“This film should be played loud!”
Those words, emblazoned across the screen at the start of the seminal rock documentary “The Last Waltz,” made quite an impression on me as a teenager first discovering The Band and Robbie Robertson.
Born too late to experience the music when it was first released — I was 6 when “The Last Waltz” came out in 1978 — I got hooked on Robertson and The Band thanks to my older brother. He recorded their greatest hits from vinyl onto a TDK D-90 cassette and I was on the bus.
When my friends were listening to Van Halen and Michael Jackson in the early 1980s, I was listening to The Band and Bob Dylan. I first saw “The Last Waltz” when it aired on public TV, my only option in the pre-internet and even pre-VCR (at least for my family) entertainment stone age.
The film drew me in immediately, first with those words ordering me to crank it up and then the music. One after another: Muddy Waters. Neil Young. Eric Clapton. Van Morrison. Dylan.
The Band, minus Robertson, who died this week at 80, was the first concert I ever saw at age 13 in 1985. They reformed after “The Last Waltz” and toured for years, but never again with Robertson. When I saw them, they opened for Crosby, Stills and Nash. The crowd cheered so loud for The Band, they came back for an encore. “That never happens,” I remember my brother telling me.
Little could I have imagined that 17 years later I would get the chance to interview Robertson for The Associated Press. It was a dream assignment: write a story about “The Last Waltz” being released on — wait for it — DVD for the first time. Yes, that was a big enough deal to warrant an entire story — perhaps nudged along by me.
“This movie’s about the music,” Robertson told me in his signature, raspy voice. “We are never, ever going to see these kind of people all together at one time again. I really want to focus on that. I want to do it beautifully.”
I asked him about the demise of The Band and why he called it quits so early.
"I always loved playing music with those guys," Robertson said. “I always loved making records. But it just ran its course. And I felt that we had a wonderful experience and had the opportunity to make some kind of a contribution to music. I’m very grateful for what we were able to do.”
I also didn’t miss the chance to ask Robertson about the most famous heckle in rock history that he, of course, was there for. It was in 1966 when Robertson and what would soon become The Band were backing Dylan on his infamous tour of Europe where he played electric for the first time. An audience member shouts, “Judas!” at Dylan.
“I don’t belieeeeve you,” Dylan snarled in response. “You’re a liar!”
Then someone on stage, maybe Dylan, perhaps Robertson, calls on the band to ”play f----ing loud." What follows is the most incendiary version of “Like a Rolling Stone” Dylan likely ever performed.
I asked Robertson if he remembered who encouraged the band to kick it up a notch, a long-debated question among Dylanologists.
With a slight pause, briefly getting my hopes up, he said flatly, “No, I don't.”
In my mind I was shouting “I don't believe you! You're a liar!” But I held it together.
Momentarily crushed that a rock history scoop eluded me, I pressed on for his memories of that night.
“I don’t remember if that was me or one of us just kind of lashing out. I don’t know,” he said. “By the time we got to this part of that tour we had been booed all over United States and Canada and Australia and all over Europe. It wasn’t like our skins hadn’t gotten a little thicker and we hadn’t built some character by then."
He said he had the CD of the concert at home, but he hadn’t bothered to open it.
How cool is that?
No one is more cool than Robertson in “The Last Waltz."
Filmed on Thanksgiving in 1976, viewing the film has become a bit of an annual holiday tradition for many. In Madison where I live and in other cities across the country, musicians gather every year to recreate the concert live Thanksgiving week. And many fans, myself included, play the movie every year around the holiday. It’s my musical comfort food.
But now, with Robertson’s death, the last remaining original member of The Band is Garth Hudson, the multi-instrumentalist who famously made the other members pay him as a music teacher in order to make his move into the rock world more respectable to his family. Many of the others who graced the stage that night are long gone. But the music. Oh man, the music never dies. If anything, with each passing year, and each death, it somehow becomes more alive, more prescient, more powerful and more moving.
“This film should be played loud!”