Band Unbound

The erstwhile hippie had to admit it was somewhat disconcerting to encounter Robbie Robertson, author of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” – the man who wrote, “I’m glad to pay those union dues, just don’t judge me by my shoes” – sitting in a vast suite on the thirty-fourth floor at the Waldorf-Astoria. But then again, executives at DreamWorks stay where they want, and who knows if it really matters if you were once the guitar player in the Band, a Canadian-born icon of earnest, hard-rocking Americana, sixteen years on the road in a thousand bucket-of-blood bars and booed along with Dylan at Forest Hills, the very soul of sixties authenticity.

“Everything evolves,” said Robbie, who was hired to play in the band by Ronnie Hawkins at age 15, traveling from his Toronto home on a bus to the Mississippi delta. Now 58, still cool in thick-rimmed glasses, with his hair perhaps a blacker shade of black, he said, “You’ve got to evolve or die, and who knows where evolution will take you? You can’t even presume to know.”

That’s why, Robbie said in his diffident way, it was a good time to rerelease The Last Waltz, the famous 1978 concert film of the Band’s last show. Refurbished and remastered a quarter of a century after its opening, sixteen years after pianist Richard Manuel hung himself in a Florida motel, two years past bassist Rick Danko’s death, with drummer Levon Helm’s bluegrass wail done in by throat cancer, the movie, supposed end of an era that never really ends, opens this week, accompanied by a new four-CD boxed set including several previously only-bootlegged tracks.

“That movie was a snapshot, a frozen moment in evolution,” said Robbie, who produced the original film and fulfills the same role on the reissue. “The evolution of the Band’s sound – that’s why we had all those people there, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, the Staple Singers, for the gospel thing, Dylan, all those influences – we wanted to show where we came from … Watching the movie now, we can see kind of where we went.”

Looking back through a mucky blizzard of nostalgia-milking rock soundtracks for crappy movies, a million videos, and beer commercials starring B.B. King, it might be difficult to grok why the pairing of the Band, the most evocatively down-home-ruralistic of rock bands, and Marty Scorsese, the itchy urbanist straight outta Elizabeth Street, was viewed as such a Zeitgeistical synthesis of late-Aquarian sound and image.

But it was. After all, Band songs, those three mournful voices on top of Robertson’s splintery guitar and Garth Hudson’s hot Bach organ, were like little movies, burnished Chekhovian mini-narratives. No director had ever used rock like Scorsese. Even now, nothing tops the downbeat of “Be My Baby,” which kicks off Mean Streets. Plus, there was the matter of the Spirit. You didn’t need a priest to say Harvey Keitel’s guilt-haunted Charlie in Mean Streets and the seeker-narrator of “The Weight” were next of kin.

The movie came out in the same year as The Deer Hunter and Days of Heaven, and it was a smash. Dylan wore a big white hat. Dr. John, a big pink bow tie. Rumor had it that Neil Young sang “Helpless” with a rock of coke in his left nostril, matted out in the answer print. (Reputedly, the dressing rooms were painted snow white, glass tables outfitted with razor blades; the walls were decorated with dozens of noses cut from Groucho Marx masks.) At the end, everyone (Ringo, too) sang “I Shall Be Released.” The Band, at least the classic lineup of the Band, was never heard again.

Asked what he sees in himself when he watches the movie now, Robbie shakes his head: “I wonder if I was ever that young, but mostly I see someone in transition. That was pivotal for me. I went in one guy and came out another.” For sure, he looked different. Until The Last Waltz, the Band presented itself as bearded Woodstock mountain men, down in the Big Pink basement like Mathew Brady daguerreotypes. But here was a clean-shaven, super-coiffed Robbie – writer of “The Weight,” player of the most succinctly dramatic guitar solos in rock – in the perfect image of a seventies-style Sam Shepard Art God. Indeed, among the many complaints lodged by Levon Helm in his epochal tome, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, was that Robertson had consciously used The Last Waltz as an unofficial screen test, breaking up the hallowed group so he could become a Hollywood star.

“There were a lot of misunderstandings, hard feelings,” says Robbie, who did star in the 1980 film Carny but has not been able to sustain an acting career. Subsequent solo recording efforts have met with a similarly indifferent response. “That could be what it’s like to get older,” says Robertson, who that night would attend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner honoring the Ramones and the Talking Heads, two bands whose stripped-down style was formed in semi-direct rebellion against rococo scenes like The Last Waltz. “You know, when I went down to Mississippi all those years ago, it was like going to heaven. Here was everything I ever dreamed of. This music, white, black, a fabulous, mysterious gumbo. That’s what The Last Waltz was to me, paying off that legacy. Now everything is on TV. There are no secrets, no gumbo, no responsibility.”

Meanwhile, a couple of blocks up the dusty Park Avenue highway, where he is several months into siege-editing Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese, close friends with Robertson at the time of The Last Waltz and now, has more redemptive feelings about the movie. With his usual spritzy alacrity, Scorsese says, “You know, The Last Waltz saved me at the time. I wasn’t in it the way Robbie was. It wasn’t my last show. But it could have been. I didn’t have any self-confidence at the time. I’d finished New York, New York, a big experiment, maybe not such a good one. I was 33, 34, going on 16 or 17, or 117. Nothing excited me. No work. I was going to give up, go to Italy and make films about the lives of the saints. But here was the Band, Robbie. For me, the music creates the images. The Band had this great creativity I was so desperate for. I had to stay close to that energy, that passion.”

He spent weeks obsessively getting ready to make the picture, storyboarding the camera moves. “But nothing prepared me for the sheer sound. The decibels. I never heard them play live, in an auditorium. When ‘Cripple Creek’ started, and it hit me in the stomach, I blacked out. I’m the director and I’m gone! Luckily I snapped back pretty soon.

“That’s how it was then,” Scorsese says of the days when (as Peter Biskind reports in his book on late-seventies Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) he and Robertson lived on Mulholland Drive, bachelor coke fiends in an unfurnished apartment with blacked-out windows. “We were a real Odd Couple. I was the excitable one, always with the Sturm und Drang, that talking, talking Dostoyevsky character, and Robbie was cool, never raised his voice. Let’s say it was a time of experimentation from which I was lucky to come out alive.

“That’s what The Last Waltz is to me now: a nightmare, and a great time of my life. I see myself in the picture, a quirky little guy with a beard asking these stupid questions. But I get the sense, when the music plays, something is happening, that I’m part of something bigger than myself, if you know what I mean.”

Band Unbound