In 1978, at age thirteen, I became a Bob Dylan fan thanks to his side of the multi-artist Concert for Bangladesh three-record set. My knowledge of Dylan’s life and work was extremely limited, but I was eager to learn and hear more, and my interest was piqued by his appearance that year in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s highly regarded documentary about the Band’s final concert. I knew virtually nothing about the Band or the guest performers in the film: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, et al. Still, I convinced a friend, who knew virtually nothing about any kind of music, to see the movie with me.
As we stood on the very short line outside the theater one Saturday afternoon, the manager came out and spoke to an old couple ahead of us. “This movie isn’t what you think it is,” he told them. “It’s not waltzes. It’s rock music.”
They thanked him and left.
I recalled my maternal grandparents, who went to see the movie of West Side Story because they thought it had something to do with the nineteenth-century song “The Sidewalks of New York,” whose chorus begins “East Side, West Side, all around the town.” I don’t know whether my grandparents watched all of West Side Story—possibly a masterpiece, certainly a classic—but my grandmother always recounted that experience bitterly.
My friend and I watched all of The Last Waltz, but we didn’t like it much. In fact, we didn’t really know what to make of it. When I saw it again, decades later, the performers meant a lot more to me, though I still didn’t love all the music and the movie struck me as pretentious.
The old couple on the movie line came to mind recently when I was in a Goodwill thrift store. An old woman was looking at the CDs, holding in one hand a classical recording and in the other The Last Waltz soundtrack. I pointed to the latter and told her, “That’s not waltzes.”
“It’s rock music,” I clarified.
To my surprise, she asked, “Is it good?”
Questions of that kind always leave me wondering about the questioner. Many things I consider good would qualify as bad in other people’s minds. Many culturally approved great works don’t speak to particular individuals. Sometimes The Band sounds majestic, other times, ramshackle. Is The Last Waltz, the movie or the soundtrack, “good”?
“Well,” I answered, “if you like rock music of the ’70s, you might like it.”
To my amusement, the woman placed the disc on the pile she was buying. By now, she might be wondering why anyone would recommend it or why anyone would discard it.
“I Shall Be Released” – Bob Dylan and the Band
Nov. 25, 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, CA
Kurt Wildermuth is a staff writer for the long-running music webzine Perfect Sound Forever. You can read his other writing at kurtwildermuth.com