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The Band: Music from Home

by John Poppy

From Look magazine, August 25, 1970. John Poppy was senior editor of Look. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute. All photos are copyright © Elliott Landy, all rights reserved.

[Look Aug.1970 front page]

Songs. They keep making songs and spilling them into albums-Music From Big Pink in 1968, The Band in 1969, Stage Fright in 1970. The five men who call themselves The Band don't use music just for money (though, by now, they earn between $700 and $25,000 a night for it) or to celebrate crusades, to push politics or protest. Their songs hit you like odors remembered from childhood, evoking rich, sharp chunks of memory. For a couple of years now, these songs have been doing something strange to me and, evidently, to other people who know them.

They tap deep into feelings I didn't even know I had, plucking a chord of earthy Americanness that takes me straight into some homeland of the heart where I sometimes chuckle into a jig, or sit intent, musing, or am surprised by tears of recognition. Maybe it's because the songs tell stories of things we may not have experienced directly but still feel in our blood, bits of our collective life on this continent: the stoic pain of one defeated man (not a symbol, just a man) in Tennessee, 1865; a sexy truck driver's salty ballad to the girl he's stashed in Lake Charles, La.; the rustle of nature behind a farmer's hard times and hopes for a union; a weary old man facing his age, yearning for the rocking chair; an aural sketchbook of personal statements too complex to summarize. This is more than Pop Nostalgia. Without reaching for it, The Band seems to be recording an American history - of earth, humor, muscle, emotion - that could stand with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for truth. They may also be hinting, if we can hear, at history to come.

It's strange. Intellectually, I never acknowledged any folk roots while I grew up on a Pennsylvania farm, assuming until a few years ago that music descended in a clear hierarchy from 'classical" for educated persons down through folk, pop and lesser forms appealing to people who didn't know better. That The Band could make the homecoming so familiar for me, transplanted at the age of three not from the Ozarks but from Czechoslovakia, underlines their power to touch any American who seeks nourishment for a life gone thin.

On stage they go into Zen-like concentration on the music at hand, and their patter seldom extends beyond a strangled "Thank you" or a grin and bob of the head by Rick. "The music is what's important; just listen to it," Robbie insists. Strings, reeds, drumheads, voices, electricity, blend into the sliding, punching mystery of the songs, intricate but sure.

The Band started ten years ago as just another electric group, louder than most. They gradually learned who they are and what they wanted on two music circuits, one in Canada and the other in the South-Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas-Mississippi River music country. They would play heavy rock 'n' roll at college auditoriums down there, then work late in local clubs, Levon recalls, "and being a musician in that part of the county is like being a prizefighter. If you're a new band in town, you make the last set an open session or else. Everybody's there, they all know music, and the local guitarists will come up, plug into your amplifier and try to run you off the stage."



Did they emerge from a tough apprenticeship as a bunch of freaky, grouchy mountaineers? That was the whisper about them last year when they rented a house in Los Angeles to record the second album, but they all greeted me - after a little screening - with shy kindness and home cooking. They were keeping musicians' hours, working late in dim light, sleeping until afternoon, squinting when they emerged into the sun, so that it was a shock two weeks later to see them under burning stage lights in San Francisco. They didn't look like the same men who had brought their wives (two of them), a baby and - yes - Robbie's mother to keep them company in the Los Angeles house.

No matter how serious you are, the business of big-time rock can push you into some bizarre scenes. On April 17, 1969, at Winterland in San Francisco The Band was to play their first concert since Big Pink had transformed them into perfect heroes. Several thousand underground music lovers surfaced to greet them, spicing high-pitched expectations with a gush of dazzling costumes - perhaps the last such display of color before old fatigue jackets and combat boots drabbed down the hip wardrobe. The crowd wanted magic.

But - no Band. Eleven p.m., 11:30. ...They were in a motel room with a hypnotist. Robbie, ill with stomach cramps and a 103-degree fever, was too weak to get out of bed. Promoter Bill Graham wanted to postpone the show but Band manager Albert Grossman refused. Desperately, Graham called in a hypnotist who persuaded Robbie that with concentration he could master the balky body.

They went on at midnight. At the first chord, the audience that had waited so long rose like a great respectful beast and stayed on its feet, faces raised in adoration, for the first song. But the edge was off. The people soon sat down, and after 35 minutes, the set ended to disappointed yells. The heroes were human, and the crowd resented that. The next night, they got it together and left an audience shrieking, jumping, ecstatic. One of the great moments in the history of rock and roil,' critic Greil Marcus called it in the San Francisco Good Times.

This year, before a different concert in Berkeley, Robbie talked of changes. "A year ago, we tried hard and hoped for the best. Now we have more control; we build a performance for the audience." Audiences change, too. A year ago, they expected to go cuckoo over The Band, and did. Now, nobody needs hysteria. The Band delivers its message in an honest night's work that moves people the way it did one young man whose voice floated up, admiring but not a bit awed, from the Berkeley audience: "You boys sure can play good."

The message is as straight and personal as that compliment. Other bands may build a following by putting down the country's stone-faced "leaders" or pushing against their war, but The Band goes straight for your roots. "Four Canadians and one Arkansan - we're musicians, and we don't know nothing about American politics," says Robbie Robertson who writes most of the songs and would be the spokesman if the group bothered with such considerations. "Besides, who can write songs about all this garbage that's happening now, wars and revolution and killing? I can't. It doesn't come out as a song, it's - " BANG! His fist hit the table in the only violent move I ever saw him make. "Words for that stuff don't work right in songs."

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