by Dave MarshThis article appeared in the Boston Phoenix after the Band compilation Anthology was released. Copyright © Dave Marsh, Boston Phoenix. Please do not copy or redistribute.
It's not hard to understand the release of Anthology, the second repackaging of Band material in two years. The group made only eight albums (one an oldies collection, another a live rehash) and has pretty much stopped recording; but Capitol needed a new set for the Christmas trade. The group is involved only because this way it can ensure a little quality control. But Anthology has another purpose: Like Neil Young's Decade, it's meant to sanctify an artist's sense of self-importance. So was Martin Scorcese's film of the final Band concert, The Last Waltz ; as in the movie, where Robbie Robertson demonstrated that he is one of the few people capable of making Bob Dylan seem humble, the effect of this conservatively chosen, elegantly (if inconsequentially) annotated presentation is to raise more questions than it answers.
There's no denying that much of the rock here is as powerful and imaginative as any ever made: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Chest Fever," 'The Weight," and "This Wheel's On Fire." But the rest of the Band's work has enjoyed a critical free ride for most of this decade. The group acquired its myth as a result of historical association (as the Hawks, they backed rockabilly demi-legend Ronnie Hawkins as well as the electrified Bob Dylan). But only the Band's first two albums, Music from Big Pink and The Band, lived up to the legend, and Anthology is as noteworthy for what it excludes as for what it contains. While the Band's first three albums are given two sides of this set, the final five are crammed into the second pair. Not that that isn't a fair appraisal of the Band's accomplishment.
For instance, there are just two selections from Cahoots, the band's fourth and worst record - there aren't any others that deserve inclusion. And even "Life is a Carnival" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" are transparently inferior to the songs on Stage Fright, much less The Band.
A great deal has been claimed for the Band, not only by Robertson, Scorcese and the Anthology's annotator, Robert Palmer, but also by such estimable critics as Jon Landau and Greil Marcus. Landau went so far as to stake the case for rock auteurism on Cahoots; Marcus devotes more space and passion to the Band in his book, Mystery Train, than to anyone save Elvis Presley. Most of the praise rises and falls with Robertson, the perfect object of the pop intellectual's star-struck gaze. He is a fastidious musician, presumably streetwise, since he began playing with Hawkins at fifteen, and he has a certified Outsider's vision of America. But listening to the Band's history is tantamount to tracking the deterioration of these qualities: Robertson's fastidiousness quickly became conservatism. How long can you mourn shattered tradition, anyway? His street wisdom quickly decayed into hucksterism; the interview on The Last Waltz, where Robertson interrupts Rick Danko and Richard Manuel at almost every turn, are gross self-promotion, indulged with aplomb if little subtlety. And as for the Outsider - turning to The Last Waltz again, he see the Outsider as a blustering Aristocrat, an impression reinforced by the Robertson quotes in Palmer's liner notes.
Robertson's position as a pop aristocrat is anomalous. He has never had a hit single - unless you count Joan Baez's mummified version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" - and the Band's albums at best went gold, never platinum. Unlike rock's other great cult intellectuals - Young, say, or Peter Townsend - Robertson has never had a commercial success to go with his reviews: There's no Tommy or Harvest on his resume. He makes up for the lack of public response with withering arrogance. And withering is the word. From The Band to Northern Lights/Southern Cross, only Robertson's songs appeared on Band albums, and no one has ever claimed this was because Rick Danko and Richard Manuel weren't writing. (Both made substantial contributions to Music from Big Pink.) If the Band was supposed to mean anything, it was as a collective effort. And in any case, Robertson has been the group's true leader mostly on the page (that is, in the press and on lead sheets). The heart of rock is in its beats, and the Band's is supplied by drummer Levon Helm - the oldest member, the only American (the rest are Canadian), the leader after they left the Hawks (he quit when they hooked up with Dylan, rather than play second fiddle to an upstart folksinger), the group's greatest singer. Helm is the only person in the Band to whom Robbie Robertson defers, as he does even in the interviews in The Last Waltz.
When the Band speaks best, most clearly, it almost always uses Levon Helm's voice. In "The Weight," Rick Danko sings just one verse and Levon takes that away from him with a yowled "Yeah!" that's among the three or four greatest interjections in the history of rock (a.k.a the history of musical interjection). It is Helm's voice, dripping with southern-bred bitterness, that makes "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" genuinely tragic. It could be argued that in Helm, Robertson found his perfect vehicle. But maybe it was Helm who found in the more glib and articulate Robertson a marvelous mouthpiece. Who whispered the secrets of the American Dream in Robertson's young ear as he drifted through the Ozark wilderness? Who pointed him toward that wilderness in the first place? Levon Helm.
And if all this is true, whose vision is this that we're hearing?
Because it fails to deliver on its assertions, Anthology doesn't matter much. But buried within is the story of what happened to the idealists of the sixties, those who were devoted to collectivism and tried to make it work. And how that ideal was discarded, maybe betrayed.
Boston Phoenix, 1978