Why ‘The Last Waltz’ Was ‘One of the Great Moments in Rock’
The Band said goodbye to their days as a performing outfit in a big way on Thanksgiving 1976 with The Last Waltz, a mega-concert event at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Thanks to a guest list of performers including Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Van Morrison, the show would quickly achieve legendary status, preserved for posterity by Martin Scorcese and his film crew.
Jerry Pompili worked alongside Graham during the glory years, starting out as an usher at the Fillmore East and rising to Head of Security at the Fillmore. By the '90s, he was Vice President of Bill Graham Presents.
Pompili joined UCR's Allison Rapp and Matt Wardlaw recently, along with Dusty Street, one of the first female radio personalities, who was a DJ on KSAN-FM in San Francisco, to share memories of the area concert scene and working with Bill Graham. The whole conversation will be released soon on our YouTube channel.
Here's some specific recollections about The Last Waltz and the Band that Pompili shared with UCR.
How did you first meet Bill and how do you end up working with him?
I first met Bill with Tony Lech, the guy who ran the Anderson Theater. Bill had arranged a meeting with Tony and made a proposition with Tony and he was a total asshole and turned him down. Tony didn’t realize what he was offering. Bill opened up the Fillmore East three weeks later [in the Manhattan area] and Tony was literally out of business.
Tony was my friend and I stayed with him until the opening night of the Fillmore East in New York, in March of ‘68. I found out Tony had printed up a couple of thousand counterfeit tickets to the Fillmore East opening and distributed them around New York. He gave them away, trying to fuck up the show and stuff like that.
To me, that was crossing the line and I said, “That’s it. I can’t be part of this or you or whatever. I left and all of the old Anderson staff were working at the Fillmore. The tech people, John Morris, Chip Monck, Joshua [White], all of those people. All of the people from the NYU film school and stuff like that. They were all friends of mine.
I went over and I hung and I finally ended up getting a job as an usher. I was working as an usher and wasn’t there very long and they fired the house manager. They hadn’t hired anyone for a month and had a big meeting. Kip Cohen wanted to bring someone down from Broadway to be the house manager. Bill said no.
And Bill didn’t remember me from the meeting with Tony Lech. He said, “No, no, we don’t have to do that. One of the ushers has been running the place. He said, “Who?” and [Graham] said, “I don’t know, that guy!” I got promoted from being an usher, getting five dollars a show, to being house manager.
The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese looks like it could have been filmed yesterday. What are the main memories that stick with you about how the idea of doing that film came together?
When they started putting that whole thing together, the idea for the film was in the forefront of the whole thing. We had been shooting video at Winterland for several years at this point. Right from the beginning, we were trying to capture the feeling of what it was like to watch a concert after the fact. I’m the guy who put all of that together, that whole system.
Having no idea of what we were doing, we did what most people do who think they’re fuckin’ artists. We put cameras up peoples’ asses and shot from everywhere. You’d look at the tapes afterward and it was like, it didn’t come across. Finally, we did this thing where we built these two things.
We called them “boats” and they were a foot and a half off the ground. They were pointed at the front and open at the back and you put a camera in it and the operator stood behind it. They were about 20 feet in front of the stage. One 15 feet to the left and one 15 feet to the right. They shot the whole thing from the vantage point of the audience. The cameras were just over the heads of the audience.
You had the screen up above so that you almost didn’t need a director, because one operator could see what the other one was shooting just by looking at the screen, so you knew where you were going to go next. No one had to even tell you, although we did have a director. I sent some of those tapes to both Scorsese and the Band’s people for them to get a feel. I personally think that’s one of the reasons why that film works so well as a concert.
Except for me, all of the stoned talking heads don’t work for me. As time drew closer to the show, I called up to try and get my tapes back and people stopped taking my calls and I got a little pissed. And so, fuck ‘em, the night of the show, I pulled a camera out, stuck it in the booth next to the sound mixer and took a feed right off the board. That’s why it sounds so damn good. Because people weren’t overplaying the room back in those days.
I started recording and people came out from backstage and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m recording the show.” They said, “You can’t do that” and I said, “I can do whatever I want. I run this place. [Laughs] And if you don’t like it, I can throw your fuckin’ ass out." I had that ability to make people fear me, I think.
Anyway, every time someone came out, I’d just tell them to go fuck themselves and that’s it. I said, “When I get my tapes back, I’ll send you these tapes. How’s that, okay?” Finally, they left me alone and I shot the whole thing. It’s more than four hours. It’s close to five and a half, I think. It’s everything -- it’s the poets in the middle -- I shot everything.
A lot of people like it better than the movie. There’s one thing that’s really, really interesting in there. If you go back and you watch it, there’s Van Morrison doing “Caravan.” When I watch that part in Scorcese’s movie, it didn’t have the impact it had that night. Van stopped the show that night. That was it. You know, he blew the fuckin’ place away.
Listen to 'Caravan' Featuring Van Morrison
What was your favorite overall memory of The Last Waltz?
It was a great experience, between the dinner and the dancing. The whole set decoration, we took everything from the San Francisco Opera. La Traviata, I think the whole set was from that [production]. But for me, it was Van’s thing, because God, that guy could be so hot and cold depending on how he felt that particular day.
I saw him do a show at Winterland where he made them turn off all of the lights in the building. Not just the stage lighting, but the house lighting. He did the entire set in the dark. I saw him do another show at Winterland with his back turned to the audience for the entire set. You know, you’d never know with him.
When the planning of The Last Waltz was coming together, was it just one of those things that got bigger and bigger?
I wasn’t involved in putting it together. For the most part, that was all the Band putting it together. Bill took care of the ambiance, the whole setting and production of the whole thing. But the Band was involved and [Robbie] Robertson was involved in the whole musical aspect of it. I don’t think we had anything to do with any of that. I think that night was one of the great moments in rock and roll.
There are a lot of those moments. I mean, sometimes a great moment in rock and roll and a horrible moment in rock and roll happen at the same show. An example is the Sex Pistols at Winterland. I shot the video of the opening song for that, “God Save the Queen,” which I thought was fucking brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The whole delivery, the whole thing.
KSAN-FM was doing the broadcast live and there was a little trouble with the mix, with the guitar player’s mix. It didn’t come in until the second chorus, but it was perfect and it just blows you away, the whole thing. But after that first song, it just went into the shitter from there. I mean, it was like, forget about it.
What sort of experiences did you have with seeing the Band live prior to The Last Waltz?
I don't remember ever having seen them live before. Their first major public show was at Winterland in 1969 -- and I wasn't there. There's a story about that, how Robbie Robertson was so freaked out about going on stage [that] Bill had to bring in a hypnotist. But I don't think I ever saw them up until Last Waltz. But I really liked their music. I was into Music from Big Pink [and albums like that].
Had you ever seen a show on that level at Winterland? Because the lineup is pretty astounding.
Oh yeah, it was unusual. I don’t think we ever did a massive kind of show like that. You know, with so many acts on the bill, until you get to Neil Young’s Bridge School stuff and that didn’t start until 1986, because they would do eight or nine, up to 10 acts sometimes on a show.
As someone who was at The Last Waltz concert when it happened, how quickly did it achieve the legendary status that we know today?
The day that it happened. It was legendary from the moment it happened, as far as I’m concerned. The San Francisco Chronicle, I think, has some great still pictures from it. But you don’t see that in the movie. They didn’t shoot any of the dinner stuff or the people dancing and waltzing to the orchestra. That stuff was amazing. I mean, it led to the ambiance of the whole thing