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Conversations with The Band

Garth Hudson

by Ruth Albert Spencer

From The Woodstock Times, Vol. 14, no. 13, March 28, 1985. This is one of a series of interviews with all five members of The Band that appeared in this weekly newspaper.

Copyright © Ruth Albert Spencer.

Front page header, Woodstock Times, Vol. 14, no. 13, March 28, 1985.

Several months ago, I conceived of the idea of writing a loving study of the Band's music from a classical musician's point of view. The Woodstock Times agreed to publish this article, but when it was suggested that I perhaps interview some of the Band, I became obsessed with the idea of speaking to each of the five about music and theit lives as musicians. I decided to focus on comparisons between classical and rock musicians, and the creative process of writing and performing music. Anything they could say would surely be more interesting than anything I could say, and I set to find and speak with each. This self-imposed task wasn't easy; even after all five had agreed to do this, the saga of arranging for the individual interviews became almost as interesting as the interviews themselves and could surely form the basis of a film or thriller novel. It meant dealing with the in-between people, going backstage to clubs both in New York and Woodstock and in one case, following a member home and having my daughter hand deliver a note. It meant contacting old friends in the recording and film world in Los Angeles at the time I was working on this project. Of course, some of the Band members helped put me in contact with the others. But in the end, each of the five sat down with me and spoke seriously and I believe quite sincerely. The interviews took place over a three-month period in Woodstock, New York and Los Angeles. I am presenting them in the chronological order they were conducted.
--Ruth Albert Spencer

The other interviews by Ruth A. Spencer:
[Richard Manuel] [Robbie Robertson] [Rick Danko] [Levon Helm]

Maud and Garth at home.

The Hudsons with the author.

Maud, Garth and mystery package.

The interview with Garth Hudson took place on the Saturday before Christmas, 1984, at his home in the northwest suburbs of Los Angeles. Besides the two of us, his wife Maud, my husband Michael and the Hudson's two cats were present. The living room was crowded with a grand piano, several organs, two accordions, a synthesizer and other musical and recording equipment. On the piano's music rack was a copy of Hanon exercises and on a table next to it; the complete Bach chorales. On the wall were gold records of The Last Waltz, engraved to Garth, as well as a poster of the Band's Japanese tour. At various times, I noticed certain facial expressions of Garth's which reminded me of some of Richard Manuel's expressions. Arlie Manuel had told me that "Richard and Garth are very close."

RS: Are you ready for this?

GH: No, I vehemently dislike academic discussions about form and I presume that's why we're here.

RS: Form of music? No, this interview is nothing formal. Let me give you a little background. [I give an explanation of this project.] To me, what is most important is the nature of the creative process of writing and performing music. It's most easy for me to talk with you, because out of all five, yours is the musical background most similar to mine. There are four areas I wanted to talk about. The first area is early years as a musician - how you started, other musicians in the family, when and how you decided to be a musician, practicing and formal studies. The second area is your feelings about the relations between the languages of classical and rock music. The third area has to do with the Band as a group, and the fourth area has to do with you personally as a musician - both with the Band and since 1976.

GH: The first three we can cover in a sentence each. [He laughs.] The reason I dislike talking about the creative process is that I do have a creative process that is a winner and it's a sure thing. I've done many hours of work on certain kinds of assembly - on what we call "chance music" - "music concrete." I don't want the particulars blurted out; someone who's aware of the direction in which I'm going (and that is computerized games) will take it and see a link, assemble the thing and come out with it before I do. Some things are secrets - always. If you don't have some, then forget it. You can stay on stage and reiterate past glories.

RS: So right now, you're into. experimental forms of music.

GH: Yeah, and I've found methods to go about assembling that I'll continue.

RS: Do you do this alone?

GH: Oh yeah, it's homework. It's preparation. That which you do not do on other peoples' time and money.

RS: Do you do any performing now in public?

GH: Yes, with others.

RS: Do you perform solo?

GH: No, no. I have a tape composition which I'll give you. I only perform country and western with others in public. Of course we always play some rock 'n' roll songs. We're all interested in film and the assistance which we imagine we can give to an intelligent, creative director. I collect various areas of recording - like accordion albums and certain jazz things. I became concerned and aware about the music from the Balkan countries - Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Roumanina, - those are the three centers of that music - amazing stuff.

MS: Are you doing film scores?

GH: Yes, I've done work with Tom Seuffert - a great organizer - built a studio in his home in Encino for records, films and video pieces. You can work at home. Because you can records digitally, there's no loss of quality.

RS: Have you done videos?

GH: Yes.

RS: Like MTV?

GH: Oh no, I thought I might look into that, but I'm definitely more interested in the film end of that, arid scoring for films. I did do work with a new music group, the Call, a black and white video; The Walls Came Down is the name.

RS: I would be very curious to know, since you come from a classical music background, about your transition from a classical to a rock musician. Was this something you consciously did - did you at some point say "I want to play rock 'n' roll - or was this something that just happened?

GH: I had a problem with classical notated music in memorizing. I was never able to memorize. Oh I did, but not to the extent that is necessary; l didn't like to practice to much. I found out that I could improvise. If I had been sent to a college or school where that is what you did (practice and memorize music), I might have picked up and developed that skill. I found I could improvise, and to assist that, I developed a method of ear training, so I knew everything Iheard and what it represented.

RS: You mean you memorized it in your head?

GH: No, I could write it down; I could transcribe it. I couldn't memorize it. I would memorize shapes and forms and that's one of the things that happens; you begin to see form. I also had encouragement from a teacher in high school, who played in a big band. He asked me to transcribe scores. So I used a record player and wrote down what I heard; then my teacher played the transcriptions with his band. I worked in the high school variety show playing for the choirs and got a little group together called the Three Blisters. We got the most applause of any of the acts. The trumpet player's father was Don Wright, who had the Don Wright Chorus in Canada, and they had a weekly show on CBC. He was also a good trumpet player; at one point Louis Armstrong asked him to go on the road. His son Timothy picked up the trumpet and we formed the Three Blisters. The next year it was the "Four Quarters" and we had a little show. I played accordion in it and we ended up with three trumpets and drums playing "Chinatown, my Chinatown" in three part harmony. I played trumpet and saxophone through high school. Then somewhere about 1952, 1953, I began to pick up Alan Freed's Moondog Matinee from Akron/ Cleveland from 5:05 to 5:55. I remember him talking about the first Moondog ball where they had thousands of people outside that couldn't get in - almost a riot, bit success. It was one of the first successful rock 'n' roll shows. But, of course, it was mostly rhythm and blues. They might have had Buddy Holly; I don't know. So I knew someone over there was having more fun than I was.

There was a little rock group in London [London, Canada, Garth's hometown] called the Melodines - they were more rockabilly. They did Bill Haley stuff, too; they were good. So a lot of young people got together and we put together a group and called ourselves Silhouettes. We played some shows around town and then I left with some of those people and went to the Windsor/ Detroit area. We hooked up with a young singer, Paul London and the Capers. We went to Detroit and worked with Armand Balladian, who was a promotion man, middle man, who worked with music distributors and merchants and also promoted records to disc jockeys. He did promote certain records in the Detroit area. We had two records he promoted - one was number eight on the local listing. We did teen hops and various other things.

RS: Did you play a lot of instruments back then?

GH; Just saxophone and piano. I couldn't afford an organ. There were groups in Detroit that used organ - one group used a Lowry - I remember going to the store and trying it out and it had certain things that the Hammond wouldn't do.

MS: Did you play organ in church?

GH: Yes. The Anglican church.

RS: What was the first instrument you started as a child?

GH: Piano. As far as creativity in the home goes - all my uncles played and they were good musicians; they played in band. And my dad played flute, drums, cornet, saxophone and the triangle, which he just gave me. I saw him a little while ago and he told me (I didn't know it) that that triangle was his first instrument.

MH: And you had a picture of your mother with an accordion.

GH: Yeah, the accordion was sitting there and she played it. She had a good ear and played the piano too. I picked up the accordion and they sent me down for eight lessons, but this is after I had. started legitimate piano. I studied piano at the Toronto Conservatory. My teacher, who was very good, adhered to the older methods,. and older collections of pieces. I played through the hymnal (I could sight read), I also played in my uncle's funeral home and that's where I developed a repertoire of fundamentalist hymns. We'd play some hymns from the higher church (the Anglican church), but usually it was the hymns of the Baptist church. Examples of hymns were "What a Friend We Have In Jesus," "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling," "Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross." My aunt played in the funeral home too; she was there all the time and they would have organists come in. She helped and advised me with the collection. One nice hymn we discovered that was a little different and that had that emotional quality, that basic melodic quality, and was less Germanic than most hymns, was "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, Forgive Our Foolish Ways." We'd play "Abide With Me" and that was the signal for the preacher to come in. I think I had 20 or 30 of those hymns.

RS: Do you ever sing?

GH: Yeah. I sang in boys' choir. Sure.

MH: And here at home.

GH: Well, yeah. The last time I sang in some kind of a presentation was in an old dance hall with a big band. I think I sang "Ababareeba" and was getting the words mixed up. I looked down and there was a young couple dancing and they had this strange look on their faces and they couldn't quite figure it out - maybe they couldn't hear the words. That was the last time I sang in public with a band.

RS: It sounds like your family was involved in different forms of popular music.

GH; Yes.

RS: Yet in The Last Waltz one is given the impression that your family was shocked when you left a more formal musical background to join a rock 'n' roll band.

GH: No, they knew what I was doing. They knew we were promoting two records in Detroit. But they didn't want me playing in bars. Unfortunately or fortunately, in order to become acquainted with the idiom of country or rock music, it is necessary to occasionally play in a bar. Bars are a rehearsal place.

RS: Can you remember the first time you met any of the other members of the Band and what your first impressions were?

GH: Sure. I thought they were all stars. They were all very good. You know it was through Ronnie Hawkins that we met, and he was a legendary character. Even when I worked back in Detroit, Ronnie was acclaimed as being the greatest rockabilly performer with the best band. Nobody could follow him, including Elvis, as far as an organic unit that could get up there and shake it up. He was great; he was funny; he did little things that were entirely entertaining and he continues to do so. He's still doing amazing things.

RS: Do you have any memories about when you first met any of the others?

GH: We have a resort on Lake Huron in Grand Bend (that's in Ontario) and I went up and talked with Robbie for a while; talked about various things and it was great. I wasn't really interested in playing with them; I didn't feel I could do that kind of music at that time. We were playing rockabilly, but I didn't have the left hand; I didn't have the pounding technique that Willard Pop Jones did. There were two piano players that preceded Richard and myself - Willard Pop Jones and Stan Szelest. Willard was from Arkansas I never heard anyone amplify a piano as loud as him. Stan was a close second -did admirably well. Willard had more thrust - big guy. He did those glissandos that Jerry Lee Lewis did. At that time we thought Willard had incredible stamina. So to come in and play that kind of music - I couldn't cut it.

By that time I was interested in chord changes, and music that was a little more uptown. So when Richard and I hooked up (Richard, Rick and I came with the Band within a 3 or 4 month period) - Richard had the voice and also this great rhythmic feel called energy piano - I went to organ. We bought a Lowry organ, which nobody else was using, except that guy I mentioned back in Detroit. I continued to use a Lowry organ from 1960 to 1974 or 1975, whenever we did The Last Waltz. I have to look that up.

RS: It was 1976.

MS: Did the Band play through the south when you first started in the 60's?

GH: Yes. When we played with Ronnie Hawkins we would go down to Arkansas and stay there, and base our operation at the Iris Motel in Fayetteville and play at colleges, frat parties, dance halls in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. We'd stay a month or so and then go back to Canada.

RS: Did you always know you would be a musician?

GH: No, not at all. The guidance counselor in high school told me it should be a glorified hobby; I wanted to get into agriculture.

MH: From your father you get that.

GH: Yeah, my dad was an entomologist; he was a Canadian, government inspector. He would inspect foreign produce, imports, little trees; he conducted the Dutch elm disease survey. He also managed the surveys on the Japanese beetles. I was interested interested in the science or research end of agriculture.

RS: Do you feel like talking about the Band at all?

GH: I don't think that is necessary; you'll get most of it from the other guys.

RS: Well, let me just ask you, do you think the Band would have been different if four of you had not been Canadian?

GH: You can't think about, or discuss things like that. What would have happened if I had become a nuclear scientist... or a brain surgeon... or a construction worker?

RS: Well then let. me ask you what you think was the impact of the Woodstock area on the Band's music?

GH: It couldn't have been a better place. I believe it's a wonderful place; there's a lot of magic and everywhere you go there are certain legends - the street signs and the glass company and the Indian names - Warwarsing, Ohayo, Barsville Flats. Down in the Woodstock-Bearsville area there's a legend that the Indians wouldn't camp there for geomagnetic or spiritual reasons; I don't know whether it was a burial ground. They wouldn't go there.

RS: I never knew that. Do you still go to Woodstock at all?

GH: Yes.

RS: Do you miss it?

GH: I miss it for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall and three or four days around Christmastime. That's it.

RS: Do you still play classical music and practice repertoire?

GH: Yes.

RS: Do you practice regularly? Work on technique?

GH: Technique exercises, yes. Hanon and Liszt and two or three other, secret collections.

RS: You won't tell?.

GH: Well, the preludes and fugues.

RS: You mean, the Bach preludes and fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier?

GH: Yes.

RS: You practice them often?

GH: Not much, but occasionally, and also the three-part inventions. Mainly I practice - this is one of the few secrets I'll give out - the Bach chorals. This is the only way to experience the idiom and also encourage improvisation according to Bach's refinement of the rules that had been accumulated through Byrd and Buxtheude and so on. You find the Bach chorales are very difficult to play because of the space between the parts.. One thing an old church organist told me - you have to go through the chorales and write in where you take three parts with one hand.

RS: The Bach chorales were not written for the keyboard?

GH: No, its vocal music, so it's very good to experience four part voice leading - and also those difficult passages make you stretch. If you read a couple of chorales a day, for 17 or 18 years, you can improvise in the tradition and that's the most stabilizing factor in all my writing, my string writing.

RS: String writing?

GH: Quote, unquote, "string writing." String arranging. In music production, whether it be for record or film you speak of string arrangers and they're the revered people who know, how to write for strings and understand the basic rules. '

RS: Is Bach your most special composer?

GH: Yes.

RS: Who are some others?

GH: Chopin Of course, Mozart amazes me, but Bach and Chopin are more accessible to me. I've always liked them. And there are all the other ones - Bruckner, Brahms, would-be neo-classicists and then there's Telemann, Vivaldi, the Rococo ones. Just before we came to Woodstock I became interested in Scriabin. It is obvious that he was a little outside of everything and unheralded. He had these big ideas about color in music.

MS: Did you ever try playing the early preludes of Scriabin?

GH: No, but I know that Scriabin knew all the preludes and fugues of Bach and he admired Chopin, so his early. stuff was more Chopinesque.

RS: What do you feel about the relationships between classical music and rock music, in terms of similarities and differences in the language and expression?

[Long silence. Then Garth laughs.]

RS: I don't think I could answer that question, but no harm asking somebody else.

GH: There probably is an answer.

RS: I get the feeling that you are able now and have always been able to go back and forth between these two musical worlds; you play exercises and Bach and then you go play rock with Rick and Richard at the Palomino [a club in North Hollywood].

GH: Yes, that's because they are related; I apply all the same rules. The rules of good music, the rules of strength are there, although many of these players haven't studied. You hear the rules of four-part voice leading on all strong music whether it be jazz or country or rock 'n' roll.

RS: Do you have classical musicians with whom you are friends?

GH: I don't know very many people that play classical music; only two or three good friends. It helps me to talk with them occasionally, just to enjoy the clarity with which they talk about music. I have friends that play jazz, but I have not played jazz professionally.

RS: Is that out of choice - not to play jazz?

GH: I don't care whether I ever do. Playing jazz is one of my forms of amusement at home for Maud, or whoever else will listen. I don't care if I never play for a jazz audience; the people I'm concerned about approaching'are out there in middle America.

RS: Besides the $10 a week lessons to the Band, have you ever taught music to anyone?

GH: No. I never taught music to them either. It was always some kind of advice on learning music. I don't teach music; I never will. Any method that may appear will be a learning method, not a teaching method. There's a great difference; that's another secret. The leaning music idea is much more extensive and unorthodox. I'm directing this at creative entities whether it be a band; people working on film, or the individual student learner. I'm putting together designs, shapes. and forms that would lead the student to learn in order to compose on his own for 40 to 6O years. You can return to a teacher occasionally, but you should not stay with one teacher for too long. I'd recommend that you take refresher courses.

The minute you walk into a recording studio with a bunch of musicians that have no idea of what they're going to play beforehand, you begin assembling parts of little ideas you may have stored away and not used for five years. It takes a certain type of memory to capture that... If all this seems academic, consider those people that had a good run for 7 or 8 years and then dried up - have nowhere to go - there's a missing link there somewhere. You must, after the age of 33, continue to do a certain type of work, or else go into the shoe business; forget music or it'll turn into hatred, or else reiteration, redundancy and in many cases death. You have to find a type of work that you make yourself do that is not drug inspired.

There is an exhibition that opened by a great costume and set designer, Tony Duquette, who received a Tony for Camelot, his last big production. He put this show together for the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry. There are 28 angels, a central Madonna, and I wrote the music. It ran for a couple of years, closed, then ran for another year in Exhibition Park and reopened three Sundays ago in Emmanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire.

[Long pause.]

RS: I'm so glad some of the Band has been playing together again. .

GH: Yeah, it's been okay. We'ye played various and sundry menus in places from smaller clubs to places like the Beacon and Capitol Theaters.

RS: Do you keep in touch with Robbie at all? [Robbie is the only other Band member living in Los Angeles.]

GH: Yes, I talk to him occasionally. He's doing film scores - mainly writing.

MH: He really enjoys that.

GH: Oh, it's nice; it's something which I'll be able to do more of when I can do some of the work at home and record it digitally. The best music that I play is right here at home.

[Garth and Maud then tell me, as Richard and Arlie Manuel had, about a fire in October 1978 at Garth's dude ranch north of Malibu, which destroyed many of the Hudsons' and Manuels' posessions. After the fire, the Hudsonsmoved to their present home, not too far away. ]

GH: We've been down here singing beautiful songs ever since. Maud has a real good voice; she sings.

RS (to Maud): And you have your own accompanist.

MH: We have lots of fun.

GH: Yeah, we're just doing our income taxes here - no, that's all in hand, but it is quite a thing, running a business. All that had been done by accountants, and all the legal entanglements had been supervised by lawyers, and so to begin to sign all your own checks and accomodate all the requests for remuneration was a new experience, a renewed experience. We used to do it, but that's what happens when you go on the road; you really can't take care of that stuff and so there's professional accountants that do very well in the music business.

[Long pause.]

If you send me a transcript [of this interview] I'll go through it. Occasionally I speak properly, but literacy has never been my forte; I was never one for words. I did an interview recenently (before The Last Waltz I had done a couple) and I didn't come out too well; that's where I learned my lesson. Something was put in that I would have left out.

RS: Speaking of your interviews, I thought what you said on The Last Waltz about jazz musicians on the streets of New York bringing healing was so eloquent.

GH: Yeah, well I didn't. I hated it. wouldn't have put it that way; it's like something I would have to explain.

RS: I thought it was so clear; the healing powers of music reach into peoples' souls; that's what you said.

GH: There's a religious connotation there. When you get into those areas you have to make it clear to everybody, and it wouldn't be clear to a fundamentalist. If you present it to Christians it would seem that it might still be music of the devil; it didn't come off the way I wanted.

RS: Different things you've said today, make me want to ask - are you a member of a church or a religious man?

GH: Always been.

[We have a discussion on religion and homeopathy.]

MH: I'm glad that I'm a Mormon.

RS (to Garth): Are you a Mormon too?

GH: No.

[Long pause.]

When I did the interviews in The Last Waltz, I should have sat down and written it out. I didn't know; I avoided them. I was down at 6 a.m. in the morning. I went back and there were three or four rooms - like a motel - in this house, and I took a nap and they got done with all the other. _ interviews. (This was the day of the interviews.) I was there and knew I had to be there, though I hated and tried to avoid it. Finally they caught me and sat me down - at 6 in the morning. I didn't want to say anything.

RS: Well you didn't say too much in the film.

GH: That's right.

RS: You talked about Woodstock.

GH: There were other thingds that were edited out. They took the two best things.

MH: It was fun listening to Levon.

GH: Well those guys, all of them have this tremendous natural literate talent. They speak eloquently. Levon in particular, who comes from the South, has become a historian and a collector of anecdotes, stories from his own life; he has an incredible wealth of stories. You could take what he says and not have to edit very much. He becomes a storyteller and they are masterpieces; that's where the songs come from.

RS: Do you still keep in touch with him?

GH: Oh, yeah.

[We discuss the Band (minus Robbie) playing together early in 1985.]

GH: We won't play much; it's time for everybody to work on their own enterprise. The road's okay. I had a considerable pianotechnique built up; I was out to kill. But when I got on the road, I lost it. On the road, you don't practice. So naturally we think, well, maybe there's some little keyboard you can take into the motel room, and there is. I found that - a new keyboard - and also maybe there's something just to keep in touch with the composition end of it like a recording device or a composing device that can be carried around and that's very light, so that you can do the two types of work rather than just playing and sitting around in a chair watching television the rest of the time. It's a route to deterioration if you don't do that other kind of work.

[I saw Garth in New York a few weeks after doing this interview when he came to play with Richard and Rick. But he never returned the copy of our interview which I had sent him.]++

© Ruth Albert Spencer

Ruth Albert Spencer is a classically trained musician and teacher. She is Director of the Music and Movement Department at the Diller-Quaile Music School in Manhattan. She has published two books on Music Education for teachers and currently is working on a book entitled Recollections of John Lennon. Ruth lives with her husband Michael, teenaged daughter Joanna and three dogs in New York City. The have a weekend home in Woodstock, just down the road from Big Pink. She describes herself as the "world's number one Band fan."

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