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The Band: A Tree With Roots

by Mick Gold

From the UK magazine Let It Rock, April 1974.
Published with permission from the author.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

THE LEGEND runs that in the summer of 1965 the Hawks (also known as the Crackers) were playing a night club in the seashore resort of Somers Point, New Jersey, when they were telephoned by a certain Mr. Dylan, who asked them if they'd like to play the Hollywood Bowl with him. "We'd never heard of Dylan," said Levon Helm.

John Hammond, the man who signed Dylan to CBS and produced his first two albums, has explained that the Hawks were backing his son, John Hammond Jnr., up in Canada in 1963. Dylan went to hear Hammond and the Hawks..." and suddenly my son didn't have a band. Robbie has an awful lot to do with Bobby's getting into rock and roll."

So the story of Dylan connecting with the Hawks in some seedy club in New Jersey comes out of the same drawer as stories of Dylan running away from home seven times, and naming himself after a gambling uncle from Vegas. As Richard Brautigan said, "Some things are true, even if they never did happen."

Robbie Robertson was hired by Ronnie Hawkins, the ferocious Canadian rock 'n' roller, at the age of 15. Hawkins hired the rest of the band one by one, and they played everywhere from Molasses, Texas, to Timmins, Canada, a mining town 100 miles from the tree line. They'd all started playing young: each member of the Band had formed his own group while at high school, and they were all Canadian, except Levon Helm, who came from West Helena, Arkansas (Sonny Boy Williamson's home town).

Ronnie Hawkins reckons he's put together at least 17 bands, but he's lost count. He played on Alan Freed's and Dick Clark's shows, but never quite made the big time. His image somehow loomed larger than his music and he specialized in outrageous press quips: "None of us rock-rollers could understand all that fuss about Jerry Lee Lewis marrying a 13 year old girl. All of the cats in the South knew she was really 12." Another time he was asked if he liked to get down on women, and came up with the elegant reply, "Sometimes I get down to the belly button and then I get amnesia."

When the Band joined up with Dylan they recorded one single, the very underrated 'Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?' and played on Blonde On Blonde. Robertson played guitar on 'Obviously 5 Believers', and the whole Band played on 'One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)'. But the Band's greatest achievement with Dylan was the rock and roll dementia road show that they created during Dylan's electric tour, a sound that's been preserved on the live version of 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' and on the astonishing bootleg of Dylan at the Albert Hall in 1966. When one member of that mixed-up audience yells 'Judas!' at Dylan and the Band, they reply by burying him alive with 'Like A Rolling Stone'. By this time the Band had fleshed out the vision of Dylan's electric songs, and transformed 'Rolling Stone' into a molten stream of invective and contempt which they poured over the audience, battering them into submission.

After the Ambulance

After Dylan's July 1966 crash, the Band settled down near him in Woodstock. They made music together while he recuperated mentally and physically, and came to terms with the musical madness they'd created. What Dylan had crashed into had been the arrogance and tension that his performances came to represent -- what Phil Ochs described as "LSD on stage" and Joan Baez called the "ego bubble of superstardom".

During 1967, while the rest of the rock world got stoned on the musical vision that Dylan and the Band had created, a fascinating interaction was happening in Woodstock. The Band and Robertson in particular, assimilated Dylan's gift for metaphor, and Dylan escaped from the hallucinatory New York world of Blonde On Blonde by exploring the Band's experience of small towns, highways and travelling. What one can hear on the Basement Tape that Dylan and the Band recorded together is the sense of betrayal and bleakness that obsessed Dylan after his crash. But beneath the melancholia there is also a simplified set of perceptions: a belief that life need not be so insane, if one knows where to look.

I'm going down to Tennessee
Get me a truck 'r somethin'
Gonna save my money and rip it up!
Lo and behold, lo and behold
Lookin' for my lo and behold.

But Dylan didn't make his comeback with these songs, probably for two reasons. John Wesley Harding was a more formal treatment of the same themes of guilt and retribution, and the sound of J.W.H. was a clearer break with the urban, electric music with which he had been identified. Moreover the Band probably felt it was time to make their own statement, rather than make another record in someone else's shadow. Robertson told Rolling Stone that Dylan came back to Woodstock half-way through recording J.W.H. and asked the Band to add some embellishments to his new music. Robertson told Dylan: "No -- it's small time."

What the Band did do with Dylan was play the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert in January 1968, Dylan's first public appearance since his crash. They performed 'Mrs. Roosevelt', 'Grand Coolee Dam' and 'Ain't Got No Home', blending Guthrie's social crusade with a mellow rock 'n' roll idiom to produce a dignified celebration of Woody's vitality and directness. It's hard to believe that the same musicians produced the Albert Hall recording and the Guthrie Memorial Concert, and that a space of only eighteen months separated the two concerts.

The Band's debut album, Music From Big Pink began with 'Tears Of Rage' (words by Dylan, music by Manuel) and it indicated the new area that the Band was going to colonise. In 'Maggie's Farm' Dylan had used a prototypical American family to sum up everything that alarmed him about Amerika; 'Tears Of Rage' looked at the situation from the other side of the generation gap: the sacrifices of parenthood, the disappointed expectations, and the ultimate loneliness of being old and unnecessary.

Tears of rage, tears of grief...
come to me now, you know
We're so alone and life is brief.

And the album ended with 'I Shall Be Released', Dylan's most tormented plea from the Basement. In an earlier song, 'My Back Pages', Dylan had sung his goodbye to the 'high and mighty traps' of politics, and he reversed time in order to escape from the world of 'abstract threats' -- "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now". 'I Shall Be Released' again contradicted nature by seeing the light shining "from the west unto the east", shining from the land of sunset towards the sunrise, conveying the grimmer conviction that death is the only visible release. For the Band mortality was a big enough weight to carry without worrying about any psychotic youth culture.

The most striking picture on the cover of Music From Big Pink (a tasteful fold-out which was butchered by E.M.I. when released in England) was titled 'Next Of Kin' -- a shot of the group surrounded by their parents, wives and kids. The music was released at the same time as the Chicago riots of 1968, the Doors' Waiting For The Sun, the Stones' 'Street Fighting Man' and the family photo was the Band's way of opposing "that punky attitude -- hate your mother and stab your father..." as Robertson put it. "This was a statement that we weren't there."

Music From Big Punk was distinguished by high, wailing 'white soul' singing, a thudding cardiac drum beat, and ethereal piano and organ flourishes round a very pared-down rhythmic core: halfway between a funky funeral, and a sombre fairground sound. It was mature, stable, and profoundly conservative.

Across The Great Divide

What the Band processed from their time on the road and in the juke joints was a bedrock of funk in which Robertson's vision could grow. There's a moment in 'The Weight' (just as the final verse begins with "Catch a cannon ball...") where the voices hang back for a second, and the rhythm surges up as if filling in for them. And the way in which they toss the lead vocal around the group on 'We Can Talk About It', the way in which the drum accents keeps shifting through 'The Weight', as though sharing the burden around, suggested five musicians so well wired into each other's music, so welded to their instruments, as to make most groups sound like concrete robots. The rock world was astonished by what it heard. Reviewing Music From Big Pink in Rolling Stone, Al Kooper called it the album of the year and concluded, "This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. There are people who will work their lives in vain, and never touch it."

Ollie warned me it's a mean old world
The street don't greet ya, yes, it's true
But what am I supposed to do:
Read the writing on the wall,
I heard it when I was very small.
('When You Awake')

They weren't called the Crackers for nothing. If their rhythms and harmonies sounded effortless and egoless, the axioms of their second album came from the white, agricultural communities of the mid-West and South. The Band have been described as the only group who could warm up the crowd for Abraham Lincoln; they would have done an even better job for Jefferson Davies. In the same way that they developed an organic relationship to their music, they sang about communities tied together by traditions of loyalty and deference:

Unfaithful servant,
You'll learn to find your place
I can see it in your smile
And yes, I see it in your face
('The Unfaithful Servant')

If they had entertained any radical notions about freedom or conventions, it would have sounded as incongruous as if Robertson had unleashed a fifteen minute feedback solo in the middle of 'Whispering Pines'.

"Country people are more likely than city people to experience a social system that actually works. They don't get that feeling that you can't be happy unless you get rich. You're more likely to be respected for what you are, so there isn't the same anxiety, the same anonymity." -- Happy Traum; editor of Sing Out.

When Dylan recorded John Wesley Harding he pulled the plug out of the heavy metal rock scene, influencing the Beatles and the Stones among others to remember the tight, classical forms that were the roots of rock: blues, ballads and country music. And he used these forms to construct parables about guilt and innocence, about responsibility and breaking faith. But the songs remained parables: skillfully constructed stories set in a timeless landscape synthesised from themes of Biblical morality and images of the American frontier.

Robertson's songs went further than Dylan's by going beyond metaphor and actually embodying the experiences they sang about. 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' is not a song about the Confederacy, it is a song of the Confederacy. 'King Harvest (Has Surely Come)' is a song of real workers and real struggles, whereas Dylan's 'Dear Landlord' is an almost metaphysical statement about themes of ownership and shared responsibility. Where Dylan used the form and language of country music to mark out some firm ground after the amoral fragmentation of the electric albums, The Band actually enshrined the people and places they had travelled through. They sang of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Cleveland, Richmond and Houston.

Rock Of Ages

The Band was Robertson's classic vision of the American landscape and its history. It sounded as though it could have been recorded at any time during the last fifty years, and yet it seized the time (the end of 1969) as totally as Dylan's electric albums had seized the mid-sixties. After the debacle of Altamont, and the evaporation of the political energy that produced the Chicago riots of '68 and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the bubble of rock and youth culture burst. The Band filled the void by providing music that didn't depend on being stoned out of your skull, or hijacking a rocket to another galaxy, but had actually come to terms with America.

Dylan had been the chief revolutionary force of rock: the architect of music that promised continual evolution and visions rimmed with fire. And the Band (who had fuelled Dylan on his epic trip) were the major counter-revolutionaries; but since they descended from the mountain with their second album, they've faltered in their progress, and perhaps we should be grateful that they have. They could only have continued that direction by becoming more and more insulated inside the peculiarly hermetic historical bubble they constructed on The Band.

When the Band hit the road, the encountered the tensions of performing, which drew from Robertson 'Stage Fright', one of his best songs since the second album: constructing a pastiche of the past as an escape from the present was no solution, because one was chained to the performer's treadmill of producing fantasies to order:

See the man with stage fright
Just getting up there to give it all his might
He got caught in the spotlight
And when it gets to the end, he's got to start all over again

Stage Fright also acknowledged the larger terrors of America: alienation and random violence -- "Police siren, flashing light / I wonder who went down tonight." -- and Cahoots continued this direction. The album sounded like a prolonged lament for the human and natural values that The Band had revered: the eagle, the buffalo, the blacksmith, the railroad -- all doomed on the highway to extinction -- while in the present:

You can't believe what you read in the paper
You can't believe a stranger at your door
You don't believe what you hear from your neighbour
Your neighbourhood ain't even there no more

Who robbed the cradle? Who robbed the grave? The album was full of questions which could only be answered by a retreat into art ('When I Paint My Masterpiece') or liquor ('4% Pantomime') or the movies ('Smoke Signal') or nostalgia -- the familiar opiates.

No answer came so, ultimately, both Stage Fright and Cahoots ended with songs which expressed a quasi-religious urge to carry on. In 'The River Hymn' the whole 'congregation' gives thanks as the river flows eternally. It was a powerful attempt, but the river failed to wash away the problems that the rest of the album had uncovered. By this point in the record there seemed to be precious little left to give thanks for, and the image of the congregation grouped on the river bank implied an escape into the rural nostalgia that the Band had already drawn strength from. 'The Rumor' really provided the Band's strongest stand against the horrors of the present. Much of its effectiveness lies in the fact that the 'rumor' remains unspecified: a metaphor for every insidious, malevolent force that cannot be combated directly. And when they sang "Could there be someone among this crowd/Who's been accused -- had his name so misused/And his privacy refused?" it was hard not to think of Dylan, the man who opened so many doors in life and music, and had to endure so many rumours and accusations. As Levon and Richard sang for the final time "Open up your heart/And feel the good/It's a-comin' -- a brand new day", their voices truly soared as they fused the Band's white, wailing gospel sound with a deeply felt knowledge of how hard it is to go on.

Since Cahoots in 1971, the Band have created a live double album, Rock Of Ages, and a 'golden oldies' selection, Moondog Matinee. This lack of new material might seem predictable after the anxiety and unanswered questions of Cahoots , but I don't feel their performances can be dismissed as a cop-out or a lack of nerve. Just as their early work contradicted widely held views about rock being the music of radical dissent and continual innovation, their last two albums have subverted the idea that rock depends on the constant production of 'significant' responses to the present. What the Band expressed in Rock Of Ages (a great title) and Cahoots was a faith in rock as a living tradition which could be invoked as well as added to. Black artists like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry have gone on rocking with dignity into middle age, and they haven't done it by producing an important new statement every year, but by retaining their vitality and grasp of the basic rock forms. The Band sound like one of the few white acts likely to follow them.

When the Band played the Albert Hall in 1971 they performed with the style and authority one expected, but during the first half they seemed slightly too crisp and clear: it was hard to believe that there was a heart inside the machine. Then they loosened up during the second half, and when they came back for an encore they tore into an infectious body-shaking song that had the whole audience leaping around with pleasure -- it was Little Richard's 'Slippin' And Slidin''.

For all their allusions to the Confederacy, to Faulkner country, for all of Robertson's super-adult posturing ("I'm not kid. I'm no jock strap artist. I'm a musician."), for all their borrowing from Baptist hymns and Scott Joplin rags, when the Band sings (as they frequently do) Chuck Willis' "I Don't Want To Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes", you can still believe them.

© Mick Gold, 1974

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