As The Last Waltz Lives On, Its Rendition of “Helpless” Remains Eternal

Music Features Neil Young
As The Last Waltz Lives On, Its Rendition of “Helpless” Remains Eternal

On Thanksgiving Day, 1976, The Band (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel) descended upon the Winterland Ballroom in Northern San Francisco to play their “farewell concert”—they called it The Last Waltz; Martin Scorsese made a film about it. Before the tunes start, a title card with “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!” screams across the screen. Dispersed among the performances are billiard shots and moments of Scorsese chumming it up with Robertson and company about the group’s history. The cinematography is stunning, with seven 35mm cameras tilted incessantly at a full stage and a 5,000-person crowd planted offscreen, hollering, singing along and still digesting the turkey dinner included with the price of admission.

Though the concert took place in California, it was so inescapably Canadian. (The Band formed in Toronto; most of the show’s musical guests hailed from various parts of the country; even Englishman Eric Clapton is half-Quebecois.) On top of that, The Last Waltz is a near-fictional portrayal of The Band. Scorsese’s version of them is one of unity and unparalleled legacy, framing the quintet as pillars of the genre, worthy of some great bon voyage rock documentary. Most of that is true. The Band live in the upper echelons of backing-band royalty, along with The E Street Band, Crazy Horse, The Heartbreakers and The Revolution. While it’s romantic to imagine that The Last Waltz was an organic finale, the concert itself was a product of Robertson’s wanting to retire from touring and, after the release of one more record (Islands in 1977), the group’s breakup has long been considered something that he forced onto his ex-bandmates. But whatever breakage was afoot among the group remains outmeasured by the bonds they had with other musicians.

I feel no kinship towards Thanksgiving now, because most of my loved ones are dead. I was raised in an already-small extended family, as the only child of two blue-collar parents in the rural, Midwestern town of post-industrial Southington, Ohio. The holiday was once joyous. It was the only time of the year where everyone—parents, aunt, uncle, cousin and grandparents—would come together under the same roof for a night. This was even true when we had to eat our meal at a buffet the night before because I had knee surgery the next morning. But mostly, we’d celebrate at my mom’s mom’s house—a yellow two-story colonial on a road with flooding problems—and follow the traditional procedures: arriving early to help prep the turkey and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, getting excited about Santa’s yearly arrival at the end, napping before and after the meal, eating pumpkin roll for dessert amid rounds of Scattergories I never won. I got excited when my cousin showed up, even if he did throw darts at my legs or hit me with chairs.

As time passed, more seats went empty and we didn’t stay as late. My uncle and cousin quit coming around because they preferred going south to West Virginia to hunt deer. After Dad lost his job, he started drinking earlier and rushing the clean-up. When my grandma’s bout with dementia became too detrimental, we quit celebrating at her house. And when she passed away the week before Thanksgiving 2016, we quit celebrating entirely. Now, my folks don’t bother cooking dinner on Thanksgiving. I spend the holiday at my girlfriend’s parents’ house in a town two hours away, surrounded by people who’ve celebrated so many years of eating the same kind of food and sharing the same kind of love together. There are babies around—new, curious hearts ready to lap the world’s future up—and I am unable to look anywhere but backwards.

It’s difficult to wedge yourself into the teeth of another family’s tradition, especially when you’re still seeking closure from the disintegration of your own. Maybe that’s why The Last Waltz is such a touchstone for me. The most enduring part of the show is its generosity. Yes, The Band came onstage and played the classics—“The Weight,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Up On Cripple Creek”—but over half of the concert’s runtime was spent delivering renditions of other musicians’ songs. Bob Dylan crooned a hypnotizing “Forever Young”; a drug-bloated Van Morrison sang “Caravan”; Dr. John tapped into some kind of electric God on “Such a Night.” Despite Scorsese’s Hollywood treatment, The Last Waltz is a document of friendship—most evident in Neil Young’s duet with Joni Mitchell during “Helpless.”

Young and Mitchell were both purveyors of folk music in ways dichotomous from their U.S. counterparts. The genre heavyweights on the other side of the Great Lakes leaned farther into politics than nostalgia. So when Young appears onstage in his signature Army green fringe jacket and a harmonica holder wrapped around the collar, he was coming off the moderate success of Long May You Run, a collaboration with Stephen Stills that peaked at #26 on the Billboard 200. He hadn’t done anything remarkable solo since Tonight’s the Night in ‘75, and his next major release, American Stars ‘n Bars, was still a year away. After the deaths of his bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry three years prior, Young toured relentlessly, polishing his stage persona into one that demanded the spotlight, light years away from when he played fourth fiddle in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. That, combined with The Band’s everlasting ability to complement whomever artists they were paired with, made their crossover inevitable, especially in retrospect.

Something that sticks with me about the performance is Young tuning up his harmonica, letting go a quick, nearly unrecognizable pull of wind that sounds like an amalgamation of the “Helpless” melody, and saying, “They’ve got it now, Robbie,” to Robertson after a round of cheers from the crowd. The look on both of their faces, of friendship, familiarity and ecstacy, is almost as endearing as Young introducing himself with, “I’d just like to say, before I start, that it’s one of the pleasures of my life to be able to be on this stage with these people tonight,” before ripping into “Helpless.” This version, in which 4K viewing offers a look at the coke rock twinkling at the bottom of Young’s nostril, despite Scorsese’s best attempts to remove it, is the best one—it reminds me of what my hometown once was: a place worth returning to and embracing the safety of, a landscape within the “And in my mind, I still need a place to go / All my changes were there” lyric of the first verse. At some point, I found myself longing for the presence of my aunt, uncle and cousin, despite always feeling uncomfortable around their rumblings of bankruptcy, lingering cigarette odors and the fear of my cousin taking a baseball bat to the back of my neck.

Depending on who you ask, Young and Mitchell were either in the primes of their careers, or far removed from them. Though projects like Harvest and Blue were far in their respective pasts, Young’s voice—much like Dylan’s at the time—was the strongest it would ever be, and Mitchell had just released the joyous and experimental Hejira. “Helpless” was conceived a decade prior, as an ode to Young’s childhood home of Omemee, a town in Northern Ontario, his bout with polio as a kid, his parents’ divorce a decade later and the shared custody that came with it. After Young wrote it, and “Sugar Mountain,” Mitchell released her own song of Canadian pride, “The Circle Game,” which served as more of a balancing act—a beacon of hope to counteract her friend’s introspective, and sometimes unshakeable, grief.

At the 2:09 mark in the Last Waltz rendition of the song, backing vocals arise from a mysterious place, gifting the crowd with a sound perfectly pulled from the throat of some great beyond. Everyone in the audience has no idea who’s singing or where they’re singing from, but Scorsese’s cameras show Mitchell harmonizing with Young from behind a velvet curtain just offstage. Mitchell’s appearance was originally conceived as an artifice of surprise, because Robertson and company wanted her presence to have as big of an impact as possible. She’s even omitted from the song’s lineup on the tracklist, only credited on her own feature (“Coyote”).

Given how The Last Waltz is as much a religious experience as it is an alchemical assemblage, Mitchell’s kaleidoscopic and angelic statement of refrain solidified her arrival on the song as destiny. And the way her voice emerged louder than Young’s and The Band’s turned the song into a refuge. When the collage of faces in the crowd fall into the climax of the song with Young as he sings, “The chains are locked and tied across the door,” in a sharp, bolting vocal run, it’s hard to imagine “Helpless” making a more indelible impression than it must have on the 5,000 people standing in that room.

When I first discovered The Last Waltz on Netflix sometime in my teens, I had to listen to it with the sound real low, because my bedroom was across the hall from my parents’ and I didn’t want to wake them. All I had was the fluidity of everyone’s expressions. When Young looked over at Robertson, I convinced myself I understood what feeling he was chasing. And I started believing my desire to have a family come together again was more about me chasing that same feeling, one of being alive and being surrounded by familiarity. The memory of sitting across a table from someone who both hurt me and claimed to love me is also one that includes my parents employed and aglow with their love for each other, all of us sitting above tables brimming with home-cooked dishes and speaking grace into the sweet-smelling air.

The Last Waltz was as much an act of nostalgia for The Band as Thanksgiving is now for me—a group performing with some of the folks responsible for sparking their collective stardom; me granting clemency to my own family trauma for an evening. I’ve found that the holiday is now much more an act of memory than it is a celebration of food and dialogue. “Helpless” is a ballad answering for both—a document preserving a town and what goodness is left of it—and The Last Waltz is a night of joy, like a bandaid over an erupting wound. And while Robertson’s scummy retirement motivations aren’t in the concert album’s liner notes, neither is how dementia rendered my grandma unable to use an oven. Every year of college, I went home at the end of November and the first cover of snow moved to another month away. A family member’s birthday would come and I’d conveniently forget to message them, as if we were now old friends slipping past one another down a Dollar General aisle in silence, like we’d never met.

I long for a place full of so much life, it can distract me from remembering the endings I can’t run away from. I think The Last Waltz, despite all of its Hollywood romancing of the ending of a Canadian-American rock band, provides the idea of hope and forgiveness—how all of the discourse over turkey can be an act, and tomorrow everything can fall back to shit, but at least there’s today, and the few hours of quiet and memory that come with it.

When I saw the deaths of my grandparents and my folks’ brief separation happen all in a span of 15 months, I’d placed an immeasurable grudge on Southington, which I was convinced had unfairly broken me. I grew upset with what was left of the town after their deaths, rather than reckoning with the fallibility of change and the way it can transition into a healthy nostalgia. So as I return to The Last Waltz again this year, it’s not just to see the end of “Helpless,” when Young saunters toward Robertson and Danko, and they deliver the final chorus as if nothing they’d ever sing again could be so full of light. It’s because today, the parade floats inch down Herald Square with Saint Nick in tow; there’s a dinner table somewhere with every seat occupied by someone I love; Joni is singing and reaching towards us from behind a long, velvet curtain. Their arrivals will still surprise me, even when I was expecting them all along.

Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.

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