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April 17, 1969 ~ The Band At Winterland ~ The First Waltz

The First Waltz

 

April 17, 1969, I get a phone call from my boss at the record store where I work, offering me a comp ticket to the first show ever of the Band taking place in a few hours at Winterland in San Francisco. The comp has come to him from his buddy the San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason but since the boss isn’t interested in Canadian music he figures I could be just the person to see the show. He’s right. I’m into Canadian stuff and I’ve been following the Band since their Hawks days behind Dylan and the bootleg album recorded in their basement while Bob was cloistering himself after his 1966 rumored fatal motorcycle accident. The Band’s album Music from Big Pink has been out since last year but they have yet to do public performances. Tonight will be their historic First Waltz and I have lucked into being there.

 

I have been a photo student at Laney College in Oakland since the beginning of the year, learning the trade and working toward perfecting my technique. I have a Nikon F camera and a couple of lenses which I’ve been putting to good use documenting free Sunday rock concerts at Berkeley’s Provo Park, spending a winter’s week in Death Valley shooting a William Lewis Manly memorial landscape portfolio and even had a semi-pro job photographing a group of veiled belly dancer students at the Academy of Habiba. For my latest ambition – photographing performers on stage – I have just bought a 135mm telephoto lens which has left me virtually penniless. When I get the phone call with the comp offer, I reach in my pocket and all I have is change, not even ten bucks to my name.

 

I grab my Nikon F and my new 135mm ƒ3.5 lens and bus the AC Transit from Berkeley, across the Bay Bridge to The City, where I spend my last nickel on two 20 exposure rolls of past date Tri-X film at Brooks Cameras and then hoof the twenty blocks from there to Winterland. Walking through the Fillmore at sunset, black men in white under shirts are blowing soulful saxophones and trumpets from back yard balconies and my pace slows as the deep blue and orange sky darkens to their musical conversations with riffs from the horn section of Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage ploughed in with licks from Stars Fell on Alabama. At Winterland the crowd outside is in good spirits and the weed hangs in a smudge cloud around the front of the practically windowless one-time ice skating palace while the buzz is about a history moment about to unfold. Some Hare Krishnas are handing out a tapioca pudding-like substance and I’m so starved I tank up on the sweet yellow mush.

 

As the crepuscular glow yields to street lamps, the now sizable throng is collectively wondering if the doors will open before they smoke through their entire stash. I go around and find the backstage entrance and watch as people pass in their ID before being let in. With my camera around my neck I hand over my Laney College Photography Department student ID card and wait anxiously for my name to be checked off the comp list. After what seems like a long time, a guy pokes his head out the door and waves me in with my Laney card in his hand.

 Inside, it’s pretty clear that things aren’t unfolding as they should and I ask what is going on but I’m shooed over to the klatch of journalists and photographers gathered stage-side. These guys, mostly guys, dressed in tatty suit and tie with Nagras and Leicas, are all older than me, standing around chain smoking and blabbing familiarly with each other. I’m thinking, wow, these are Life Magazine and Time Magazine and Rolling Stone and CBS and NBC and New York Times and the Post and the Trib and the Chron and the Brisbane Bugle and the Laney College me.

I try and look professional so I bum a cigarette but I don’t smoke, so it lip-hangs unlighted as I load a twenty exposure roll of film into my Nikon whilst inquiring about the palpable tension. It turns out that the Band has a serious situation on its hands. Somebody is sick and they probably won’t show. Damn! The Sausalito Leader says to the Castroville Castigator that maybe he won’t even wait around to find out about, “A bunch of Canadians.” But just then they start letting people in and I’m glad I have my territory staked out as this is a standing only, no seats affair.

 

The show starts late with an all-girl warm up band, Ace of Cups, which goes on and on and on and on and on. I spend my time just looking through my camera, not taking any pictures, as I’ve only got the two shorty rolls and can’t spare a single shot toward non Band pictures. Big pause. The crowd starts getting noisy. Next warm up band. Sons of Champlin. Who cares? Crowd starts getting unappreciative. I do more looking through my camera. The crowd goes nasty with too much warm up banding, ugly like veal cutlets left too long on the buffet steam table. Random loud boos break out, and rudely indistinguishable blamey shouts cut through the playing of the unfortunately booked Sons of Champlin.

 

Another pause and as the evening starts to get long in the tooth Bill Graham comes out and announces that a Band member is sick. OK, then nothing for a bit. Then comes what seems like an endless playing of the Grateful Dead record. After too much Grateful Dead I wish they would just die like they promised. I’d be grateful. The crowd thins a bit while the hard core fans dig in for what will soon be Thursday becoming Friday. But I abide. I tenaciously hold my position.

 

Finally there is some activity on stage, in the dark with the house lights down silhouettes can be seen setting up. Could this be Them? Bill Graham, looking more than stressed, emerges amongst shouts of fuck you ass hole rip off mother fucker, managing to squeeze in the Band’s impressive resumé and some simple words to the effect, “Tonight, making music history, ladies and gentlemen, the Band.” Instant mood change. The whole house goes coo-coo nuts-o-rama and I brace myself for the audience crush forward to the stage. I must be Hoover dam – I hold them back, I’m glued to my spot. As the full complement of the Band emerges it is clear Robbie Robertson is the guy not feeling a hundred percent, unless it’s hundred percent crap. He appears to be semi comatose, in a sleep walking Zen state. On stage with the performers is music photographer Jim Marshall and the Bands’s personal photographer Elliott Landy who has been photographing the Band since even back in Big Pink days, ready to record this historic moment, and a business suited doctorly hypnotist Pierre Clement, who sends out signals that keep Robbie Robertson perking.

 

Then the downbeat. The audience swoons, their tension released with cries and shouts and cheers and screams and yeahs drowning out the first notes so no one can even tell which song is being played. It’s the moment Jesus Saves the revival tent, the joy, the hallelujah, the rapture. The music  lives! The Band is born!

 

My job is on. I carefully focus, holding  my camera steady in the sea of writhing bodies. I wait for Rick Danko’s face to emerge from behind the microphones. I wait for interesting gestures and expressions. I realize I better photograph Robbie Robertson first, just in case he doesn’t make it. Garth Hudson is hidden in the dark behind his poorly placed organ and Levon Helm can barely be seen in the jungle of his drum kit. My first roll of film runs out quickly. I reload amidst the jostling. Levon Helm comes out from behind the drums and I get some good side-by-sides with Rick Danko. Robbie Robertson is zoned out, turns from the audience and checks out the blobby light show, then wanders about the stage, still playing his parts the whole time on automatic pilot. I change my position and get a better line of sight on Richard Manuel at the keyboard. Then I run out of film. Not even one picture of Garth Hudson. Even so, I’m in heaven for the next couple of songs and then, whosh, it’s all over. The set lasts maybe thirty, forty minutes.

 

Angry boos and ejecta of vile words, mixed in with a couple of standing ovation bravos, ring through Winterland’s emptying concrete caverns as grumbling unhappy customers file out into the foggy night chill. Me, I’m still in heaven. I don’t understand why people aren’t more appreciative of the fact that the Band actually came through for them and that Robbie Robertson braved the plague so that the show could go on. The Band goes on to give two more performances at Winterland on Friday and Saturday nights, both with stellar praise. Their inaugural Thursday concert goes down as legendary, yet something everyone concerned would just as soon forget. For me, this has been one of the great experiences of my young life. I see no failure in the pictures and hope they can stand, even now fifty years later, as a tribute to the carriers of these amazing musicians.

 

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Anyone interested in horse’s mouth accounts of this evening at Winterland should read This Wheel’s on Fire by Levon Helm as well as Testimony by Robbie Robertson.

 

Henri Robideau

Vancouver Canada

March 2017