Sunday, October 24, 2010

The fondest of farewells

By Wayne Shelor

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I was a newspaperman for most of the 1980s, a job that brought me immense satisfaction and pride. There was a quiet nobility in newspapering, writing -- as we did -- the “first draft” of history. One of the most important yet widely avoided tasks at newspapers in the 1980s was obituary writing – the “last look.”

Writing a good obit took time, talent and an open and inquisitive mind. Newspapers such as the New York Times have specialists who’ve assembled a literal library of pre-death obituaries prepared for the famous, the revered and the celebrated, capturing their lives, their exploits and their successes.

I tell you this because we’re gonna look at an “obituary” this morning, an album called The Last Waltz by The Band. The Last Waltz is a document that captures, like every well-penned obituary, the noteworthy events of the life of the group, and pulls together moments, memories and the magic that was … The Band.

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese chronicled the night of The Last Waltz -- his movie heralded as one of the greatest concert films of all time -- capturing not only the concert but countless interviews as the band and others reminisce about the group’s history, its impact on culture and the end of a group that changed popular music.

The Last Waltz (my preferred version of the original triple LP is the 2002 4-CD boxed set by Rhino Records) was The Band’s farewell concert, performed on Thanksgiving night in 1976, where a turkey dinner was served to all 5,000 attendees at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. More musicians than you might find at the Grammys each year joined The Band for a five-hour concert that wound from this song, "Stagefright," to "Up On Cripple Creek" and "Chest Fever" to Marvin Gaye’s "Don’t Do It."

Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins, who were instrumental in the group’s earliest work and growth, were among the many luminaries who sang swan songs and helped eulogize the men who’d created a synthesis of Americana, roots and rock.

From their first LP, Music From Big Pink, across 10 studio albums, through 16 years of touring and culminating on the night of The Last Waltz, The Band played in a language all its own, but one understood by everyone. It was a sound imbued with equal parts Appalachia and Memphis, Harlem and New Orleans: a countrified rock ‘n’ roll stitched with the dignity and honesty of history revealed.

By design, their final concert was performed at the place the musicians first played as The Band: San Fran’s Winterland Ballroom. And after that Thanksgiving night concert, the original five man lineup -- four Canadians and an Arkansas boy - never played as The Band again.

I know of no other “obituary” that is such a perfect, all-encompassing testament to the life and times of an American institution as is The Band’s The Last Waltz.


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