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The Wizard

by Brian D. Johnson

From the Canadian weekly newsmagazine Maclean's, july 22, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Rogers Media Inc. May not be reprinted or republished without permission.

A quarter century after The Last Waltz, Garth Hudson, The Band's reclusive keyboard genius, is still rolling back the frontiers of music.

The beard is whiter than it was in The Band's 1968 heyday, (below) but Hudson still plays like an alchemist.Photo: Michael Schmelling.

Photo: Elliott Landy.

The keyboardist is particularly proud of the new tricks he can perform with his left hand. Photo: Michael Schmelling.

IT'S CLOSE TO DAWN when Garth Hudson shows me the gun. "I made it from a kit," he says, fondling a derringer with a smooth wooden handle. Hudson is sitting at a piano in his home studio, an old cabin in New York's Catskill Mountains. He's already demonstrated an array of antique instruments, from a pearl accordion to a wooden saxophone, when he produces the gun. "The barrel is what took the time," he explains, as he holds it up to his eye to inspect the homemade rifling -- to the alarm of his wife, Maud, who watches from her wheelchair in the corner.

"Did you make bullets for it too?" I ask, by way of a joke.

"Yeah," Garth drawls. "It actually works." He rummages around in a drawer until he finds a paper bag of lead balls that look like fishing sinkers, and goes on to explain how he made the bullets by pouring lead into a mold. Then he puts down the gun and goes back to the piano, offering to show some tricks he's learned to do with his left hand.

Garth Hudson, who turns 65 in August, is the keyboard genius who served as the quiet elder of The Band. He was one of four Canadians who -- with Levon Helm, the son of an Arkansas cotton farmer -- returned rock 'n' roll to its American roots after the British Invasion. These four boys from the flatlands of southern Ontario cooked up their own brand of mountain music -- a moonshine blend of folk, blues, country, gospel and rock. They found Oz via the Ozarks. And Hudson was their wizard, a classically trained musician from London, Ont., who, in Helm's words, "made us sound like we did."

The Band was the group that shepherded the Sixties across the Great Divide. When Bob Dylan went electric, and was booed on stages around the world, it was The Band who backed him up, braving the storm. When Woodstock became an epicentre of the counterculture, it was partly because Dylan and The Band had made their home in that area of the Catskills -- they were originally set to headline the festival. And when Martin Scorsese filmed The Band's swan song, The Last Waltz, in 1976, it marked not just the end of a group, but of an era.

Now, of those four Canadians, only two remain. Richard Manuel hanged himself in a Florida motel room in 1986; Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999. And, while Helm remains in Woodstock, the two Canadian survivors have ended up on opposite sides of the Great Divide -- farflung answers to the question, what ever happened to the Sixties? Lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, 59, the one who decided to take The Band off the road with The Last Waltz, cashed in on the legacy, and now works in Hollywood as a music executive for DreamWorks Records. Hudson -- whom Helm called "the soul and presiding genius of our band" -- has weathered three personal bankruptcies and still lives in Woodstock, where he stoically hauls his own gear to gigs with local musicians.

But his career is enjoying a revival of sorts. Hudson has produced a solo album titled The Sea to the North, a jazz gumbo of beebop, piano reverie, languid saxophone, Bengali tabla, accordion whimsy, and layers of eccentric soundscapes. With the digital remastering of The Last Waltz on CD and DVD, Hudson's playing now gleams through the unmuddied audio like a buried treasure. And this month he's enjoying an Ontario homecoming. With a Woodstock rhythm- and-blues outfit called the Crowmatix, Hudson is playing concerts in London, Windsor and Toronto. Singing with him for the first time in four decades is Paul London, who fronted the Capers, one of Canada's first rock bands. (London, 63, an automotive sculptor who designs Hondas in California, has bought a shiny silver suit for the occasion.)

Hudson, who's notoriously shy and reclusive, has even been persuaded to do the odd interview. Serving as the hermit's publicist is Maud, his wife of 23 years and a singer who performs and records with him. Via e-mail, Maud asks me to meet Garth at Joyous Lake, a roadhouse bar in Woodstock where he'll join a makeshift band of local musicians called Boomdaddy. If I show up for the afternoon soundcheck, I can help him unload his equipment. After the gig, she suggests, I can interview Garth "until just before sunup." Maud and Garth are nocturnal -- country folk who go to bed after the crack of dawn and sleep until mid-afternoon. Visiting them is like entering another time zone, in more ways than one.

I drive to Woodstock. It seems appropriate, if only to navigate those Catskills curves where Dylan had his motorcycle accident, and where several members of The Band (though not Hudson) survived a variety of drunken car crashes. Woodstock looks like a town in a time warp. The main street is lined with shops selling windchimes and tie-dyed T-shirts, a tourist strip of hippie nostalgia. As the Hudsons arrive at the roadhouse for the soundcheck, Garth helps his wife out of the truck and into her wheelchair. Maud, 51, a large woman in red velvet pants and a pink shawl, has spinal damage from a series of accidents, including a car wreck that sent her flying over a 200-foot cliff.

In The Band, Hudson resembled a biblical prophet, a dark-bearded Beethoven behind a massive pulpit of keyboards. Now the beard is white, the posture stooped. As I help him unload a truckful of equipment, he points out that the keyboard and its case are so heavy he has to load them separately, "to avoid the chiropractic bills." As we eat dinner, Garth's steak grows cold while he fiddles with some of his 40 cables. This man who recorded The Basement Tapes with Dylan and The Band, is still toiling in the engine room of rock 'n' roll.

But his virtuosity remains undiminished. That night, as Boomdaddy, a three-guitar band, churns through rock standards, Hudson doesn't play the notes so much as discover them, coaxing phrases from obscure corners of the melody. Moving between the keyboard and the synthesizer buttons, he's like an alchemist, incessantly tinkering. He pulls out whorls of sound like taffy, and braids the most unlikely squeals into a sweet, liquid architecture. Double-helix glissandos. As his fingers flow over the keys, at the end of a conclusive flourish he'll drag his left hand across his beard, as if wiping the blackboard clean.

Maud, meanwhile, sits behind him in her wheelchair at her own keyboard, a laptop propped on a music stand. "So the lyrics don't blow away," she explains. She sings several numbers, including It Makes No Difference, a ballad that conjures up Rick Danko's memory with the mournful line, "The sun don't shine anymore."

It's past 3 a.m. by the time we leave the bar. At the all-night diner, 15 km down the road, Garth orders a grilled cheese and ham on egg bread with a chocolate shake. "Might as well go out in style," he mutters. We drive through another long stretch of night to the house Hudson built in 1971 atop a small mountain. As I follow his truck up the curves, a deer glances through the headlights into the woods. We pull up to an old cottage below the house, a faded white clapboard cabin with a stone chimney wreathed in ivy. Inside is an Aladdin's cave of musical instruments.

Interviewing Hudson is tricky. He speaks like he plays, in cubist tangents, but at a much slower pace. He comes across as a man with no ego. Unlike the rest of The Band, he was never into heavy drinking, heavy drugs or crashing cars. "I took a pass on all that," he says. "I had things to do. I've always carried a tool box. You have to be able to solder under fire. You're down to your last guitar cord. Someone trips over it, shorts it. Soldering under fire is part of the manual. It could be the book. It could be a computer interaction between the two."

Hudson talks like a professor of free association. When he joined the Hawks, The Band's first incarnation, in 1961, Ronnie Hawkins paid him an extra $10 a week to teach the others to read and write music, mostly to placate Garth's parents, who feared their son was squandering his education. The boys never learned. But Hudson lent The Band an orchestral pedigree. He was famous for a Bach- inspired prelude to Chest Fever that he never played the same way twice. And the Jew's harp on Up on Cripple Creek is actually his clavinet being run through a wah-wah pedal. But looking back on The Band, Hudson says, "It was a job. Play a stadium, play a theatre. My job was to provide arrangements with pads underneath, pads and fills behind good poets. Same poems every night."

However, unlike his friend Helm, Hudson expresses no bitterness towards Robertson. In his 1993 memoir, This Wheel's On Fire, Helm suggests Hudson was cheated out of royalties. "That could hurt if it were true," says Garth. "I don't know how deeply a man could hurt if it were true. But I didn't contribute in the same way as everybody else. I'd be around when songs were written, and I'd try to think of something silly to put in. Maybe I was just envious of the writers who were filling up yellow legal pads." Hudson, Danko and Manuel sold their publishing rights to Robertson. "The deal was made. It was a good job. And I got out of it alive."

For a while he made the rounds in Los Angeles. "You go out there in your '74 blue Volvo with a short turning radius and do sessions and occasional film work," he says. But now he's more interested in his own studio experiments, and developing his left hand. "When I was with The Band I had no idea I'd get this good," he says, and turns to the piano to demonstrate his new agility with boogie-woogie and stride. His fingers blur across the keys as he plays patterns forwards, backwards, inside out. It's a hypnotic laying on of hands, a private tour through the scattered mansions of a beautiful mind. By the time he stops, the birds are singing. We step out into the light. The sun is now high above the horizon, but behind the forest-fire haze from Quebec, it's still an eerie orange. In this eclipsed morning, we say good night. Garth takes Maud back up the hill. And I drive down the road with Rick Danko's voice in my head, that bittersweet lament for a sun that don't shine any more.

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