Given that most of this post will be dedicated to The Last Waltz (don't worry, there will be some Dylan-related content), I might as well get my feelings about "Hazel" out of the way here. I like the song just fine (even though Dylan spends the middle eight groping around for the proper vocal key), and I think of it as a fine piece of the album's overall aesthetic, but it's not particularly a song that I would hold up as a classic or anything. To be honest, It makes me think more of the kind of song Dylan might have heard on WABC or something in the '70s and decided "hey, I'm gonna give that a shot"; couldn't you just imagine this song sandwiched between "Same Old Song and Dance" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" during some imaginary DJ's 7-11 shift as he blathers on about how you can get tickets at your local YMCA for the Neil Young show? Even the lyrics kind of leave something to be desired ("ooh, just a touch of your love", indeed), which is a slight disappointment considering how accomplished the songwriting on this album is otherwise. Maybe I'm making too much of this song - I can't imagine Dylan and the Band imagined this song to be much more than a trifle anyway - so I'll just move on.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Now, then. The Last Waltz is interesting for any number of reasons, a few of which I'll list here - Scorcese directing at the height of his drug addictions (but not at the height of his fame - his reputation at the time basically rested on Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, which are two incredible pillars to rest a reputation on, but still); trying to figure out which of the musicians on stage was the most coked-up (one would imagine Neil Young takes that prize, although sadly you never do see that massive chunk of cocaine stuck in his nostril); seeing Neil Diamond back when he had any cultural relevance; and, yes, Dylan's last collaboration with The Band, with two Planet Waves songs (including this one, a song choice I will go to my grave not understanding) and two songs from the legendary 1966 tour serving as the mini-setlist. That The Last Waltz is a movie that has to be seen is not much in doubt (Allen Toussaint's horn arrangements take the songs to a whole other level, and it's SCORCESE directing, for God's sake); what The Last Waltz actually means is something else entirely.
I imagine that if you polled any number of casual music fans, even fans of rock music, about what the first thing is that they would think of when they think of The Band, The Last Waltz would surely top the list (either that, "The Weight", or Music From Big Pink, I'd guess). And that's not without good reason, obviously - given its status as The Band's (supposed) retirement, the heavy hitters that guest starred, the man who directed the documentary, and the time period that it was made (the mid-70s, with the excesses of rock at their apex before punk music came along to change a thing or two - I'd say "change everything" but that is simply not true), it's probably the most obvious choice. But here's the thing - The Last Waltz is not only way more famous than The Band itself actually is (if that makes sense), it also makes The Band seem like a more popular band than they ever had been during their career. After all, this is a band with one platinum album, two gold albums, and one Top 5 and one Top 10 album - a great haul by most measures of the imagination, but certainly not what you'd expect for a band deserving of that lovingly crafted a documentary, right? Even their #1 album was a collaboration with a more famous artist, and by their 3rd album they'd pretty much peaked as a popular force. And yet The Band is still fondly remembered by many, and probably as a bigger band then they ever were at their peak. That has to be because of The Last Waltz, right?
Perception, especially perception after the fact, has always been a funny thing. Think of The Sex Pistols, a group as cobbled together as any number of boy bands, yet held by many even today as the pinnacle of what punk music is/was supposed to mean. Or think of Sylvia Plath, whose most well-known work was published after her death and who never lived to reap the rewards of The Bell Jar, yet who has a critical reputation that far outstrips her sales or the regard she had during her lifetime (kinda like The Band, actually). We never know what it is that will change our legacy, let alone the legacy of famous artists; sometimes only one thing can completely change a legacy, either for the better or worse. It is the great artists, ultimately, that can resist that sort of legacy-shifter, those that have built a body of work so great and massive that ultimately nothing short of something truly awful can change the public's perception. After all, not too long ago the same Mr. Scorcese filmed a documentary about the first part of Bob Dylan's career (with a lucid and thoughtful Bob providing an interview - wonder how many directors he'd have done THAT for?), a documentary that surely would have done for most artists what The Last Waltz has done for The Band, and yet it serves mainly as an interesting adjunct to Bob's career, a long and interesting way to tell us something we most likely already knew. That, to me, is the mark of Dylan's staying power - his work is so strong it even resists boosts to its credibility.