by Kevin RansomFrom Guitar Player Magazine, May 1995. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute. Reprinted with permission from the author. Kevin Ransom can be reached by e-mail at Kevransom@aol.com.
In October of 1992, when the normally-restrained Eric Clapton introduced The Band at the Bob Dylan tribute concert in New York's Madison Square Garden, he was absolutely effusive as he assessed the impact of their music.
"Back in 1968, I heard a record called Music From Big Pink (The Band's debut) that changed my life," enthused Clapton, "and it changed the course of American music."
Those are heady words coming from such a revered guitar icon, but they capture the aura of reverence that also surrounded The Band during their most fertile creative period in the late '60s and early '70s--and has continued to linger ever since.
During their 16 years together--eight years as the Hawks and eight years as The Band--guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, organist/saxman Garth Hudson, drummer Levon Helm and pianist Richard Manuel demonstrated their bristling chops and rhythmic intricacy. But they could also play with a subtle, muted delicacy.
And as evidenced on the live tracks from their recently-released boxed set--Across The Great Divide--The Band also favored loose-limbed, willfully rickety arrangements that sometimes threatened to spin out of control: It was if, at any moment, a wheel could come off, sending the whole thing buckboarding over a cliff--and that's a complement.
Across The Great Divide is a sprawling, stirring reminder that The Band's most compelling and impassioned music--primarily from Big Pink (1968), The Band (1969) and Stage Fright (1971)--soufully evoked the autumnal, deep-woods sounds and images of a rustic, pre-industrial America. At the same time, it conjured sonic impressions of eras that never truly existed at all.
The 56-track box is also the most definitive statement to date of The Band's ability to absorb a far-flung roux of influences--Chicago blues, Appalachian bluegrass, Memphis soul, Nashville honky-tonk, Cajun two-steps, Dixieland jazz, Southern gospel harmonies, Salvation Army-band marches, Anglican hymns, blowzy tent-show stomps, and even Bach fugues and tocattas--and then alchemize those forms into something so completely singular.
The rare or previously unreleased tracks on Across The Great Divide (Capitol) deliver some guitaristically raucous moments. Robertson's shivery, barbed-wire solos on Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," Chuck Berry's "Back To Memphis," Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Ya Tell Henry" flaunt the blistering solo chops that he tended to downplay in his own songs.
Released at the end of '94, the boxed set capped a year in which The Band enjoyed greater visibility--and more press coverage--than at any other time since the original line-up called it quits in 1976. The last 14 months has seen the release of Jericho, the reunited Band's first new recording in 15 years, as well as their most extensive tour since the mid-'70s, including a gig at Woodstock '94. (Jericho is also their first album with Jim Weider, Robertson's replacement, on guitar.) Plus, Robertson released his third solo album in October, while Danko's second trio project with Eric Anderson and Jonas Fjeld is slated for a spring release.
Their return to the spotlight has also been aided by two Band biographies. The most controversial is Levon Helm's This Wheel's On Fire--in which Helm accuses Robertson of taking sole writing credit for songs that Helm says he and other Band members co-wrote.
In the following conversation with Robertson and bassist/guitarist Danko--culled from separate interviews--they talk about the boxed set, recall the Big Pink and The Band sessions and assess The Band's legacy--as well as its present viability. They also address Helm's accusations. Not surprisingly, on that subject, their recollections differ markedly.
The songs on Music From Big Pink and The Band had a timeless quality that the critics said would still hold up 25 years down the road. Well, the 25 years are up--so what do you think of that assessment today?
Robbie: Actually, it strikes me very similarly. Before we started putting together the box set, it had been many years since I listened to the music I made with The Band, except what I'd hear on the radio now and again. And when I listened to it again, it really did sound like music that never really had its own time. Those songs didn't sound timely when we recorded them, and they don't sound timely now. I thought, "Wow, this music really had its own niche--it didn't have anything to do with anybody or anything." With a lot of artists' music, you can hear a little of this, a little of that. But I still don't know where The Band's music came from, and I like that about it--I'm proud of The Band for that.
The box didn't include as many previously-unreleased tracks as some of us had hoped. I understand there were some lost tapes. What was on them?
Rick: In '68, after we recorded Big Pink, we rewarded ourselves by going into Gold Star Studios, this famous old studio in Hollywood, and having some fun on some old blues and country and R&B stuff--"My House Ain't But A Mile And A Quarter," "Sitting Here A Thousand Miles From Nowhere," "Back At The Old Country Shack," "Liza Jane," that sort of thing. But Capitol was cleaning out their shelves one day, and they didn't think we wanted 'em, and they all got thrown out. Then, in 1970, right after Bearsville Studios were built in Woodstock, to check it out, we went in and recorded another bunch of covers. But those tapes burned up in a fire at Garth's house in LA years ago.
When you listen back to the classic Band songs today, do they reveal anything to you that maybe didn't strike you at the time?
Robbie: Yeah, what didn't strike me at the time, but what I can hear now, is that these were really strange arrangements (laughs)--but they were actually non-arrangements. This wasn't a band where each guy played one specific role. We'd just keep passing the ball around, swapping instruments and vocal parts and trying different arrangements until there was something about it that we recognized--not by having anything to compare it to--but just by continuing to discover the song until it sounded like the official version, or like the real thing--whatever the hell the "real thing" was.
Some of The Band's most beautiful and compelling songs --"The Weight," "Rocking Chair," "Acadian Driftwood," "King Harvest"--had a frail, wobbly quality that was quite poignant--which I mostly attributed to Garth's keyboard playing.
Robbie: Well, Richard (Manuel) had some wobble to his piano playing as well, but it was also because of the way Rick played the bass. He was almost re-inventing the instrument--he didn't play bass like anyone else at the time. He played fretless bass way before it was popular, and the way he played it, it almost sounded like a tuba with strings on it.
Rick, were you consciously trying to sound different from everyone else, or did your bass style just develop instinctually?
Rick: I was mostly influenced by the great Motown bass players, like Phil Upchurch and James Jamerson, and Edgar Willis from Ray Charles band--and yeah, some tuba players as well. But I just tried to listen and play in the spaces--to hook up with the bass drum and leave some space for the backbeat to hit. If everyone plays on the same beat, you can't hear each other. So I tried to play in front of the beat in a way that didn't rush it, or behind the beat in a way that didn't drag it. The Band was very good at listening to each other, and working out the arrangements in a very economical way, and making it add up so that you could not only hear the sum of the parts, but feel it as well. "King Harvest" is a good example of that--with the bass and the bass drum playing together--ba-BUM, ba-BUM. Then the backbeat, BUM--with the bass and bass drum hitting on the one and then the backbeat hitting on two, of course. It was another way of adding space to the equation. Sometimes, it's not what you know, it's what you leave out. It's funny--when I was about 17 years old, I remember Garth telling me, "Go see a music teacher." And I was a cocky kid, so I said, "What do you want me to learn?" And he said, "Well, in the first place, you're only playing the neck with one finger. You gotta use all your fingers." So I went to a teacher, and it took me a couple of visits before I could play a perfect scale. That might be one of the best pieces of information anyone ever gave me (Laughs).
How critical was the fretless bass to your developing such a fluid, agile style?
Rick: I didn't start out as a bass player. Ronnie Hawkins originally hired me as a rhythm guitarist. I was infatuated with the sound of the slide guitar, and I also played the violin. So I'd use a comparable motion on my (Ampeg) fretless by sliding up to the note and then stopping at the bridge. Edgar Willis' work on the stand-up acoustic bass also influenced my fretless playing. It was another way of making me really listen, and forcing me to concentrate on the pitch and being in tune. I also played a Fender bass in the old days, but now I play three custom-made basses. The Guitar Workshop in Norway built me a four-string and a five-string, and Mark Denn from New York City also made one for me. They all use Olympic pick-ups, which I really like. I think Phil Lesh, from the Dead, uses 'em, too.
Robbie, one track on the boxed set--"Who Do You Love," by Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, circa 1963--showcases your screaming, vicious guitar style from the early '60s. Can you remember what your reference points were, or where it was that you wanted to take the guitar at the time?
Robbie: Usually, at that stage in your development--I was only 16 when I hooked up with Ronnie--you just steal everything that you like. But I quickly found that I was really terrible at copying. And even if I studied a particular riff, it was always pain in the ass for me to figure out. So I just developed my own variation on the theme--not because I was trying to be original, but because I couldn't do the other thing. And in the process, as I accidentally tripped over ideas, I found that, although I was definitely flailing, I was also discovering something new, and inventing something --because no one else was playing like that at the time. Plus, that violent style also had a lot to do with my impression of Ronnie's music, which always struck me as quite violent and vicious. But we could be cool and subtle too, sometimes in the same song. The dynamics of the Hawks' music at that time were very exciting.
Of course, the imagery in that song--"I got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind"--really cry out for those cold, metallic guitar shards.
Robbie: Well, I thought so. (Laughs)
But with Big Pink and The Band, you went in a more economical, groove-conscious direction.
Robbie: See, with Ronnie, I played a solo in every song--and then when we hooked up with Bob Dylan for the 1965 and '66 tours, I played even more solos. Bob had never played with a band before, not as far as I could tell (laughs), and we were like this newfound musical toy for him. He'd sing a couple of verses, look over at me, and I'd solo; he'd sing another verse, look over at me, and I'd solo; then, after the final verse, he'd look over at me again, and I'd solo to end the song. So by the time of The Band's first album, I was soloed out, and I'd gotten to a place where, for me, it was about was finding the right emotion, and I figured my role was to support that emotion. I got so I just wanted to play parts and grooves instead of solos.
Your solo in "King Harvest" is a real study in sonic minimalism. Is it true that you turned your amp down to the lowest possible setting?
Robbie: Yeah, that's right. I was sitting with my amp literally right beside me, because we recorded it live, in a small room, and I didn't want my guitar to leak into the other mikes. At the time, I was still playing my Tele--which I played for years before switching to the Strat in 1973. I liked the Teles because we were on the road a lot, and they were so durable you could pound nails with 'em. Anyway, I was plugged into this old Gibson amp, with a very dry, low-fi sound to it, with no top and no bottom. Typically, you really had to crank these things up to get them so speak, but Harvest didn't call for that. I wanted a dry sound, so that the bass and drums and guitar all seemed like they were coming out of the same speaker.
On the live tracks from the 1975 Watkins Glen festival, you're really cutting loose again. The intro and solo on "Back To Memphis" have that stuttering, rickety sound that recalls your playing on Before The Flood (1974). What do you remember about that performance?
Robbie: I suppose if you get away from something for a while, it's always more enjoyable to come back to it again. And Watkins Glen was so loose and bizarre, you felt like you could just do anything--but it was all done very instinctually. On "Back To Memphis," I could sort of remember the solo from the original, but not exactly. So I just played a variation on it according to my memory, instead of getting the record out and learning it--which I'm actually very opposed to. Because if it's going to be exactly the same as the orignal, then I'd rather hear the original. But if you're gonna do a variation, then do a variation, you know?
Rick, you've always played acoustic guitar in your solo act. How have your years of playing the bass affected your approach to the guitar, and vice versa?
Rick: To this day, I still learn a lot from my acoustic shows--just from going up there and having to keep the thing together by myself. I said earlier that Ronnie Hawkins hired me to be a rhythm guitarist, but I really didn't play rhythm before I joined the Hawks--I was a lead guitar player. But over the years, playing the bass has made me into a pretty good rhythm player. In my acoustic shows, there's a lot of bass going on. I tune my guitar down a full step, and I'm actually just playing bass lines with some chords on top. Most of my movement is on the bottom strings.
I always thought "The Weight" was The Band's most stirring, most beautifully-constructed song--but I understand it was on the "B" list during the Big Pink sessions.
Robbie: That's true, it was. We'd tried it a number of different ways, but we weren't that excited about it. So our attitude was, "Well, just in case something else isn't working, we've got this song to fall back on." So we were in the studio, and just out of trying to not be boring, we said, "Well, let's give that `Take a load off Fanny' song a shot." And very quickly, someone suggested that maybe Garth should play piano and Richard should play organ, because it seemed like there was room for some fills that would sound more natural coming from the piano than the guitar. So they swapped, and we recorded it, and it wasn't until we listened back to it that we realized, "Holy shit, this song's really got something."
Rick: Ironically, since Levon had just come back into the band when we got signed to Capitol, that was the only song he sang on Big Pink--Richard and I sang the rest. Of course, at the time we had no idea how big it was going to become. We were just doing our best to make music that had rhythm, and soul.
What was your reaction to Levon's book?
Robbie: I didn't read it, because I heard it was a lot of sour grapes, and I thought, oh well, whatever. I've got too much else to think about for that kind of stuff. It's just been so long. I mean, I love Levon dearly and I always will, for all the tremendous times we had together, but really, you'd think he'd have more interesting things to think about in his life by now. I guess he blames me for breaking up The Band, and I suppose that's partly true, but he didn't say why. I didn't do it on a whim, believe me. You know, I called him up a couple months before the book came out, rather naively, to talk about the box set, and how we should get together and play some music together, and he said, "Yeah, that sounds good to me," like everything was hunky dory. He didn't say, `Hey, look, I've got this book coming out....."
Rick: When The Band broke up in '76, it was just time to bring the old ship in, and grow a little bit. Robbie wasn't the only one who wanted to do other things. Before The Last Waltz, I signed a production deal with Clive Davis to do my solo shows. Sometimes it breaks my heart when I remember that, in '76, Warner offered us a $6 million dollar deal to do an album a year--and we passed. But there's more to life than being able to live off your royalties: Ego is a funny thing, and after the first two or three albums, The Band pretty much became a Robbie thing, so there was conflict there.
Since you brought it up, Levon also claims that Robbie took total writing credit for songs that he says you and the other guys contributed to. Is that the way you remember it as well?
Rick: Yeah, there was a lot of that. A lot of those songs were Levon's stories, without a doubt. And as far as the music, yeah, it was very much a collaborative effort on those first two albums. So there was a little greed there on Robbie's part--a lot of greed, actually. But that's behind us now. It really seems like that was another time.
Robbie: Listen, I begged the guys to get involved in the writing, because I was the one who was up all night banging my head against the wall trying to write this stuff. And just because someone's in the room when a song is being written, that doesn't mean they helped write it. Don't get me wrong--Levon and Rick and Richard contributed tremendously to the arrangements, and to the sound of those records, and there's no way to explain how important Garth was in terms of taking us to new places musically. But, I'm sorry, it's just not true. And in a few cases, I thought I was more than generous when someone was in the room while I was writing a song.
You know, it occured to me that, by Levon's own admission, most of the guys were fairly whacked out on various substances at the time--which can sometimes affect the way people perceive and remember certain events.
Robbie: You want me to tell you something? That was the biggest problem in The Band--and many other bands of the era. I didn't know anyone who wasn't completely fucked up at the time. And with The Band, it started very early on--way before the Stage Fright sessions--and it never went away again. As a result, making records became very painful. These were, and are, very talented guys, and it was a joy to hear them when they were on their mark. But then, when you go into the studio and everyone's not really there for it, it bruises you in your soul. So, if you want to know why I didn't want to go on the road with these guys any more, and why The Band had become this pathetic, drug-infested, dysfunctional organization--and why I thought we should bring it to a conclusion--then read his book. And believe me, I was no angel during that period, but, to put it really bluntly, I just more scared than they were --I didn't have the balls to try everything that they were willing to try. It was almost as if it had become this experiment to see how close to the edge of the cliff you could drive without falling off.
So, when The Band re-formed in the mid-'80s, when it seemed like everyone much cleaner then they were, you weren't at all tempted to go back on the road with them again?
Robbie: No, I didn't buy that for a minute--and Richard died as a result of it. [Manuel, long plagued by chronic drug and alcohol problems, hanged himself in the bathroom of a Florida hotel room in 1986 while The Band was on the road.]
The reunited Band toured on and off throughout the '80s, but didn't release a new album until late '93. What took so long?
Rick: Everyone just wasn't ready, and the seed money wasn't available. We had a few false starts--there was a clash of personalities with label people who were trying to tell us how to make records. But The Band is The Band, you know? We weren't going to put up with that. [A few years ago, after signing with Sony and disagreeing with execs over material, The Band extricated itself from the contract--and got to keep a reported $500,000 of Sony's advance money.] But we were very happy with Jericho, which was made the way the first two Band albums were made, in that it was very much a collaborative process--everyone contributed. Right now, we're getting ready to do the next Band album up here in Woodstock, and we've got a lot of really strong original material together--some of it left over from our false starts in the '80s and early '90s. Everyone is living a more healthy lifestyle, so we're much more focused. And we played together more in '94 than we have in 20 years, so the unit sounds fantastic. But, for me, the most important thing is being involved again. Making new music with Levon and Garth again is just so....They're such incredible musicians, and I'm honored to be able to share my life with what they do.