Here’s a clip of The Band with Bob Dylan performing “Forever Young/Baby Let Me Follow You Down” from The Last Waltz, performed, filmed, and recorded 32 years ago today in 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Band were saying goodbye to sixteen years on the road, one-half of the time since this appearance was filmed. Guitarist Robbie Robertson would never play with his four Band-mates together again.
The Band and Bob Dylan of course shared a common history, in that they had accompanied him on his turbulent 1966 tour where he’d gone electric, scandalizing his folk fan base by bringing along what many considered to be a second rate rock ‘n’ roll band playing second rate music. One of the songs on that tour was the Reverend Gary Davis‘ “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, which done here has the crowd enthralled instead of appalled. It’s amazing how a decade can change someone’s mind.
Also, Bob and the Band had recorded an album together two years before this performance called Planet Waves. One of the songs on that record was Bob’s “Forever Young”, written for his children. Of course here, maybe it has farther reaching connotations. By 1976, the last embers of the Sixties were pretty much going cold. And the Last Waltz, although set up as a farewell concert to the Band, was in the end a farewell to that era too. Many of those who appeared in the film would come face to face with middle age, and with a new generation of record buyers who had not grown up with them, and did not recognize their stature. Others wouldn’t live much past the end of the era – Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, and Band singer and pianist Richard Manuel would all die within ten years after the film was released. For them, it was a last hurrah in the spotlight.
Like most things in life, there was not a clearly demarcated passing of one era to another. Many of the performers at the Last Waltz would make remarkable, career-defining music afterward. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and of course Dylan are the most obvious candidates here. Yet the spirit of the times out of which they emerged as artist would be a memory before the end of the decade. In many ways, that what this film is from where I stand – a document of the end of a special era, giving way to a series of new eras, equally special, yet never the same again.
For me this is what makes this clip, and the movie itself so compelling. It’s as if they knew that the moment they were in was an important one. They knew that they had to preserve it for posterity. And thank god they did!