Catch a Cannonball
by Douglas BrownFrom the periodical Books In Canada: The Canadian Review of Books, Dec. 2003, pages 14-15. The article is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (2nd edition)
"Don't lower [...] your reputation and the magazine's by reviewing that moron's new edition of his garbage book. Read Levon Helm's This Wheel's On Fire instead". So goes the unsolicited e-mail rant of a long-time Band associate who'd learned I intended to do a piece on Hoskyns' Across The Great Divide. The reaction seems odd. After all, the British-born Hoskyns is a notable and sympathetic writer on American popular music, and his book is an authoritative and much-needed study that makes great claims for its subject. Moreover, the book was clearly inspired by Hoskyns' devoted affection for The Band's music. Even a hostile reader coming across Hoskyns' description of the song "We Can Talk About It Now" as "a breathless call-and-response yelp of sanctified joy" can surely detect a trace of the ecstasy of a true fan.
My correspondent's vehement denunciation actually says less about Hoskyns' book than it does about the never-to-be-resolved tensions surrounding The Band's legacy. Such tensions lay behind the perverse refusal of the group's members to cooperate with Hoskyns as he researched his book, and it is easy to understand why what began as a labour of love for Hoskyns ended in exasperation over Bandom's resistance to his project. Everybody wants the last word on The Band, but nobody seems willing to hear what the other speakers have to say.
Robbie Robertson , whose ambitious songwriting did so much to define the Band, has actually managed several last words. He clearly hoped Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" would present a celebratory comic finale to the Band's story. Instead, Robertson ended up revisiting the Band's perilous experience of stardom-"Lord please save his soul / He was the king of Rock and Roll"-and writing "Fallen Angel" as a tragic elegy for Richard Manuel, whose suicide in 1986 remains one of the most heartrending of the many premature deaths in rock music. More recently Robertson has exercised his editorial control to shape The Band's story once again by providing extensive interviews for the liner notes accompanying the remasters of The Band's albums
Then there is Helm who resents Robertson's account of events, and who wrote his own revisionist, picaresque memoir in which we learn that the life of the group that seemed to work in a spirit of anonymous and incorruptible devotion to music was also prey to all the demons of the deranged world of rock and roll. And there is a body of accumulated commentary (viz. http://theband.hiof.no) that measures the sources and significance of the group's work; several of the best rock journalists have written on The Band, and Hoskyns' effort is by far the most substantial.
However, it is with the three albums from the 1990s that the group, without Robertson, but revamped through the addition of Jim Weider, Richard Bell, and Randy Ciarlante, made its final statements. Those late albums would be worth the price of admission if it were only for the playing of multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. Readers who know The Band's music will recognize how fitting it is that the last word there should go to Hudson-that the last piece on the last Band album should be an unpretentious Hudson instrumental which blends a sense of serenity with that of regret, of fallible mortality with that of beauty. This is just the sort of precarious emotional balance which contemplation of the Band's lives and work involves, and which few, whether Band-insiders or outsiders, who comment on the group seem able to maintain.
The Band is the sort of group critics-as well as the likes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Elvis Costello-describe as 'arguably the greatest rock group ever.' But more convincing than the boosterism of their famous fans is the beauty of their music. The Band's signatures have always been virtuoso ensemble playing and an awareness of a song's origins and formal possibilities. The group took rock and roll arrangements to a rare level of artfulness, without ever becoming arty or forgetting the dirt under the fingernails of the people from whom both they and the music sprang. The Band's music is uniquely encyclopedic: hillbilly or Motown, adolescent or septuagenarian, acoustic or electronic, J.S. Bach or delta blues, sacred or profane. The Band somehow did them all, sometimes in the unlikeliest combinations.
The story of how kids from Cabbagetown, Simcoe, London, and Stratford, along with a wandering Arkansan, assimilated and mastered so many musical idioms is one of the most compelling in the annals of popular music. It's a story woven out of many threads of North American musical and social history, a story in the course of which they have played with an improbably wide assortment of musicians: Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnny Cash, Dionne Warwick, Lenny Breau, The Staples, Van Morrison, Emmy Lou Harris, Champion Jack Dupree, John Hiatt, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and others. It's a story that has taken them from homicidal honkytonks through festival audiences of 600,000 to Democratic parties in support of Carter and Clinton.
It is such a powerful story that it turns out to be an underlying subject in many of the Band's songs. And both the group's songs and its story frequently lead us back through layers of social history, beginning with the Seven Years War and continuing right up through Little Richard's musical revolution to the group's disintegration into, and only partial survival of, the inanity and fascinating sordidness of drugged out, car-crashing, groupie-groping, money-mismanaging 1970s celebrity.
The Band's story involves generous measures of both grief and glory. Indeed, their epitaph could be Dylan Thomas' lines about the "Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight / And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way"-except that joy, sanctified and unsanctified, remains to the end a dominant note in their music; and except that from the beginning, all the darker tones are there too.
The Band's saga has six parts. There's the prologue in which Ronnie Hawkins, "the guru of rockabilly", whipped a bunch of music mad 1950s delinquents into the tightest bar band on the continent as they fishtailed Cadillacs out of the gravel lots of beer parlours in mining towns on the Canadian Shield or roadhouses in the Mississippi delta, crossing great social and racial divides, and learning the songs of every place along the way. There's the chapter when the fledgling Hawks went out on their own to play Rhythm and Blues and found in themselves a new kind of band, one without a front man, one in which the musical focus moved around in the interplay of entirely distinctive players and singers.
Then, from out of the blue, came a phone call from Bob Dylan, a folkie whom the Hawks had never met and barely heard of, but whose request that they back him resulted in what Time in its 1970 US-edition cover story on The Band could rightly call "the most decisive moment in rock history". Together Dylan and The Hawks explored a broad continuum of white and black American music and discovered rock's version of the unsurpassable tension between the ghosts of tradition and the mirages of modernity. In two short years the unlikely collaborators rewrote all the rules-twice. First came the sonic apocalypse of the confrontational electrico-amphetamine world tours of 1965 and 1966; then came the rustic disappearance into the "old weird America" of "The Basement Tapes". It was a period of uninhibited creativity whose details long remained relatively obscure, accessible principally through bootlegs and legend, but a period that nonetheless revealed the parameters within which many of the subsequent developments in rock music would inevitably unfold.
The group reappeared with the epoch-redefining "Music from Big Pink" and "The Band", and between Woodstock and "The Last Waltz" created a series of albums as remarkable for their thematic and narrative cohesiveness as they are for their musical breadth. (It is the quasi-literary cohesiveness of the work that prompts critics who write on The Band to turn to Faulkner, or the films of Bunuel, or Lesley Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel for contexts in which to situate the group's songs). Those albums obliquely record two related stories. One is the story of The Band, of the shared discovery of America in all its extraordinary ordinariness and of the interdependence of five musicians, each of whom far from being anonymous was able to develop a complete musical personality, through the help of band-mates whose combined musical backgrounds could provide virtually any supporting role. The other story is the tale of Robertson's quest to sort through his complex cultural and psychological identity, with its various elements of fatherlessness, Jewishness, aboriginality (with a Mohawks' strong matrilineal orientation), Christianity, Canadianness (including French Canada through his wife), and Americanness. This individual journey of self-discovery is the thread that unites all of Robertson's diverse musical explorations, with and without The Band.
Though these two stories remain entangled in their respective subsequent work, the paths of Robertson and The Band ultimately diverged. What followed were the group's lost years when members were engaged in unrelated projects, or when every time The Band seemed to be finding its feet again, it was undermined by the sorts of misfortune and tragedy that would continue to bedevil the group: addiction, alcoholism, suicide, bankruptcy, quarrels over royalties, broken friendships, illness, the loss of family members, deaths of collaborators, legal problems, even imprisonment-no wonder that once they finally recorded their come-back "Jericho", they closed it out with the apotropaic "Blues Stay Away From Me".
When Across the Great Divide appeared in 1993, it was abundantly clear that Hoskyns had done a superb of telling the Band's incredible story, summarizing thirty years of commentary on their work, and revealing the musical intricacies and emotive overtones of their songs. But Hoskyns disappoints with this second edition, which is 'revised and expanded' only through perfunctory incidental addenda, even though he himself concluded the first edition by noting how the story "feels unfinished".
That was when the group was just starting to record the rich closing chapter that allowed the remaining members to finish with The Band on their own terms. And now that The Band's story is truly finished, after the passing of the much-loved outlawRick Danko and the silencing of Helm's voice by cancer, Hoskyns has perversely chosen not to complete his tale. This is unfortunate, not only because over the last ten years the lustre of The Band's music has become brighter than ever, but because in his recent Ragged Glories, Hoskyns writes perceptively both about the late careers of rock singularities like Little Richard, Iggy Pop, and Todd Rundgren, and about the idea of the end of rock music. The Band, whose story spans almost the entire history of rock and roll, offers a particularly significant version of what that history means and several conflicting versions of how a rock and roll story might end or be made complete. Hoskyns makes it pretty far with this unforgettable cultural, musical, and personal saga. It is just too bad he doesn't make it all the way.