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Back To The Land

[MOJO Magazine]

by Andy Gill

From Mojo Magazine, November 2000.
Copyright © 2000 Andy Gill, Mojo Magazine.

They helped Dylan go electric, invented a new kind of rock and then blew it all in a haze of booze, drugs and bitterness. The Band's agrarian soul unearthed by Andy Gill.

Nestling beneath the forest-clad slopes of Overlook Mountain, a couple of hours drive north of New York City, the town of Woodstock has a sort of ossified charm akin to the picture-postcard quaintness of Clint Eastwood's West Coast manor, Carmel. Driving past the cafes and shops along the Tinker Street main drag, it looks like just the place to go after some mood-altering crystals or "'erbal" tea, but there doesn't seem to be much other local industry to hold the community together. Once a lumber town, its present status was established around the turn of the century, when Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Emily Byrd founded their artists colony Byrdcliffe there; in the late '60's it became the preferred refuge for over-tired rock stars when Bob Dylan followed his manager Albert Grossman up there, settling into one of the old Birdcliffe houses along Camelot Road.

These days it survives more on former glories, the generation of musicians that once thronged its bars - whose number included Van Morrison, Peter Yarrow and Paul Butterfield as well as Dylan and The Band - mostly having either moved out or hung their hats on more celestial pegs. Levon Helm is still there, though, occupying a gigantic barn-house studio at the end of a dirt track a mile or so along a twisting lane off the main Saugerties-Woodstock road. He was the last of The Band to move to Woodstock, and at this rate he'll be the last to leave.

As I drive up, he waves over from where he stands raking grass, clad only in his Calvins. He looks shockingly frail and thin, still showing the after effects of the 28 radiation therapy treatments he underwent following a diagnosis of throat cancer in 1997. These days, he only needs treatment every six months from the "guardian angels" at Sloane­ Kettering Hospital in New York. "I worked my programme," he says, with a mixture of pride and relief. "I had to give up cigarettes and some things like that that were foolish in the first place, and boy, I feel good!" He doesn t sound that good, though   that great hickory   smoked Southern twang that animated son songs like Up On Cripple Creek, Rag Mama Rag and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down has been reduced to a hoarse rasp, prompting a sudden deep sense of loss in me as I realise that, with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko both gone, all three elements of The Band's distinctive harmonies have now been silenced. Levon, however, is just happy to be alive, whether or not he ever gets to sing Dixie again. "I'm so grateful I could fight back," he says. "That's what I'd tell anybody that gets that scary diagnosis: you can fight back."

While kicking cancer's ass like a pint sized John Wayne, he still plays a regular gig with his band The Barn Burners every Wednesday night at a local place, The Joyous Lake. He has a few other musical irons in the fire too   our conversation is interrupted later by a phone call from his old pal Dr. John, agreeing to be part of an Arkansas music festival that Levon's organising for the last weekend in October   and, when not otherwise engaged, he keeps busy tending the land around his house.

He shows me around his studio, a lofty, flag draped blue stone barn built by Ralph Schulters, the stonemason who built nearby Bearsville Studio for Albert Grossman, who managed The Band as well as Dylan. "Having stone on the ends of the barn really makes a difference to the sound," he explains. "It's not flat, it has a waffle ish kind of effect."

We move into the air conditioned kitchen, where he fixes me a Coke, "from a bottle, the way Americans like it". Levon certainly does, anyway, judging by the dozens of crates of empty Coke bottles stacked up on the back porch, awaiting collection. We settle down at the kitchen table to talk about the past, the interview occasioned by the imminent release of re mastered, outtake  expanded editions of The Band's first four albums, Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright and Cahoots   an event about which he remains sanguine, to put it mildly. "It don't mean anything to me 'cept another screwin'!" he rails bitterly. "Capitol Records haven't even sent me copies of the new records! They hate me, and I hate them, and I guess it's even. You would think that I'd be a wealthy man   I've made a lot of records, I worked for them for 12 or 15 years, I fulfilled my contract with the bastards, but as far as payin' me... even The Beatles had to sue 'em, and The Beatles were always the teacher's pets. So you can imagine what chance a poor bastard like me has got! People think that every year The Band sells, and I get my million or two, whatever it is, and that I'm out in Hollywood livin' it up off the fat of the land, and that's not it at all. The Band is one of those same old stories: the record company and one or two guys   the managers and the turncoats   are fat, and everybody else is on the poor farm."

In The Band's case, of course, the "turncoat" was guitarist and main songwriter Robbie Robertson, a former friend whom Levon now tends to refer to by surname alone. "They've got Robertson in bed with 'em, so the rest of us can suck on this!" he says contemptuously, still bitter about the way the publishing royalties were apportioned. The early Band albums, he maintains, were democratically made," ? then when you look at the credits, it looks like Robbie and Albert wrote everything. That's really what broke The Band up, and made everybody go to drugs and dope and death and nuts. Made everybody into a has been. When you're treated like that, all of a sudden your best days are behind you   that's what happened to Richard Manuel, it drove him crazy. Richard knew that his best days could be in front of him, and it drove him nuts. Publishing is the big bear in the woods that all bands have to be aware of, that will eat bands for lunch. Make sure that sonofabitch is shackled, collared, muzzled and tied, and everyone, all the band members, are sittin' right a straddle of the bastard at all times, or he will eat their band up! Destroy the band, themselves, and their music makin' abilities."

WHETHER OR NOT THE RECORD COMPANY DID, as Helm claims, get Robbie Robertson into bed with them back in the '60s, there's no doubting the close relationship he now has with the industry. He is employed by DreamWorks as a sort of "creative executive" in charge of A&R, fostering new talent and helping to co ordinate the company's film and music arms with regard to soundtracks and suchlike. His office at the company's headquarters in Beverly Hills has an air of understated, casual plush. "David Geffen gave me his office," explains Robbie, "though of course, it didn't have the guitars on the walls when he was here. There's a lot of history in those."

Robbie was always the most ambitious of The Band, the one who could glimpse a future beyond the routine of hard roads and one nighters. Despite leaving home at 15 to tour America with Ronnie Hawkins, he never lacked for smarts, augmenting his innate shrewdness with an insatiable curiosity that he satisfied through constant reading, gaining a reputation as the "intellectual" of the group.

He remains one of rock's most urbane and articulate characters, unfailingly polite and helpful, and keenly abreast of contemporary trends in film and in music. The son of a Jewish gambling man (whom he never met) and a Mohawk mother, he has the rare ability to move with ease through all strata of society, a talent which enabled him to become, in turn, Bob Dylan's right hand man and Martin Scorsese's flatmate, and which secured him the key to Geffen's executive washroom.

When The Band broke up in 1976, Robbie moved sideways into the film business, his friendship with Scorsese leading to a job organising the soundtracks for such films as Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy, The Color Of Money and Casino. His thespian ambitions were satisfied in part by a lead role opposite Jodie Foster in Carny (1980, which he also produced), and more recently by a supporting role opposite Jack Nicholson as Anjelica Houston's husband in Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard (995). For Robbie, the current reissues simply offered an opportunity to put out, for the first time, properly mastered CD versions which demonstrate conclusively the immense part played by The Band in the redefinition of American rock music. Not with standing the competing claims of The Byrds or Bob Dylan himself, it's unarguable that the current "woodchuck generation" of roots rockers, from Beck and Elliott Smith to Wilco and Lambchop, owes its very existence to the landmark works in which The Band drew together the disparate (and, in part, despised) strands of country, soul, Dixieland jazz, raw boned R&B and New Orleans funk into a new sort of rock music. Their example taught a generation at odds with its ancestors that history was to be treasured and respected as a source of enduring truths.

When The Band featured a photograph of their extended families in the inner gatefold of Music From Big Pink, it was a deliberate polemical attack on the transience and superficiality of the hippy era. "We were making a statement that we still thought the family thing was pretty important," explains Robbie, "that we didn't feel like all those people saying, 'Kill my father, stab my mother, my parents fucked me up.' Everybody fucked everybody up, and so what? We were rebelling against the rebellion: we were not going to pick a cutesy ass name, we weren't going to have a picture of us in vivid living colour. It was about the innocence of the place the music came out of. We went there and made a discovery in that ugly pink house, and that was the music we created in that place."

THE BAND'S ROOTS GO BACK TO 1957, WHEN LOCAL rockabilly legend Ronnie 'The Hawk' Hawkins pulled up at the Helm family farm near Marvell, Arkansas, and after much cajoling of Levon's parents Nell and Diamond, whisked the callow 17 year old off to be the drummer in his band, The Hawks. They became a hot attraction up in Canada   Toronto's Yonge Street was a second home. According to Levon, it was a hell of a place for music. "Toronto had more music than any town I knew of back then, kind of like what Austin's supposed to be today," he says. "One week, there was Carl Perkins' band, Cannonball Adderley's band, Joe King & The Zaniacs and us, all staying at the Warwick Hotel, where the entertainers would stay." It was in this melting pot of music that a 15 year old Robbie Robertson encountered The Hawk in 1959. Impressed by a couple of songs the kid had written, Hawkins took him on, initially as a "song adviser", eventually drafting him into the band as bassist and, ultimately, guitarist.

"Ronnie never thought of himself as this amazing musical entity," recalls Robbie. "He knew he was an entertainer, and for him the smart thing was to surround himself with great talent. I wrote these songs which he recorded, after which he regarded me as somebody with 'potential', as he called it. He hired me when I was 16 and, before a long, Levon and I became kind of the musical mind bank behind what was going on. One by one, we brought in all these guys that ultimately became The Band."

The other guys were, like Robbie, Canadians. Bassist Rick Danko was the next to join, reared on a tobacco farm in Simcoe, Ontario, he brought to the group an authentic aw shucks rural sensibility and a deep knowledge of country music, the latter gained through the family sing songs and barn dances of his youth. Richard Manuel, a teenager from Stratford, Ontario, who could sing like Ray Charles and pound piano like Jerry Lee Lewis, was lured away from his band The Rockin' Revols. Finally, around Christmas 1961, after several rejected overtures, keyboard virtuoso Garth Hudson from London, Ontario, was persuaded to join   but only if he could placate his parents by being designated the group's "music teacher" (this although he was older than the others at 24). Before long, they were the top band on the circuit. Any circuit.

"Playing with Ronnie Hawkins was like going to boot camp," recalls Robbie. "You worked really hard, really long hours, you learned the rules of the road, and you got your street education. Eventually, he built us up to the point where we outgrew his music and had to leave   he shot himself in the foot, really, bless his heart, by sharpening us into such a crackerjack band that we had to go on out into the world, because we knew what his vision was for himself, and we were all younger and more ambitious musically."

Tiring of both the Hawk's music and his fines for things like smoking pot or bringing girlfriends to the shows, the band broke away in late 1963. Augmented by singer Bruce Bruno, Levon & The Hawks, as they called themselves, played the Philadelphia New York Atlantic City rounds for a couple of grueling years. "There was a whole other mood to it," says Robbie. "We were no longer going into it with Ronnie being this character with a funny show. This time it was about the music, and we were the most bad ass band around, thank you very much!"

In the summer of 1965, Levon &The Hawks had secured a residency at a club called Tony Mart's, in the coastal resort of Somers Point, New Jersey, when they received a call from Bob Dylan asking whether they'd like to back him at the Hollywood Bowl. Dylan was looking for a live band to re create the new electric blues sound of his recent recordings, and Mary Martin, who worked in Grossman's office, pointed him in the direction of The Hawks. "We felt a little bit embarrassed because we didn't know much about his music at all!" recalls Robbie. "We weren't into folk music we played rock'n'roll, blues and rhythm & blues. So I think we got a couple of his records   I remember we liked that song Oxford Town, because it was Mississippi blues country, something we could relate to   but his whole thing really wasn't on our radar at all. Then just a that time when we were meeting with him, his new record was coming out, Like A Rolling Stone, so within minutes of this guy being obscure all of a sudden you were hearing about him everywhere."

If Dylan's records came as something of a culture shock for The Hawks, his working methods were even more surprising, as different to Ronnie Hawkins' musical boot camp as could be imagined. "With Bob, because he'd been playing by himself all these years, his thing was the opposite," explains Robbie. "He thought you got together and everybody played along the best they could, maybe they figured out a couple of little parts along the way, and it was recorded like blues records were recorded. So the first time Levon and I played with him, it was rough,

Following shows at Forest Hills Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl, at which Levon and Robbie were joined by Dylan's session organist Al I Kooper and bassist Harvey Brooks, the rest of The Hawks were co opted as Dylan's new band   and proceeded To redirect the course of music history. "Bob's was a whole new school of music," says Robbie. "We got to throw the rules out and say, We're going to invent something new, we're allowed to make this up as we go along, and hopefully we'll find the passion and emotion in the music, the excitement, all those elements, and we can do it together."

For Levon, though, the constant barrage of boos and catcalls which greeted Dylan's new electric shows became too much to take, and he left the band later that year, before the epochal 1966 world tour. "It wasn't that much fun, ridin' around havin 'people starin' at ya, booin' your ass off, nobody wantin' to be with ya, nothin' funny happening," recalls Levon. "It wasn't like people were comin' up and puttin' money in my pockets and makin' me rich, or like I had girls all over me. It was a drag, a pain in the ass." 0

"It broke my heart when Levon left," says Robbie. "I remember, I walked him down to the corner and said goodbye as he got a taxi. Somebody told me he left because he said he wasn't made to be booed, but really he left because he didn't like the music, he didn't believe in this music at all. I was saying, It's just being discovered, it's our job to find it, not to walk away from it. I tried to talk him into staying. But he didn't like these people: he didn't like Bob Dylan, or Albert Grossman."

Levon's departure altered the balance of power in the group, Robbie becoming de facto leader. As Levon toiled on oil rigs in the Gulf Of Mexico, The Hawks' learning curve continued in Australia and Europe, sharing the shit storm of disapproval that folkie purists threw at Dylan. "It's still phenomenal to recall," says Robbie. He compares it to the initial reactions provoked by Gershwin's Porgy & Bess. "It was a musical revolution: we were booed all over the world, but we didn't flinch   we never thought, They're right, we don't know what we're doing here. We stuck to our musical guns and continued to do it. And last year, the record of this came out (Dylan's Live 1966), and it's still extraordinary   nothing to compare it to, probably, in the whole history of music."

FEW GROUPS GO THROUGH THE KIND OF VARIED apprenticeship The Hawks received courtesy of Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, but when they got around to making their own music in the basement of their big pink house up in Woodstock, it was like nothing they had done before. "It was a whole other sensitivity, a whole other dynamic, a whole different emotion, completely something else," says Robbie. "At the same time, to be honest, it was completely instinctual. None of this was planned   it wasn't like, Last year we played really loud, this year we'll play quiet. There was no method to the madness, it was just what felt right to do."

Significantly, the Woodstock basement sessions brought about a democratization of the band's sound, which no longer relied so heavily on Robbie's guitar solos. "I was bored with them," explains Robbie. "I'd played thousands of them, and I wanted to go in a different direction   I didn't want the songs I was writing to be jam sessions, We had broken through to the next phase of our musical development, which was all about the story and the intricacy of the characters, and creating a mood so you could actually see the songs."

The switching around of instruments together with the low volume playing demanded by the basement setting had introduced a whole new tonal palette, and the distinctive new harmonies developed by Richard, Rick and Levon   who returned when he heard that his band had developed a life of its own   offered further exciting possibilities. "We had all the time we wanted to practise Staples Singers harmonies, take old standards, swap them around," says Levon. "Richard could sing all of them, from the highest to the lowest, so he'd show us another one, and we'd swap them around and try that out."

Where the close harmony style of West Coast bands like The Beach Boys, The Byrds and Crosby, Stills And Nash required the individual voices to dissolve into the whole, The Band's harmonies allowed each of the constituent voices to retain its own character. This proved invaluable in animating the songs. "The idea of everybody trying to sing perfectly tight and together was so unsuited to this music, it would have slicked it up in a corny ass way," says Robbie. "The vocals we really admired were things like the guy singing harmony with Sam Cooke on Bring It On Home To Me   he's singing with him, but he's not trying to do something that sounds like The Four Freshmen. That impressed us."

For Levon, Richard Manuel's voice was one of the things that made The Band special. "He was like Patsy Cline, just blessed with that voice," he believes. "Rick and myself, in the beginning, were there just to rest Richard up. I would do the novelty songs, and Rick would do some Sam Cooke, and then we would go back to Richard, and Richard would sing the shit out of something! It ended up that a couple of the songs I sang were what The Band got remembered for, got put on jukeboxes, and they started saying, The Band's got three lead singers, All that kind of bullshit, which was just record company hype."

Permission for the show. Accordingly, the album was recorded on the stage of the empty theatre, with the curtains sometimes open, sometimes closed. The good timey idea was quickly overtaken by songs of a somewhat darker tone. The harmonies and frisky interplay of its predecessor were in distinctly short supply, replaced by more dutiful solo work, reflecting the others' reluctance to contribute as much to the arrangements.

But success had unleashed its demons. "Those royalty cheques almost killed some of us," said Rick Danko, who was astonished to receive a cheque for $200,000 as his half of the writer's royalty for the much covered This Wheel's On Fire. Suddenly, people fell over themselves to do the band favours, mostly of a pharmaceutical nature. This was particularly damaging for Richard Manuel, who succumbed to drink and drug binges. Richard   whose drinking toast, according to Levon, was a cheery "Spend it all!"   once described his musical career in a telling four line autobiography: "I started at nine and quit. Then got back to it when I was 12. Then

I became a party star. In fact, I became a party!" But party time was eating into work time, and he was becoming more unreliable.

"This musical unit was no longer connected in the way it had been before," recalls Robbie. "We were starting to move apart. It's one thing for it to be a personal difference, but another for it to be a chemical difference   you have no control over that. Everybody's part in this thing was crucial: if one limb was broken, the whole machine broke down. Nobody wanted to be there that long, so we made Stage Fright very quickly, and it wasn't the same experience as before."

The material was of a different type, too, with songs like The Shape I'm In, Stage Fright and Sleeping reflecting more personal issues than the stories on the second album. Robbie had never had much regard for the "confessional" singer songwriter style, but these new songs came closer to it than before. "When I write, it's like I'm painting you a picture," he explains. "But I don't always have to paint pictures of me. In Stage Fright I could not get around it becoming more personal   which I'm not ashamed of, it just caught me off guard a little. "

By their fourth album, Cahoots, the cracks in The Band were evident. Nobody seemed bothered any more and their playing was for the most part perfunctory. The strain of keeping it all together was taking its toll on Robbie, whose writing, in songs like Last Of The Blacksmiths, Shoot Out In Chinatown and The River Hymn, had become almost a caricature of his former successes. The situation wasn't helped by having to record the album in Grossman's new Bearsville Studio. "It was the first record made there," remembers Robbie.

"There's a picture in Cahoots of us standing over in the corner of this huge cement room   you could see how comfortable we were! They were trying to iron the kinks out of the studio while we were trying to make the record; it felt like we had one hand tied behind our back." Nevertheless, the album contained at least two Band classics in Life Is A Carnival, resplendent with Allen Toussaint's quirky, antiphonal New Orleans horn arrangement, and 4% Pantomime, an impromptu duet between Richard Manuel and Van Morrison, apparently named after the difference in proof between Johnnie Walker's Red and Black Label whiskies.

"Well, that was Richard and Van," says Levon with pride. "You couldn't kill that kind of friendship and creativity. You get them together, you bet your ass it's gonna get good! It's gonna get goddamn unbelievably good. 4% Pantomime, that wasn't no plan, that happened right there in front of your fuckin' eyes, just like Don't Ya Tell Henry. The song didn't exist, there wasn't no 4% Pantomine!"

"It was like a documentary, that piece," affirms Robbie. "Take one, here you are, get it! And there were other good songs we did that we didn't quite find the heart of, but it wasn't the same kind of focus as on The Band: that was like the five fingers of one hand." Sadly, that hand had all but lost its grip. The group papered over the cracks with a live album, Rock Of Ages, and a covers album, Moondog Matinee - fine records in their own way   but when they moved to Los Angeles soon after their spirit seemed to evaporate in the California sun. Another couple of studio albums would be squeezed out before they called it quits with The Last Waltz concert in 1976.

The essence of their music had been left in Woodstock, but they sowed seeds for a genre and generations to come. There will never be another band like The Band.

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