ON A CITY BUILT ON ROCK AND ROLL
A look into the bleuprint of life on the road
by Stephen Hazan Arnoff
During the years that I banged out a modest living as a musician playing bars, frat houses, weddings, coffee houses, college lawns, the street, and summer festivals on the part of the bill when sometimes the cotton candy machines were not even cranked up yet, I thought of the Band as the city, or community, offering the ultimate blueprint for the ten things (some say eleven) that I needed to live.
The Last Waltz, a documentary by Martin Scorsese on the Band’s 1976 all-star farewell concert – despised by some and lionized by others – was the sacred document revealing in all of its intimacy, humor, longing, and virtuosity the essence of what comprises the ultimate rock-and-roll city.
Before explaining how wrong I was about this film and the Band more generally, while also begrudgingly renewing my allegiance to them both, here are the ten things (some say it must be turned up to eleven), as embodied by the Band, which I once believed a musician needed to live:
Music: A completely fresh, instantly identifiable iteration of all of the musical traditions that shaped your own.
Band: Colleagues who know each others’ musical instincts so intuitively, it’s like they live wrapped in a single rhythmic and melodic skin.
Blues: Including leaving home too young, endless travel to out-of-the-way gigs, sickness and near-death experiences, close brushes with fleeting fame, desire to be someone else – somewhere else – something else, broken hearts (given and received), and a mythology that sucks up every shred of reality it finds.
Tradition: Whether it’s Robert Johnson, Elvis, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or the Clash who anchored it, your only real goal is to be your generation’s manifestation of the next link in that chain.
Substances: You drink, you smoke, you imbibe all variety of substances including tremendous amounts of coffee, to sustain yourself physically, to pass the time, to keep or conquer a feeling and a mood.
Love: Richard Manuel, curled on a couch like a cat, musses his own shaggy hair and claims that this is the only reason to stay on the road.
Fans: They love you, man.
Business: Someone is walking in with a baseball bat and slamming it on the glass table of the evil record label; someone is slamming down the phone; someone is both filling your bank account and pillaging it.
Tribe of Musicians: The other bands you sit in with, follow, compete against, bump into in an airport or hotel bar; your special guests on albums; the only ones who understand.
Interpreter: See Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and most of all, Dana Spiotta’sStone Arabia.
Rages and Riches: Sleeping in a van with a foam mattress near the sea, certain you have finally arrived.
Boy was I wrong about the lasting truth in this list. No mea culpa will suffice in the sad days following the recent death of Levon Helm, beloved drummer and singer of blessed memory who detested The Last Waltz and all for which it stood.
Years later now, I know about the rip-offs and Richard Manuel’s suicide and Rick Danko’s dying too soon, and the heroin and the money and then hangers-on in Woodstock and elsewhere distorting The Band, probably Dylan’s very best band, which, by the time ofThe Last Waltz, was already out of time and luck.
Rock-and-roll, like patriotism, may be one of those last refuges to which a scoundrel clings. But even now, sobered by the price most every rock road warrior pays, and the nasty business beautiful music can conceal, I don’t regret having tried to live in that city once.