DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On Thanksgiving Day 40 years ago, some rock 'n' roll fans in California were treated to a musical feast. They were at an old ice-skating rink in Music Hall in San Francisco, the Winterland Ballroom, and a beloved band was saying goodbye.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEIGHT")
THE BAND: (Singing) I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin' about half past dead.
GREENE: The name of this band - as simple as it gets - The Band. They called their 1976 farewell concert The Last Waltz. The star cast who wanted to share this moment with them included Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. Movie director Martin Scorsese captured the whole thing and later released it as a movie. Today, many look back on that night as a transitional moment in American music as the classic rock era began to fade.
ROBBIE ROBERTSON: We had to play 21 songs with other artists going from Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell. It was a feat, and we played this five-hour concert. And we didn't make a mistake.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEIGHT")
THE BAND: (Singing) You put the load right on me.
GREENE: That's the band's guitarist Robbie Robertson. He has written a new memoir, and he joined us to talk about the musical journey that brought him to that Thanksgiving night. The story begins in the early '60s. Robbie, a teenager from Canada was recruited to play with a down and dirty American rockabilly band, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO DO YOU LOVE")
RONNIE HAWKINS AND THE HAWKS: (Singing) I walked 47 miles of barbed wire, use a cobra snake for a necktie...
ROBERTSON: It was probably the most exciting and almost violent rock 'n' roll. It was fast and swift, and he was growling and romping around the stage like this uncaged animal.
GREENE: Amid all this, Robbie met someone he would build a career with, the Hawks' drummer, a slightly older guy named Levon Helm.
ROBERTSON: The way that he could play, the way he could sing, his personality - we formed a real brotherhood, and then it was Levon and I that were choosing the other guys. All the people from the South ended up leaving, and we were gathering more and more Canadians.
GREENE: And this odd collection of mostly Canadian rockabilly players would end up leaving Ronnie Hawkins behind. They found temporary work with a new front-man, a guy named Bob Dylan - maybe not at the perfect moment. Dylan was trying out a new electric rock sound, and his folk fans were not pleased.
ROBERTSON: So you can imagine going from city to city, setting up, playing a concert, the people boo you, you put your equipment away, you go on to the next town, set up, people boo you and you go on. And you just keep doing this. It isn't getting better. It's getting worse, and you can't help but think to yourself what a strange way to make a buck.
GREENE: Now, everyone referred to Robbie and his crew as The Band playing with Bob Dylan. So when it came time to choose their own name, they went with The Band. They holed up in this unassuming pink house in upstate New York to play and record.
ROBERTSON: I had this yearning to find a clubhouse, a workshop place where we could make music, never disturb anybody, very isolated. And we found it in big pink.
GREENE: And this is the time that you write about when some of the trouble started - I mean, drugs, alcohol, car accidents - I mean, how bad did things get?
ROBERTSON: You know, at the time, it just seemed kind of crazy. We were all very young. And I don't know - it became habitual just crashing these cars. Between Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, we were...
GREENE: These were two of your band mates we should say.
ROBERTSON: ...Putting away those rent-a-cars pretty regularly.
GREENE: Oh, God. That sounds dangerous.
ROBERTSON: It was dangerous, but, you know, in a certain age, you don't see danger in the same kind of way. Over time, things evolved to a darker place.
GREENE: So was it really affecting your music, too, and the creative process?
ROBERTSON: It affects everything. First, it was the only time really that I had a really bad feeling with Levon. Heroin will make you lie, and he did. And it really bothered me.
GREENE: What did he lie about?
ROBERTSON: He lied about using heroin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SHALL BE RELEASED")
THE BAND: (Singing) They say everything can be replaced. They say every distance is not near.
GREENE: So you guys are putting out these successful albums while you're also watching your friend struggle with drugs and seeing drugs throughout the band. I mean, what - take me to the decision to call it quits that will bring us to, you know, what's become known as "The Last Waltz."
ROBERTSON: Well, this is a progressive disease. And I thought we got to deal with this, and we got to get out of the way to deal with it. So we came up with the idea of "The Last Waltz," and it started out that we were just going to invite Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan because they had played such pivotal parts.
GREENE: In which alone would have been special in the roster of guests we kept expanding, it sounds like.
ROBERTSON: Somebody said, well, we can't do this and not invite Eric Clapton.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FURTHER ON UP THE ROAD")
ERIC CLAPTON: (Singing) Further on up the road, someone's going to hurt you like you hurt me.
ROBERTSON: And then someone else would say, well, if you're going to invite Eric, you got to invite Van Morrison.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARAVAN")
VAN MORRISON: (Singing) And the caravan is on its way...
ROBERTSON: Come on.
GREENE: Of course, of course.
ROBERTSON: And so it just kept going and going, and it turned into something special. And it felt beautiful at the time.
GREENE: And your audience was coming - I mean, they were giving up their holiday. And you were - you fed them turkey because it was Thanksgiving, right?
ROBERTSON: It was Bill Graham's idea. He said we're going to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 5,000 people.
GREENE: He was the promoter at the venue Winterland, right?
ROBERTSON: Yeah. And we're going to have a waltz orchestra playing while they dined.
GREENE: That Thanksgiving gathering in 1976 became more of a farewell than people thought. Robbie Robertson had planned for this to just be the end of touring. He was disappointed when he tried to get the band together a few days later.
ROBERTSON: We set up a time at the studio, and I think, ah, well, the guys are running on rock 'n' roll time. They're running a little behind. And I was waiting and waiting, and finally I realized they weren't going to show up. It really made me feel bad. And I thought I've got to read the writing on the wall here.
GREENE: Robbie Robertson and The Band would never get back together as a group. After that Thanksgiving 40 years ago, and all those rock stars onstage without saying it were in a way saying goodbye as well, as the music of the '60s and '70s began to give way to newer sounds.
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