment almost painful to watch. However, Rick can also lighten the mood, like when he says with a deadpan face, “And as soon as company came, of course, we’d start having fun. And you know what happens when you have too much fun.” Without forgetting this magical moment when he plays fiddle on Old Time Religion, accompanied by Robbie on guitar and Richard on harmonica. Who would have thought that fiddle could be so sexy?

The Last Waltz was flamboyant. A Thanksgiving dinner for five thousand people, chandeliers from Gone With The Wind, a horn section, and prestigious guests. Amid that opulence, Rick, country boy at heart, was a down-to-earth sight. It’s probably why it’s still so fascinating to watch him in the movie, forty-six years after the concert. 

This is not a scientific statement, but considering the many comments I have received on Rick in The Last Waltz and the several articles I have read on that subject, Rick is the one who makes the strongest impression on the viewers. And it’s not unusual that someone would fall in love with The Band in this movie because they are hooked by Rick in the first scenes. Like I wrote last year in The Night I Met The Band, “And that guy who said Happy Thanksgiving with his mischievous grin — God, who was that striking man?” 

Despite his musical skills Rick overdubbed his parts for the soundtrack because his bass was out of tune during the concert. However, his angelic harmonies were impressive that night: Helpless with Neil Young, and the delicious way he sang “If I don’t do it, somebody else will” on Such A Night with Dr. John. He also offered powerful back vocals on Van Morrison’s song Caravan, reminiscent of the ones of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Yet, nothing is better than Rick’s lead vocal performances. It Makes No Difference and Stage Fright are among his most acclaimed. Was he thinking that maybe it would be the last time he would sing these songs?

I used to think The Last Waltz wasn’t the best introduction to The Band, and I would have preferred listening to Music From Big Pink before watching their farewell concert. I love order, and starting with the end isn’t natural for me. However, I don’t regret having discovered The Band in The Last Waltz, on PBS, on a gloomy winter night several years ago while I was struggling with depression. Now, I think it was perfect. In another blog post, I wrote, “I wish I could recover the innocence I had when I first watched The Last Waltz. Back then, I didn’t know that Richard Manuel killed himself ten years after the concert or that Rick Danko succumbed to heart failure in 1999.” 

When I watched The Last Waltz for the first time, I couldn’t have guessed that Rick Danko would eventually occupy a special place in my life, that he would help me get through tough times, and that, somehow, in the middle of a depression — another — years after I discovered The Band, he would be my solace. 


Caught In The Spotlight

The Last Waltz – The Band’s Decadent And Heartbreaking Farewell Concert

It was Thanksgiving 1976. Five thousand people reunited at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco were served a traditional dinner with turkey and pumpkin pie. Meanwhile, the five musicians of The Band waited backstage with Bill Graham, the producer and promoter of the show called The Last Waltz. It was The Band’s farewell concert. A farewell concert with prestigious guests, so different from the one they had performed at the same place in 1969. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson had played their first concert as The Band at the Winterland Ballroom. But now, seven years and a half later, they were used to this, and perhaps even disillusioned. And contrary to 1969, Robbie wasn’t suffering from a mysterious illness, possibly due to stage fright, that a hypnotist had tried without success to cure before the show. Now, gleaming chandeliers hung from the ceiling, a horn section accompanied The Band, and Martin Scorsese captured the event on film. 

The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink, was released in 1968, The musicians lived for several years in the quaint town of Woodstock, and people believed the album was actually recorded in the Big Pink basement rather than in studios in New York and Los Angeles. Perhaps a sign of the times, The Last Waltz is far away from the old-fashioned charm of The Band as pictured by Elliott Landy at the end of the 1960s. It was another decade, and the hippie movement had given place to something edgier. The Band didn’t escape that tendency. The decadence of the concert is surprising. Yet, despite this grandiloquence, their talent shines throughout the movie. It’s obvious as soon as in the first scene, Don’t Do It, which is in fact the last song The Band played at the concert. “We’re gonna do one more song, and that’s it,” Robbie warned the audience when the group came back on stage. Bill Graham had pleaded with them to get back for one last time, saying, “Do it for me. If this is The Band’s final concert, for god’s sake, give us one more. The final concert of The Band. Man, that’s heartbreaking.”

The public wasn’t ready to let them go. They had started together sixteen years before as The Hawks of Ronnie Hawkins, and on November 25, 1976, it was the end. In an interview for the movie, Robbie said to Martin Scorsese, “I couldn’t live with twenty years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.” Levon Helm, who disapproved of Robbie’s decision to break up the group, remembered he told Robbie, “I’m not in it for my health.” Those two irreconcilable visions set the tone for the interviews interspersed through the movie. 

The concert itself, however, is a celebration. Not the celebration of the end of The Band, but the celebration of those chaotic years spent together. Their alchemy is apparent throughout the show, and it culminates when Bob Dylan joins them on stage at the end of the night. They gave the performance of their lives, and for those few hours, nothing else existed than music and friends. It makes sense that the first guest was Ronnie Hawkins, the man without whom The Band wouldn’t have existed. He saw the exceptional talent of Rick, Richard, Levon, Garth and Robbie, and brought all of them together.

It also makes sense that fellows Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, immortalized in the movie performing the song Helpless with The Band, were invited. Joni is the only feminine musician who performed at the live concert. Emmylou Harris and The Staple Singers were added as an afterthought and were filmed on an MGM soundstage. Joni played an irresistible version of Coyote accompanied by The Band. In Testimony, Robbie admitted: “Joni’s songs might have been the most challenging of the night with their syncopation and chord structures that kept you on your toes, but we sailed through that one like a cool breeze.” 

Some friends of Woodstock also joined The Band. Van Morrison gave a thrilling — and acrobatic — rendition of his song, Caravan. Paul Butterfield appeared for Mystery Train, with the contagious energy of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel both on drums. Regrettably, however, Richard is barely visible in that scene of the movie — in fact, he’s barely visible in the entire movie at all, like Garth Hudson. 

During the evening, guests came on stage one after another: Dr. John offered a delightful moment with his song Such A Night. The legendary Muddy Waters, who Levon insisted on having on the show, performed while the musicians of The Band looked at him with admiration. An anecdotic moment occurred when Eric Clapton’s guitar strap broke during Further On Up The Road. Robbie, without missing a beat, played a solo as masterfully as Eric, if not more. Neil Diamond was present as well. He was invited because Robbie had produced his last album. When Levon heard he would play at the concert, his reaction was, “What the hell does Neil Diamond have to do with us?” 

And of course, there were The Band songs. The version of It Makes No Difference they played that night has become a classic. Rick sang his heart out, and Garth appeared beside him at the end of the song to play his sax solo. It’s one of those glorious moments of the concert, one that we wish could last forever. Luckily, cameramen were there to immortalize it. The Band also performed some of their staples: Up On Cripple Creek, Stage Fright, Ophelia, The Shape I’m In, always with an obvious pleasure.

The members of The Band played skillfully, as always, but it was the end. Their end. Even when I watched the movie for the first time, when I hadn’t heard The Band before, the inherent sorrow of The Last Waltz struck me. The most wistful scene is probably the one where Rick played his song Sip The Wine for Martin Scorsese, but it’s also apparent when Levon sang The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down with all his might — the most powerful rendition he ever gave of this song. He incarnated Virgil Caine for the last time and offered to the audience at the Winterland Ballroom, as well to generations of viewers of The Last Waltz, a performance that is the essence of music. And this is the essence of The Band, who throughout their career, had played those haunting songs reminiscent of an old America. 

The Last Waltz is the only thorough visual testament of The Band. (They didn’t appear in Woodstock, although they were featured in the documentary Festival Express.) And this visual testament is their last moments as a band. They had lived so much together until that Thanksgiving night at the Winterland. When they played I Shall Be Released with all the guests at the end of the concert, it didn’t evoke Big Pink, but something bigger than them. 

Even after all those decades, The Last Waltz continues to introduce new fans to The Band, which is peculiar. After all, it’s the conclusion of The Band, and it’s sometimes painful to watch those last moments. Even though we know Rick, Richard, Levon and Garth would reunite, years later, we also know the tragedies that await them. After the release of their first album, they became iconic and got caught up in a whirlwind. With The Last Waltz, those tumultuous years ended, but it was a bitter end — except for Robbie, maybe. The movie offers two versions of the story, and it goes beyond the traditional Robbie/Levon rivalry. The disparity between the exuberance of the concert and the melancholy of the interviews is obvious. And heartbreaking. 


Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

The Night I Met The Band

Thoughts on The Last Waltz, the movie that made me discover The Band

I remember the night I met The Band. The details of that troubled period of my existence are blurry, but somehow, the moment I first heard the musicians who would change my life is still vivid in my memory. I was leaning on the couch in my living room, channel-zapping listlessly. For a reason that is perhaps mystical, I stopped on PBS. The announcement for the next program was The Last Waltz. Consequently, I pictured something boring, in a ballroom with an orchestra playing Glenn Miller, while elderly couples would waltz on the dance floor. 

Yet I knew right away it wouldn’t be what I had imagined when the warning: This film should be played loud! appeared on the screen. What the hell was that? Before I could think any further, those men came on stage, cigarettes stuck between their lips, cool hats and all. And that guy who said Happy Thanksgiving with his mischievous grin — God, who was that striking man? It didn’t take me long to find out, since the names showed in orange letters while the band played Don’t do it. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson. I was hooked. 

Because I’m Canadian, American Thanksgiving has always seemed more grandiose than the one in my country. Since I have discovered The Band, this holiday has taken on a new meaning. Every year, I watch the episodes of Friends, and of course, The Last Waltz. This farewell concert, held on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, is so emotional that I have to stop watching it and switch to Rachel Green serving her trifle-Shepherd’s pie. Believe me, it eases the tension after Levon had sung The night they drove old Dixie down in a way that would bring tears to the eyes of even the most hard-hearted people.

Even today, the moments that moved me the first time I watched the movie still does. The Band, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell singing Helpless, the “full-on Canadian sequence” as Robbie put it. And of course, Dixie-Down. It amazed me when I first heard it. Levon’s emotions are so raw, it is almost unbearable. He knew it was the last time he was Virgil Caine, and he put his heart into that song. 

Despite the greatness of the movie, the decline of Richard Manuel in The Last Waltz is heartbreaking to watch. My love for Richard is no secret, but I fell in love with Rick Danko first. I am ashamed to confess that my initial impression of Richard was, “Who is that man wearing an awful plaid suit?” Moreover, he was visibly intoxicated during the interviews. In This Wheel’s on Fire, Levon said, “Richard later complained that he was so drunk at the time, he couldn’t remember being filmed.” He was in the shadows in The Last Waltz, so much that during a screening of the movie, Ronnie Hawkins whispered to Levon, “Was Richard still in the group when we did this?”

However, I could feel something more profound, something broken inside Richard Manuel. Uneasiness seized me when he laboriously sang I Shall be released at the end of the concert. Later, when I heard him sing the same song on Music from Big Pink, the beauty of his falsetto stunned me. I realized then that I had a lot to learn about that complex man, and I wanted to know the circumstances that had led him to the despair he showed in The Last Waltz. For those reasons, I wish I had discovered The Band with the video of Tears of Rage at Woodstock (note to Albert Grossman’s spirit: it would have been the case if The Band had been included in the documentary.) Thus, my first perception of Richard would have been one of a talented musician with a celestial voice.

Even the blissful moments, like the one with Paul Butterfield — Levon’s boyish grin during Mystery Train melts my heart every time — are mixed with melancholy because I know how it ended. The Last Waltz possesses a magical ambiance, but it is tinged with melancholy. Melancholy for the end of that band, who grew up together. They entered adulthood with the Hawks, and their brotherhood deepened with The Band while they recorded with Bob Dylan at Big Pink. 

In The Last Waltz, all those years they spent together ended before our eyes. This concert was the funeral of The Band. Rick Danko was still grieving when he played the recording of Sip the Wine to Martin Scorsese. “Now that The Last Waltz is over, what are you doing now?” Scorsese asked.

 “Just making music, you know, trying to stay busy.”

Without these interviews with the members of The Band, The Last Waltz wouldn’t have carried that sense of closure. It would have been an unforgivable Thanksgiving concert, but it wouldn’t have had the same finality. I wish I could recover the innocence I had when I first watched The Last Waltz. Back then, I didn’t know that Richard Manuel killed himself ten years after the concert, or that Rick Danko succumbed to heart failure in 1999. I just saw the obvious: five gifted musicians who played their last concert with a bunch of friends, and more famously Bob Dylan, who wore a polka-dot shirt, perhaps in homage to his world tour with The Hawks in 1966. Yet they all had changed during those ten years. They had matured to become those men who, though only in their thirties, were disillusioned and worn out by rock and roll.