The Original Last Waltz

It was certainly an honor to be in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which was historical both for music and film. A couple of times a year it runs on PBS or a movie channel and my friends and folks at my gigs say, “I saw you on TV!” Then, they tell me that I looked… happy, nervous, angry, calm – however they would have felt. I wrote this story for Blues Revue magazine in 2002. Since I always get asked “What was it like to be in…?”, here’s the long answer. The short answer is: “There were so many rock stars around, it was like walking through a living Rolling Stone magazine.”

 by Bob Margolin

The more blues-driven musicians commandeered the instruments at the jam, and played some old favorite songs together, mostly Robert Johnson’s. This sounds like a common scene at open-mic jams at blues clubs, where more experienced blues players sometimes conspire to sit in together. It happened at about 7 am, the morning after The Band’s Last Waltz concert on Thanksgiving, 1976. The Band had hired the entire Miyako Hotel in San Francisco to accommodate their guests. The banquet room which had been used for rehearsal before the show was now the party room, and musicians had been jamming in random combinations since after the concert, many hours before. But unlike your local blues jam, every blues player that morning was a Rock Star.

Except me. I was there with Muddy Waters. who was invited to perform two songs at The Last Waltz. Muddy had recorded his Grammy-winning “Woodstock Album” the year before with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson from The Band, but The Band itself was an unknown quantity to him. He brought Pinetop Perkins and me from his own band to accompany him along with The Band and Paul Butterfield on harp, so that he would have something familiar to play with. Muddy also felt I was good at explaining what he wanted onstage to musicians he hadn’t worked with, though 25 years later, I still find myself wishing I knew more about what Muddy wanted.

Muddy, Pinetop, and I checked into the hotel the day before the show and went to the restaurant. I saw a few familiar faces from the Rock World, and some came over to say hello and pay respects to Muddy. I remember this surreal encounter:

Kinky Friedman approached our table. I knew that he was a Texas Jewboy (his band’s name) musical comedian. The Kinkster sported Texas attire complemented by a white satin smoking jacket accented with blue Jewish stars, an Israeli flag motif. Embroidered along the hem were scenes of the crucifixion. Mr. Friedman exercises his ethnicity in provocative ways, in fashion, in his music, and in his recent mystery novels (recommended!). He was a Kosher cowboy mensch as he introduced himself to Muddy, assuring him that “people of the Jewish persuasion appreciate the Blues too.” Muddy, used to folks stranger than Kinky saying weird shit to him, just smiled and thanked him. Didn’t bat an eye.

That night, Pinetop, Muddy, and I were scheduled to rehearse our songs for the show. I didn’t realize that some of those blues-oriented rock stars must have been in the room to watch Muddy.

The next night, at the concert, Muddy, Pinetop, and I waited backstage to perform. Pinetop told me he heard one of The Beatles was there, not realizing that Ringo was sitting right next to him. Born in 1913, Pinetop knew as much about The Beatles as I know about The Backstreet Boys. Joni Mitchell, looking impossibly beautiful, introduced herself to Muddy. He didn’t know who she was, and just saw her as a young pretty woman, his favorite dish. He flirted but she didn’t respond.

I’m told that there was a backstage cocaine room, with a glass table and a “sniff-sniff” tape playing, but I never saw it. I did, however, see through Rolling Stone Ron Wood’s nearly-transparent prominent proboscis in profile. In the “green room,” Neil Young passed me a joint, smiling, “We’re all old hippies here.” Though I was 27, something about “old hippies” resonated with me for the future. Young was older than me by a few years and even had a couple of gray hairs then, but I remember thinking that nobody in that room was old yet except for Muddy and Pinetop. Now, I’m certainly an old hippie, though Pinetop, going strong at 88, is neither. As for Neil Young, film of his performance revealed a white rock up his nose, which was edited out frame-by-frame for the movie.

California Governor Jerry Brown popped in and invited Bob Dylan to get together with him sometime. Dylan, relaxed and outgoing until The Governor arrived, instantly turned sullen and distracted, barely nodding without looking at Brown. The uncomfortable Governor soon left, and Dylan laughed just before he was out of earshot and reverted to his friendlier mode. Something is happening here, but I don’t know what it is.

When it was our turn to play, Muddy and Pinetop sang the light, swinging “Caledonia” as they had for “The Woodstock Album.” In hindsight, I think Muddy could have presented himself more strongly with a deep slow blues like “Long Distance Call” which would feature his almighty slide guitar. But nobody could argue with his second song choice — “Mannish Boy” was always a show-stopper. It was preserved in full in The Last Waltz movie, which was released in ‘78. Harp player tip: Muddy loved the way Butterfield played on that song, setting up a warble that “holds my voice up” rather than just playing the song’s signature lick.

Fatefully, only one camera was operating during our song, zooming on Muddy, but not changing angle. Standing close to Muddy, I was in every frame. Pinetop, at the piano way off to the side, unfortunately was never seen in the film. But as Muddy hollers “I’m a MAN” and we shout “Yeah” to answer, as we always did in that song, you can hear Pinetop also yelling, “Wahoo!” — which is a line from a politically incorrect joke that Pine had heard on the road, and was fond of telling over and over in 1976.

Now, whenever The Last Waltz movie is shown on TV, a few people at my gigs tell me, “I saw you on TV!” and how I looked — happy or mad or scared or bored. I think they just project how they would feel. I was simply concentrating on playing, and particularly enjoying Muddy’s powerful shouting, Butterfield’s warbling-tension harp, Levon’s deep groove, and Robbie Robertson’s fiery guitar fills.

Eric Clapton followed us, and as he began his first solo, his guitar strap unfastened, and he nearly dropped his Stratocaster. In the movie, his lips distinctly mouth, “Fuck!” and as he refastens the strap, Robbie picks up the solo and runs away with it.

Muddy and Pinetop went right to their rooms after our set, but I went down to jam back at the hotel after the concert. This is where I realized that some of those blues-oriented rock stars had watched me rehearsing with Muddy and been impressed that I was playing Old School Chicago Blues in his road band and helping to arrange the songs for our performance. I also had a very cool blues guitar with me — my late-’50s Gibson ES-150 arch-top, which I also cradle on the cover of my latest album, “Hold Me To It.” Bob Dylan approached me and said he hoped we’d get to jam together. Then he disappeared. I did play “Hideaway” and some slow blues with Eric Clapton, whom I met that night. Dr. John sat at the piano for hours, and played along with everyone. My piano-pickin’ sister Sherry, who lived nearby and was hanging out, sat near him, eyes glued to his fonky fangers.

Around dawn, I put my old guitar back in its case, and started to leave. Bob Dylan caught me in the hall and said, “I thought we were going to jam…” I decided to stay awake a little longer. We had Dr. John on piano, Ron Wood on bass, Levon on drums, Butterfield on harp, and Clapton, Dylan, and myself playing guitars. There were no vocal microphones, and we all played softly enough to hear Dylan sing “Kind Hearted Woman” and a few other well-known blues songs. His trademark vocal eccentricities sounded outlandish in the blues, but he did make them his own. Generally, the blues we played that morning were not remarkable, but I was honored to be jamming with these fine musicians, and I realize that they belong to the same “club” as you do — deep blues lovers.

Recently, I read Levon Helm’s inside story of The Last Waltz in his autobiography, “This Wheel’s On Fire” (recommended!). I was shocked to find that because of time and budget constraints and Band politics, Muddy was nearly bumped from the show. Levon fought bitterly behind the scenes and prevailed to not only keep Muddy in but to indulge him with me and Pinetop too. We were treated as honored guests at The Last Waltz and I enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime jam afterwards, but Levon never told us about making a stand for us. He just made us welcome. Ultimately, this gracious, classy, and tough gentleman was responsible for my good time there.