Worthless Foam From The Mouth




I’ve recently treated myself to the remastered and somewhat expanded Last Waltz 4-CD set and was once again reminded – not that I’d ever rally forgotten – just how marvellous and stately the show was. Yes – stately, I think that’s the word I would use. I’ve often said over the years – and I’ll say it again here – that I firmly believe it to be the best rock concert ever. 1971’s Concert For Bangladesh, 1980’s No Nukes benefit, even Live Aid, none of these or a hundred others can hold a candle to it, and it’s not just the best rock movie ever made, it’s one of the best movies ever made, especially if you consider a good movie to be one that (a) entertains for the full duration of it’s running time, (b) accomplishes what it sets out to do and (c) leaves you feeling better about yourself and the world in general than you did before you began watching it.

Next to any of the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue shows, this is the one concert I wish I could have been at.

A few days ago I played the four cds through in one listening (something of a rarity these days, with a nearly four year old rampaging about) and then, when the aforementioned nearly four-year-old had gone to bed, I watched the video through also. It was a viewing that was tinged with sadness – every time I watch it (every three or four years at a guess) It seems that another face on the screen is no longer with us. It’s amazing to think that the first time I saw it at Norwich’s art house Cinema City in 1982 the concert was less than six years old and everyone who trod those hallowed boards was still very much alive and kicking and also still looked pretty much the same. The same year Muddy Waters passed away and since then we’ve also lost Paul Butterfield, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. But on celluloid they’re all encapsulated in the glory of their Golden Years. Rick Danko is slim and lively, Neil Young has yet to discover synths and grunge, Richard Manuel’s demons had not yet won, Van Morrison has more hair than stomach (just), Robbie Robertson has got movie star looks and Bob is quite simply at the top of his game. However good he is nowadays (and he can be very, very good – three days away from Birmingham on 10th May, my fingers are well and truly crossed), there’s an inescapable certainty that he’ll never be that good again.

Many of the current reviews of the CD set and remastered and recirculated movie comment on the Last Waltz signifying the end of an era. They’re right – punk was already rumbling through the alleys of England. MTV and corporate rock was just around the corner. Age and the dissolution of their talents and power was slowly creeping up on each and every musician who too to the stage that night.

So. Van’s ungainly leg kicks, Neil’s stoned fragility, Joni’s knife-sharp cheek bones and voice, Paul Butterfield’s barnstorming through a never-been-beaten Mystery Train, Muddy Waters sheer dignity, Dylan as Christ figure in pimps polka dot shirt and white hat, the definitive versions of Acadian Driftwood and a spine-tingling The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Dr John’s bowtie. Hell, even Neil Diamond sounds good for five minutes. And if the combination of Rick’s gorgeous vocals and Garth’s beautiful sax solo on It Makes No Difference does not move you and thrill you and make you simply glad to be able to share in it then you are beyond all hope.

Levon Helm would later complain that Scorsese and Robertson engineered the demise of The Band and the subsequent all star bow-out as a vehicle to propel Robertson into Hollywood stardom. He would further claim that Muddy waters set had to be cut short to make way for Neil Diamond, Robertson’s straining neck muscles and clenched teeth vocals were all for the cameras – his mic was actually switched off – and that the other Band members were shafted financially in the aftermath of the Last Waltz. Whatever, for a few hours it’s still possible to pretend that it’s still November 26th, 1976 – there’s still no Shot Of Love, Knocked Out Loaded, Under The Red Sky or 1991 shows, there’s still no flaccid Band reunion, there’s still no Robertson in Carny, there’s still no 1980-89 Neil Young or 1980-present Van Morrison and Eric Clapton. Rock n Roll was fracturing but hadn’t yet fractured, there was still a sense of community. Just. It probably ended right there on that night. The Last Hurrah.

“It started as a concert … It ended up a celebration”. Thank God that, 26 years later, we can still celebrate. May we all stay forever young, at least for a few brief, fleeting minutes.

The Last Waltz