What It Takes

What It Takes

Grace Under Pressure

By Shawn Coyne | Published: September 4, 2015

Why can some surgeons, poker players, mountaineers, fashion designers, athletes and even writers tune out the external noise—and the even more distracting internal chatter—and perform seemingly effortlessly under extraordinary pressure?

Eric Clapton playing in The Last Waltz

Eric Clapton playing in The Last Waltz

While others with comparable training and technique, while capable and competent, just can’t approach the holy moly level of a transcendent master?

Here’s an example of one such performance I watched with awe and joy almost forty years ago (and still do today)…

By Thanksgiving November 25, 1976, Farther Up the Road, then a twenty-year-old, mid-tempo, twelve-bar, Texas blues shuffle originally recorded on Memphis’s Duke records by Robert Calvin Brooks (aka Bobby “Blue” Bland) was a Rock & Roll standard.

Written by Joe Medwick Veasey and Don Robey, it was, and still is, one of those old reliables—a crowd pleaser that any bar band looking to fill out a set can learn quickly. The song’s genre structure is titanium solid, which makes it difficult for a musician to get “lost.” And even if a player does get lost, it’s not too hard for him to get back in the groove. It has the kind of form that opens up a lot of room to play around in too, to improvise—not dissimilar to some of fiction or nonfiction’s traditional writing genres. Like a “meet cute” love story or an extended obituary.

At around 9:00 p.m. that night at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, after a select group of 5,000 or so invited guests were full of turkey and Asti Spumante and after they’d exhaled enough odiferous smoke to fill the rafters of the historical 1928 ballroom/ice skating rink, the impresario Bill Graham had the dancefloor chandeliers outed.

A familiar voice came over the blackness. It was the voice of the heart and soul of The Band…Levon Helm.

“Good evening.”

Still cameras clicked and flashed, momentarily revealing the baroque stage and the five players upon it. And then an opening drum lick…boom, boom, boom…chit-chit, the opening to the Louisiana gumbo rooted classic “Up on Cripple Creek.”

Cinematographer Michael Chapman and his camera crew filmed drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko, organ/keyboards/saxophonist Garth Hudson and lead guitarist Robbie Robertson from the stage…on the fly…a technique that gives the viewer a feel for what the reality of being a Rock & Roll star is all about. Not just in 1976, but for all time.

All of the exhilaration, but more importantly the absolute terror of facing an audience with huge expectations…

The concert footage would become part of Director Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, his groundbreaking documentary about the end of the road for a group of guys burned out living their dreams.

The movie begins with the story’s controlling idea.

We hear an off screen Scorsese setting up a manufactured bit with Rick Danko at a pool table (a shot that Scorsese would play with again a decade later in The Color of Money). This is a daring choice not to hide the artifice of constructing the documentary’s Story. How the director cues the seeming off-handed commentary etc. pulled down the traditional documentary curtain.

I think the choice lends ever more veritas and gravitas to the work. It’s as if Scorsese is saying “we’ll show you the bullshit behind the Story so that you’ll understand the truth of the music…which you just can’t bullshit on stage.”

Back to the controlling idea.

We hear Scorsese ask Danko, “Okay Rick, what’s the game?”

Danko: “Cut throat.”

Scorsese: “What’s the object of it?”

Danko: “Object is to keep your balls on the table, and knock everybody else’s off.”

And then we get the foreshadowing of the encore from the actual show (“Don’t do it”) which rolls into the opening credits which then sets up an interview with the movie’s central ego Robbie Robertson explaining what we’re about to see…

As inciting incident sequences go…you can’t really do much better than that.

The Last Waltz is so perfect that it was only a matter of time before it was parodied. Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This is Spinal Tap was the hilarious result. Reiner takes the Scorsese on-screen role in Spinal Tap as “Marty Di Bergi” intent on tracking the meaning of the careers of David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls, and Nigel Tufnel. It’s the yin to The Last Waltz yang, played perfectly straight.

The middle build of Scorsese’s movie is to reveal just how accomplished The Band was as a musical force. To do that, a who’s who list of superstar performers come on stage from a wide variety of genres—Joni Mitchell to Dr. John to The Staples Singers. They’re all backed by the stellar quintet.

Which brings me to the moment when the transcendent master arrives.

It’s just after Muddy Waters performance, about one hour fifteen minutes into the film, which runs about two hours long total.

If I were storygridding The Last Waltz, I’d identify this moment as the ending climax of the middle build. The ending payoff is the arrival of Bob Dylan, which didn’t come close for me to the level of energy and excitement from this moment. But The Band backed Dylan when he went electric, so it makes sense to make him the big closer…even if his performance is somewhat disappointing. Which is probably what he was going for anyway.

Just as Muddy Waters walks off the stage to well-deserved thunderous applause, Robbie Robertson asks a rhetorical question and soon thereafter answers it.

Play guitar? Eric Clapton?

Eric Clapton is 31 in 1976.

He’d been called God a decade earlier and he’s been in some of the biggest super groups of the 60s and 70s. But when he comes on screen in The Last Waltz, he just seems kind of “over it.”

He’s said in the press and in interviews prior to the concert that he credits The Band with giving him a finer appreciation of songwriting and craftsmanship (Layla was one such response to Music from Big Pink), so his appearance on stage makes sense. But his body language suggests he’s not all that into being “on” tonight and he’d just as soon get it over with.

There’s a brief discussion that we the viewers can’t hear that goes on between Clapton and Robertson, which is probably just confirming their trade off of bits they’ll do for the song they’ve chosen beforehand, Farther on Up the Road. Again, Scorsese and Michael Chapman give us a completely unique view of the action…from behind Levon Helms’ drum kit so we see and can almost “feel” the want and need washing over the players from the audience.

DON’T DISAPPOINT US! MAKE THIS ONE OF THE GREATEST NIGHTS OF OUR LIVES!

Clapton kicks off the song with an impeccable intro, but as is his custom, after a visual check or two with Robertson, he proceeds to go into himself, closing and opening his eyes while watching his fingers fret. He’s have a dialogue with himself, one it seems he’s had numerous times before.

And then something absolutely wonderful happens.

Just as he’s finishing up the intro and about to go into the first line of the song, thirty eight seconds in, Clapton’s guitar strap breaks. For some reason before he went on stage, he put it on with a loop, kind of willy-nilly. So with the last slight pull downward from the neck of the guitar emphasizing the final note before he has to start singing, the strap gives and his guitar starts to fall.

With more irritation than panic, Clapton just shouts out “Rob!”

Robertson sees what’s happened as has every other member of the band…remarkably. There is a microsecond of a hitch and then…back to the beginning of the twelve bars with Robertson playing lead guitar as Clapton fixes his strap.

Robertson takes the level up a notch. He plays with a much more of a pressing quality, and for lack of a better description a “blangie” kind of reverb…sort of a traditional rock guitarist sound.

Clapton comes back and settles into his natural groove…just a clean, effortless sort of cool. He doesn’t seem to have to grind out anything. Slow hand, just another of his nicknames, knows what to keep out and what to slide into every single lick.

We can intuit all of this stuff because Chapman is filming Robertson as he watches Clapton play. His look seems to contain a mixture of awe and what could be interpreted as anger.

Next we get Clapton’s super cool voice singing the first two verses while a whole slew of roadies watch him from back stage:

Farther on up the road,

Someone’s gonna hurt you like you hurt me

Farther on up the road,

Someone’s gonna hurt you like you hurt me

Farther on up the road,

Baby, just you wait and see

 

You’re gonna reap just what you sow

That old saying is true

You’re gonna reap just what you sow

That old saying is true

Just like you mistreat someone, someone’s gonna mistreat you.

 

And then Clapton gives us what we expect to hear from him. A blistering solo that is as impeccable a demonstration of control as it is virtuosity. Speed that feels like molasses…purity of intention and sound.

But what’s this?

Just as Clapton finishes, Robertson runs up to take the lead. He seems to have even played a little over ECs final notes… It’s as if Robertson isn’t going to just sit back and watch Mr. Perfect eat off of his plate. He’s going to show the crowd that he’s not some slouch. He’s a lead guitarist too.

The camera shot includes Rick Danko banging out his baseline behind Robertson as he floors it down the neck of his guitar, pulling out every wild rockabilly run he’s ever played or heard in his life, but doing it with a speed that is surely unsustainable. Danko perks up with a bit of a smirk knowing that there is no way the Robertson will be able to maintain his pace.

Then the camera cuts to EC’s reaction. Which is pure joy!

He’s in the moment now, having actual fun, and he’s loving Robertson’s balls to the wall throw down. Robertson is killing it and Clapton is smiling for the first time since he’s walked on stage.

Cut to Levon Helm who has leaned into his kit with the excitement of a surfer riding a wave into a perfectly forming tube.

Back to the two shot of Robertson and Danko, who isn’t smirking anymore. He’s rooting on his bandmate to bring the solo home. And he does.

Robertson somehow pulls it off and the crowd seems stunned…like what’s going on?  I thought Clapton was going to rock us?

Clapton then steps into the mike to pick up the vocal.

Farther on up the road,

Someone’s gonna hurt you like you hurt me

Farther on up the road,

Someone’s gonna hurt you like you hurt me

Farther on up the road,

Baby, just you wait and see

 

You’ve been laughing pretty baby,

Someday you’re gonna be crying,

You’ve been laughing pretty baby,

Someday you’re gonna be crying,

Farther on up the road,

You’ll find out I wasn’t lying.

 

And then the time arrives for Clapton to respond.

He channels the mysterious force.  It’s the force that can only be unleashed by the very few.  Only those capable of monstrous dedication to craft who also have the courage to forget about the craft under the greatest possible pressure will pull it off.

The speed with which Clapton hits his notes is impossible to convey. But it’s the incredible sense of control and specificity of sound that is truly remarkable. He’s playing several times faster than Robertson, but at no point does it seem as if he is “pushing it.” No one’s worried, he’s not going to go fumble.

When he’s finished the last note and the applause waves over the stage—Danko, Robertson and Helm look like they’ve been on a spaceship that’s gone to Mars and back—Clapton seems as stunned as the rest.

The guy who seemed to reluctantly agree to play just as a favor for some friends doesn’t want to leave the stage.

To get to that place is where we really all want to go.

Posted in What It Takes

18 Responses to “Grace Under Pressure”

  1. Mary Doyle
    September 4, 2015 at 5:37 am

    “To get to that place is where we really all want to go.” Amen Shawn! Thanks for the time travel back to 1976 and right onto that stage – gotta watch that again!

  2. Patrick Maher
    September 4, 2015 at 6:21 am

    Damn, this is good writing. I was there, I felt every emotion. At the end, I was exhausted and full of joy at the same time.
    How did you do that?

    • Patrick Maher
      September 4, 2015 at 9:23 pm

      Walt Whitman. Of course. Very impressive. What a joy – my eyeballs are all gooey!

  3. Greg Payette
    September 4, 2015 at 6:35 am

    Loved reading that. Wow.

    Guess I know what we’re watching on Netflix tonight.

  4. September 4, 2015 at 6:43 am

    They absolutely love The Last Waltz. It is my go to movie with my soul needs a little for Philly. While I am more of the spinal tap generation it only allows me to appreciate The Last Waltz even more. I agree with Patrick’s comment, I felt more like I was in the moment reading this article than I ever have watching the movie – to call that “no small feat” is an absolute understatement. You brought us one more step removed from the documentary crew giving it an even more visceral feel! Fantastic job! Thank you for such an inspirational Friday read. Now I have to watch TLW again. So much for getting any work done this morning. :)

  5. September 4, 2015 at 6:48 am

    I apologize for posting twice – auto-correct, iPhone and no coffee is no way to type a comment this early in the morning.

    I absolutely love The Last Waltz. It is my go to movie with my soul needs a little for Philly. While I am more of the spinal tap generation it only allows me to appreciate The Last Waltz even more. I agree with Patrick’s comment, I felt more like I was in the moment reading this article than I ever have watching the movie – to call that “no small feat” is an absolute understatement. You brought us one more step removed from the documentary crew giving it an even more visceral feel!

    Fantastic job! Thank you for such an inspirational Friday read. Now I have to go and watch TLW again. So much for getting any work done this morning. :)

  6. Katie
    September 4, 2015 at 7:20 am
    • September 4, 2015 at 8:46 am

      Thanks for posting the link, Katie.

      Shawn,

      This was awesome. Thanks for sharing that with us.

    • September 4, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      Great find, Katie! I loved that clip!

  7. September 4, 2015 at 8:05 am

    This brought tears to my eyes, Shawn.

  8. September 4, 2015 at 8:06 am

    Double damn! I’ve got tears in my eyes. You guys are crushing it.

  9. September 4, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Shawn,
    What struck me so deeply is your understanding of some others art. I could not have described what was going on (watched the video that Katie posted) in 100 years.

    Maybe it is that I do not yet fully understand what it is going to take for my own enterprise/transcendent experience to fully grasp what I saw. I reread the post, and am still shaking my head.

    Among Black Irish Books many talents, recognizing Professionals, what is going on inside of them, the effort it has taken, is something wonderful.
    Thank you.
    bsn

  10. September 4, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    I know what I’m watching tonight! Towards the end of reading this, I noticed I was leaning way forward in my chair with my mouth hanging open. That’s some great writing. Thanks!

  11. Beth
    September 4, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    Ditto on the tears and “being” there. Must watch that.

    More than that, how is it possible that every damn thing you write is EXACTLY what I need for that moment? You and Steven. Synchronicity, Serendipity, and Sheer Grace.

    I am digging as deeply as I know how to finish, although most days it feels like finishing is more of a fantasy than my novel is. You keep giving me CPR at key stoppages.

    Thank you is not enough, but until I have more to offer, it stands alone.

  12. Sonja
    September 4, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Wow! Just wow! Gotta watch it now. The flow, the zone….you’re right, the masters of the craft, with hours in, can pull off that kind of stunt. Here’s to us battling resistance to get there in our lives. Thank you!

  13. September 4, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Shawn, what a brilliant bit of writing. You had me on the edge of my seat, monitor, keyboard… whatever! Bravo!

  14. Barbara Allie
    September 5, 2015 at 7:09 am

    I have no words to describe such perfection! Thanks for posting.

  15. September 8, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Ive seen Clapton 3 times. He is the epitome of professional. There is no effort, no attempt to be anything other than who he is. He was born into it. By 1976 he was well into his attempt to destroy his gift but the gift wouldn’t die. Today Clapton continues to take the stage with little effort. While others rely on the gimmicks the man comes out and blows you away with what God gave him – his talent. Not a shred of arrogance – just a humble man picking up his tools and going about his business.