Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist and songwriter for The Band, had only one thing to say about life on the road in 1976: “It’s a goddamn impossible way of living…no question about it.” After sixteen years of touring, transitioning from “eight years in bars, dives, [and] dance halls” to “concerts, stadiums, [and] arenas,” The Band was discovering that a rock and roll lifestyle had become unsustainable. Daunted by the physically and emotionally exhausting prospect of another decade away from home, the years had begun to catch up with the group as their frontmen neared 40—“I mean, sixteen years on the road,” Roberts laments. “The numbers start to scare you. I couldn’t live with 20 years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.”
With a few notable exceptions, and deservedly so, most bands don’t get the opportunity to stick around so long. Fan bases lose nose rings and put on neckties, tickets stop selling, a solo tour ensues, and a drummer goes rogue—any number of factors can lead to a band’s demise, but time and time again the conflict seems to arise from within. The touring lifestyle certainly doesn’t give band members much space of their own, and tensions tend to ride understandably high when talented, famous, creative types take to the road and start forming their own opinions. On the precipice of such a collapse themselves, the Band thus began groundwork for one final concert to end their touring careers and dissolve the group entirely, a sort of forced death before things turned sour. The Last Waltz, as the show was called, was filmed for a 1976 documentary of the same name directed by Martin Scorcese, featuring direct footage of the five and a half hour concert and various band-member interviews on the surrounding days. There were no violent falling-outs, no overdoses, and no failed albums; just a decision that the road had taught them everything it had to offer, and that the time had come to call it quits, even at the top.
Nearly 40 years later, the idea of knowing when to take a bow is one that eludes many groups well past their prime; the 80’s glam- and heavy-metal band Motley Crue have made recent headlines for signing a so-called “cessation of touring agreement,” ensuring fans that this will truly be the end of the group’s world-wide touring history. Though admirable and self-aware on some levels, I can’t help but to remember various incidences of ‘musicians who cried wolf’—in the hip hop world, for example, we can turn to Jay-Z’s 2009 ‘retirement’ party at Madison Square Garden and the accompanying documentary, Fade to Black, that chronicled his career like it had come and gone. Now as a business mogul and world wide celebrity with a net-worth of over $500 million, whose most recent album Magna Carta Holy Grail was certified platinum on the day of its release, Jay-Z is far from retired. Even given this “cessation of touring agreement” from Motley Crue, I’m not sure that a band can ever really be gone for good. On February 5th, 2011, electro-dance group LCD Soundsystem posted the following announcement on their website to be tweeted, liked, and shared around the world: “good people of Earth: LCD Soundsystem are playing Madison Square garden on April 2nd, and it will be our last show ever. We are retiring from the game. Gettin’ out. Movin’ on.” Their sold out show, featured in the 2012 documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, was an all-night spectacle with elaborate lighting and pulsing electronic music, fans all in black and white, but all the same it was treated like an intimate party with 18,000 friends.
The Band, bringing in more than 20 guest performers to share the stage of San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, from Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, made sure to provide an even more intimate atmosphere for their fans and friends, as though the audience had just stumbled upon a jam session with some of rock, country, and blues’ most influential figures. “We wanted it to be more than just a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration,” Roberts notes. The Winterland was a notably small venue for such a popular group, housing under 5,000 fans, but it was the perfect place for The Band to end their run. It had been the very first venue they played, and the gospel-influenced group performance of ‘I Shall Be Released,’ chosen by Scorcese to end The Last Waltz, seems appropriately focused on funereal themes of freedom and redemption. Life would be different for The Band when the tour was finally over and their past had been laid to rest.
When prompted by a polyester-clad Scorcese to explain the hardships of life on the road, Robertson replies, “The road has taken a lot of the great ones. Hank Williams. Buddy Holly. Otis Redding. Janis. Jimi Hendrix. Elvis.” Eagerness to get out of the industry in the midst of commercial success was understandable, then, given the myriad of early deaths and tragic collapses of music’s greatest figures in the 1960s and 70s. Even well past that tumultuous era, “with change and revolution and war and assassinations,” many iconic musicians have gained a certain air of immortality precisely because they passed prematurely, whether it be in a plane or car crash, from a history of substance abuse, or a brush with violence. The so-called “27 club,” a grouping of musicians who died in their 27th year, includes not only Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, but Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and Kurt Cobain. Though the causes of their deaths are not universal, the drug and alcohol culture of life on the road is an inevitable link between them; many of these figures, though their lives were tragically cut short, became something like romanticized martyrs, who lived and breathed their craft so completely that it killed them. No need for formal announcements or planned ends—the tragedy, regrettably, spoke for itself.
The Last Waltz shies away, unfortunately, from frank discussion of vice and substance abuse on the road, though Scorcese’s editing allows us to understand that certain interview portions have been augmented and rephrased from their originals. This is perhaps one of the film’s big problems—we hear about a dangerous, exhausting, and wild lifestyle that has worn The Band thin, but we see little evidence that it really exists. For example, when a conversation turns toward women on the road, drummer Levon Helm is clearly hesitant to comment: “ I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about it too much… I thought we were supposed to pan away from that sort of stuff, get into something else.”
Whatever details were omitted from The Last Waltz, the rock and roll lifestyle persists to this day. Bands and recording artists continue to struggle with the exhaustion and fatigue brought about from relentless touring and promotion, and a lingering notion that it is “better to burn out than fade away,” as famously expressed in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, remains. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem explains the distaste he feels for the industry obsession with sold out stadium shows and constant promotion and touring: “I was very adamant that I’d never tour, we’d never do the bullshit …go away for a really long time and tour like everybody else does. …we didn’t want to play shows…we wanted to play at dance clubs, we wanted to play to people who were having fun.”
In an interview with Esquire Magazine after the breakup of the band, Murphy explains, to this effect, that it wasn’t making music itself, but rather the pressure to produce, promote, and perform new material that he found most unappealing: ”It’s a retirement… the point was to not be in a professional rock band and to kill some of the expectation that’s internal of being a professional rock ensemble that makes albums, goes on tour, makes videos… I didn’t want to do that anymore.” Of course, touring is just one aspect of a musical life—James Murphy went on to produce Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, and most members of The Band carried on making music long after the end of The Last Waltz. But by recognizing the flaws and temptations of life on the road, and by choosing a carefully constructed termination of their time as groups in the height of success, they were able to neither burn out nor fade away, thus preserving their cultural influence as musicians and caring for themselves as individuals all the while.