The Band

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We Can Talk About It Now

by Greil Marcus

From Good Times, April 23, 1969. The text is copyrighted. Please do not copy or redistribute.

The Band has been together the best part of a decade, almost nine years, Little Richard has been Little Richard for about double that, but really, who else could he be? It's something else to found a group that lasts. It's not a matter of "I-Was-There-When," though that's part of it; with so many bands falling apart or kicking out members or just calling it quits, The Band has stuck together. A few years back, what was it like- playing favorite riffs, the old and the new, picking up a new idea here and there, maybe writing a few songs, playing great and nobody caring, sometimes playing shitty no doubt and the nightclub drunks heckling and walking out, spilling drinks on the stage if there was one- that was The Band I the early sixties, when they were called the Hawks. They all came from Canada, with the exception of lead singer, drummer, and part-time mandolin exciter Levon Helm, who hailed from Arkansas- but some sort of Southern country tradition, a feeling for a frontier that had moved on out West but was still really right there at home gave The Band its spirit and its tone.

They would gig all over the United States and Canada, barnstorming like a baseball team during the off-season, playing, says organist Garth Hudson, "for pimps, whores, rounders and flakeouts." It almost makes one think of Mike Fink and his riverboat, or maybe saloons with board sidewalks outside. Pick your own movie. Mine is by Charlie Chaplin; the music of The Band has always reminded me of what one might have heard in the mining towns of the great Alaska Gold Rush. Did your father ever read you the old Robert Service poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee," about the 1890's golddigger from Tennessee who couldn't adjust to the freezing climate of the Yukon?

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was the night on the marge of Lake Le Barge
When I cremated Sam McGee.

Poor Sam wasn't warm until he found himself on top of his own funeral pyre. The Band has their view: "I'd rather be burned in Canada/Than freeze here in the South!" Maybe The Band is just a group of hard-luck miners who decided to try their hand at something else. I told all this to Garth Hudson and he smiled back, "Well, I always have liked the idea of reincarnation."

In 1965 Bob Dylan was ready to tour the country and he wanted a rock and roll band. He found the Hawks and they were it. As Levon Helm, quoted in "Rolling Stone," tells the story, Dylan called them on the telephone at some nightclub in New Jersey. "We had never heard of Bob Dylan, but he had heard of us. He said, 'You wanna play Hollywood Bowl?' So we asked him who else was gonna be on the show. 'Just us,' he said." They didn't know his music but they listened to his records and fooled around with Bob and understood what he was doing and it worked. The combination was magnificent. Guitarist Robbie Robertson pushed Dylan to heights of musical fantasy that haven't been touched since- it can be heard on a single they recorded on tour in Liverpool in 1966, "Just like Tom Thumb's Blues" (Columbia 4-43683, get it at Music City on Alcatraz in Berkeley). "They're the greatest band in the world," Dylan told Keith Richard of the Stones. "What about us?" Richard wanted to know. "Oh, you guys make the best philosophy, but..." "What about US?" demanded Keith Moon of the Who. "Well now, you make the best history, but..."

The tour was over and after a while The Band came to Woodstock to live in the now-famous Big Pink. They'd play with Dylan at night, writing songs, inventing and refining their own sounds. "Music From Big Pink" came out of it- as Sandy Darlington wrote, "it's like a good fishing hole, you can go back to it again and again and never be disappointed." A great record. And now The Band was coming to Winterland.

Tickets went on sale a week early- there was some sense that this was a special chance for us, to have our spirits renewed, to hear and see what we hadn't ever come across before. The Good Times received a very nice invitation from Bill Graham for "a reception honoring The Band," so I went, I don't know what I was expecting- reporters and cameras and floodlights, I suppose, but it wasn't like that at all. A few people were sitting around, and after a while members of The Band ambled in, chatted a while, and left. They were shy and friendly, and if someone had told them they were supposed to be big stars they'd most likely have been embarrassed.

The Band had not performed on their own in over four years. Thursday night was to be their debut, in a very important way. They're pros, and they are magnificent, but they were anxious and worried. And Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist and composer of "The Weight," was terribly ill with the flu and a fever. The Band was depressed and nervous, Robertson was fighting off stomach pains and 103 degrees of temperature, and thousands of people were waiting for them at Winterland. The Ace of Cups had done a delightful set and the Sons of Champlin had completed their attack on the eardrums. Now the stage was empty and records were playing- the crowd was getting irritable. Winterland was crowded that night, but not jammed; it wasn't hot and people were hip and friendly. But it was eleven o'clock and nothing was happening. Something like panic must have been in possession of Bill Graham. Robbie Robertson was far too sick to play, but The Band's management would not agree to Graham's plan to cancel the Thursday night show in favor of a special Sunday performance for those who'd shown up on opening night. Finally, at eleven thirty, men began to set up The Band's equipment, and we came alive. The Band came on stage in the dark, tuning up, and it seemed like hours before they were through. Then at midnight they were ready to play. We had waited almost four hours, some of us. The lights went on, everyone stood up, a girl behind me was screaming with joy, yelling it: "We LOVE you Band, welcome BAND, ooooo, BAND!"

The crowd was with them but it wasn't working, not really. Robertson looked weak and miserable, on the verge of collapse, and the band, his friends, couldn't pretend he was alright. They were worried about him. Off to one side of the stage stood a big white-haired man in a dark suit, the man who had hypnotised Robertson into "forgetting" the pains in his stomach. It was all very weird and uncomfortable, Robertson leaning against the piano and looking as if he could not last another minute, playing minimal rhythm guitar, his only attempt at a solo a shambles. Finally on the third or fourth song they began to find themselves, and then all at once it was over and they split. They had done seven numbers for thirty five minutes, and after four hours it was clear that this was it for the night. The crowd yelled and shouted, at first for an encore and then out of frustration, some people screaming, with hatred and rage. The girl near me who'd squealed out a welcome half an hour before was flashing cruelty: "I hope you get sicker, Robbie Robertson!" At last the mood shifted, from anger to bitterness. "If they'd only," a girl mumbled, "If they'd only..."

The Band had been built up into heroes that couldn't fail, couldn't weaken, and now from the status of heroes they were not acceptable as guys who played music, they had to be shitheads and assholes. At least some people saw it that way, those who were yelling "cocksuckers" as The Band stumbled off, Robertson in a daze. There was some kind of unholy disaster that night. It was wretched.

We were back again on Friday. The girls of the Ace of Cups had set things up perfectly (more about them next week), and as they were leaving the stage their bass player walked to the mike and virtually gurgled the words: "Big Pink!" With all sense of time destroyed by a happy anticipation, it happened just like that (fanfare); The Band was on stage, the music was rising, and there was just no question, they had it all there before they'd even started to play. Robertson flashed a big grin at the crowd that wouldn't stop cheering, and then he bent deep over his guitar and The Band went into it all the way.

They are an amazing group of musicians. Not one of them stands out as a star, and yet they're each of them as distinctly different as the Beatles. They might be an accident of the frontier, a group of happy, weathered outcasts who fell together in Tombstone, Arizona and decided to give it all up and play music. Richard Manuel, lead singer, piano, organ, drums when Helm switches to mandolin- he might be the meal ticket, the card sharp who scrapes in the dough when no one wants to hear these guys play. He even looks a little like Hoagy Carmichael; who was (is?) a very cool looking fellow. Robertson was wearing some sort of skull cap that night, and with his wire glasses and sideburns he looked like a Talmudic scholar whose scrolls had gotten lost on the prairie somewhere, and he had his younger brother, bass guitarist Rick Danko, along for the ride. God knows what they're doing here but there's no money to get back to Poland, so...Levon Helm- he might be a squaw man, a trapper who married an Indian only to find himself ostracized by the better citizens; that quality of toughness underneath the humor marks his powerful singing. He uses a very small kit of drums, so that every beat is solid and hard, no extra cymbal noise, it's all just too good to waste. Garth Hudson (organ, and piano on "The Weight") would have to be The Old Man of Mountains, with his beard that nearly touches his chest; he wouldn't talk much, just peeking out over his organ every once in a while, no way to tell he's there at all save for the sounds he draws from his instrument.

They went through their repertoire, each song more exciting and colorful than the last, and then Hudson began to play the organ solo that leads into "Chest Fever," perhaps their best composition, certainly their most effective performance in person. Hudson's playing was so dazzling that the audience actually gasped with amazement when he ended it and moved into the song itself. When the whole band took over the music seemed to expand, filling the hall to all of its corners, not blasting away the emptiness but simply making it impossible for anything else to occupy the same bit of space and time. Robertson heightened the drama of the song by hitting tough notes at the end of every line, and a tension grew up around the room, out of a realization that something monumental was happening and we were there to hear and see it.

It just went on and on, into the second set Friday night and through both performances on Saturday. Richard Manuel's vocal on "Tears of Rage" was probably the finest singing that has ever been heard at Winterland; so dramatic that one could almost see the song's story taking place on stage. Then Levon Helm left the drums to Manuel and strapped on his electric mandolin for "Dontcha Tell Henry" and he bent forwards and backwards while he and Danko played together, great lyrics with gruff laughter:

Well, I went to the whorehouse the other night
I was there all alone, I was outasight
I looked high and low
I looked up above
And who did I see BUT THE ONE I LOVED!

They kept that first set on Friday night going for almost an hour, never missing a chance to take their music past where it had been before, and finally they ended it and waved goodbye. Our arms were weak from clapping and out throats sore from cheering, but we kept it up, stomping and waving hats until they had to come back for an encore. Quickly, before his pals had even picked up their instruments, Levon Helm was laying down an irresistible beat, and the whole crowd was dancing, jumping, moving, clapping, and then Manuel came in with these ever so familiar notes on the piano, no, they weren't REALLY going to play THAT, and Robbie Robertson literally dove for the microphone and they were all singing it:


People were going off their feet, they were screaming with delight, yelling for the hell of it, Danko's bass moving the song up and down and back and forth, The Band playing Little Richard! It was one of the great moments in the history of rock and roll. Robertson took two extravagant solos, bobbing and weaving, coming up for air and a smile, dancing, hell, he might have BEEN Little Richard, and then Hudson came in on organ. Helm seemed to lose his mind without losing the beat, a frantic moment on the drums, kicking it off again, they just stretched it out until you forgot Little Richard and simply wanted to remember The Band. There is no chance anyone who was there will ever forget them.

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