The television set in my house being committed to the Super Bowl last Sunday night, I was at the computer, watching The Last Waltz.
Martin Scorsese’s melancholy-tinged documentary of a 1976 farewell concert by the Band, the Americana music pioneers from Canada, has been a favorite of critics and rock fans alike for three decades. I like it better than any of Scorsese’s gritty, mean-streets dramas, even though it always seemed like an anomaly in his body of work. I didn’t particularly like Scorsese’s 2005 Bob Dylan chronicle, No Direction Home, but when I saw his new Rolling Stones concert movie Shine a Light this past summer, I decided he’d missed his métier. He could have made a great career filming nothing but rock concerts.
A couple of weeks ago I watched Shine a Light again and thought, yes! On the strength of those two films alone, Scorsese is our greatest portrayer of the joys, the griefs, the soul of rock and roll. I thought, too, that there was a vital connection between The Last Waltz and Shine a Light, So I watched Waltz again on Super Bowl Sunday. I was right: The two are bookends on the pop culture history shelf.
The Last Waltz is an account of rock in its magical prime, starring a dozen or so of the most important white pop/rock musicians of the late ’70s, including Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan, plus, for good measure, blues icon Muddy Waters and the great gospel/soul group, the Staple Singers. The film is a joyful celebration of a great era in popular music—a great era for both the music itself and for its lyrics.
It was the triumph of rock, that high-energy blend of African- and Euro-American musical traditions. But it was also the triumph of the singer-songwriter. Tin Pan Alley wasn’t dead, but poets—and integrity—were lurking among the moon-June hacks. U.S. popular music lyrics contained more deeply personal visions couched in vivid and original imagery than had pervaded a mass culture since Shakespeare’s plays. In 1975 alone—the year before The Last Waltz was filmed—the top 100 hits included Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” and, to prove the point, Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.”
Toward the end of The Last Waltz, the screen fades in on a hat. The concert audience roars with excitement. The camera pulls back; under the hat is Bob Dylan. The audience is roaring because everyone in it remembers the transformative moment of eleven years earlier, when Dylan plugged his guitar in at Newport and—if unintentionally—also plugged poetry into mainstream rock. With it had come the honesty that goes with personal vision, which is one face of integrity. Pop music hadn’t been the same since. Now, in the movie, Dylan and the Band sing his “Forever Young”: “May you always know the truth/And see the lights surrounding you,” he sings. Then all the performers return to the stage for the rousing finale, also Dylan’s:“I Shall Be Released.”
Yet for all the splendor onstage, an air of elegy pervades the film. In interview material interspersed with the concert footage, Band member Robbie Robertson speaks almost obsessively of the high price of life on tour, citing the long list of rock’s too-soon dead. “’The road’ killed them,” he says. The movie’s secret grief is that none of the performers, most of them in their thirties, are safe—and they know it. Before many years passed, two Band members, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, were added to Robertson’s list. Watching the movie—even in 1978, the year it was released, and all the more now—it’s impossible not regret the about-to-be-lost youth, innocence, life.
And so we come to Shine a Light, about four guys whose innocence was long gone even in 1978, yet who, amazingly, are still in business! There are no regrets here. I saw Shine a Light on a plane coming back from Paris, and that flight was the only time I ever didn’t cry over leaving Paris. Shine a Light is a purely exuberant study in survival—a study in staying alive, on the one hand, and in keeping on keeping on, on the other. The Stones—the four who are left, including the one we’ve all been sure for thirty years would be dead any minute—are still rocking, still doing what they always did, and still doing it just about right. It’s another kind of integrity, one that can’t be touched by lending—or, rather, selling—a few recognizable chords to a mega-corporation for its own purposes.
But “May you grow up to be righteous … Stand upright and be strong” isn’t the same as a recognizable chord or two. Sunday night, as I watched The Last Waltz, the person who shares my home—the one who had the TV tied up with the Super Bowl—tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Dylan’s singing ‘Forever Young’ in a Pepsi commercial.”
Which goes to show, there’s always at least a little heart left to break and a little innocence left to be lost.
© Judith Mahoney Pasternak 2009