Leopards break into the temple: re-enacting The Last Waltz

Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie.
Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.

Franz Kafka, The Zurau Aphorisms, translated by by Michael Hofmann

I mentioned before that I might have more thoughts on the regular re-enactments of The Band’s The Last Waltz. Here they are. I used Kafka’s aphorism (some term it a parable) as the epigraph to my PhD thesis, Events and Local Gods, which had its focus events and narrative in the works of Don DeLillo. My argument was that the eventhood of events persists, even after the cause/effect sequence has been re-narrated in the light of new knowledge. In other words, we cannot help but continue to be shocked by events, even if it turns out to have been inevitable. We just incorporate the leopards into our ritual.

I love The Last Waltz. I force it on friends, I watch it regularly, I’ve purchased and repurchased the film and soundtrack almost as many times as I have Bruce Springsteen’s The River. I even used to use it in the classroom, as part of my Film Studies course, as a wonderful demonstration of how nothing you see on screen in a feature film is there by accident. Teenagers always like to argue, re literature and film that the author/director didn’t really mean for us to interpret things. They think they’re being original when they say this. So I would put on a clip of Rick Danko singing “It Makes No Difference” in The Last Waltz, and then I’d pause and point out how the colour of the backdrop changes at the emotional peak of the song, and that Scorsese uses one camera and pulls focus between Rick and Robbie and then Garth as he comes in with his saxophone: because the concert had not just been rehearsed but more or less storyboarded. It was a concert film and a documentary, but it was also a film, and nothing you see in a film is there by chance.

As a farewell concert, then, it already had the quality of a ritual, as much of a retirement as Frank Sinatra’s was a few years earlier. And that’s before you take into account the idea that a “farewell” concert did not have the full and enthusiastic support of all Band members, and that a few short years later most of the group would reconvene to tour again, until the tragic death of Richard Manuel put a stop to that. Even then, the surviving members minus Robbie recorded three more studio albums in the 90s. Only Robbie stayed true to the original vision, and withheld his labour.

So the whole thing is played out as if it were a farewell concert, but only one person really wanted that to be the case.

So we end up with a double vision: from one perspective, The Band gave a magnificent farewell concert in 1976, with lots of special guests (inc. Canadian rock aristocracy and Bob Dylan) which was captured on film by director Martin Scorsese and cut down and released as a feature in 1978. End of story.

From another perspective, The Band participated in a special musical event to commemorate their years in the business, took a few years off the hard life of the road and then got back on it with a slightly adjusted line-up in 1983.

When they “retired” in 1976, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko were around 33 years old; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson, the Bill Wyman of the group, was 39.

The very idea that this collective of incredible talent would step back and fade away in their mid-30s is nonsensical. But Robbie had other things to do: film soundtracks, production, solo work. So they went through the ritual ending, and then the leopards broke into the temple.

In one sense, of course, it was the end of something. It was the end of feeling good about The Band on stage, because the 80s touring was retrospectively tainted by Manuel’s suicide, and the 90s recordings, mostly cover versions, were tainted by two absences and Rick Danko’s death at 55 from the effects of alcoholism. And I can’t watch the later Levon Helm performing through the ravages of throat cancer without crying.

But you can, thanks to the magic of celluloid, watch Levon at his absolute peak, performing with exuberance and joy in a concert film that manages to capture something of the elusive alchemy of live music.

But, still, it’s only a film, with focus pulling and lighting changes. It’s there on a screen, and you can see and hear it but you can’t experience the direct, sweaty, barely controlled tumult of it, and you can only try not to think about how Richard Manuel doesn’t sing much.

And Robbie Robertson’s Stratocaster was dipped in bronze.

And fucking Neil Diamond was there, not because he belonged, nor even because he wrote “I’m a Believer”, but more prosaically because Robbie Robertson had just produced an album for him. And he doesn’t fit and he doesn’t go and some people skip over his chapter on the DVD, but he’s part of the ritual now, so someone has to be him, just like someone has to be Major General George McClellan when they do Civil War re-enactments.

And so the leopards keep breaking into the temple, and recreate the ritual, over and over, in annual re-enactments that pay tribute to the elusive emotions The Last Waltz evokes. It’s an affectionate tribute, and it’s an acknowledgement that, then, Thanksgiving 1976, was the Peak of Rock, and everything after that was remixing and rebooting and simulacra. It’s the last day of the Holy Roman Empire of Rock and the barbarians are at the gate. Quick! get everybody on stage (even you Ronnie Wood) and let’s sing “Forever Young”.  It’s stuck culture at its stickiest.

Most of all, it’s a chance, for those who go, to experience live music that is paradoxically somehow more spontaneous and exciting than a modern Rock Aristocracy live tour.

By the time the film is released, Dylan has found God and Ronnie Wood has found The Rolling Stones.

And the Fender Custom Shop borrowed Robertson’s preserved guitar and took it apart and measured it, and tested it, and copied it and reproduced it. So those are out there, more leopards, drinking to the dregs what’s in the pitchers, yours for $17,000, if you can find one.

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One thought on “Leopards break into the temple: re-enacting The Last Waltz

  1. It’s been on the telly again recently, also part of the ritual. Interesting to look at the original filming, as you say.

    It is striking that ‘big glass’ has been used with a baseline tungsten lighting wash over the stage, which helps make the filming/cutaways/skintones so much better,

    When I sometimes video modern live DMX’d shows and concerts the light changes are so frequent through hundreds of QLAB cues that it’s difficult to keep a colour balance anywhere close to the one in the movie. But then, Scorsese and a bunch of proper cameramen (with a technical script!) should be able to do better!

    I like that it’s a kind of end of era show that didn’t really know it was, at least partly because of the backstage wrangling.

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