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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I have thoughts: 1, 2, 3

A snippet of John Roderick playing Neil Diamond

1. For example, I have thoughts about Travelers, season 3 of which just landed on Netflix. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show delivered on the promise of its first two seasons and is definitely worth your time. I reviewed Season 2 this time last year, and my dearest hope is that I’ll be reviewing Season 4 this time in 2020. That said, this third season might perhaps have rounded off its story and given it a decent ending, about which I cannot complain. It was a proper ending with proper emotional hits, and if it were to return for a fourth season, the show has the option to completely reinvent itself with an entirely new set of host bodies. Highly recommended.

2. I also have thoughts about Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy in his First Law series (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; and The Last Argument of Kings). One of Abercrombie’s short stories pulled me back into reading fantasy which I’d kind of sworn off of after being a bit bored by A Song of Ice and Fire. But here we are: I ploughed through the 1800 pages (!) of this trilogy fairly quickly, and only started to lose interest about 1500 pages in. Which says something. In the end though, I’m not sure whether to recommend these. Not as boring as Tolkien, nor even as dry as GRRM, these are written in an easy, engaging style that keeps you turning the pages. But the vivid descriptions of bloody and brutal fighting do start to get repetitive and the few women characters are weak. And overall, and obviously on purpose, very few of the characters have any redeeming characteristics. 

The premise is fairly familiar. There is a mediaeval type world with kingdoms and wars and a little bit of magic, the last of which is draining out of the world. And there are consequences of using magic and supposedly rules about it, which some people are cavalier about breaking.

So there are invading armies and people going off on long quest-like road trips, but in the end you can’t pick a side because everybody is horrible.

3. Finally, I have thoughts, which may become longer thoughts on something I had only the vaguest awareness of, but which came into sharp focus this morning when I was listening to the most recent episode of Roderick on the Line. John Roderick mentioned as part of an anecdote that he regularly takes part in an annual re-enactment of The Last Waltz in San Francisco, playing the part of Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.’

And, as I said, I kind of knew this went on, but it was only at this point that I realised that it’s a regular, recurring thing that happens all over the place (Indiana, Glasgow, San Francisco), with various collectives of musicians putting it together. It’s like The Rocky Horror Show, but for Dad Rock. Part of me loves this more than I can say. I genuinely think The Last Waltz is both a brilliant documentary of one of the greatest bands of all time and also manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, so that the presence of the likes of Neil Diamond and the various cocaine buddies and the fairly shoddy afterthought of the Staples Singers somehow still manage to be brilliant. And it’s this, isn’t it, that makes people want to re-enact it? Because it’s both perfect and not perfect: it works because it does not work, as my pal Michel Serres said.

On the other hand: zombie culture and sigh sigh sigh. So, more thoughts to come, when I’ve had them, as we enter my 17th year of blogging solitude.