Dylan and The Band
Obviously Five Believers
by Andy GillFrom Q Magazine's Maximum BOB! issue October 2000.
Copyright © 2000 Andy Gill, Q Magazine.
He took them round the world - to endless booing. They settled in Woodstock, separated, and then reunited for the highest grossing tour of the age. With help from Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, Andy Gill recounts the saga of Bob Dylan and The Band: "We liked the way the music just exploded?"
By the summer of 1965, Bob Dylan had completely transformed himself and his music. Gone was the protest auteur who had captivated the 1963 Newport Folk Festival with his tirades against injustice; in his place had grown a waspish neo-Symbolist poet with a venomous tongue and a taste for electric guitars, Cuban-heeled boots and Carnaby Street clothes.
Dylan had just finished recording Highway 61 Revisited, which even he himself - normally his own harshest critic - realized was an extraordinary achievement. "I'm not gonna be able to make a record better than that one," he claimed. "Highway 61 is just too good. There's a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to!"
The next step, he knew was to take the out on the road and conquer a new, younger audience than the whiskery old-fogey folkies that had recently turned against him. He knew there was a huge potential audience for pop versions of his songs - The Byrds had just hit Number One with a truncated version of Mr. Tambourine Man - but his first rudimentary stab at presenting his own souped-up electric music had been rudely received at that year's Newport Folk Festival.
Dylan's backing group at that show had been a pick-up ensemble largely comprised of members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whose commitments prevented the joining him full-time - and anyway, he wanted to get his own band, a new outfit that could blow away all-comers. But where would he find them?
Mary Martin, a Toronto native working as a receptionist for Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, thought she knew just the right group: a bunch of rowdy Canadians led by a feisty little Arkansan drummer. Martin had caught them several times at the Friar's Tavern in Toronto's Yonge Street, and become something of a fan. Via her fellow office worker (and Bob's main squeeze) Sara Lowndes, she got word about them to Dylan.
She raved about them, pointing out that some of them had played on So Many Roads, the new album by John Hammond Jr, the bluesman son of the A&R legend who had originally signed Bob. Weren't they great?! And guess what - they were playing a summer residency just down the coast at this club called Tony Mart's, in the New Jersey seaside resort of Somers Point?
Levon & The Hawks, as they were known, had split a year earlier from their mentor, rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, in search of pastures new. During their years with The Hawk, as he was known, they had criss-crossed the continent countless times, mainly splitting their work-load between Canada, where Hawkins was considered a bona fide rock'n'roll legend, and his native South - an experience gulped down greedily by the young band-members, who regarded the region with something approaching awe, as the original wellspring of their beloved rhythm & blues.
Drilled and disciplined by Hawkins, The Hawks were a razor sharp band that had built up a fearsome reputation, particularly among fellow musicians. In fact, so well had Hawkins taught them that they had simply outgrown his limited rock'n'roll vision and elected to follow their own star instead while still trading off the band's original name.
They were five in number. Taking most of the spotlight was Richard Manuel, the sharp dressing, and rip roaring pianist with a raw soul baritone that could slip into the most heart breaking falsetto you'd ever heard. To rest his voice, both drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko would take occasional singing spots the former using his natural ebullience to good effect on novelty rock songs, the later essaying a nice line in Sam Cooke covers.
Alongside Rick, teenage hotshot guitarist Robbie Robertson would spit out fills and solos of remarkable precision and intensity, while over at the side, hidden behind his Lowery organ, sat the enigmatic, bearded Garth Hudson, by common consent the group's best musician (indeed, to placate his rather strait laced parents, Ronnie had told them Garth had been hired as the group's music teacher, which was at least partly true).
Since leaving Hawkins, the group had tried adding members a sax player, Jerry Penfound, and a professional session singer, Bruce Bruno but had reverted to the core quintet by the time the call came from Dylan in mid August.
Levon HeIm picked up the phone. "This is Bob Dylan," said the caller. "How'd you like to play the Hollywood Bowl?' "Who else is on the bill?" asked Helm. "Just us."
IT WAS A MATCH made in heaven: Dylan needed a band and The Hawks needed a new challenge. Not that they were too familiar with their prospective employer's oeuvre: they had just heard his latest single Like A Rolling Stone, which was all over the radio at the time and, like everybody else, had been amazed at its sheer length; but besides that, nothing. Quickly, a couple of Dylan's albums were purchased and investigated. It wasn't really their kind of thing, this whiney acoustic folk stuff, but they did quite like the song Oxford Town largely because, as blues fans, they could relate to its Mississippi location.
Helm and Robertson duly went to meet Dylan, a few rehearsals with bassist Harvey Brooks and organist Al Kooper, from Dylan's recent studio band. It was pretty rough to begin with but Dylan seemed to like what he heard.
"We'd run through it once, and he'd say, Oh, that was pretty good," recalls Robbie Robertson. "We thought, No! That was awful! but the fact that he liked what was happening there was really encouraging. We said, We can get this a lot better, Bob, and he said, What's wrong with it now?"
On 28 August 1965, the line up played its first show at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York. Used to applause, Helm and Robertson were amazed to be loudly booed by the audience. A few days later at the Hollywood Bowl, the same thing happened, in a pattern that would be repeated all over the world through the ensuing year.
"What a strange concept of entertainment!" marvels Robbie Robertson. "We traveled all over the world and people booed us everywhere we went. We'd go on to the next town, and they'd boo us again, and we'd pack up our equipment and go on to the next place, and they'd boo us again! All over the world! I'll tell you, it thickens the skin a little!
"After some of the places that we played with Ronnie Hawkins, and some of the places we'd played on our own we played some rough joints when we were young, all kinds of places where it's really a wonder anyone's alive and then after that, this was supposed to be success?!"
The pair were soon invited to join Bob's band, but held out until all their band mates were on board. After rehearsals up in Toronto, where The Hawks had one last contractual residency to fulfill, they went off on tour, initially around America and then the world. And everywhere they played, they were booed. A man of fierce pride, Levon Helm took the poor reception more personally than the others.
"A lot of those folk places in those days, the drummer was the worst offender of all, next to the electric guitar player," he explains. "But even guitarists could go get an acoustic, you could save them; but drummers put a rope around them! When they were booing, that's what they were booing, that rock'n'roll beat. They'd shout, Twist and shout! Shake it up, baby!, stuff like that. It didn't sound bad enough to get booed, but as soon as the song would end, that's what would happen. There wasn't no smattering of applause, it was just Boooo! It sounded awful."
Unwilling to take any more of it, Helm quit the band at the end of November, replaced for the rest of the American dates by Bobby Gregg and subsequently Sandy Konikoff, with Mickey Jones taking over for the tour's Australian and European Iegs in 1966. Even with a stand in drummer, they were capable of amazing, life-changing performances, as the legendary "Albert Hall" bootleg recorded at Manchester's Free Trade Hall attests.
Dylan was particularly enamoured of Robbie's piercing guitar style and gave him solo after solo, effectively inventing the hard rock approach that would dominate pop for the next decade or more.
"He'd sing a verse and a chorus, give me a solo; sing another verse and chorus, give me another solo," recalls Robertson. "It was a new thing for him, a new sense of musical power, not having to play everything he could turn, look at me, give me a nod, and I would just blow it out. I'd come out wailing! And the music would get really filled, we'd all be wailing, then when he came back in, the music would go back down to this other level.
"He liked the way that the music could explode and subside like that and even when it came down to its lowest, subtlest degree, it was still 19 notches higher than anything he'd ever done before, because previously it had just been him with a harmonica and a guitar."
The debilitating effect of the endless string of one nighters was exacerbated by the tour party's increasingly out of control offstage lifestyle. But Dylan refused to slow down, snatching every opportunity to work on songs. Pennebaker recalled watching him and Robertson, hunkered over guitars, dashing off dozens of songs in a row one night, never even letting up enough to write them down; the next day, nobody could remember them.
FOLLOWING A BRIEF post-tour holiday in Spain, Dylan returned to America. His was disgruntled to a whole raft off other commitments a 60 date world tour, the deadlines for both his book Tarantuala, and the '66 tour film Eat The Document. Things came to an ultimately fortuitous head on 29 July, when the legendary motorcycle accident left Dylan with a cracked vertebrae and perfect excuse not to meet his commitments.
"He wore a neck brace for a long time," recalls Robertson. "That was mostly during the editing of Eat The Document, when I was living at his house. Bob and I would go in another room a fool around, play a little music, then come out a do a bit of editing, until the process wore him down and [film editor] Howard Alk and I work ahead and work on it a while."
The rest of the band followed Robertson up to Woodstock, where Rick Danko found an ugly pink house in nearby West Saugerties, with a basement that was soon converted into a rehearsal room.
"The idea was just for the band to have our own little clubhouse, where everybody could go every day, hang around, play a little music and work on some songs, without disturbing anybody," explains Robertson. "We said, God, this place is really starting to feel good, and so Bob would come over hang around just like the rest of the guys. Up in the living room, there were a couple of typewriters and, every once in a while, somebody would sit down and hammer something out, just fooling around, having some fun.
The band's resident boffin Garth Hudson set up a tape machine in the basement and whenever they felt they had something worth recording - and on quite a few occasions, something rather less worthwhile - he'd get it down on tape. In place of the absent Levon helm, Richard Manuel took the drummer's seat when necessary, with the other musicians switching instruments to fit around him, picking out parts on whatever came to hand.
In the absence of a group name, they became known to locals simply as "the band" a handle which stuck with them.
When Helm returned later in 1967, he was impressed by the way that the untutored Manuel had developed his own distinctive style, even insisting, when they started recording their own albums, that Manuel was better suited to drum on tracks like Rag Mama Rag. "He played loosey goosey, a little behind the beat, and it really swung," Helm marveled later in his autobiography This Wheel's On Fire.
The whole vibe of the basement "sessions" was relaxed, light hearted and in stark contrast to rock music's prevailing virtuosic tendencies, which their live shows had done much to initiate. Nobody bothered if somebody hit a bum note. And again, in contrast to contemporary tendencies, they played really quietly, a world away from the crushing barrage of the 1966 tour shows.
This, it turns out, was simple expediency. "If you played loud in the basement, it was really annoying, because it was a cement walled room," explains Robertson. "So we played in a little huddle, and if you couldn't hear the singing, you were playing too loud."
ULTIMATELY, THIS method would result in The Band developing their own revolutionary style a fresh, democratic sound which valued all instruments equally rather than asserting the primacy of guitar (after the excesses of the 1966 tour, Robertson resolutely steered clear of solos), and which afforded a conduit by which influences and inspirations from the past could seep into the present.
Some of the pieces that would eventually appear as The Basement Tapes were ideas for new songs; some were covers of old country and blues numbers; others were just bits of nonsense extemporised on the spot; but quite a few turned out to be works of considerable sophistication, such as This Wheel's On Fire, I Shall Be Released and Tears Of Rage songs which crystallised the musicians' sense of estrangement from the hippy movement's anti family platform.
Dylan had recently become a father, and the other musicians had soon settled comfortably into the laidback rural lifestyle of Woodstock. In the absence of an actual group name, they became known to locals as simply "the band", a handle which, by default, stuck with them when they struck out on their own again.
"Bob helped us more than anybody ever did," reckons Helm in retrospect. "What Bob was doing, it's easy to see now, was showing us how to construct songs, how to put songs together, and he was doing it right there with us, in front of us. He and Rick were writing This Wheel's On Fire, and he and Richard had written I Shall Be Released. Bob had set The Band on fire, and everybody was starting to write, Richard and Robbie especially."
Dylan, too, set off on his own again, returning to Nashville to invent country rock, and settling for a while into the life of a Bible studying paterfamilias surrounded by a gaggle of rug rats. They would remain friends and neighbours, until Dylan tired of stalkers intruding on his privacy and moved back to his old stamping ground of Greenwich Village and The Band would again serve as Bob's backing group a year or two later at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert (January 1968) and 1969's Isle Of Wight Festival.
However, it would be November 1973 before there was any substantial renewal of the two parties' creative relationship, with the recording of Dylan's Planet Waves album and the following year's tour of America, which at the time was the highest grossing concert tour in history (it also spawned the live album Before The Flood).
This commercial success, along with the tumultuous reception afforded them at every venue, effectively offered a belated validation of their earlier, more tempestuous shows.
"You know what was interesting about that?" says Robbie Robertson. "There was a certain niche that we would hit when we played together it would just go to a certain place musically. It was what came naturally in the beginning, when we played the Albert Hall. And then we did this tour in 1974, we didn't do that much different, but everybody acted like this was great all along, that there was never a problem here. It was like the world had revolved, and we just stood still. We thought, Isn't that wild - they came around!"