The Band’s Massive Weight: On Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” and Jeff Sellars and Kevin C. Neece’s “Rags and Bones”
By Ethan WarrenJanuary 31, 2023
Rags and Bones: An Exploration of the Band by Jeff Sellars and Kevin C. Neece
In a legendary bit of swindling, Robertson even secured the lion’s share of the Band’s royalties, hustling the others into signing papers they didn’t fully understand. “Robbie called with some cockamamie story” about bookkeeping, drummer/vocalist Levon Helm wrote in his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s on Fire. “A lot of people got conned.” He may be rich and famous thanks to his time with the Band, but in exchange, as Steven Hyden put it succinctly in his 2018 Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, “Robbie Robertson is now commonly perceived to be one of the biggest jerks in rock history.”
Robertson cannot be left to his own devices; it is time for the critics, scholars, and fans to step in. But how does one honor the music’s outstanding aural depth and texture, something that can only be appreciated by the ear? How might one discuss these canonical tracks without falling onto the crutch of analyzing lyric and theme? Across the nine essays that comprise the University Press of Mississippi’s new anthology edited by Jeff Sellars and Kevin C. Neece, Rags and Bones: An Exploration of the Band, a variety of not just academics but also poets and pop culture critics tackle these questions in their own respective fashions.
Marching dutifully through the history of the group’s original lineup, the endpoint of the book is essentially preordained. Though the Band would live on in various forms, this book must conclude with The Last Waltz, the filmed document of the original lineup’s last stand. Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film — remastered and rereleased last year by boutique home-media and cult arthouse distributor Criterion Collection — towers head and shoulders above the majority of the genre’s entries, and has the benefit of using sight and sound to honor the Band’s full artistry.
The Band’s original lineup consisted of four Canadians — Robertson, bassist/vocalist Rick Danko, keyboardist/vocalist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson — who were linked up with the American Southerner Helm (on drums and vocals) by rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Soon, they would make the leap, backing up Bob Dylan during his legendary 1966 world tour and on his iconic collection of songs (recorded in 1967 but existing only as a high-profile bootleg until 1975) The Basement Tapes. From there, the quintet branched off on their own and recorded two legendary rock albums (1968’s Music from Big Pink and 1969’s The Band, a.k.a. The Brown Album), following them with a third (1970’s Stage Fright) that was less well-received at the time but holds up alongside the masterpieces. The first half of the 1970s, though, saw a chain of diminishing returns in the studio, even as the group’s live show became only more precise, showcasing increasingly complex and ferocious renditions of hit singles like “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
When Robertson chose to dissolve the Band (informing his bandmates of his plan in 1976) and they parted ways in 1978, the decision was unilateral, a songwriter taking his ball and going home; he even threatened legal action when Helm asked permission for the remaining members to retain the name and continue touring. Eventually, Robertson would allow his one-time friends to go back on the road, but the reunited Band found themselves stuck playing the hits in dive bars. This change of fortune led to a spiral of despair that culminated in Manuel’s 1986 suicide in a Quality Inn bathroom following their show at a lounge just outside Orlando. Danko died in 1999, Helm in 2012; a now 85-year-old Hudson lives a private life, while the 79-year-old Robertson spends his time talking about being in the Band.
Given Robertson’s centrality to the narrative of the Band’s glory days, it’s predictable, but nevertheless a letdown, to recognize how overwhelmingly Rags and Bones: An Exploration of the Band focuses on his artistic contributions.
For proof of this singular focus, there’s no need to look further than the “search” function on the ebook, which reveals that the name Robertson appears nearly as many times (286, to be precise) as the names Helm, Danko, Manuel, and Hudson combined (a total of 289). Certainly, this is in part due to the abundance of Robertson interviews to pull from, but it simultaneously points to a suffocating concern with his poetry at the expense of the musicianship that arguably cemented the Band’s fame as much as, or more so than, the words. As Greil Marcus writes in his 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music, “when the [Band’s] music is most exciting […] the lyrics are blind baggage, and they emerge only in snatches.” The Band made their name as a collective, while Rags and Bones is essentially a musical auteur study.
To be fair, Robertson’s lyrics are extraordinary, a body of work worthy of sustained analysis. Marcus posits that most of the group’s discography forms more or less a coherent cycle, a concept super-album: the account of a nameless pilgrim walking a dusty road through a patchwork, folkloric United States, encountering uncanny figures and surreal signs and symbols. And Robertson is the lead architect of that project. One must acknowledge his significance while paying due attention to his support system (there’s a reason, after all, that one likely can’t name a Robbie Robertson solo single), not just the instrumentation of his bandmates but the influence that he drew from Helm’s Southern heritage, as well as Dylan’s early guiding hand.
Rags and Bones chooses to bracket the Band’s story with the Robertson years, allowing the occasional cursory mention of the ensuing decades, even as Danko, Helm, and Hudson continued recording as the Band well into the 1990s. Should one argue that only the Robertson years merit analysis, it’s also worth noting that the book ignores virtually every album released after Stage Fright (1971’s Cahoots and 1973’s Moondog Matinee, the latter considered by Marcus in Mystery Train to be Manuel’s most commanding performance, are each mentioned twice in 158 pages). The omissions hew to the preferences of general readers, many of whom would likely be surprised to learn that the Band even made more than two albums. But with the jacket copy promising a “rounded examination,” the lack thereof is disheartening.
At the most successful end of the Rags and Bones spectrum, the poet Charlotte Pence contributes a dazzling and audacious consideration, “Reading Baldwin’s ‘Sonny[’s] Blues’ While Listening to The Band.” Pence melds unconventional analysis with an assertive yet conversational first-person voice: “To be honest, the song about the last days of the Civil War [‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’] makes me uncomfortable,” she writes. “In a lot of ways, I don’t want to listen to this song’s speaker.” The effect of Pence’s inclusion is a refreshing zig among the common zags of academic publishing. On the far end of that spectrum, a chapter on Music from Big Pink by volume editor Jeff Sellars — who also contributes the introduction — is dry and overreliant on block quotes. Indeed, Rags and Bones, like the Band, contains multitudes.
Toby Thompson provides an appropriately head-spinning tour through the Band’s rise, fall, and attempts to rise again, representing the book’s best efforts to account for the group’s post-1976 history. In the collection’s first chapter, Thompson offers a comprehensive overview nominally anchored to the years in which they were known as the Hawks, backing rockabilly crooner Ronnie Hawkins through the barroom circuit; the second chapter, from singer-songwriter/professor Christine Hand Jones, turns to their similar role in Bob Dylan’s road act. Jones makes a persuasive case for Dylan’s Beat-inflected lyricism as a clear and present influence, delving into Robertson’s and the Band’s work on their most iconic song, the gently Buñuelian 1968 single “The Weight.”
Following the contributions from Pence and Sellars, the book bends toward analyses of lyrics for four consecutive chapters, and the results fail to inspire, revealing how much the instrumentation really does matter. The authors’ interpretations rarely dive below the surface of Robertson’s words. By the time George Plasketes’s penultimate chapter has spiraled into a digressive rabbit hole collating every instance of “The Weight” in film and television — and, bafflingly, theorizing on why some specific films didn’t choose to use it — one might be tempted to wonder whether the Band warrants academic study in the first place.
In the final chapter, the volume’s other editor, theologian and Star Trek aficionado Kevin C. Neece, considers Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which was shot on Thanksgiving night in 1976. The night was a star-studded affair inspired by New Orleans funerals, the performance preceded by a Thanksgiving feast served to all 5,000 attendees. The meal was followed by ballroom dancing, after which the rock portion of the evening commenced at 9:00 p.m. The show didn’t wrap up until well after 2:00 a.m., when Robertson finally uttered a hoarse “goodnight; goodbye” to the still-wild crowd.
Much as Jones’s chapter finds the common strands between Dylan’s songwriting and Robertson’s, Neece’s contribution identifies the spiritual overlap between Scorsese’s key concerns and the Band’s, paying particular mind to a shared interest in the sacred and the profane (a phrase already deployed by Jeffrey Scholes in the book’s sixth chapter, though Neece’s results are somewhat more inspiring). “Maybe when we sing songs together,” Neece writes, “it can’t help but be a kind of prayer. And maybe when we give everything we’ve got in the basement — tapes and otherwise — to our human expressions, something sacred just has to show up.”
Neece detects this sentiment at the core of The Last Waltz. The film has been criticized for being too deferential to Robertson — “Scorsese’s focus on Robertson is felt most acutely in the [between-song] interview segments,” Hyden wrote in Twilight of the Gods, “where Robertson often talks over his bandmates, who mostly just sit in the background while looking glamorously intoxicated.” Robertson is clearly positioned as the film’s lead — he landed a producer’s credit for the trouble — and his decision to break up the Band thus goes unquestioned. He is a tremendously charismatic figure, regally maned and rakish, but, in Hyden’s words, he “seems incapable of doing anything without affectation.”
Prior to the Criterion release, the most commonly circulated version of The Last Waltz was the “Special Edition” DVD distributed in the 2000s. That edition did little to mitigate the perception that The Last Waltz was a Robbie Robertson film, and that his choice to disband went unquestioned by the balance of the group. Many of that disc’s features are carried over to the Criterion edition, including two commentary tracks — one focused on Robertson and Scorsese, the other featuring material from Helm and Hudson, alongside a host of guest performers, technicians, and others — and a making-of featurette. Criterion has added a 1978 interview featuring Robertson and Scorsese, but so too have they included a new conversation between Scorsese and Rolling Stone film critic David Fear, one that casts a wider net in appreciating the Band’s artistry. The DVD “liner notes” include an essay from The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich, “Long, Hard Road,” in which she handily encapsulates what is so “uncanny about seeing a group of otherwise autonomous people become a single organism for a brief stretch of time.”
Of course, the primary selling point for Criterion’s The Last Waltz is the digital restoration supervised by Scorsese, as well as remastered audio approved by Robertson. The transfer can only be described as extraordinary. Between this edition and his recent Netflix documentary on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, also released by Criterion, Scorsese is proving himself remarkably adept at remastering classic rock footage. While the picture on the earlier disc is perfectly appreciable, watching it side by side with the Criterion edition is borderline miraculous. The colors have been deepened and enriched, revealing new layers to the image never before detectable. Most remarkable, though, is the absolute absence of film grain on the new picture.
The effect is dazzling, but simultaneously eerie. The remastered footage looks like it was shot today, but a side-by-side comparison reveals how it has been doctored, bearing traces of the aggressive retouching effects employed by Peter Jackson for his 2021 series The Beatles: Get Back. That degrained Beatles footage, as Charles Cameron wrote for Screen Rant, has “an ethereal quality at odds with the lively back and forth” of a rock group, while the overall effect appears “decidedly soft, adding to the otherworldly feel of the […] images.”
If Scorsese’s remaster is less assertive in its technique (naturally, given the greater quality of his initial footage over Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Beatles reels), a similar ethereal softness remains. The compulsion to remove film grain is odd, given what a hardwired element of 20th-century film vocabulary such grit and rough aesthetics represent. Films of the past have grain, and our brains are trained to understand this; to see it removed creates an itchy sensation that all is not as it should be.
To quibble with any remaster of The Last Waltz, however, feels ungrateful, at odds with the film’s Thanksgiving spirit. Scorsese crafted an extraordinary document, one that has been retrospectively framed as a sort of farewell to a certain time in rock history as the 1980s loomed. “[T]he film is plainly elegiac,” Petrusich writes, “a kind of weary coda to an era that had culminated at the end of the previous decade.” The Band comes to represent rock in microcosm — no insignificant assertion since, as Marcus points out in Mystery Train, by the time of Music From Big Pink, “they had been playing rock ’n’ roll music for more than half as long as there had been such a thing.”
Scorsese reminds us that the Band is, in fact, worthy of academic inquiry. Rags and Bones, meanwhile, bills itself as something of an event, the first scholarly work on this august group. It’s curious that the book artificially curtails the story, placing brackets for the sake of narrative convenience, while dropping the melody to focus on what has been said, not how or why. With a handful of additional essays — no matter how thin the gruel might have been — Rags and Bones could have ensured against potentially being eclipsed by a future study on the subject.
In 2014, Scorsese looked back on the process of editing The Last Waltz, and his language bent toward the aural. The film was “structured like a musical tapestry,” he recalled. “It had to be just felt. Sometimes you couldn’t really express it in words […] [It’s] something I can’t define.” This handily sums up the devil’s bargain inherent to rock journalism. If the task before the writers collected in Rags and Bones is not to define, then it must be to honor. At their best, the essays found within rise to the occasion, and even the less effective ones must be forgiven for struggling to shoulder this music’s lasting impact — its massive weight.
Ethan Warren is the author of the book The Cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson: American Apocrypha, out April 2023 from Wallflower Press and Columbia University Press.
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