The Last Waltz (The Band)

It was 1978. I was a second year physics student in Trinity College in Dublin – the first child of my entire extended family ever to progress beyond high school. I was paying my own way through university, I ate irregularly, was cold and wet most days, and my only worldly possession – other than first year text books – was a bicycle. That’s how I got to and from classes, cycling 10km each way every day through north Dublin traffic. I was almost nineteen.
One night, I heard a local radio DJ play some tracks from a newly-released album from the US. The first track was by Van “the Man” Morrison – “Tura Lura”, perhaps. We all knew him – a notoriously grumpy, stand-offish musician that, on his return trips to Ireland from the States, was often to be found lurking in Bewley’s Cafe on Baggott Street. Everyone knew you left Van alone when he was in town. He had a tongue like a half-mad tomcat. The next track was from Joni Mitchell – “Coyote”. I knew Mitchell, and loved her, but even for an ingenue nineteen-year-old the sly beauty of her lyrics and the power of the voice suggested I’d have more luck with Van Morrison if it came to romance. And then, The Band – “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down”. Who the hell was The Band? Never heard of them. Bob Dylan’s backing band apparently. Nah. Still never heard of them…but, god, that song. The sheer, unadulterated melancholy, the beauty, the story. And, of course, it wasn’t unadulterated at all – there was also a sort of defiant joy. And, how truly familiar was that to a young Irishman – all our wars are merry, and all our songs are sad. I was enraptured. The next day, I went to classes, then after that I went o Golden Records in Baggott Street, and I bought the album. It cost me an entire month’s worth of dinner. It was, by a substantial margin, THE most expensive thing I had ever purchased – including the bicycle. On the way home, it was pouring rain, the 12-inch triple album dangled from my handlebars in a protective plastic bag – it wouldn’t fit in my backpack, and the evening was gloomy and freezing cold. It was so stormy that it was hard to cycle in a straight line. A parked car suddenly pulled out in front of me without checking for half-blinded onrushing cyclists. I smacked at full speed into the rear of the car.
I regained consciousness in the middle of a city street, surrounded by solicitous strangers and a distressed car driver. I was fine, I assured everyone. Even my bike was fine. It was all good. Everyone left. I stood on the pavement alongside the road. I picked up the plastic bag from the gutter.
Record One was broken into two halves.
I was nineteen, and cold and really very poor, and I burst into tears. In the rain, no-one could see me cry. I’m sixty-one now, and not so poor. And I have the album – a new copy bought fifteen years later when I finally admitted to myself that I really should play “The Last Waltz” at least once, and that the first, damaged copy really needed to be let go. So I did…let it go.
Except, of course, I still have it – inside my head.