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Playing with Bob Dylan

by Rob Bowman

From the article "Life Is A Carnival", Goldmine magazine, July 26, 1991, Vol.17, No.15, Issue 287.
© Rob Bowman and Goldmine magazine. Reprinted with permission.

That same summer of 1965, a secretary from Toronto named Mary Martin, who was working for Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, suggested to Dylan that the Hawks might be the appropriate ensemble to accompany him on his first electric tour. At the same time, Martin was also working on the Hawks' end of things, acquainting Rick Danko, for one, with Dylan's current material.

The Hawks were then engaged in a four-month stand in Somers Point, New Jersey, setting a thousand or more patrons on fire nightly with their heady brew of blues and R&B. Dylan checked them out and hired Robertson initially for two gigs, in late August at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Robertson, unimpressed with Dylan's drummer, suggested Dylan also hire Helm. Robertson, Helm, Harvey Brooks on bass and Al Kooper on keyboards set out to endure the cacophony of boos that greeted Dylan's second and third electric gigs. (The first, of course, had occured at the Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan was backed up with Al Kooper and members of the Butterfield Blues Band.)

Dylan wanted Robertson and Helm to continue backing him in his guerilla-warfare attack on middle America's consciousness and eventually Australia's and Europe's. They responded that they couldn't see doing it without the rest of the Hawks being along for the ride, so after a bit of rehearsal in Toronto in September 1965, Bob Dylan and the Band took to the road.

All five moved to New York, where every week they would fly out on Dylan's private Lodestar airplane, play two or three night before an audience of "folkie purists" who were engrossed in a ritual booing, viewing an electric Dylan as a sellout to the values of folk music rather than listening to music that was years ahead of its time in power and majesty.

The booing quickly became too much for Helm, who left and headed back south. "I don't think Levon could handle people just booing every night," said Robertson. "He said, `I don't want to do this anymore.'[He] didn't feel that you could do anything with it rhytmically and there was no room and there was no way to make it feel good. To me it was like `Yeah, but the experience equals this music in the making. We will find the music. It will take some time but we will find it and eventually we'll make it something that we need to get out of it.' In the beginning, it was a little bit too much bashing. It was in the making. By the time we did the Australia and Europe tours we had discovered whatever this thing was. It was not light, it was not folky. It was very dynamic, very explosive and very violent."

The whole experience culminated in late May 1966 at the Albert Hall in London, England. Columbia Records recorded the event for a possible live LP. The recordings show that, indeed, Dylan and the Band had discovered "this thing". an entity that continually ebbed and flowed as quiet sections alternated with moments of awesome volume and apocalyptic power.

After the tour, Dylan retreated to Woodstock in upstate New York, where he began working on editing a documentary film of the European leg titled Eat The Document. The Band members were each put on a weekly retainer and Danko and Manuel started making regular trips to Woodstock to help Dylan with the film.

"The next I knew," said Danko, "I found that big pink house that was in the middle of a hundred acres with a pond. It was nice."

Danko, Manuel and Hudson all moved into the house, while Robertson ensconced himself nearby. "Everyone remembers the period very fondly. It was the first time since they were kids that they hadn't been on the road. It was the first occasion that they had space, room to breathe, time to think about what they were doing.

Danko continued, "It was sure nice to have that time where we weren't under the pressures of the public, to be able to afford the time and place to do our homework, to reflect and push forward. It was a great time in life. It was just us getting together every day and playing homemade music."

Hudson felt similarly: "It was relaxed and low-key, which was something we hadn't enjoyed since we were children. We could wander off into the woods with Hamlet [their gigantic dog]. The woods were right outside our door."

Every day Robertson, Danko, Manuel, Hudson and Dylan would congregate at what had come to be referred to as "Big Pink," and for two or three hours they would write songs, throw ideas back and forth, play older songs from a multiplicity of genres and occasionally lay some of it down on a two-track recorder in the basement. One can hear some of this embryonic work on the double album The Basement Tapes, recorded in 1967 in the actual basement of Big Pink (finally released officially in 1975). There are still a number of tapes, such as the intrguingly titled "Even If It's A Pig, Part I and II," which have yet to see the light of day (although one such song, "Santa Fe," did recently surface on Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3).

Playing with Dylan for nearly four years could not help but influence the members of the Band, especially with regard to songwriting. Robertson expounded on this: "In his approach, the poetry aspect of it, poetic license in songwriting. It's a culmination of a whole bunch of things but because we were working with Bob it was really obvious. I didn't pay attention to a lot of the things that he wrote, though. It was too talky for me. It was just like I was getting lost and this was like reading subtitles to a song. I was saying if this thing could be more soulful and simplified...Later on things like `Just Like A Woman' came, things that I thought were realy touching."

"I was afraid to write like that. I thought it was just going to be blah, blah, blah. When we would play with Bob he would do this acoustic set and then the electric set. In the acoustic set it was just blah, blah, blah, blah all the way through. Not that he wasn't saying amazing things, it was just too much. I didn't want to listen to that many words from anybody - anybody! That was just somebody that talked too much. It was brilliantly done."

"But, from my background, I came in on a rock'n'roll train, blues and country music mixed together where the music played a part of it. There was a sound, there was an effect to this whole thing and it all added up. That's what made rock'n'roll to me. You mix this and you mix that and a little bit of this and a little bit of that and you get something and God knows what it is. It's just magical when you put it all together. I wasn't getting that out of [Dylan's] music."

"Curtis Mayfield was a tremendous influence on me. I remember playing Curtis Mayfield for Bob Dylan, saying `Listen to this, listen to the mood, listen to the sound quality.' I was trying to get him into the idea of making records, not going in there and just bashing inthe studio and whatever everybody plays, that's what the record is; that there's actually a sound quality to it. We would talk about early rockabilly records and stuff like that."

"Between all our influences, my influences, Bob's opening up this door, it was like a calling. It was like adding up these pieces together where you actually are going to hear the humor of Little Willie John's `All Around The World' and you're going to hear these voices doing Staple Singers stuff, and a high singer like Smokey Robinson, but with these kind of lyrics, the Hank Williams-influenced things. All of these things add up - you mix them all in a big pot and you stir them with a spoon and you get the Music From Big Pink and The Band albums."

Over time, the music made by the Band became very different. They no longer sounded even remotely as they had behind Hawkins and Dylan, or on their own as Levon and the Hawks.

Robertson remembers clearly the transformations: "I had, with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, played guitar though your brain. I had played raging, screaming solos. When I started playing with Ronnie there was nobody playing like that; there was Roy Buchanan and me. I was absolutely a Soldier of Fortune of guitar. When I started playing a guitar, it was with a vengeance. It was with such anger. It was with such ambition. It was with such spiritual kindling that I couldn't stop playing every day. I practiced more than anybody on the planet has ever practiced. I was young with a young attitude, get right to the point. My guitar playing was like a premature ejaculation in the beginning. I was in my early twenties with Bob Dylan. Same thing, a hundred guitar solos a night. I'd done this to my death."

"[With the Band] the song is becoming the thing, the mood is becoming the thing. Up to this point I've been harping on Bob Dylan, on everybody, about this sound, and I don't mean electronic trick sounds. All of that plays a part, but there's a vibe to certain records, a quality, whether it's a Motown thing or a Sun Records thing or a Phil Spector thing. [Bob] was saying, `Who cares about that? I'm only interested in the lyrics.' Well, that's not the way I felt about it all."

"I wanted to discover the sound of the Band. So I thought, I'm gonna do this record and I'm not gonna play a guitar sole on the whole record. I'm only going to play riffs, Curtis Mayfield kind of riffs. I wanted the drums to have their own character, I wanted the piano not to sound like a big Yamaha grand. I wanted it to sound like an upright piano. I wanted these pictures in your mind, I wanted this flavour."

"I didn't want screaming vocals. I wanted sensitive vocals where you can hear the breathing and the voices coming in. This whole thing of discovering the voices - don't everybody come in together. Everybody in records is working on getting the alle the voices together until it neutralizes itself. I like voices coming in one at a time, in a chain reaction kind of thing like the Staple Singers did. But. because we are all men it will have another effect."

"All of these ideas come to the surface and what becomes the clear picture is that this isn't just clever. This is emotional and this is storytelling. You can see this mythology. This is the record that I wanted to make."

Robertson, maybe more than the rest, thought through all of these things and are able to articulate them, but the magic of the Band was an equal collective. Everybody played a significant part and if one element had been different, the sound and feel would have been significantly altered.

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