Asked by Rolling Stone back in 1977 to name his ten favorite records of the last ten years, Greil Marcus wrote: “Every record on this list includes some element — a riff, a guitar line, a vocal inflection, a, shall we say, moment of truth — that is beyond the ability of the mind to conceive, or even completely absorb. These records seem like miracles to me.”
For me that moment appears in the third line of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (“They’ll stone you when you’re trying to go home)” when Bob Dylan cracks up and evokes a camaraderie that invites the listener to come along and have fun with him. It’s how close Van Morrison’s mouth is to the microphone on “Crazy Love” (I especially listen for his staccato inhalations at the beginning of each line in the final verse). Or the inflection in John Lennon’s voice at the end of “God,” first when he declares, “I don’t believe in Beatles,” then upping the ante with his simple and elegant phrasing of “The dream is over.”
There are similar moments in movies. For Harlan Ellison it’s the pure cinematic note which ends Coppola’s The Conversation. Werner Herzog never forgot the look on Klaus Kinski’s face the first time he saw him onscreen, in a Fifties war film. For Pauline Kael it was the silence shared by Jason Robards (as Howard Hughes) and Paul Le Mat (as Melvin Dummar) in their drive across the desert in Melvin and Howard.
Re-watching Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz the other day, I was reminded of — and swept away again by — a moment of truth that’s cinematic and musical. It’s not Dylan’s fiery performance — or his look, which falls somewhere in between a bearded Born to Run Bruce and Bella Abzug:
Nor is it Van Morrison’s marvelously mad leprechaun performance wherein he seemingly channels both James Joyce and the Radio City Rockettes. And it’s not Neil Young’s transcendental rendition of “Helpless” (so gorgeous that even the wad of cocaine lurking inside his left nostril, especially visible on DVD, doesn’t detract).
No, for me the defining moment of The Last Waltz occurs after the Band has purportedly played its last concert and the members have gone their separate ways. Away from the boisterousness and bravado of the rest of the group, bassist/guitarist/violinist/trombonist Rick Danko gives Scorsese a tour of Shangri-La, their recording studio, and the two men sit down alone at the mixing board.
Scorsese asks him what he’s doing now that “The Last Waltz” is over. Danko fumbles for words as he shyly looks around for his hat, which he puts it on as if to hide from not only from the director and his question but from his own new role as solo artist.
“Just making music, you know,” he says. “Trying to stay busy… It’s healthy.”
He queues up a new song he’s recorded, the lovely “Sip the Wine.” As his heartbreaking vocals commence and the camera closes in, Danko, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 56, disappears into listening to his creation. And perhaps because he feels uncertain about sharing something so new with someone sitting right in front of him (let alone that someone being Martin Scorsese, who happens to be filming the experience), or maybe it’s because he’s embarrassed by the intimacy of the song’s lyrics —
I want to lay down beside you
I want to hold your body close to mine
— but Danko nods his head, and the camera captures in slightly slow motion his face completely disappearing into darkness beneath the brim of his noirish hat.
The effect is breathtaking and, to paraphrase Marcus, ineffably honest.