My Winterland

Originally built in 1928, the Winterland was first and foremost an ice skating rink. In the 1940s, the rink began showcasing professional ice skaters, and eventually held jazz concerts to entertain the good people of San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District. This continued until 1966, when famed impresario Bill Graham took over the venue and transformed it into an arena. He began frequently using the Winterland as an alternative to his Fillmore Theater, which stood less than two blocks away. 

By the 1970s, the Winterland stepped out of the shadow of the Fillmore, welcoming some of the biggest names in rock n roll to its stage. The Rolling Stones, The Band, Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ELO, David Bowie, Tom Petty. It is said that Led Zeppelin first played “Whole Lotta Love” at the Winterland. The Grateful Dead considered the Winterland their primary stomping grounds. Some of the best live concert albums ever recorded – The Last Waltz, Frampton Comes Alive – took place where an apartment complex with an unfortunate color scheme now stands. Although Bob Weir described the venue as “an acoustical snakepit,” it was considered a “cathedral” as much as St. Dominic’s off in the distance was.

But sadly, the strength of the music did not bolster the hallowed halls; instead, it nearly tore the palace to shreds, with the building near collapse in the late 1970s. Decomposing and beyond repair, the Winterland welcomed The Grateful Dead for a farewell show in 1979, which ran relentlessly for over eight hours. 

The Band, a Canadian-American rag tag group who played as the backing band for Bob Dylan, had their official live debut at the Winterland in 1969 following the success of their first album Music from the Big Pink. As is par for the course with rock stars, The Band’s members contended with addiction and drug abuse as they rose to popular and critical acclaim, eventually leading the group to decide to retire from live performances. They had their final curtain call at the Winterland on Thanksgiving Day 1976, dubbed The Last Waltz. The event, which hosted over 5,000 guests, featured some of the greatest musicians of the generation, including Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, just to name a few – this, all complete with a Thanksgiving feast for attendees. The landmark event was thankfully recorded and adapted into the blueprint for future concert documentaries, The Last Waltz by Martin Scorcese, released in 1978. 

And over 35 years after the Winterland’s demolition, over 40 years since The Band’s farewell, the two have captivated me.  

Objectively speaking, it’s hard to pin down what specifically piques my interest in The Band itself. On a personal, The Band’s music encapsulated visceral moments of experiencing or longing for connection during times when I most needed it. But the music, deeply human, is just good, though there is hardly a simple explanation as to why, besides its rawness. 

The Band captured the simplicity and purity of a romanticized country life – tapping into some deeply ancestral American storytelling – while also tying together various genres and traditions in a complicated sailor’s knot. While I know The Band certainly put in their 10,000 hours (and then some), their talent just seems so effortless and humble, like the unknown star of a church choir or the father with a voice of an angel. One can easily imagine Levon Helm sitting with a washboard on a wraparound porch in Arkansas in the 1800s, bellowing as passionately as he did for “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” in The Last Waltz. 

The Band’s performances aren’t perfect in the technical sense, full of quirks and vocal cracks, but what they lack in polish they make up for in passion. Rick Danko’s voice, for example, is hardly good in the obvious sense – one can imagine him receiving unanimous “No’s” from Paula, Randy, and Simon. But Danko and the rest of The Band are much more interesting than a mere ticket to Hollywood. The tinny robustness of Danko’s voice, fueled by palpable emotion, is what makes it worthwhile; just give “It Makes No Difference” a listen and try to tell me otherwise.

You can’t compare The Band to the musicians of today, the Ariana Grandes and Taylor Swifts and Dual Lipas and Harry Styles (most of whom I love, by the way), because the experience of “Ophelia” or “4% Pantomime” are so much more visceral, with greater emotional depth and fortitude than a “Levitating” or “7 Rings.” The same goes for their music’s subject material – detailed and rolling accounts of labor union movements, Acadian immigration, and the Civil War, all absent of catchy “Ooh baby’s” and “Yeah yeah yeahs.”

In every sense, The Band is representative of humanity’s paradoxical perfect imperfection, parallel to what I imagine the Winterland to have provided. The Winterland, bookending The Band’s career in a sense, was a “dump, but what a dump!” It was by no means perfect – in fact, quite the opposite – yet captured the hearts of the musicians who played there and the fans who flocked in droves on days like Thanksgiving Day 1976, collectively basking in the glow of legitimate art, storytelling, and human nature. 

I was first introduced to The Band in a roundabout way by my father, who at times would blast “The Weight” throughout the house on our stereo system. However, I didn’t fully delve into their complete discography until late 2019, at the height of my first relationship (hello, if you happen to be reading this). I found that their discography, folksy and historically drenched as it was, fit seamlessly into the musical repertoire I had already compiled, almost as if it were bespoke.

The day I learned of my proximity to the Winterland’s remains, my evening walk promptly transformed into a pilgrimage as if to pay respects to what it had given me – a companion to both the joy and sorrow I’d witnessed while listening to The Band. Formative memories narrated by The Band, reminding me of ~a boy~ (so I’m sentimental, sue me) simultaneously comforted and accosted me — our first trip together, the early days of the pandemic, driving up the 405 to go to the beach, and even post-breakup when I would return to the beach with friends and had to pretend like I didn’t just want to walk endlessly into the ocean and disappear forever. 

I was still drowning in that thick season of melancholy, dreary and biting and cold as San Francisco winters. I felt alone in my misery, convinced that no one could possibly understand my current state of mind, or that no one (save perhaps one particular person) truly understood me. How could anyone understand me, if they did not know, did not appreciate my experiences, represented by the fact that they did not know who The Band was or had never heard of The Last Waltz or had never realized that ugly apartment building on Post Street used to host some of the world’s greatest musicians? Candidly, I felt utterly alone, as if I were speaking Cantonese while in the middle rural Pennsylvania, no one with whom to share a mutual understanding, a mutual excitement. Like an insufferable hipster, I’d wished I’d been born in 1948 instead of 1998, for in that hypothetical I could at least have a higher probability of obtaining the knowing glances I’d craved. Instead, in the face of blank stares and awkward pauses in conversation, I feared that if my peers could not validate the significance of those things, then the humanity and depth of my memories connected to those things could not be be actualized or be anything more than a figment of my imagination.

When I first sat down to write this, I initially wanted to explore how something could mean so much to one person, and nothing to the next. But the answer is a bit obvious, isn’t it? One has an impactful life experience, witnesses genuine connection or growth or a milestone with that thing in the background. For me, it was this particular music at this particular points in my life. And because it seemed unique, felt customized to my life experience, the significance I’ve placed on it only deepened. Perhaps in sharing all of this, I’m simply evangelizing in an attempt to metastasize that significance, scrambling to revive what was lost, to resuscitate the feeling of connection I once had as represented by the very group that played at the very arena that I can see from my very bay windows.

Perhaps a new approach is in order. Perhaps instead of agonizing over the fact that my friends, old or new, think I’m talking about Robbie Rotten from LazyTown when I talk about Robbie Robertson, I can appreciate the places where we do in fact connect – being young in a new city, the enjoyment of silly television, a childlike nostalgia for One Direction and the Jonas Brothers. Maybe The Band and Winterland can be little parts of myself, little blue gems I keep in my back pocket, details of my own Jungian narrative, representative of the experiences that have made me who I am at this very moment: a gal feeling positively wired from a single cup of coffee, wearing my favorite shoes, and finally putting the pencil down on this god-forsaken essay in a Capitola cafe as I sway to “Acadian Driftwood.”

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