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Down from the mountain

by Greg Quill

From The Toronto Star, July 14, 2002. Copyright © 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved. Distribution, transmission or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.

Reclusive music legend Garth Hudson emerges with a remarkable first solo record.


AT AROUND 3 a.m. Monday morning, as I was tearing around the third hairpin bend in the narrow road up the black mountain above Woodstock, I became convinced that I was probably not going to catch up with Garth Hudson.

This was the second time that night I had followed the elusive, reclusive and famously laconic musical genius and keyboard wizard through the woods to his cabin just beneath the mountain's peak.

We'd agreed in advance to an 8 p.m. meeting at the Little Bear Caf in Bearsville, just west of Woodstock, the quaint Catskill village immortalized in the music made here in the 1970s by Hudson and the Band, Bob Dylan and countless other members of an extended musical entourage nurtured by the late eccentric supermanager Albert Grossman. But Hudson explained when he arrived that he had some things to take care of first.

"You've just got to follow me," he said, assuring me that he had lots to say about his first-ever solo CD, The Sea To The North, released last week in Canada on the independent, punk-oriented OPM (Other People's Music) label distributed by EMI.

By paying very close attention to his elliptical monologues -- he doesn't always answer questions; he uses them to launch parabolic narratives that may conclude with a dissertation on the strange and beautiful shape of the front end of a 1936 Plymouth -- it was discerned over a few hurried bites of a spring roll that Hudson doesn't actually inhabit the world other people like to call real. He visits it sometimes. He comes down from the mountain occasionally after he rises at around 3 p.m. and takes care of whatever bits of daylight business he can cram in.

Hudson works in the music shack beside the main house till sunrise, doodling on a shiny black Yamaha upright, flailing away on one of a dozen accordions strewn around the room, writing transcriptions of Bach and Bird or working his way through a vast selection of vintage saxophones, one as tall as a man. It is propped on its own stand in the centre of the room, which is furnished in an engaging blend of country Victoriana, 1970s folk kitsch and the primitive paraphernalia of a quirky musician to whom accidental and intuitive synthesis is the stuff of life.

Neatly stacked shelves are filled with tapes containing unimaginable gems, including material that predates Hudson's work with his first full-time employer in Toronto, Arkansas-born rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins. Others are filled with strange publications (Bob Dylan's collected Christian testimony, a book-length essay on William Blake by American poet Allen Ginsberg), tiny tools for repairing instruments and a vinyl collection of music ranging from polka favorites and rare Bengali folk music to Fats Waller. On one wall hangs a gold album commemorating sales of one million copies for the Band's Rock Of Ages, on another a platinum album marking sales of 100,000 copies of Canada's Northern Pikes' 1990 album, Snow In June, on which he played.

In this room Hudson, nudging 65, talks on the telephone for hours, usually interrupting conversations for extended musical breaks -- he communicates via piano language when words fail him -- and lives a sort of parallel existence in the dark, his way often illuminated by a penlight he carries with him at all times. In this world he knows where to get a restaurant meal at midnight, groceries at 3 in the morning, a mechanic to fix his battered SUV or somewhere to secure a foot pedal for one of his electronic keyboards.

Earlier this night we had made a similar dash to deliver Chinese food to Hudson's wife of 23 years, Maud, a singer who performed with the cream of the California blues crop in the early 1970s. She had been waiting at the house since 9 for a meal that would arrive two hours late, thanks to a persnickety oil-pressure light on the dashboard of the family vehicle, which Hudson felt obliged to have checked out before resuming scheduled business.

Also on Hudson's Sunday-night agenda was a gig at the Joyous Lake, the venerable concert club on Woodstock's main drag, where he had agreed to perform with local raga-blues outfit the Bill Boyd Band.

And then there are the preparations for his upcoming mini-tour of Canada. It's a significant step back into the limelight.

"We're following in the tailwind of the re-release of The Last Waltz, and I've never had so much attention," he said, as we settled for the second time this night in the wood-panelled music room.

A work of unmistakable genius, the six-track CD bears every nuance of the carnival/bebop-folk/hymn-honky-tonk/hard-core classical/hypersonic rock that has become the Hudson imprint. It was recorded at over 18 months in nearby Hurley with the assistance of members of Woodstock band the Crowmatix. They're with Hudson this weekend at blues festivals in Windsor, his hometown, and London, where he grew up and studied music, and tomorrow night in Toronto at Club 279, above the Hard Rock Caf , where Hudson and the Hawks reigned in their formative years in the late 1960s.

Like Hudson himself, the album is its own thing, extemporaneous and difficult to comprehend at first, a gem without a setting, an object of strange, unfocused and ineffable beauty. And it's a work that arrives very late in the artist's life, more than 20 years after the demise of the Band, an event orchestrated by singer-songwriter/guitarist Robbie Robertson, who had tired of the rigours of road life and hankered for an unfettered solo career. The massive 1976 farewell concert in San Francisco was captured by movie director Martin Scorsese, whose The Last Waltz, recently re-released in DVD form, is prized as one of America's great cultural documentaries.

"Well, I was busy for a lot of years after The Last Waltz, touring with the Band (subsequent versions, sans Robertson) ... and there was a credibility issue," he said, implying that the absence of a solo opus had something to do with his avoidance of the spotlight and with the lack of a commercial identity.

It was because Hudson, "one of the kindest souls in the world," could never refuse requests to tour and continue recording under the Band banner with drummer Levon Helm, pianist and mandolin player Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko and an assortment of guest guitarists, that his own career as a composer and recording artist suffered, said a Woodstock denizen who knows the acrimonious story of the Band's afterlife all too well.

"For years Garth put aside his own best interests in favour of the other guys. He has also worked on dozens of recording projects by other artists. And he's had a lot of hard times. He was there when Richard committed suicide (in Florida in 1986). And Rick was a constant in his life until he died (at his home in Woodstock in 1999). He has had financial setbacks, a couple of bankruptcies.

"He watched Levon's bitterness towards Robbie fester into scorn" -- over Robertson's alleged appropriation of Helm's family stories and memories of rural Southern life, and his acquisition of the other Band members' shares of publishing rights after the break-up.

"Maud has a spine injury and has difficulty getting around, and he fusses constantly over her. He wants to set up an educational institution of some kind, preferably in Canada, to pass on his musical legacy, but he has never been sure people understand him. There hasn't been much time to develop a solo career."

Instead, Hudson has been compiling selections of rare jazz from the 1920s and '30s in themed groups, hoping a record label might be interested in helping him pass on by osmosis what he has learned from past and underacknowledged masters.

He's an avid collector of pre-bop jazz, and spends driving time playing and replaying tapes of his favourite late-night National Public Radio jazz programs. "If you've got anything from that period by the British band leader Jack Hilton, let me know," he said. "Those recordings are impossible to find."

He won't talk about his own version of the Band's troubles. He never mentions his induction into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. However, he said he's proud to receive this weekend a lifetime achievement award from the Canada South Blues Society in Windsor and "touched" to be performing there with Paul London, former leader of the Capers blues band, with whom Hudson played from 1958 through 1961 before joining Hawkins in Toronto.

He neither demands nor receives special consideration in Woodstock, though everyone in town reveres him and Helm, vigorously protecting their privacy from inquisitive fans and tourists. Hudson, with the white beard and long white mane of an ancient geezer, packs, sets up and unpacks his own equipment whenever he performs at the Joyous Lake.

"I wouldn't expect anyone to help me or treat me differently," he said. "I'm just part of the community here. I have to look these people in the eye the next day."

These days his eyes are turning homeward. He returned a few years ago to London for a 50th anniversary school reunion and has been thinking ever since about setting up some kind of music education institute at the University of Western Ontario.

"We're talking to some folks there later this week," he says. "I would like to have a place where students have access to all the things I've collected, the music, the lessons about how to survive in the music business. I finally think I've worked it out. I've kept everything.

"Like I told Robbie when he played me the remixed version of The Last Waltz, I played better than I thought I had at the time.

"I might not have written the script, but I underscored the movie."

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