The Most Secret Record in Rock History
Feber web site. This article was their "chronicle of the week" in mid-february 2001. Copyright © 2001 Feber, please do not copy or redistribute.
The author wrote a follow-up to "The Most Secret Record in Rock History" titled "Impossible Dreams" in March 2001, after receiving feedback from visitors to The Band web site and others. Lennart Persson admits in his follow-up that the story about The Road from Turkey Scratch is "a dream he had about the perfect record." In other words, it's all lies, or, to quote Butch Dener, "it's a bunch of shit!" As such, it's quite well written :-)
Translated from Swedish by jh.
The one that the others in The Band did behind Robbie Robertson's back.
"The Road from Turkey Scratch."
And if the old Doctor hadn't been as wasted on whatever he was wasted on, I wouldn't have learned the details about it. Not to mention having heard it.
The idea for this record, and the true force in the revenge that it actually was, was born during a violent argument between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. It's said that the bitterness that was present in the group - after fame, money and heroin - always stayed hidden. But that night it definitely surfaced.
It happened during the groups perhaps darkest, most paranoia-driven period, the time around the album Stage Fright. As usual, the arguing was about who had written what on the three albums the group had recorded so far. Helm's point of view was that many of the songs had grown from the interaction between the different members, and that they belonged to them all. Robertson wanted them for himself. To arrange, insert ideas, to suggest a word or lift a song with an instrumental effort, should not result in royalties. That was just part of your work in the band. The fact that it was Garth Hudson's organ intro to "Chest Fever" that listeners remembered, not Robertson's lyrics, was considered irrelevant.
Helm was credited for half a song on Stage Fright, but he knew he had contributed more than that.
Robertson was a man in control of himself, who never would let these outbursts develop into violence. "He was a cold dude," as the group's producer John Simon later would say. Or maybe he just knew that the wiry farmer's son from Arkansas would kick the shit out of him if it came to a regular fist fight. So he slipped away from it. As usual.
Helm took off for New York. And then up to Woodstock. Robertson hung out in Hollywood, with people he wanted to become friends with. The Band's future was for a moment very uncertain.
After a while, Helm, Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel gathered in the mostly unoccupied Woodstock theater, where The Band had recorded Stage Fright. The original idea for that album was to record it, in principle, live, in front of a specially invited audience from the little community. Those plans stranded, and the record was recorded on the theater's stage, but without the spectators. Everybody in The Band had loved the intimate, relaxed atmosphere and the warm sound in the theater hall.
And now Helm had an idea; why not record another album, just for fun. Quickly and unplanned, with just old songs. As therapy, to weld together what was still left of The Band. As a reminder that they actually had played together for over ten years, and mostly had had fun together. Particularly in those years in the beginning of the '60s, when Ronnie had dragged them around all the juke joints and weathered bars in the South, with promises of "more pussy than Frank Sinatra." And, God, how they had played...
With their instruments in place, the old songs started to flow. And it didn't take them long to understand that it was time to bring over the recording equipment.
The first song they taped was Danko's version of James Brown's "Please, Please, Please." They had to retake the last verse, when the mike missed Danko's screams as he dropped to his knees, draining out all his feelings. It was like all tension loosened, like all disagreement was blown away by the emotional storm. Afterward the four bearded men all hugged each other. "It didn't feel a bit odd, I also got a hug," Mac Rebennack told me a long time later. Quickly, with an almost manic energy, they recorded three more songs that all in some way had their origin in all the time they had spent as Ronnie Hawkins' backing group. Muddy Waters' "She's 19 Years Old" with Helm at the lead mike, Bo Diddley's "Bossman" with vocal efforts from everyone except Hudson, and a sparkling version of Chris Kenner's "Sick and Tired," with Rebennack playing piano. The recordings were electrifying, with the feeling of liberation that comes with doing something forbidden.
Rebennack, "Dr John the Night Tripper," was in Woodstock for other reasons (probably something that had to do with drugs.) Danko ran into him on the street and told him what a source of inspiration the Doctor's first two albums had been for The Band when they recorded their second album in Hollywood.
Of course he was invited to their recording sessions.
He would stay for more than three weeks.
Soon after Manuel recorded "Georgia on My Mind." and once again it felt like time had stood still for a decade or so. This was a song he had been singing since he was fourteen years old, being called "Beak" because of his big nose. He then had a band called the Rockin' Revols and the girls had loved him because of his Ray Charles covers, with an intensity that he would never forget. They nailed the song in one take; it would not be possible to insert one more ounce of emotions into it. Rebennack's piano solo almost gave them tears in their eyes. Everything was so good, just so good. So good that they had to call Ronnie, "The Hawk." Everyone was screaming into the telephone.
"The Hawk" was there the next day. And he had hardly got his coat off before they were done recording a wall-rattling version of "Hey Bo Diddley;" dug up from Hawkins' very first single, recorded in the summer of 1958 with Helm on drums, and already then among the juiciest work in rock. Here Manuel and Hawkins threw themselves head-first into the refrains, one can almost hear their heads crash in front of the microphone. Helm's drums rattle and squeak from the impact of his beats. According to Rebennack, it's Hawkins himself that is in control of the loud, almost out-of-tune blues guitar that time after time threatens to break the recording into pieces, but instead repeatedly straightens up again and confirms the rhythm, like a sledgehammer on vacation in a junkyard. The Band had never before allowed themselves to be as wild as this. When the song ends one hears less than a second later how that same evil guitar, alone and aggressively, starts a version of Diddley's "Who Do You Love," that the Hawk had recorded in Muscle Shoals the year before. When Helm misses one of the breaks that he is forced to throw himself into, the recording ends in a massive outburst of laughing. The last you hear is how the already abused guitar falls to the floor with a bang and a final wail.
With Ronnie Hawkins' successful impact on the recording session, the idea of inviting more guests were suddenly born. The Doctor tells about how he was given the mission to get hold of Bobby Marchan, the hysterical singer and drag artist from New Orleans. Helm had, with much strain and, as the Doctor said, an "almost [don't know how to translate this Swedish word - "grusig" - very rough (JH)] voice" recorded a heartbreaking version of Marchan's hit "There Is Something on Your Mind," and wanted Marchan himself to do the dramatic recitation that had breathed life into the version he had playing in all radios during the summer of 1960. Sure enough, Marchan had no idea who The Band was, but he had nothing against coming up from New Orleans if he could be paid two thousand dollars, in advance. The recording was instead finished with the Doctor taking on Marchan's role, but it later disappeared somewhere along the line.
There were others who wanted to participate, without payment. During the following weeks friends like Eric Clapton, Doug Sahm and Van Morrison sneaked up to Woodstock. J.J. Cale was brought in from Nashville in a limousine, he had been working on finishing his first Shelter album. Danko had received a tape from a studio technician, with the recordings Cale had done the year before for the same album. Danko had made copies for all the others, and everyone was moved by Cale's own version of that back-to-the-roots attitude that they had been so successfull in establishing themselves. Everyone in The Band wanted to record one of the songs on the tape, "Call Me The Breeze," and they all wanted Cale to join in. Cale didn't say much in the studio, hardly looking the others in the eyes, but his playing and singing silenced everyone in the studio room during the recording. The one that was most influenced by the encounter with Cale was Clapton. He had stumbled upon a copy of the same tape as Danko had, and had already recorded his own overloaded version of "After Midnight." But when he, for the first time, got to hear Cale himself sing a few verses of the song it was like he suddenly understood exactly what to do with his own wobbly career. At least that was what he said to the Doctor.
Morrison was in an extremely good mood, almost giggling, and willingly threw himself straight into an obscure Mose Allison song, despite never having heard it before. "You know it's tough these days/for a young man to make his start/but remember darling/you can count on me to do my part!"
They had met Sahm at the time they were backing up Dylan on his senseless world tour, before Levon quit because he could not take all the booing and the catcalls, in New York, Texas, LA or anywhere. Sahm had been crazy already then, But he was a mean performer of those old Bobby Bland songs. And now Manuel wanted to sing just those songs more than anything else, he had sung them so many times, but there was always a new drop of emotion to be squeezed out of them. They did "Share Your Love", one hundred times better than they would three years later on Moondog Matinee, with Sahm just looking around behind the improvised recording equipment. After Sahm finally found his grass they recorded "I'll Take Care Of You", a totally transparent, trustworthy version. One or two takes, with Manuel and Sahm as two rivaling lovers, on each side of the mike. Begging to be taking care of the same woman.
The Bland part of the record could have ended there, but Sahm had just started. Quickly he handed out the chord progression of "Ain't Nothin' You Can Do", counted them in, and before the others even understood what was going on they had yet another magnificent interpretation on tape. A little rough, but so what? After mutual backslapping and more grass and more whiskey and more good stories from the past they gathered, on Manuel's demand, for yet another Bland cover. Of course Sahm should have sung "That Did It," one of his absolute Bland favorites, so incredibly dramatic, but Manuel's presence was so strong in all the parts of the song that he never stepped forward. Sahm stood on his toes time after time, but never approached the mike. Manuel didn't even notice it.
The recordings finished a few days later, sans guests in the studio, with Manuel singing the Four Tops' "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" as only he could. The song eventually sneaked into The Band's set lists and when one of J.J. Cale's buddies, Roger Tillison, shortly thereafter recorded his only, superb album he did the song with the exact same arrangement that was recorded that night in Woodstock. On the same album he also did the first released version of "Get up Jake," one of the outtakes from The Band's second album.
And so they found themselves with yet another completed album. Helm christened it "The Road From Turkey Scratch," as a reminder of how long, and yet nowhere, they had come since the days when he slaved on his father's Arkansas cotton farm.
The never dared calling Dylan, fearing that he would tell Robertson. It was their only regret.
Somewhere along the road Robertson somehow must have found out about the mutiny among his fellow Band members. The record was of course never released, and not even turned over to the record company. Nobody knows or, more correctly, has told why. But it's hard to see how Robertson could have handled the loss of prestige. Still, it's fascinating to speculate over what means he used to stop the release. Helm has always, after the breaking-up of The Band, been very outspoken in his critic of Robertson and his greed and need to be in control. One may suspect that his anger not only comes from questions about royalties on released Band recordings. But he has never uttered a word about "The Road from Turkey Scratch."
A few years later the group did Moondog Matinee following the same recipe they used during that month in the Woodstock Playhouse, but in comparison it is a very, very bleak affair.
Now Manuel and Danko are both gone and Helm is having problems with cancer. We may never get to know the true history about this luminous record. Today, copies of the recordings seem to circulate among a small, very small, number of insiders.
Jerry Wexler has one,
Albert Grossman's widow has one.
Bob Dylan had one.
It's said that Elton John have been trying to buy one for a long time. For astronomical amounts.
My information about the recordings come from a more than three hour long interview with a worn out and heavily drugged Dr. John, done when he was in Sweden in the '80s, touring with the group Madhouse. The interview took place in a depressing hotel room in Lund and the good doctor stayed in bed during our entire conversation. At times he would doze off for a minute. But his memory was crystal clear, particularly when he understood that I did in fact know about these recordings and that he had been present during most of the time when they were made.
Still, I was incredibly surprised when he actually dug out his own tape and inserted it in the boom-box he earlier had used for playing old New Orleans favorites and Armstrong's Hot Five recordings. What he did not notice was that my little interview tape recorder was running during the forty minutes the tape was played.
So now I also had a copy. Even if the sound was terrible.
But the briskness, the love and the razor-sharp feeling cut right through the tape hiss.
My tape was tenderly cared for for many years, I didn't even dare to play it for my closest friends. It was like it would erase itself if it came too close to daylight.
Then the tape was lost, during a very dramatic divorce.
She cheated on me. I poured a liter of sour milk over her [only in Sweden...(JH)] and said a few not very friendly words, she got her revenge by burning parts of my record collection. And a handful of tapes that she randomly pulled out from that little drawer next to the stereo...