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- Posted on Nov 26th 2010 4:00PM by James Sullivan
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That was just part of the menu for the 'Last Waltz,' the Thanksgiving 1976 farewell for the Band at an old San Francisco ice rink remade as the Winterland concert venue. Though the Band already had a decade under their collective belt supporting Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, by 1969 the group's five members -- Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson -- made their debut as a headlining act that year at Winterland.
Their farewell concert seven years later featured an outrageous lineup of special guests, including Dylan, Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and Dr. John. 'The Last Waltz,' the concert film by a young Martin Scorsese, is often hailed as the best rock documentary of its kind. Yet behind the scenes, despite the holiday setting, giving thanks was not exactly the spirit of the day.
For starters, the other Band members resented Robertson's depiction as the bandleader and mastermind. Scorsese's cameras were trained on the singer-guitarist throughout much of the show, despite the fact that his microphone was turned off, as per usual. Larger-than-life San Francisco promoter Bill Graham made clear his distaste for the film when it came out in 1978, believing he wasn't credited enough for the lavish production.
Originally scheduled for the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Calif., at $7.50 a ticket, the Band's goodbye show was moved to Winterland, with ticket prices bumped to $25. Sales were slow, recalled the San Francisco Chronicle's Joel Selvin, until Graham leaked the identities of the surprise guests to the newspaper.
More than 5,000 fans, dressed in a hodgepodge of formal wear, showed up at 5PM for ballroom dancing and a huge Thanksgiving feast. Crystal chandeliers hung over the stage, which was backed by a set borrowed from the San Francisco Opera.
Backstage, the roll call of future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers was treated to a special white room decorated with plastic noses; the audio in the room played the conspicuous sound of sniffing. Rampant drug use undoubtedly contributed to the distrust and edgy interactions that marked the event.
Dylan, who was then finishing work on his film 'Renaldo and Clara,' was reluctant to appear on camera for the documentary. By some accounts, last-minute negotiations ended when Graham barked at a Dylan handler, "Get out of here, or I'll kill you!"
Later, Neil Diamond, with whom Robertson had just produced an album, made a brief appearance onstage, much to the dismay of Helm and others. When Diamond walked off, he reportedly said to Dylan, "Follow that."
"What do I have to do," Dylan is said to have responded -- "go onstage and fall asleep?"
Given the powder stimulants in heavy rotation that night, no one was about to fall asleep anytime soon. Having started the show around 9, the Band was still leading a jam session well after 2AM.
If Robertson was eager to retire from the road, not all his colleagues shared the feeling. "I wish everything was more," Helm told Rolling Stone at the time of the Band's demise. "I wish we'd been able to put out 20 albums and play twice as much and touch 10 times as many people."
Manuel hanged himself 10 years after the Last Waltz. Danko died in 1999. But Robertson remains close friends with Scorsese, working on soundtracks to many of the director's films. And Helm, despite battling throat cancer some years ago, has won Grammys with his last two albums and continues to host his star-studded 'Midnight Ramble' in his barn in Woodstock, N.Y. -- an idea he first expressed during the making of 'The Last Waltz.'