Our rock 'n' roll lifestyle was passing the point of no return. The
examples of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison—and more recently
Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, and Tim Buckley—brought home the dangers of
the road. We'd heard this story about so many musicians, it was almost
part of the ritual. All around us, bands we knew were imploding, trying
to live what they thought was the rock 'n' roll high life. We saw them
falling by the side of the road, but through a one-way mirror. We saw
everything but ourselves.
One night in 1976, I spoke to the guys about the possibility of bringing
this phase of our journey to a conclusion; that we needed to look out
for one another and get out of the line of fire for a while. At every
concert we played, packs of destructive influences showed up like they
were in the business of helping you drown. Somewhere along the way we
had lost our unity and our passion to reach higher. Self-destructiveness
had become the power that ruled us.
Levon Helm had been my dearest friend in the world. My teacher. The
closest thing I ever had to a brother. We had seen it all together and
survived the world's madness, but not our own. When Rick Danko joined
us, we didn't know if he would make the cut. He turned out to be a
force—a dependable rock who was there for you night and day. How does
a spirit like that get broken? I first met Richard Manuel when we were
17 years old. He had been drinking that night and was somewhere between
pure joy and deep sadness. He still had that same yearning sound in his
voice, which we loved. Garth Hudson was our in-house professor, and I
felt the worst for him. All he wanted to do was make music, invent, and
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My instinct was to have a celebration of our music and then get out of
the public eye. We'd been playing live and touring for 15 or 16 years,
so it was a shocking proposition. But we couldn't keep going out. On
some nights we could hit our stride, but more and more it was becoming a
painful chore. The best painkiller is opiates, and heroin had been
creeping back under the door. I worried that Garth and I had three
junkies in our group, plus our so-called manager. Finally I declared,
We had a meeting and I suggested that we do a final concert at
Winterland, in San Francisco, where we had played our first show as the
Band, in 1969. No one was opposed to the idea. "I think we could all
use a good time-out for health reasons," Garth said.
The author, photographed by Annie Leibovitz backstage at the Winterland Ballroom.
From Trunk Archive.
"I Have to Do It"
It was still September, and I thought Thanksgiving would be an
appropriate occasion for the show. We agreed that having Ronnie Hawkins
and Bob Dylan join us would be a respectful thing to do: they had both
played an enormous part in our musical journey. When I called promoter
Bill Graham to discuss the idea of doing our last show at Winterland, he
was shocked to hear the news. But he agreed that it was the proper venue
for this momentous occasion and that we needed to figure out a way to
document the event.
We wanted to make it a musical celebration. We hoped to have not just
artists who were close friends and influences but people who represented
the many different musicalities we respected: Eric Clapton for the
British blues; Dr. John for the sound of New Orleans; Joni Mitchell, the
queen of women singer-songwriters; Muddy Waters, the king influencer of
the Chicago blues; and harmonica master Paul Butterfield; then,
representing the tradition of Tin Pan Alley, Neil Diamond; the Belfast
Cowboy, Ireland's greatest R&B voice, Van Morrison; Neil Young to
represent our Canadian roots; and, of course, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob
Dylan. Before long, it was becoming bigger than anything we had ever
I knew we would need someone special to capture this event on film. One
name that stood out for me was Martin Scorsese, whom I had met briefly
at a screening of Mean Streets in '73. His use of music in that film
showed he had a powerful connection to it, as did the fact that he'd
worked on the Woodstock movie. I called Jon Taplin, who had produced
Mean Streets, to see if he could set up a meeting between me and Martin
Jon made arrangements for us to gather a few days later at the Mandarin
Restaurant, in Beverly Hills. Marty had a dark Vandyke beard that made
his eyes quite piercing. He came with his wife, Julia, and Liza
Minnelli, who was starring with Robert De Niro in a musical Marty was
shooting called New York, New York. I took my wife, Dominique, and her
friend Geneviève Bujold. When I told Marty about the Band's final
concert event, I could see the wheels turning in his head. He made no
secret that music played an enormous part in his life. "We have one
basic problem," Marty said. "When you're directing a movie for a
studio, you're not allowed to go off and shoot another film at the same
time." I mentioned that we were going to do the concert over the
Thanksgiving holiday, if that would be helpful.
Director Martin Scorsese sets up a shot.
From The Neal Peters Collection.
After dinner we decided to stop by the after-hours lounge On the Rox for
a nightcap. Lots of friends were there, and the place was hopping. Marty
and I talked about Van and Joni and Muddy and Bob, until he finally
said, "The hell with it. These are my favorite artists, and the
Band—oh my God. I have to do it, and that's it. Fire me. They can fire
me. I have to do it."
I was over the moon. Marty was the right man for this—he had music
under his skin. He also looked to be coming down with a cold. He seemed
all stuffed up. "Do you think anybody would have any nose spray?" he
asked me. "I can hardly breathe."
I took a chance. "A friend just slipped me some coke. That can
sometimes clear up your nasal passages." Without skipping a beat, he
answered, "No. I've got that," showing me his own little bottle of
coke. "I just need some Afrin or something."
We had two months before Thanksgiving to put this whole thing together.
When I told Bob Dylan about the final concert, he said, "Is this going
to be one of those Frank Sinatra retirements where you come back a year
"No," I told him. "The Band has to get off the road. It's become a
danger zone, and we're afraid of what might happen." Bob knew from all
the car wrecks back in Woodstock and from his time with us on the road
that it could be a delicate balance inside the Band keeping things from
steaming off the tracks.
Sitting up at night putting together pieces of the puzzle for Bill
Graham's concert production and for Marty's filming became my calling.
One thing I needed to address was what to call this gathering. Rock
Brynner—our road manager and the son of Yul Brynner—and I threw all
kinds of ideas against the wall, and the one that stuck was "The Last
Waltz." It made me want to write a movie theme for the show in the
tradition of some of the great Johann Strauss waltzes or "The Third Man
Whenever he had a break, Marty would come out to Malibu, where I lived,
and we would go over ideas for the show. He said that as soon as we
chose which songs we would play he'd need a copy of the lyrics to turn
into a shooting script for camera moves and lighting cues. László Kovács
was the director of photography on New York, New York, and Marty said he
was going to ask him to be the D.P. on The Last Waltz too.
We had a meeting with László at Marty's office. "If you're going to do
this movie, don't shoot it in 16-millimeter—do it in 35," László
declared. "It will look so much better." Marty immediately liked the
idea. "It's never been done for a concert before. Can the cameras even
shoot that long?"
"You won't know unless you try," said László. "But you have to do it
in 35, or it won't live up to these performers."
Marty agreed. "If the cameras melt, the hell with it. We'll know we
gave it our best."
Meanwhile, Bill Graham was insisting on serving a full Thanksgiving
turkey dinner to the audience before the show. "But that's hundreds of
gallons of gravy!" I said. "Don't worry—I'll handle it," said Bill.
"We'll have tables with white tablecloths and serve dinner for 5,000.
Then the tables will magically disappear and the show will begin."
When I got back to L.A. a couple of weeks later, after the Band had
appeared on Saturday Night Live, Marty told me László had decided it was
too much work for him to be D.P. on both New York, New York and The Last
Waltz. He said he would be happy to be one of the cameramen, though.
Marty asked Michael Chapman, his D.P. on Taxi Driver, to take over The
Last Waltz. Michael was in, but he too was concerned that 35-millimeter
Panavision cameras weren't designed to run continuously for hours.
Everything was up in the air, but we had to go for it to find out
whether The Last Waltz was a disaster in the making.
Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Robbie Robertson team up.
We set up rehearsals with some of the guest artists at Shangri-La, our
clubhouse, a strange ranch-type place off the Pacific Coast Highway,
across from Zuma Beach.
Joni Mitchell stopped by and we took on the challenge of figuring out
some of her chord changes. Neil Young decided he wanted to do a full-on
Canadian connection with his song choices, so we ran over Ian &
Sylvia's "Four Strong Winds" and his "Helpless," with its references
to our homeland. Van Morrison was in and out of town, and we decided to
do his song "Caravan." I had an idea for another tune we could do with
him, "Tura Lura Lural," an Irish lullaby. When I told him, he laughed
and thought I was crazy. "Sure," he said, "and then we can go right
into 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.' "
When Bob came by Shangri-La, he said we should do something from Planet
Waves, like "Forever Young," or maybe one of the tracks we used to do
when we first hooked up, like "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" or "I
Don't Believe You." We played through a few songs once and left it at
that. Afterward, Bob asked, "What's this filming business everybody's
talking about for the concert?"
"We're trying to figure out how to document this event," I told him.
"We're talking about five or six 35-millimeter cameras with Martin
Scorsese directing. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before."
Bob stubbed out his cigarette and said he was already making a movie
from his Rolling Thunder Revue tour and didn't know if he wanted to be
in two movies. I wasn't surprised. He was never one to commit. I said,
"Well, they're just going to film the show, and if you don't like your
part, we won't use it. Although how can we not have you be a part of the
At the beginning of November, I took a quick trip up to San Francisco to
look over the venue. Winterland had been an ice-skating rink (hence the
name) and was looking pretty funky. Bill Graham was concerned about the
appearance of the façade of the upper balcony and thought he would need
$5,000 out of the budget to fix it. Michael Chapman and Steve Prince,
Marty's assistant, noted that the floor had "give" to it. With the
audience moving around and dancing, this would make the cameras
unsteady. Michael said, "It's going to take some construction."
As we were leaving the building, Bill cornered me: "I want my crew, all
the people working on this event, to be in tune with your vision. Is
there a movie we should watch to inspire us?"
I didn't know how to respond. At first I thought maybe Michael Powell
and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes. Then I opted for Jean Cocteau's
The Blood of a Poet. I had no idea what his crew would get out of that
bizarre film, but it sounded good.
The Band and friends perform the show's finale.
Courtesy Of MGM Media Licensing/© 1978 The Last Waltz Productions, Inc., All Rights Reserved.
With 10 days left to go, Marty found out that production on New York,
New York was going to take a break the week of Thanksgiving. Phew! I had
asked him at one of our earlier meetings if we could not have those red
and green and blue lights you saw in every rock-concert documentary.
"Could we do something much more theatrical with backlighting and amber
footlights and spotlights, like in MGM musicals?"
Marty was already on that page. Boris Leven, our production designer,
was a special man with a special talent. He said, "San Francisco. What
do they have here? Of course! The San Francisco Opera." He got access
to their storage facility and came upon the set for Verdi's La Traviata,
and some elegant chandeliers. "This is what we need," he said. Marty
thought this completely original for a rock concert and especially
fitting for one called The Last Waltz.
I talked with Levon, Garth, Richard, and Rick individually about this
experiment we were embarking on. None of us truly understood where we
were headed, but we knew change was inevitable. Levon said, in a quiet,
brotherly tone, "Maybe if we can have one last stand, it will give us a
good look at tomorrow. I'm ready to give it my best shot, so you can
damn well count on me."
At the beginning of the week of Thanksgiving, we got on an airplane to
San Francisco and never looked back. For the occasion, I had my red '59
Stratocaster dipped in bronze, like baby shoes. I hadn't taken into
account how much heavier it would make the guitar, but it looked and
Our rehearsal schedule looked nearly impossible to pull off. The guys
and I congregated in the banquet room of the Miyako Hotel with Muddy
Waters. Soon as we kicked into "Mannish Boy," it felt like a powder
keg ready to blow.
Van Morrison came directly to Winterland. We needed to learn "Caravan"
and run it down with the horn section. Van was wearing a beige trench
coat, like a private eye would wear in a 1940s movie. I had never seen a
rock 'n' roll singer dress like a private eye before and told Van it was
a great look. "Really?" He smiled, considering whether he should wear
it for the show.
For our Canadian sequence with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, we started
by trying "Acadian Driftwood" with them joining in on the choruses.
Then, when Neil sang "Helpless," Joni did a high background vocal that
sent shivers through the hall. In the show Joni wasn't going to perform
until after Neil, and I didn't want to give away her appearance before
that. I asked Marty if we could film Joni from behind the curtain while
she sang her part on "Helpless." "Definitely," he said. "We'll have
a handheld camera back there." With Bob, we ripped through three or
four songs without hesitation—not a medley, though everything was
We still felt a deep kinship with our old ringmaster, Ronnie Hawkins. He
showed up looking spry in his new official uniform: black suit, white
straw cowboy hat, red neck scarf, and a black T-shirt with a picture of
a hawk on it. With all these big-name performers, Ron worried he wasn't
going to fit in. We immediately waved off his uncertainty and told him
he was the first one we'd invited to this event; he deserved to be there
as much as anybody. The Hawk was our beginning, and if we were going to
throw a last waltz, he was going to have a dance.
We ran over Bobby "Blue" Bland's song "Further On up the Road" with
Eric Clapton. He also wanted to do a song he had recorded at Shangri-La
with Rick and Richard. Every chance I got I would break away for a few
minutes to finish writing "The Last Waltz Theme" and another new
As I kept handing over song lyrics to Marty, I observed his method of
turning each song's words into a shooting script. He had a multitude of
little boxes in the margins beside each verse and chorus, filled with
drawings of directorial instructions. It looked masterful and precise.
He went over this 200-page script meticulously with Michael Chapman, and
for the actual show he would call out these instructions over headsets
to all the cameramen and lighting people.
The big question, still way up in the air, was "Will these
35-millimeter cameras endure constant shooting for many hours?" We
called Panavision and the various camera companies, but no one could
guarantee anything because this had never been done before. Marty knew
that we couldn't shoot every song because they had to reload film and
change batteries. Those breaks might save the cameras from burning out.
We went over the song list for the whole show and decided what we would
shoot and when they could reload. The decisions to not film certain
songs were painful.
While going over these lists, it also weighed heavy on me whether the
guys and I would be able to remember the arrangements for all our
guests' songs. With our limited rehearsal time, this was a challenge.
"That's like 20 new songs to remember, with nothing written out," I
said to Marty. "Holy shit! All you can do now is pray."
"Oh yeah, there'll be a lot of praying." He smiled.
Thanksgiving dinner for 5,000, served before the show.
By Gary Fong/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris.
"Are We Ready?"
Thanksgiving. I couldn't remember if I had slept since we had gotten to
San Francisco. I lay down for a nap, but I couldn't sleep—not even
close. In two hours they would start serving Thanksgiving dinner. I sat
up, unsteady and disoriented: pure exhaustion. I threw myself into the
shower and turned it on, cold, telling myself, You've got to rise to the
When we got to Winterland, Bill Graham came dashing by in a white tuxedo
and top hat. He had most of the staff in formalwear as well. He took
Rick and me up a back way to the balcony. From there we looked down on
hundreds—no, thousands—of people having Thanksgiving dinner. Some
couples were waltzing on the open dance floor. Bill couldn't have looked
more proud of himself. He rattled off, "Six thousand pounds of turkey,
200 of them! Three hundred pounds of Nova Scotia salmon, a thousand
pounds of potatoes, hundreds of gallons of gravy, and 400 pounds of
I saw Marty backstage. He looked anxious but ready. In the dressing
room, I got in a huddle with the other guys in the Band. Our spirits
were soaring, but a focused calmness was most apparent. Richard held out
his hand to show he wasn't shaking too bad. When his hands trembled a
lot, it meant he needed a drink. Rick seemed genuinely pumped—ready
and raring. Levon reminded me to look over at him for certain breaks or
endings. Garth appeared unfazed by the whole event.
Word had crept out that we might have a guest or two, but nothing
concrete. How should I properly introduce everyone? Just then Bill
Graham came over to us in the wings and said, "Gentlemen, are we
ready?" We gave a thumbs-up and took the stage in complete darkness.
When the cameras were rolling, I signaled Levon, and he said over his
mike through the darkness, "Good evening." The crowd erupted, and we
kicked into "Up on Cripple Creek." The lights came up—warm, natural,
and cinematic, nothing like a regular rock show. The sound on the stage
felt powerful and clear. Levon's vocal was strong and authentic. I
looked over at Rick and Richard, and they were both in the zone. This
was it. I glanced over at Marty in the wings, and he was in a flurry,
talking into his headset and waving pages of the script.
We played for about an hour—I don't know if I'd ever heard Levon sing
and play "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" better than on this
night—and headed off to take a little intermission. Our friends and
guests gathered backstage, and everybody looked to be in great spirits.
Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr were in the dressing room. I asked them to
come out and join us for the finale. Bill Graham informed us that
Governor Jerry Brown had been spotted in the audience.
When we went back on to kick off the sets with our guest artists,
naturally our first performer had to be our original fearless leader,
"The Hawk," Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins. He took the stage in blazing form,
yelling toward Bill Graham, "Big time, Bill. Big time!" In the middle
of one of my solos, Ronnie took off his hat and fanned my fingers like
the guitar was going to catch fire, just as he had done back when I was
Next I introduced our old friend Mac Rebennack, otherwise known as
Dr. John. He sat down at the piano and played his "Such a Night" with
pure New Orleans gumbo ya-ya, like it was the theme of the evening. We
called out Paul Butterfield to join us on "Mystery Train." When Muddy
Waters performed "Mannish Boy," Butterfield held a note through the
whole song. He used circular breathing, and you couldn't hear him take a
breath. I had never seen or heard that before.
It took me a moment to gather myself as I stepped to the mike and said,
"Play guitar? Eric Clapton." Eric slid effortlessly into the beginning
of "Further On up the Road." As he was starting to turn up the heat on
his Strat, the strap came off, and his guitar fell into the grip of his
left hand. I had him covered and took over the solo. I stoked the fire
for Eric while he shifted into second gear. He played another solo—and
I played another solo. It was like raising the stakes in poker, higher
and higher. Finally Eric wailed off into the cosmos like only he can.
As soon as Neil Young took the stage, I could tell no one at Winterland
was feeling better than he was. His vocal was so moving on "Helpless,"
his beautiful Canadian song of remembrance. When Joni'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. Then,
when Joni came out and the lights hit her, she seemed to glow in the
dark. I was slightly surprised when she walked over and kissed me. She
looked thoroughly enchanting as she sang "Coyote," and it sounded
sexier than ever.
I had to smile when Neil Diamond joined us. In his blue suit and red
shirt, he looked like he could have been a member of the Gambino family.
He sang "Dry Your Eyes," a tune he and I had written together—a
track that not too many people were familiar with, although Frank
Sinatra did cover it. Toward the end of the song I heard myself yelling,
Joni Mitchell and Neil Young share a mike.
© 2016 Chester Simpson.
A spotlight shone down on the middle of the stage, and Van Morrison
walked into it. This was the way I wanted to introduce him, to not say
his name—let the crowd do that. I could see Van had abandoned the idea
of wearing his private-eye overcoat. Instead he had chosen a
snug-fitting maroon outfit with sequins—something like a trapeze
artist might wear. He looked ready for action, but I didn't know yet
what he had in mind.
We slammed into "Caravan." With his barrel chest stuck out like
Caruso, Van poured on the steam. The place went berserk as Van sang out,
"Turn up your raa-dio!" He moved across the stage, and each time he
let out a "one more time," he kicked his leg in the air or threw his
arms over his head. Finally he dropped the mike to the floor and walked
off, still hitting the accents with his hand above his head. Now I
understood why he was dressed like an acrobat.
We were riding high, and we got through my new songs, "Evangeline" and
"The Last Waltz Theme," by a hairsbreadth. By then the show had been
going on for close to four hours, but when I played the introduction to
"The Weight," the crowd let out a roar like they had just arrived.
They were still whistling and cheering as I stepped to the mike and
said, "We'd like to bring on one more very good friend of ours." Bob
Dylan walked out and the energy in the air turned electric.
It was after one in the morning, but Bob still had a bolt of energy. We
hit "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" like we hadn't missed a beat since
our first tour together, back in 1965. Each of the guys had a jubilant
smile on his face like we were living the bad old days all over again.
I noticed a scuffling over by the side of the stage, with Bill Graham
pointing his finger and yelling at someone. I guessed Bob had told his
road manager or somebody that he didn't want to be filmed, or that only
a portion of his set could be shot, and Bill was letting Bob's guy know
that if he went anywhere near the cameras he would break his neck.
When we finished our segment with Bob, almost all the guest performers
were crowded in the wings. I told Bob we wanted to end the show with
everybody coming out to join him and Richard singing "I Shall Be
Released." "O.K.," he said. "When? Now?" I laughed. "Yeah, we're
going to do it now." Everybody came out and gathered around the mikes.
Ringo sat at our second drum kit. Ronnie Wood strapped on my other
guitar. Bob took the first verse, and everybody came in on the chorus.
As glorious as the moment was, there was a melancholy to all those
voices that ran right through me, especially when Richard came in,
singing the last verse in falsetto with Bob. The song took on another
meaning in regard to this "last waltz."
At the end of the tune, everybody looked a bit stunned that it was all
over. The audience wasn't going to accept it. As many of the performers
left the stage, some just couldn't do it. Levon and Ringo weren't going
anywhere yet. They kicked into a feel-good beat, and I put my guitar
back on. Eric, Ronnie, Neil, and Butterfield all started trading licks.
Dr. John took over at the piano. Rick, Garth, and I continued our duties
as hosts and let the good times roll.
I looked over at the side of the stage and saw Stephen Stills standing
there. I waved in his direction and offered him my guitar. I slipped
backstage to change clothes and catch a breath. I was standing in the
backstage shower, dressed, retrieving my clothes from the show, when I
saw that somebody had stolen one of my shirts. Annie Leibovitz took a
shot of me standing in the shower, looking dismayed.
Scorsese and Robertson on the French Riviera for The Last Waltz's presentation at the Cannes Film Festival, 1978.
From A.P. Images.
"We Got One More"
Bill Graham came barging into the dressing room. "No one has left," he
said. "The audience is out there stomping and cheering. You have to go
back out there. If this is the Band's final concert, for God's sake,
give us one more!"
Hearing "final concert" got to me. "Shall we?" I asked the guys.
"Maybe we should do 'Don't Do It,' and then maybe they won't 'do it'
"Wait," Marty told me, grabbing his headset. "O.K., everybody," he
said into the mike, "we got one more."
When we came out again, the roar was deafening. Levon looked around the
stage at all of us and went, "One. Two. Three. Uh!" He and Rick
pounced like it was the first song of the night. Richard came in, with
Garth adding sonic wonderment. This band—the Band—was a real band.
No slack in the high wire. Everybody held up his end with plenty to
"The end of an era" was how many people referred to the close of 1976.
The dreams of the 60s and early 70s had faded, and we were ready for a
revelation, a revolt, a changing of the guard. Punk rock—and, later,
hip-hop—wanted to give music and culture a good slap in the face. It
felt like everyone wanted to break something. The Band had come to a
crossroads. The feeling was: if we can't break something else, we'll
break ourselves. None of us wanted to destroy the thing we loved, but we
didn't know how not to.
At the end of the last chorus, there were only the five of us in the
world. No audience. No celebration. Nobody. Just the sound of the Band
ringing in my ears. This can't be the final anything. This cannot be the
end. What we have can never die, never fade away. We all raised our arms
in the air and thanked the crowd. I adjusted the hat on my head, stepped
to the microphone with what little strength I had left, and said, "Good
Adapted from Testimony, by Robbie Robertson, to be published next month
by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC; © 2016 by