Analyzing the Pedagogy of The Last Waltz, Referencing Knuckle Lowen via Fred Durst
Time has only rendered The Last Waltz more relevant, if only as a historical record of music lost. Bordering on mythic, the film has been raised to the point of almost being tyrannical. Not to say that its status is undeserved; it is the greatest rock n roll movie ever made. There I said it. But, its singular presence leaves little room to critique it. Unfettered by comparison or rivals, it stands alone.
I tried to place TLW into a larger context, but there is not a context large enough to assume what it has become. So, for reasons outlined below, I decided to do the inverse, to write a meta less piece.
I watched the movie.
Then scouring the internet, I found invariably the same repeated again and again: a quote by Bill Graham (that rarely escapes the clutches of a single critic) referring to TLW as rock n rolls Last Supper, redundant facts that have become as tired as the superlatives used to describe the film, and all these insightful critics addressing the identical social issues inherent in the film, the melding of black and white music, the clash of rock and folk, and the Canucks and their understanding of Southern subcultures.
We deal in collective info, but isnt there some way to come at this film that has not been done, I thought
I was stuck. The factual and marginally factual lore that has driven the film is as known as Bob Dylan. He is in the film. I thought about the present contextual cultural weight and admitted to myself there was nothing new to be said (perhaps I arrived 25 years too late) short of speaking with Robbie Robertson, and I tried that.
I decided to tell the story of the music through one man, a man that you have probably never met, nor ever will (except for below). Why bother you might ask? Well, he did see TLW 20 times when it was first released, but still, how could a middle-aged Legal Aid lawyer in Louisville, KY named Gary Knuckle Lowen possibly shed some light on a subject that has been flogged to death? I thought about this, and realized that maybe he could not. But, I rationalized it was better than writing a story about how The Band was derivative of everything before them and the bands after, derivative of them.
And, ultimately Fred Durst reaffirmed my decision. Having recently read perhaps the worst interview of my life with Freddie boy (never have I so wished to reclaim an amount of time gone by) and learning absolutely not a single thing about anything. I had an overwhelming desire to read an interview with a fan of Limp Bizkit, to ascertain what the draw is on a fans level-he likes to break things, talk about how other people suck, sleep with a lot of girls, and make horrible music, as far as I can tell. Admittedly, Durst is eons away from being even the lowest benchmark of a musician, but the line of logic of seeing the music through the fan as a credible source, perhaps the most credible, is the same, the only similarity.
This piece does not purport to tell the whole story of The Last Waltz or any shade thereof. It is the story of the one thing that was not included in the original or restored version of the film, the fans. Who were deliberately left out of the film, as much as possible, to create the experience of the viewer as audience member.
Watch the film again; there are only brief incidental shots of the audience, no sweeps of the crowd, no interviews of fans. There is a shot of the crowd outside of Winterland pre-Waltz, but this is for aesthetic reasons, part of the opening montage to show San Francisco. Oh, and also some shots of fans waltzing prior to the concert. This is not a bad thing; it is simply a fact. I digress
So, here is the story of a fan, a subject that is often neglected in rock journalism, but ultimately the truest testament to the power of the music that I know. We are all fans, even us jaded critics, and our stories about our own relationships, at least as we perceive them, with the bands and their music is what this is all about. Back to the days:
T: When was the first time that you saw The Last Waltz?
K: It must have been 77 in Louisville, KY. *T: Can you describe what Louisville was like at that time? *
K: It is Midwestern, its southern, it is a mix. I am pretty much a northern boy. I had just come from Cleveland, which was much more cosmopolitan (laughing). *T: Did you go see it on the opening night? *
K: I am pretty sure I did. There werent many people there. *T: The show wasnt sold out? *
K: No, not even close *T: What was the reaction of the audience during the movie, were people screaming? *
K: I have no memory of the audience being particularly loud, but I would guess that a lot of them were stoned. But you know, stoned crowds tend not to be real loud. I was 31 and that was who was there, people in their late 20s. It wasnt teenagers because they werent that interested and it wasnt 50 year olds. *T: So people roughly the same age as the members of the band? *
K: These would sort of be the left over hippies, thats who they (The Band) dealt with, their audience. The 60s people who, by that time most of them: they were teachers; they were social workers; they were lawyers. They were starting to be what ever they were going to end up being. *T: What were you doing at the time? *
K: I just finished being a tax lawyer for the IRS and made the logical career move to be a divorce lawyer for Legal Aid, the natural progression of things. *T: What was your reaction after watching the movie for the first time? *
K: It was the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was just spectacular. The music was great; the people were great. There werent videos then, there wasnt MTV yet, it was a documentary, but there was a story to it. He (Scorsese) was able to make the characters come alive. You got a feel for how Danko was different than Manuel, you got a feel for how these four Canadians boys are not the same as Levon Helm whos from buttfuck Arkansas, which is near Helena. I have been to the town where he was born, maybe 20 miles out of Helena and there is nothing there. Except for, from that area of that country, everything that has to do with early rock n roll came out of that area, the Arkansas Delta and more importantly the Mississippi Delta. *T: Were there any particular moments that stand out for you in the film? *
K: Aside from the music, there is the scene where they talk about Sonny Boy Williamson. For the baby boomers, as they call it, a lot of our youth is tied up in early rock n roll, but we didnt know where it came from, so you start getting the sense of where it came from. If you grow up in upstate New York, you know Sam Cooke and Pat Boone did not come from the same place, or god you should have! You knew (with) the early Stones stuff there was something going on that the Beatles werent doing and this sort of started tying it together in a way that on an emotional level tells you where it comes from. Scorsese did a great job of that. The Band was just a bunch of white boys, but they got it, they werent born with it. *T: Was there any performance in the show that stood out for you? *
K: When Muddy Waters played, I realized how good he was. At the time, I am working with a bunch of feminists and he is singing, I can make love to you in 5 minutes time, and youre thinking well fuck, you arent going to get anywhere in 5 minutes. He is great and he knows something that I dont know, hell.
T: How many times did you see The Last Waltz in the theater the first time that it was released?
K: Shit, 20 times. I didnt count, the first 10 nights it was there, maybe. Go to work split up some families and go watch The Last Waltz. I am sure I was stoned for some it, but I dont think that I was stoned for all of it. *T: How did the theater workers respond to seeing you there every evening? Was there anybody else like you or were you the only one? *
K: I was it. You know, Id bring people. And of course Legal Aid was this sort of community and Id drag whoever would go, so sometimes I would show up by myself and sometimes Id bring four people and sometimes Id bring six. By the seventh or eighth time, hed just let me in and make whoever I brought pay. *T: Why did you eventually stop seeing it? *
K: I mean at some point you gotta have a life. You just cant do it forever, I am not sure that it would have stayed forever. At some point you just stop seeing it. *T: How was received it by the critics around the country? *
K: I dont know. I think that most people liked it. But I am not sure outside of the people who saw it, or were Band freaks. I dont think they had a following like the Dead did, but people who saw it and had an appreciation thought like me, and probably thought like I did This is the best rock n roll movie ever made. But I dont remember reading what the critics said, and I dont think I would have cared. *T: It wasnt the culturally significant event back then that it has been made into in the last 25 years? *
K: Oh, I dont think so. I dont think it was a blip on the screen, at least not in Louisville. It was a great movie, but they werent that huge. They only had one hit that mainstream people would know about which was The Weight and my guess is 80% of the people that liked that song had no idea they backed up Dylan.
T: Why has it become such a significant event?
K: If you really like the music and really have a sense of the history and all that, then it is pretty important. Its not important in the way that Elvis is important because of what he changed. They (The Band) dont make social change. Elvis is important for a lot of reasons; the Beatles are important for a lot of reasons; rap is important for a lot of reasons, but theyre important musically and academically. The Band is good, but theyre not sociologically important.
T: How do you compare The Last Waltz to other rock movies that have been put up there as the greatest: Woodstock or Dylans Dont Look Back?
K: Dylans Different. Dylans important because who he is, during the 60s Dylan spoke for a generation. Certainly there was a time, when he was as close as I was going to get to a higher power. Woodstock is a movie about a movement, and its about peace and love, or the fact that there really isnt peace and love; or its about a bunch of spoiled brats, who dont want to go to Vietnam; but it is a sociological movie where the backdrop is the music. The Last Waltz is a movie about the wonder of music and what it is like to be a band member. It is really about the music in a way that Woodstock wasnt. They are very different.
T: There is a review that Roger Ebert wrote where he states: I wonder if the sadness comes across on the CD. The music probably sounds happy. But the performers, seen on screen, seem curiously morose, exhausted, played out. What do you feel about that?
K: Certainly the fact Manuel killed himself and Dankos gone. But to be what they were, which is a musician on the road. That is what everybody wanted, everybody who was a hippy dippy wanted that, but you give up a life. There is no home base; you cant have any kind of family life. You live in a world of unreality; drugs are available; women are available. What is not available is permanent relationships and family and some other things. *T: So do you think that it was as much of a somber event as it was a celebration? *
K: Well, for them it is both. It is bittersweet. I get to watch; and I get to hear the music, but I dont have to go out on the road and be away from my family for 16 years. The road didnt eat me up. It ate them up
T: Do you think that it is feasible that anything like The Last Waltz could happen again?
K: The answer is sure, but it wont be for people of my generation. Were done; were not doing anything. There is almost no one my age doing anything musically innovative. Something will happen in rap that will be important, but it wont make any more impact on me than if Bing Crosby had done something big in 1977. Musically, the creativity it seems to me, that you are done by the time youre 30. Paul McCartney aint done shit since he was 30. If the record on Paul McCartney is what he did after 30 then he ranks with Gary Lewis and the Playboys. *T: Do you feel that the genres that the Band chose to highlight are dead now? *
K: It is probably more prevalent now than it was. Unfortunately, now you can hear it on some goddamn laundry commercial. The Bands music is something that a bar band can do, not as well as them, but you can play it.
T: So from a fans perspective how would define the draw of the Last Waltz?
K: Thats when it was music. Its not the show. I saw The Stones their last tour and frankly they sucked. I mean its not music; it is just a big spectacle. I also saw them in 1965 when they were some shitty little English blues band and they were great. The Band is sort of the end of that era.
T: Can you describe the social climate surrounding the film?
K: That was the end of that whole San Francisco hippy thing. Not only is that their last concert; but the whole hippy dippy shit is dead and it is time to go on and try to keep true to your ideals. But, for a lot of people they just became stockbrokers. So, if Woodstock is the start of the hippy dippy music stuff of peace, love and were going to help each other, then The Last Waltz is screw it; I got to make a living and whats wrong with working for some insurance company. I would like to think that is not what I am doing, but they (the hippies) turned thirty and Abbie Hoffman said, You cant trust anybody over thirty, maybe including yourself. *T: Why do you think the event has gained significance over the years? *
K: Theyre really good. Theres only a couple of bands that have or couldve played with anybody. The only thing thats comparable to them is Booker T and the MGs who were the Stax Studio Boys. They were a complete band. When you are a kid you think that youre hearing Bob Dylan, but there is really The Band behind him. They really have something to say and they have a way of connecting with people emotionally. I mean frankly they cant sing. Robbie Robertson is good, but hes no Eric Clapton. Their draw is like the blues, in that you know, hell, they cant sing worth a shit, but it doesnt matter.
T: Do you feel that The Last Waltz is the greatest rock movie ever?
K: For me yeah, theres nothing even close.