Aside from being held in high esteem as possibly the finest rock documentary (or concert, for that matter) ever made, The Last Waltz is regarded as the mid-’70s straw that broke a golden era’s back, the aftermath of which saw American music plunge into a regrettable gutter of disco, synthesizers, and guyliner. For every peak performance in the Martin Scorsese–helmed film, there’s a simultaneous valley: Neil Young’s gorgeous version of “Helpless” is punctuated by a giant cocaine granule lodged in one of his nostrils; Richard Manuel and Rick Danko propel the headlining Band forward even as their sweaty, bug-eyed selves look about ready to burst open like two substance-addled pimples; and Van Morrison’s and Ronnie Hawkins’ onstage convulsions come off as unhealthily geeked-out as they do electrifying. (All of which could have had something to do with a dedicated “powder room” backstage, alleged to have contained an all-you-can-snort buffet of blow, shamelessly replete with plastic noses plastered to the all-white walls, set to an audio loop of sniffing sounds.)
Not a single performer veered from the dazzlingly sloppy, let-it-all-hang tone of Bill Graham’s Turkey Day soiree commemorating the Band’s last stand, except for one: Neil Diamond. Trying to fake his way into the evening’s up-all-night, super-hip vibe, Diamond strode onstage wearing a pair of mirrored Elton John shades, awkwardly addressing the crowd with the line: “I’m only gonna do one song, but I’m gonna do it good.”
That song, “Dry Your Eyes,” proved to be the perfect opportunity for the assembled throng at San Francisco’s Winterland to head for the bathroom stalls. Seemingly the only person who thought Diamond crushed it was Diamond himself, who, as he left the stage, reportedly said to Bob Dylan, “You’ll have to be pretty good to follow me.” Dylan’s response: “What do I have to do, go onstage and fall asleep?”
The merits of Diamond’s performance and behavior that night are almost beside the point. The more compelling quandary is: What the fuck was Neil Diamond doing there in the first place? And why wasn’t Gordon Lightfoot invited to perform instead?
As to the former inquiry, Diamond was included at the behest of Band-leader Robbie Robertson, who produced the Diamond album Beautiful Noise and co-wrote “Dry Your Eyes.” The rest of the star-studded lineup had absolutely no clue what to make of the square peg’s presence.
Had Robertson wanted a husky-voiced, mellow-gold crooner who the likes of Dylan would have been more than down with, he needn’t have looked any further than his Canadian countryman Lightfoot, whose personal and professional intersections with the Band were manifold. Both Lightfoot and the Band were influential members of the white-hot Toronto music scene of that era, and both were super tight with Hawkins, a burly Arkansas expatriate who ingratiated himself in that same north-of-the-border circuit. Ditto Dylan, who was once quoted as saying, “Gordon Lightfoot, whenever I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”
Then there’s Cathy Smith, the sex-bomb Toronto groupie–turned–drug dealer who would secure her place in infamy by delivering comedian John Belushi his fatal speedball dose. Before then, Smith bookended a lengthy, tumultuous relationship with Lightfoot—for whom she served as tour bus driver and mistress—with stints as Band drummer Levon Helm’s girlfriend. Although she fucked up his marriage at the time, Lightfoot has Smith to thank for inspiring his lone No. 1 hit, “Sundown,” a haunting, homicidal ode to infidelity and the jealous paranoia it induces.
Turns out, Lightfoot was invited to play The Last Waltz—albeit too late, by his standards. “I was there as a spectator,” says Lightfoot, reached by phone at his home in Ontario. “I was asked to do it, but I don’t think I was prepared to do it at that time. I didn’t feel I had the confidence to do it. Robbie [Robertson] came out before the show and asked me. I wish I had, but I just wasn’t prepared.”
“Yes, it was last minute and chaotic at The Last Waltz, but under other circumstances we would have loved to have [had] Lightfoot,” recalls Robertson, confirming through a publicist that he did indeed extend a hasty invite to Lightfoot the night of the show. “He is one of my favorite Canadian songwriters and is absolutely a national treasure.”