Friday, April 20, 2012

The Last Waltz

My name is Virgil Kane and I served on the Danville Train…

Late-Summer 1968 – There has been quite a noise over the last few weeks in the Melody Maker; their writers have been talking about this new group from America. A few pictures have been posted – the group all seem to wear hats and beards and, according to the scribes to whom I subscribe, the music they make is unutterably glorious: a heady mix of Southern soul and Northern driftwood.

I don’t actually know what this means but, my (nearly) sixteen year old musical mind has started salivating. Nothing but nothing has been played on the radio yet my pocket-money has begun burning a hole in my flared jeans.

My Dad works in Argyll Street, just off Oxford Circus and, one morning, he finally relents to my constant pleas… Locally (this being the backwaters of Hampshire) no record shop I know of stocks this record I've been reading about so, please… please… take my money, all 32 shillings and 6 pence of it (that’s about £1.70 or so / $2.30) and bring home a copy of this album. Please.

That very evening, it arrives. It has been purchased from Harlequin – a record store in Berwick Street (now long defunct). And, the purchaser wasn’t actually my Dad at all; he’d sent his secretary out to affect said transaction. It’s a mono pressing (hell, what did I know, what did I care)… and is contained in a sleeve adorned by what looks suspiciously like a child’s painting. Only its not, it’s by Bob Dylan. There is no wording on the front cover – just this painting. And, on the back not a whole heap of information either– so far, not so terribly good. But, inside… the warmth of the black-vinyl exudes… something.

The needle drops and I’m all expectation. Can this be really as good as has been written about? Forty minutes or so later, having indulged myself in both sides of the vinyl, I’m in quite a state of shock. At this distance, its quite hard to explain in mere words just what an impression that record made. Put simply, up until that point in my life I’d never… ever… heard anything like it.

Its akin, I guess, to someone hearing (say) Miles Davis for the first time; hearing Winwood sing; seeing Hendrix or watching Bob Marley for the first time – this was music from another place. Completely.

Fast forward. It’s the end of June 1983, I’m in New York and traveling with Niall Stokes, the editor of Ireland’s most fortnightly music publication, the much-revered Hot Press. We’re out on the road with the Irish Group; these being the final US dates on this leg of The War Tour… and have tipped up in Manhattan with the venue for the evening being Pier 84 (don’t think they have shows there anymore). It holds about 3,000 people – places like Madison Square Gardens are on the tour itinerary horizon but not booked… just yet.

Late afternoon and there’s a knock on my hotel room door. Stokes’ beaming face is at the entrance.
“Shall we meet in the lobby at 6?” he inquires.
“Bit early, isn’t it?” I suggest.
“Well… yes… but… actually, there’s a bar downtown and I thought we should go there first ‘cos there’s a band playing that would be well worth seeing before the show”. The good Stokes is giving little away and I’m not entirely convinced. Nor am I really of a mindset to go see a bar-band but… to humour him… sure, why not.

At the appointed hour, we meet in the lobby and jump a cab that is propelled downtown by a driver of Eastern European extraction. It appears unlikely that this fella is possessed of a license as red lights are run at a terrifying pace but, eventually, we’re deposited relatively unscathed outside a not-terribly-enticing bar in a particularly seedy part of lower-Manhattan. This isn’t looking that promising but a beer is a beer is a beer – we push our way in and up to the bar.

As Niall does his best to lure the barman over, I start tugging at his coat. There is a band setting up in the corner… keyboards, drums have been placed in position, a bass guitar is on its rack… mic stands are in place. And, there are faces that look extremely familiar along the bar; isn’t that…? That surely can’t be…? I tug again “Niall will ya look for pity’s sake… isn’t that…?” Two pints in hand, he turns round… and says, “Thought you’d fancy this… only found out by chance…"

At that moment, the musicians started to take their places… there is a short drum roll… The first song kicks in, with the bearded drummer easing up to his mic on the off-beat and that familiar voice, straight out of Arkansas, opens with… My name is Virgil Kane and I served on the Danville Train…

There are maybe 75 people in this bar. Stokes is grinning ear to ear; me – my jaw has just dropped to the floor. If there is a musical heaven, then I’ve arrived.

Unhappily, due to our appointment at Pier 84 being at 8pm we have to leave before the end of the show (I later discover that this edition of The Band minus Robbie Roberston were due to play two sets). But, it was… in retrospect… enough. In fact, it was more – it was a true privilege to witness musical magic that close up.

Fast forwards. A few days ago, the news broke that Levon Helm was loosing his battle with throat cancer. This morning, the unwelcome news came through that he’d quietly slipped away, surrounded by friends and family.

This, therefore, is simply to echo all that is being written today across the globe: Levon – for all the music, over the years… thanks.

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