The Band - Where From Here?
by Jonathan SingerFrom Hit Parader, December 1972. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Twenty minutes after midnight, January 1, 1972, a baggy blue-jeaned figure strode center stage to New York's Academy of Music. He was unannounced, but not unexpected. All through the Band's brilliant three hour set, they were calling his name out; so when Bob Dylan hush-puppyed his way to a microphone, no one was really too surprised. As the packed hall stood to its feet and roared in exultation, there was a creepy feeling of anticlimax that wafted over those still sitting and waiting for the music.
The Band didn't have to do it, but maybe that's precisely why they did.
Robbie Robertson and company had absolutely entranced the crowd; playing with a five-piece horn section, stopping every song on a dime with one devastating cymbal crash, and sounding dangerously better than their recorded perfections.
From "W. S. Walcott's Medicine Show", which got the full treatment (trombones, sax, trumpet and tuba), to Allen ("Workin' In the Coal Mine") Toussaint's glorious brass prelude to "Virgil Caine", there was no doubt that The Band had really come into their own.
And it's about time.
They have been knocking around for a good decade-plus, backing the likes of Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, and they're justifiably tired of the maddening one night stand situation. If anything, they are looking for a few creative alternatives, because short of traveling fulltime with extra players and Bob Dylan (which is impractical and impossible), there just aren't that many live-music approaches open to them. They are hardly involved or bent on rock theatre. They are musicians first, and entertainers second. Given those firm priorities, and a rock audience that demands an on-stage spectacle with every concert, it would seem that the Band's touring future looks pretty dim.
"The problem is² says Jon Taplin the Band's road manager and confidante "how are you able to keep making records without having to take your pants off?"
Part of the solution rests, at this very minute in Taplin's hands. As the Band is split up cross-country visiting relatives, Jon is holding down the fort in Woodstock; talking about their desire to get off the "road", their image problems post and present, and the T.V. special he is editing on them, which may or may not bring them out of the obligatory touring bind.
"They were on the road a helluva lot. They had that around the world tour (with Dylan) and it's just a very insane way to live: waiting in airports, climbing out of cars - it's no life for anybody that's creative to have to live."
Taplin grew close to the Band through his work with Bob Dylan. In 1968, he stage-managed the Tribute to Woody Guthrie, where the Band (unchristened and uncapitalized) backed Dylan. Before that he had helped Bob cut "Eat the Document", a film dealing with Dylan's 1966 world tour with the Band.
"The thing about 'Eat the Document' and my documentary on the Band, is that road ... rock 'n roll and all that craziness, doesn't lead anywhere - it's a road and eventually you've got to get off it."
The Band did get off temporarily, after that exhaustive '66 tour. They returned to the states and stayed near Dylan, who was then recovering from his motorcycle accident. For a band that was, up until then, primarily a touring group (which is not to discount their talent - they made several good records with Ronnie Hawkins, and two excellent sides with John Hammond) they had some catching up to do. They had never made an album they could call their own. Between Dylan, Hawkins and Hammond they had ten years of mostly backing jobs - and even then not all of the members played. As for back as their first gig with Dylan at Forest Hills (when he went electric), it was only Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm that Bob first considered for guitar and drums. Robbie immediately stressed the fact that they were a band and not just individuals and next time around at the Hollywood Bowl, it was the complete group (Helm, Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson) that played. Still, in '66 at the "Blond on Blond" session that Robbie played on and unofficially directed, the full band was heard on only one track ("Sooner or Later"). This is not to say that Dylan was in any way stringent in his musical vision, but rather selective in the instrumentation of his music. Before he was acquainted with the Band (probably through the Hammond LPs) he had relied mainly on Mike Bloomfield as his lead guitarist. On Hammond's "So Many Roads", as witness to Robertsons' capabilities, it is Bloomfield who plays piano, and Robbie guitar. The record is a tribute to Robbie's stinging guitar work, blue (Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters) as it is; they considered themselves purists - strict R 'n' B devotees.
Up in Woodstock, dividing their time between running over some of Bob's new material (the basement tapes), and working on their own things, they began to knit cohesively as a recording unit-with vocal and spiritual presence.
Their first album, "Music From Big Pink" was released in the summer of 1968, several months after the Guthrie tribute. Robbie and the band were already one disc away from session men. When Dylan asked them to dub additional musk onto the sparse John Wesley Harding tapes, they refused. Already it was said, they were trading heavily off Dylan's name. He had written or co-written enough songs on the album for people to buy it half-wondering who this new band was, that self -consciously denied themselves a name (opting simply for "the band from Big Pink"), and half hoping to see what Bob Dylan was up to.
In a world of flash clothers and hallucinogenic over-production, "Big Pink" was a folksy knickknack. The inside of the jacket featured a photo of the Band's family entitled "next of kin", and an austere black and white shot of them lined up in the Saugerties Hills. This photo itself inspired the producers of "Zachariah - An Electric Western" to consider them for the port of gunslingers cum musicians.
Naturally, they suggested someone else for the role. "They never wanted to dive headlong into the superstar syndrome" claims Jon in reference to their turning down the many similar film offers, and their unassuming name. "They've done everything they can to prevent that from happening and taking over their lives."
But their image (or non-image) worked well in their behalf. The world had already reached the psychedelic saturation point in Hendrix, Sgt. Pepper, Clapton, and a lot of excessive soloing. It seemed as though the populace was ready for something refined, where restraint was a virtue rather than a vice. The Band, in their unaffected attire, their righteously uncluttered music; steeped in simple maxims, biblical allusions, and a history that gave creedence to their lyrics and legends - captured substance hungry public. New York city-slickers were suddenly moving to Woodstock, growing beards, and becoming mellow overnight.
The Band's music however, their homegrown lyrics, and their laidback existence, was not merely a posture but a necessity.
"The natural outgrowth of the whole Ronnie Hawkins/ Dylan craziness - and this is what this special's about, is the desire to sit down for awhile, the desire to go back home to reassert a lot of those things that you left when you went on the road.
So that 'Big Pink' and the 'Band' album were just totally natural outgrowths of those feelings they had in their hearts."
If "Big Pink", with "Caledoniaıs Mission" (a streak of Canadian autobiography) was an exploration of the Band's roots, then their second album was already telling another person's story - perhaps their fathers or , forefathers. Actually, Robertson was very artfully developing his fine sense of the narrative. ( maintains that Robbie is one of the best story- tellers he's ever heard. "He just knows how to tell a story.") "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is obviously not their roots, but a very successful attempt to breathe life into a bygone era. The drum rolls, their magnificent three-man harmony, and the high whine of a harp do not upstage the vocal or the music, but enhance the almost literary vision of a broken man triumphant in defeat. This song and the mood that prevailed throughout the entire album probably won them the mixed-blessing of being "the only band that could worm the crowd up for Abraham Lincoln."
The trouble was too many took them too seriously too soon. Like Dylan, who endeared himself to millions with songs of "protest", so the Band, regaling the forgotten rebel and the union man, become a trademark for the whole "country - back to the land" movement. The image of this rock of ages quintet upon Cripple Creek, bringing their children down to the riverside, and warbling sweetly "oh to be home again" solidified quickly in the public's eye. It was authentic, and no one wanted to let go.
"Nostalgia, and everything is all connected with everybody's feeling about the second album" explains Toplin. a little ruffled at seeing a public twice (first with Dylan) categorize an artist from further progressing. "It's just a quintessinal - what people would like the Band to be: which were five country quiet people who just sat around on the porch. But thatıs rubbish they can't be that all their lives. I know everybody would like them to play that role for them but you just can't do that. People still want to hear the old 'Willie Boy' nonsense not that they don't think the 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' wasn't a great song or not proud of any of that music, it's just that they want to go somewhere too. They don't just want to play country boy all their life."
Their third album "Stage Fright", predictably lost them some fans. To the Virgil Caine Crowd there were few concessions ("Daniel and the Sacred Heart"). They were beyond providing fading daguerrotypes, and packed up their Civil War memories in favor of a subject and sound more contemporary. "The Shape I'm In" was clearly a bid for the Top Forty's. Like "Big Pink", the wondered aloud where they had been, and where they were going. In the title tune "Stage Fright", Rick Danko's hyperbolic voice more or less gulped out their little rags to riches story:
"Now deep in the heart of a lonely kidThey werenıt exactly Canadian plowboys, but the way Robertson romanticizes their humble beginnings (obtuse sometimes as it may be) has always set them apart from the competition. As minimal as the lyrics are in a song like "Shape I'm In", and, the not-so minimal words of "The Rumor", a clue is given to the way they feel about it all:
"Go down yonder, peace in the valleyNow what they've said is not especially revealing or profound, but it is indicative of a certain gap between the musicians; their world, and the world outside them; and their audience. For all their musicianship, they have been severely criticized (by no less than Keith Richard) for their lack of spontaneity and stage presence. Even New Year's at the Academy, there remained a reef of heads unmoving and unimpressed. They do not kow-tow to an audience, and even their rave-ups are more cerebrally oriented, as opposed to the usual body variety. "The theatrical groups can go out there and do it, but the ones that are interested in music ' . . . it's just very hard." Toplin points out. "They're much more interested in theatre -Alice Cooper - than music."
Their following is by no means growing thin; there will always be a place for the Band's excellence, just as Alice Cooper will illicit accolades for His (her) own brand of rock pageantry. But in light of the present situation, they have already moved on to greener artistic pastures.
"One of the most exciting experiences we had was going to Europe last spring. It was incredible for us because we've all been there before, but we hadn't been there as the Band, and Europe had a whole different feeling about the Band. In France, the Band is like a myth. They'd only seen pictures of them, and they weren't sure what it was all about - but just to got in touch with a lot of film people, we've all admired (Truffaut and Bergman), just pretty much tickled everybody's fancy. We thought of doing music to several of their movies, but doing music to somebody else's movies provides such tight boundaries in which to work in. So that the only way out, we could see, is to make our own film - not a documentary but a fictional film."
Fortunately the Band is not immediately deserting vinyl for celluloid. Like any growing artistic concern, they are seeking out new modes of expression, for records can only go so far.
"See the problem is" continues Jon "that rock 'n roll, as it has been sung and played for the past fifteen years, isn't very intellectually satisfying for somebody thatıs thirty-five years old, or even somebody who's seen 'Andalusian Dog' or 'Exterminating Angel'. We all admire a certain kind of art, that has many layers to it and it's very hard, in the context of a three minute, fifty second song, to get some of those ideas across."
"But the answer isn't Tommy either. Thatıs not the answer at all. That's just a joke. That's something that's trying to be heavy but isn't."
Further along that path of multiplicity, or what Toplin calls "something that's a piece as a whole" is "Cahoots". It is an album with many individual songs, but one consistent mood. It is not simply what some call "extinction" (there is that of course, in "Last of the Blacksmiths") but a deeper kind of yearning. It is not new for them: the music and the words of "Whispering Pines" on their second album ("reaching for the clouds, for nothing else remains") typified the feeling. It is as if they've come so far, and yet things still aren't as they should be. "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is Dylan's song but the sentiment expressed, is common to both:
"Someday everything's gonna be differentThe Band's semi-masterpiece on this album (semi, because the music, though fitting does not embrace the lyrics the way "Where Do We Go From Here" does) is "The Moon Struck One". It is nicely ambiguous and more is "happening" here, than in any of the others.
"Now there's a weird song" declares Jon, "in which the time and the space in time are very uncertain. You don't know at first, if they're just little kids making a pact, or if they're older, and maybe there's some kind of sexual menage-a-trois happening. You donıt know exactly what the timing is. All you know is that they've made this pact, and in a sense, the pact is heavier than they are. In other words, the bond they've made cannot be broken. So in the end when one dies, and the other two try and leave, they find they cannot leave. He's drowned in that pond and they can't get away from him."
"But thatıs as far as you can go in a three minute song. My question is did anybody really understand that anyway."
Probably not. At least not as clear as Jon Taplin sees it, but that's not really crucial. What does come across, from the song, and the album as a whole, is that the Band is a little worried about staying in one place a little too long ,and not being able to move on when the time comes. In " . . . Blacksmiths", Manuel howls plaintively
"frozen fingers at the keyboardThe Band isn't waiting for answers to mysteriously appear though ("They're not slouches" cracks Taplin). Until their fictional film falls together, they have television and the special Jon is finishing up.
"The movie looks fantastic" he says proudly. "it really captures the event (New Year's Eve) really well." If the special turns out with a quarter of the enthusiasm that Jon speaks of it with, it's sure to be a resounding success. With a simultaneous FM stereo broadcast and the film, people will be glad to stay home. At the very least, the Band will be able to cut down their tours, freeing them from perhaps a few less airport night- mares. It is not just a happier and more productive day for the Band, that considers, but within his scheme he envisions a more satisfied fan.
"The problem now, is you get them in a concert hall and all they want, is to feel the bass in their gut - to move to it. So, you can provide that: you can turn up the sound system really loud and just blast 'em. Well that's O.K. It's all over, and they go home and they're just zonked-out. But if you take them on a little show, where you give them some of those songs and they can turn ^Ìem up as loud as they want - but also maybe you take them on a little side trip somewhere, while they're watching all this music. Then maybe you give them a little insight, maybe at the expense of cutting away some of the myth that surrounds rock 'n roll superstars. Hopefully, if we cut away some of the myth people won't be so tempted to emulate it all - because they're not emulating the heart of it, they're just emulating the outward signs."
There is something instinctively healthy and positive about the Band. For some reason, one feels prone to defend them. Maybe it is the way they go into a football huddle with Bob Dylan, in between songs, that makes them so un-star like and human. When they return to Woodstock, they will begin work on some new tunes for their fifth album, which will also include the high spots of their New Years performance. At this point, what is absolutely certain is, that with the new album, the T.V. special, and the fictional film in the back of everyone's mind, you won't catch the Band with their pants down.