THE LAST WALTZ
Originally appeared in The Barcelona Review
THIS MORNING in the paper there is news. During the night Rick Danko, who played bass for The Band, who was caught last year smuggling heroin into Japan and who was just fifty-six, died in his sleep. I do not know how I will break the news to William.
The man with whom I live, William, is devoted to The Band. He has all their albums, he has read every review, he owns a copy of The Last Waltz. I have never understood the fascination. William is not old enough to have known The Band’s music firsthand. He was too young for Woodstock, he was just ten the year The Band broke up. He has only seen pictures of Big Pink.
Still it will upset him no end to hear Rick Danko is dead. It was bad enough when The Band’s keyboardist died, well hanged himself in a hotel. William had a hard time with that one, Rick Danko as well. It was an accident, he told the papers at the time. Richard was just practicing knots.
And now Rick Danko is gone too and there is no changing things. Though William does not yet know this. He sleeps later than I, he will not be up for some time. He lies now unaware in the next room.
Rick Danko’s picture this morning surprised me. It was from a concert he played solo just last year, and it did not look like him. Except for the caption, you would not have known who it was.
Because of William, I have got to know The Band well, I have watched The Last Waltz, and Rick Danko is a thin loose-jointed young man in a black gaucho hat. He plays bass or sometimes fiddle, he does not seem to mind which, and he has a fine high voice, he sings with his eyes closed, he likes so much what he does. He is also a joker, when he isn’t in concert, he is forever telling stories on the couch with The Band. He rolls joints and he laughs, he makes Martin Scorsese laugh. Rick Danko knows how to have a good time.
But in the photo in this morning’s paper, Rick Danko is an old man, well older at least, aging. He is heavy, his hair is short and gray, and though he has a bass guitar strapped to his belly, it is a large belly and his shirt is a white polo knit. I was not prepared, I had not thought it out. The Last Waltz was over twenty years ago now, still it did not occur to me Rick Danko would have changed.
And here is the thing of course, I am changed too. It is something I have trouble explaining to William. William is young, younger than I by fourteen years. Though lately I have noticed, I am becoming older than William by more.
It is odd of course that we are together. William moved in years ago, we are used to each other by now. Still, I think we are a curiosity to others. William is tall, he is handsome. I am plain, well I am losing my looks. William is sweet-natured and patient, I am myself taken with occasional rage. Our long coupling is, when you think of it, unnatural.
That we are together at all was William’s idea. I am not entirely sure why. When I ask William what was the attraction, he says different things. It was, he says, because I was not like other women, though what he means here, I know, is young women. I did not, he says, seem so intent to possess, money was never my issue. Or he talks of my generous spirit, or my mind, which he found to be open. He says it’s as though I was from another time, which is sweet I think, as naturally I am. And sometimes William adds there was the day we first met and the way my blouse clung to the soft curve of my breast.
So I sit now and think what I will tell William. It will not be easy. I have never known what exactly to say to him on the topic of The Band. William envies me a little, admires me even, because I have listened to Band concerts live. Because I lived in the Fillmore, a place they performed. Because I dated a drummer who knew Levon Helm.
But this is the problem. What I have not told William is that I did not much care for The Band when they played. It is because of an album I owned, a two-record live concert. The recording was not entirely The Band’s fault, they only played backup to Bob Dylan. Still it was strange, something had got into Bob Dylan that night, he sounded unusually angry and confused. He pretty much bellowed his way through the tracks, while The Band from behind spun out of control. They were desperate, disheartened, their music distorted, it was not something I understood. And I returned to Joni Mitchell and her clouds.
I hear William turn over in the next room. He will be awake soon I know, though always William wakes slowly, he turns over and over and stretches in the sheets. I should go to him now, I should tell him about Rick Danko. But I wait. William is a happy sleeper, he always awakes with good cheer. I cannot tell him bad news like this so early.
William is an optimist about most things, it is not just the mornings. It is another of the ways we differ. I no longer remember when I last woke up happy. Or woke rested. Or woke much wanting to at all.
William says it is natural, it is just lack of sleep. But I am not so sure. Because what I have noticed, what is more of concern, is that recently I awake with lapses. And through that whole day there are then missing parts. Yesterday, for instance, I lost the word for shovel, first thing, and for hours I could not think of it. Not that shovel was something I needed to discuss. Still the word had escaped me. Left me flat. I had no name for the idea that was shovel.
It is one of the signs. I have watched for them lately, there are others as well. The aching in my left shoulder that never quite leaves, the lines of disapproval between my brows, my utter invisibility in most men’s eyes. I choose not to dwell on these things. What is the point? And William pretends not to notice.
I was wrong about The Band of course. I have sat with William and I have watched The Last Waltz and I know. On the tape, The Band is at the top of their form, they are not distracted as on the night of the album. The music is joyful, the lyrics are clear. Everyone is having a good time. It is Thanksgiving and The Band’s final performance. They plan a celebration, they tell Martin Scorsese, a party with a few of their friends. And a party it is, in the video pretty much everyone shows up. Eric Clapton and Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan of course, Emmylou Harris, too. Van Morrison is at first worrisome, he looks paunchy and tired, but he comes to with the music, he thrusts his fist in the air. The others are upbeat as well, Dr. John hams for the crowd, Eric Clapton plays along.
And The Band then. The Band are beside themselves, you can see that all the way through. Robbie Robertson cannot stop grinning, Ronnie Hawkins cracks him up. Levon Helm hunches over his drums, then throws back his head and drives out a line. Garth Hudson attacks the organ.
It is a little frenzied and the first time I saw it I said but William, maybe it’s just that they’re glad they are leaving. Maybe they’re just wild to be rid of each other.
William watched, shook his head, kept his eyes on the screen.
I listen again for William, the sound of him, but I cannot now be sure. For here is one thing more. I no longer hear well, another of the signs. I find lately I cannot always understand William. I do not catch the ringing of the timer on the stove. In loud restaurants, I lose conversations and just nod.
William thinks it is because of a fine misspent youth, that I lost nerve endings at too many concerts. He tells friends it’s because of loudspeakers, rock music, maybe drugs. He says Woodstock was probably to blame.
In The Last Waltz, The Band plays on. William and I have watched the video a dozen times together now, and he is right, it cannot all be just manic relief. Nor do I think what we are watching here is only celebration. What it is, I still cannot say. But William thinks he knows. He plays The Last Waltz, he says he just knows. I have come home early from work some days to find him again at the video. He studies it, he does not just let the tape run. He reverses and plays the songs over and over, Weight is maybe his favorite. And he replays the interviews sometimes as well. He likes Robbie Robertson’s talk of Jack Ruby and how Levon Helm says Wolcott’s Rabbitsfoot Minstrels. But he likes it best when Martin Scorsese asks Richard Manuel things, Richard Manuel is a little crazy it’s clear. He stares so intensely at the camera and talks so slowly, his voice deep and goofy, he tells such odd stories without any point and then laughs high-pitched anyway, that well yes, you could watch him and think maybe you know. You could watch and think The Band is onto something all right.
William yawns in the next room. I can hear him, it is a loud yawn, and now I am sure. William is awake.
So here is the truth. I was never at Woodstock. William has it all wrong.
The thing is, William thinks everyone my age was at Woodstock. He thinks we all just naturally showed up. But at the time, I knew only one person who did, a boy or rather his sister. The boy said it ruined her life, when she returned from the weekend, she moved into a tree. He was studying finance, he couldn’t understand. What kind of a future can you expect in a tree?
I had no answer, I was never at Woodstock. Still William believes that I was.
William believes a great number of things. He believes in The Band. He believes, I think, in me. He believes there is hope, there is time. William still thinks things will get better. It is possible, he says. You don’t know.
But I know. Yesterday I lost the word for shovel and now Rick Danko is dead. I have developed lapses, and I know.