The Band

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Heart & Soul: The Band

by Barney Hoskyns

From Mojo, January 1994.
Copyright © Barney Hoskyns, 1994, all rights reserved.

MENTION THE BAND TO PEOPLE IN 1993 and the chances are they'll say: "What band?" So much for the enduring legacy of the finest group to emerge from the wreckage of the momentous mid-'60s. Yet in a way, the question -- the ignorance -- befits them, since their very name reflected the anonymity they strove to cultivate: the sense that this was a unit composed of five musicians and no stars.

Jaime 'Robbie' Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson were five ornery, introverted sidemen prodded into becoming a self-contained group by the star in whose shadow they'd made their major mark: Bob Dylan. Resembling 19th century gold-rush prospectors, they were bearded, behatted, virtually interchangeable. Yet once you got to know them, to know their extraordinary music, you realised that each member had a vitally distinct personality within the whole.

Robertson was the principal writer and self-appointed "director" of the group. Drummer Helm was the good-ole-boy from Arkansas, the sole American in a line-up of transplanted Canadians who took America itself as their theme. Danko was the genial country bumpkin on bass and occasional fiddle. Manuel had the raggedy, booze-fuelled baritone and excelled on anguished R&B ballads. And mad professor Hudson's otherworldly keyboard doodles were the glue that held the whole operation together.

Like Dylan, The Band thrived on mystique. Under the protective wing of Albert Grossman, that legendary ogre of a manager they shared with Bob, the group stayed put for the most part in cosy Woodstock, NY, only venturing out for key events like the Woodstock Festival itself. If Richard Manuel was prone to bouts of alcoholic stupor, Grossman made sure it didn't compromise the quintet's image as a bunch of unassuming Catskills woodsmen. For a while at least, they immersed themselves in the plaintive, downhome Americana of their music, nurturing each other like brothers.

Predictably, the fraternal spirit only lasted so long. Despite their resolve to stand apart from the post-Monterey circus of rock, The Band succumbed to all the standard showbiz lures, partaking as freely of the flesh and chemicals as any of their peers. Succumbed, too, to the petty infighting that eats away at teamwork.

Still, at their peak -- 1968 to 1973 -- the group embodied better than anyone the sense of the American past which came to haunt pop culture after all the hippie ideals of 1965-67 had been betrayed. As Rolling Stone scribe Ed Ward wrote of The Band, their classic second album: "It helped a lot of people dizzy from the confusion and disorientation of the '60s feel that the nation was big enough to include them, too."

THE REAL MIDWIFE TO THE BIRTH OF THE COMBO WHO became The Band was not Dylan but Ronnie Hawkins, a renegade rockabilly from north-west Arkansas who, following in the footsteps of Conway Twitty, ventured up to the cold climes of Canada in the spring of 1958. Canada was virgin rock'n'roll terrain back then, ripe for the taking, but Ronnie's backing band, The Hawks, pined for watermelon and drifted back over the border.

Only Levon Helm, the carrot-haired juvenile who whacked the crap out of a tiny drum kit every night, was sufficiently enamoured of Canada to stay. As Ronnie's lieutenant, moreover, he helped recruit the Ontarian brats who replaced the Dixie originals in the band. Within a three-year period (1960-1963), Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson all signed up for the ride.

It was a seamy, sleazy life, to be sure. At a time when Fabian and Frankie Avalon ruled the waves, The Hawks' diehard rock'n'roll -- razorback renditions of 'Bo Diddley' and the like -- was welcomed only in the skuzziest roadhouses. Touring through Canada (and through America's mid-South in the spring and autumn), the Canuck teenagers certainly served their apprenticeship. Booze, whores, switch-blades -- just what their parents had always wanted for them.

It's hard to overstate the impact of the South on the mind of young Robbie Robertson, the obsessive wannabe guitarist who swallowed all the Delta blues myths whole and would have sold his soul to the devil if he'd got the chance. During these years Robbie absorbed much of the flavour of life below the 'Smith & Wesson line' that came pouring out in Band songs like 'King Harvest' and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'.

Sometime in early 1964, The Hawks figured they could make it without their Falstaffian mentor. For a year they plied their trade as Levon & The Hawks, veering away from rock'n'roll to pure R&B. Richard Manuel honed his honky Ray Charles act, Robertson pushed the envelope of ear-splitting Telecaster axemanship, and the group became one of the tightest, baddest units on any bar-band circuit.

So tight, indeed, that during a summer residency on the New Jersey seaboard in 1965, no less a person than Bob Dylan got wind of them. Anxious to follow up the scandalous apostasy of his electric set at that year's Newport Festival, Dylan hired Helm and Robertson to accompany him at two crucial summer shows, then took on the whole band for a tour so infamous that Levon Helm eventually could take the boos no more and headed home to Arkansas.

The Hawks behind Dylan was a volcanic powerhouse, an amphetamine-driven explosion of electricity. No-one had heard anything like this: existentialist beat rants set to riotous R&B grooves, outraging everyone who needed Bob to be their campus messiah. For the Hawks it was a visceral baptism by fire, leaving them all but burned-out by mid-1966.

Dylan himself, teetering on the edge of speed psychosis, stopped the train in the nick of time. There followed a year of hibernation and mystique-building in Woodstock, where Dylan and the 'the band' -- as they became known around the former artists' colony -- assembled daily in the basement of Big Pink, a secluded pink house Rick Danko had found in neighbouring West Saugerties.

Opting out of the summer of love, spurning the media overkill of flower power, the five men instead yanked open a treasure-chest of blues, country, and folk songs, building up a rambling repertoire of antiques and curios which continue to leak out to this day in the form of bootlegs. The contrast with the venom and rage of the 1965/66 tours couldn't have been more pronounced. It was at Big Pink, too, that Dylan wrote 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere', 'Nothing Was Delivered', 'The Mighty Quinn', and a host of other compellingly quirky songs covered in due course by the likes of The Byrds and Manfred Mann ('Tears Of Rage' and 'This Wheel's On Fire', co-written with Manuel and Danko respectively, were to surface on The Band's debut album.)

Not long after, in autumn 1967, when Levon Helm returned to the fold, Dylan began encouraging the band to go it alone. The effect of this healthy separation were Dylan's stark John Wesley Harding and The Band's astonishing Music From Big Pink, both released in 1968. Commercially, Big Pink made a small splash, but its ripples were far-reaching.

Combining Dylan collaborations with the first real songs by Robbie Robertson (including 'The Weight'), it did more than perhaps any other album that year to signal rock's change of direction -- a stepping-back from the excesses of psychedelia and the bombast of blues-rock into something more soulful, more rural and reflective. Big Pink blew Eric Clapton's mind so much that he disbanded Cream and hooked up the hippy medicine show of Delaney & Bonnie -- an association that led directly to the formation of Derek & The Dominos.

From the opening 'Tears of Rage' to the closing 'I Shall Be Released' the album roamed the byways and backwaters of American music, presenting a wholly original fusion of country and gospel, rock and R&B. You could hear the years of on-the-road experience in the laying and the overlapping ramshackle vocals of Helm, Danko and Manuel.

But it was the even more rough-hewn second album, The Band, which really defined the group's character. Recorded in a makeshift pool-house studio in LA in early 1969, the record sounds timeless, a distillation of the American experience stretching from the Civil War ('The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down') to the menacing unrest of 1969 itself ('Look Out, Cleveland').

It was an album which found room for both the rollicking bawdiness of 'Rag Mama Rag' and the string-band harmonizing of 'Rockin' Chair', for both the heartbroken balladry of 'Whispering Pines' and the uncomprehending anger of 'King Harvest'. Robertson claimed that changing the running order would have been tantamount to shuffling the chapters in a novel, and he was right. The Band remains one of the few '60s albums which still feels all of a piece.

WITH HINDSIGHT, ONE COULD ARGUE THAT THE BAND'S problems started once they were obliged to take their precious music on the road. After all the years spent backing Hawkins and Dylan, they were ill-prepared for the vulnerability they felt onstage without a frontman. Not long after their disastrous debut at San Francisco's Winterland in April 1969, the group found themselves in front of the massed tribes of Woodstock -- actually 60 miles away from their adopted home. "It was like a ripped army of mud people," recalled Robertson of the famous festival. "We felt like a bunch of preacher boys looking into purgatory."

This sense of alienation from the spirit of rock was reflected in Stage Fright (1970), as much in happily hermetic songs like 'Time To Kill' as in the harrowing title track. Initially intended to be a "good-time" album, Stage Fright instead suggested deep foreboding and depression. Ironically, it preceded The Band's most intensive period of touring, during which they became the formidable live unit of their 1971 Albert Hall shows and the magnificent double, Rock Of Ages (1972).

Rock Of Ages notwithstanding, the experience of 'stage fright' on the road palpably affected the group's confidence -- particularly Robertson's as a writer. Where the elegaic quality of The Band had been fresh and spontaneous, Cahoots (1971) sounded laboured and didactic. Songs like 'The River Hymn' and 'Last Of The Blacksmiths' were strained protests against the erosion of tradition, straying dangerously close to reactionary sentimentality.

Significantly, The Band didn't record another album of original songs until 1975's Northern Lights -- Southern Cross. After a lost year in 1972, when Richard Manuel's alcoholism became near-chronic, they trod water with Moondog Matinee (1973), one of the better covers albums of that period, then hitched their wagon once again to Bob Dylan for the mega-grossing Dylan/Band tour of 1974. Dylan himself was to complain that Tour '74 consisted of "nothing but force", but often that force (on Before The Flood's 'All Along the Watchtower', for example) was pretty awesome.

Just as The Band had followed Dylan up to Woodstock, so now they decamped to LA, setting up homes near his Oceanside hideaway in the superstar enclave of Malibu. The move suited Robertson, who enjoyed hobnobbing with movie stars, but the other felt like fish out of water. "It was a floating gold iceberg," remembered Levon Helm's common-law wife, Libby Titus. "On the surface it was all so beautiful, and underneath it was all so rotten."

The Band at least managed to distance themselves from the coked-out Babylon of the mid-'70s L.A. by building their own studio a stone's throw from the Pacific at Zuma Beach. Shangri-La was a combination workplace/clubhouse recalled fondly by Eric Clapton, who recorded his No Reason To Cry album there in March 1976. Here it was that the group set to work cutting the first new batch of songs Robertson had penned since Cahoots.

If Northern Lights was a strangely muted affair, its eight tracks nonetheless showed that The Band hadn't lost the magic of their musical empathy. The standout track, the epic 'Acadian Driftwood', showcased almost everything that had made the group so special: the spine-tingling 'three-headed voice' of Helm/Danko/Manuel, the detail and craft of Robertson's writing, the genius of Garth Hudson's arrangements.

The record wasn't enough to compensate for the band's internal problems, however. As they toured through the summer of 1976, it rapidly became clear that Richard Manuel could barely function any longer as a professional musician. When Robertson suggested winding up the performing side of things with a final show at Winterland, he didn't encounter much resistance.

Thus was born the concept of The Last Waltz, at root a grandiose excuse for Robertson to gather together his superstar cronies and turn it into a film. Staged on Thanksgiving Day (November 25) 1976, The Last Waltz was effectively a Last Supper of '70s rock'n'roll on the eve of the punk insurrection that would turn all these people -- Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison et al -- into dinosaurs. Martin Scorsese's film was brilliant, but over-indulgent of Robbie's mythmaking. But then the two men had already struck up a friendship which would see them ensconced for most of 1977 in a glorified bachelor pad-cum-cocaine den in the Hollywood Hills.

With only the shameful Islands (1977) as a last, contract-honouring souvenir of The Band's life, the group quickly fragmented. When The Last Waltz opened to rave reviews in 1978, Robertson was still talking about "the next Band album", but there was already too much tension and resentment between him and the others to make such a thing conceivable. Having blown all their money like typical rock pigs, Helm and co could only look on in fury as Robbie raked in the profits as producer of The Last Waltz -- along with the royalties he earned as sole writer on the majority of the group's songs.

While Robertson kicked back and cultivated a new relationship with Hollywood -- his 1980 movie, Carny, was a tribute to the traveling carnival shows which had always fascinated him -- the others scammed and scavenged their way through odd solo deals, minor movie roles, all-star one-nighters.

Eventually, in 1983, they gave in to the inevitable temptation and put together a reformed Band without Robertson. For Greil Marcus, who'd done so much to bolster the group's legend in his book, Mystery Train, it was like Hamlet without the prince; for Levon and Rick and the others, it paid the bills for a few months.

Robertson made his own comeback three years later with a grotesquely-overproduced solo album, Robbie Robertson. Like The Last Waltz, it featured an array of stellar chums (U2, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young), further evidence of the man's compulsive cronying. Its one really moving song, 'Fallen Angel', was an agonized hymn to the sweet-natured fuck-up who'd sung so many of The Band's greatest songs: Richard Manuel, found hanging from a shower-curtain rod in a Florida motel room in March 1986.

EIGHT YEARS ON FROM MANUEL'S PATHETIC DEATH, THE BAND seem a long way off from us. "They're a kind of cul-de-sac in rock'n'roll history", says Elvis Costello, one of many Europeans for whom the early Band albums were like "letters from the other side of the world... If they left a legacy, unfortunately it was a kind of muso mentality, people who wanted to be like them but didn't really understand that what was great about them was this mysterious quality the music had, a quality you can't buy off-the-peg. They were more like jazz musicians in that respect, like one of Miles's really great lineups. Five incredible players and three great singers. How many other bands can boast that?"

Perhaps it was too much to expect The Band to have a precisely traceable influence: it was always going to be easier to turn a wasted drugstore cowboy like Gram parsons (another passion of Costello's, of course) into a posthumous icon than to pay homage to such a shadowy five-man entity. Their songs were also too intricate and distinctive to inspire carbon copies. Yet The Band did a great deal to create the conditions in which 'roots rock' -- for want of a far less limiting term -- could later flourish. In fashioning a magical world from their apprehension of an adopted land, the seldom relied on pastiche or nostalgia. Even when they assembled the DIY jukebox of Moondog Matinee, they refracted the songs through the lens of their collective imagination.

They may never have enjoyed the tribal following of The Grateful Dead, or the Top 40 success of Creedence Clearwater Revival, but their albums have stood the test of time better than American Beauty or Cosmo's Factory. For anyone who ever got hip to them, The Band remain special in a way that few of their contemporaries do. And there are signs that the group is picking up younger admirers along the way. When the rotund Rick Danko played a superb Borderline show last year -- the first time any Band member had ventured onto British soil in years -- it was refreshing to see that the capacity audience wasn't composed solely of Sol-clutching wrinklies.

"I wish we'd been able to put out 20 albums and play twice as much and touch 10 times as many people," Robbie Robertson has said. "But I don't have any regrets about it. For the most part I don't think about the darkest hours. Mostly I remember the wonderful things."

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