long time ago, in a very different pop galaxy to
the one we currently inhabit, a skinny English teenager
shelled out the not inconsiderable sum of £2.99
for a double live album by an anonymous-sounding
entity called The Band. The name of this record,
with its peculiar maroon cover and gatefold sleeve,
was Rock Of Ages.
out of glam-rock swaddling clothes, the boy clasped
the thing to his bony chest and conveyed it homewards.
There, Rock Of Ages plunged him not
only into the music of bearded Americans with guitars
and mandolins but into the great backwater of black/white/blue
Americana from which those men had drawn their inspirations.
Out of this baptism grew a deep and enduring love
for southern soul balladry, high-lonesome bluegrass
warbling, New Orleans second-line funk, ribald roadhouse
rock 'n' roll and much else besides.
later, a heavily-bearded Elvis Costello would tell
the boy—now a man able to sport his own facial
hair—that The Band's albums were "like
receiving a letter from the other side of the world,
a world you couldn't possibly understand, let alone
visit." And the boy would remember how "King
Harvest" and "Caledonia Mission"
(heard first on Rock of Ages and then—working
backwards—on The Band and Music
From Big Pink) had opened up America
to him; how The Band had become a conduit to all
that plaintive unfathomable vastness.
was that teenager, a Marc Bolan fanboy outgrowing
his three-minute, 45-rpm pop thrills. Moreover,
I've never outgrown the rollicking, exultant, pleadingly
tender music on Rock of Ages or The
Band or Music From Big Pink.
For me, as for Elvis Costello (as for Eric Clapton),
The Band was the bands' band, the godfathers of—what?—alt.country-soul,
a rock band that looked and sounded like gold rush
prospectors who'd stepped miraculously out of some
sepia print in an antique shop.
love for The Band led me in time to write a whole
book about them and even move myself—lock,
stock, barrel, family and all—to Woodstock,
New York, the town where their story unfolded. Now
that I'm back in England, I still haven't worked
them (or Woodstock) out of my system.
Band began with a house, an unremarkable ranch job
sitting at the end of a straggly dirt driveway in
the shadow of a mountain called Overlook—a
pink box with a basement, just a few miles east
of the artists' sanctuary that was Woodstock.
Rick Danko came by to look at the box in the spring
of 1967 and decided he'd had enough of living in
cities. "Being a country boy from southern
Ontario, I realised that I'd been living in cities
for seven years," he told me just months before
his death in December 1999. "And I just realised
that I didn't have to be in cities anymore."
previous year, Danko had wrapped a tour with Bob
Dylan, which has gone down in rock history as one
of the great cataclysms—a big electric bang
that rankled the folk purists of the olde worlde
as royally as it had enraged the coffeehouse politicos
of the new one. Following a bellicose climax at
London's Royal Albert Hall in late May 1966, Dylan
returned to Woodstock to recover, only to suffer
a motorcycle accident, which was—according
to who you ask—either (a) serious, (b) a perfect
excuse to hide away from the prying eyes of the
pop community or (c) both of the above. "It
was serious enough that it took him a year or so
to get himself back together" is what Danko
said of the spill Dylan took on a Woodstock back
road on July 29, 1966.
first visited the town in the late fall of that
year, a point when Dylan was attempting to edit
a mischievous, obfuscatory film of the 1966 tour
called Eat the Document. By the following
spring, Rick, Richard Manuel (piano/vocals) and
Garth Hudson (organ/horns) were installed in the
house they baptised "Big Pink," hidden
away off Stoll Road in the woods of West Saugerties.
Guitarist Robbie Robertson moved into a house on
the other side of town.
who was living in rather grander style in the old
Woodstock artists' colony of Byrdcliffe, began showing
up at Big Pink most days, guitar in hand, songs
jostling for space in his head. "Maybe a hundred
and fifty songs were recorded in a seven or eight
month period," remembered Danko. "The
tapes were part of Bob's rehabilitation—he
was getting stronger and feeling better. And from
that we started getting our writing chops together
a little bit."
were the bootleg tapes, which leaked out from those
hush-hush basement sessions. Some of the Big Pink
originals even made it onto an official double album
called The Basement Tapes, assembled
by Robertson in 1975: Dylan gems like "You
Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and "Nothing Was
Delivered," together with songs written or
co-written by Robertson, Manuel and Danko. A handful
of later tracks saw the Hawks reunited with their
errant drummer, Levon Helm, who'd jumped ship halfway
through the American leg of Dylan's electric tour.
of the Basement Tapes songs, "Tears
of Rage" and "This Wheel's on Fire,"
would find their way onto the debut album by The
Band. "We were up there just living,"
Robertson recalled. "There was nothing that
we had to do, no obligations. But Bob had been wanting
us to record for a long time, and our fun was beginning
to run out. We needed to take care of business a
the time manager Albert Grossman signed them to
Capitol in February 1968, the quintet had already
set to work on their first album with producer John
Simon. "I got very infatuated with them,"
Simon says. "I thought it was just the best
music I'd ever heard. They were true originals,
they didn't listen to the music of the day."
Dylan on the stark, biblical John Wesley Harding,
The Band of Music From Big Pink went radically
against the grain of contemporary rock. Having dropped
out of the Summer of Love, they turned their backs
on the psychedelia and heavy blues of the day, burrowing
back into the past to create a unique melding of
soul, country, folk and gospel.
when people were stacking up Marshall amps and blowing
out their ear drums, The Band was down in the basement
at Big Pink trying to get a balance," said
Danko. "It wasn't about one person trying to
blow the others away, it was about trying to play
together and find an economical common ground."
from the get-go on the mournful curtain-raiser "Tears
of Rage," Music From Big Pink was about
chemistry, earthiness, empathy: instinctively soulful
musicians working together, voices merging, parts
locking in time: "One voice for all, echoing
around the hall," as they sang on
"We Can Talk." Sweet pining reverie and
blue-eyed gospel from Richard Manuel, good-ole-boy
bravado from Levon Helm, bemused fecklessness from
Rick Danko; an afterthought, "The Weight,"
which turned into The Band's best-known song; one
blasting, organ-churned rocker in "Chest Fever."
Mostly a sense of bluff camaraderie and small-town
strangeness; Dylan for the heart and feet.
decades on, Big Pink still sounds
wholly fresh and original. It's not "country
rock," and it's not rock and roll. Without
it, we might have had The Eagles' Hotel California,
but we'd never have had The Jayhawks' Hollywood
Town Hall or Mercury Rev's Deserters' Songs
(featuring Levon Helm and Garth Hudson).
were people who were very nonplussed that we were
working with Levon Helm," says the Rev's Jonathan
Donahue. "Well, I like people from that era.
You go to the source; you don't go to somebody who
says they can play like Levon. It's worth getting
it from the horse's mouth."
had told me about this mythical group of guys who
lived up in the country and woodshedded," the
legendary promoter Bill Graham told me before his
death in a helicopter crash in 1991. "Big
Pink was the first chance to eat the
Graham, The Band's first album was all about sensuality
and flow: "There was a funky, groovy, swirly
character to the sound, and I loved the odd sort
of non-voices of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel and
Levon Helm. The music held up to the myth for once."
a large part of the myth was the group's reluctance
to show its face—the almost puritanical sense
of anonymity they'd inherited from the reclusive
Zimmerman. Having barely played onstage since the
Dylan tour of 1966, the group chose to lay low in
Woodstock. The delay only enhanced the mystique:
little did the rock community know that its beloved
backwoodsmen were raising hell on the back roads
of Ulster County—or that drugs had seeped
into the pastoral idyll of their lives.
put the time to the best use, commencing work on
several of the songs that would appear on their
second and greatest album. As the autumn leaves
reddened on the branches of Woodstock's maples,
Robertson sketched out the music and lyrics for
"King Harvest (Will Surely Come)."
Woodstock winters were harder. Come December, The
Band—four-fifths of them Canadian, after all—decided
they'd seen enough snow for one lifetime and upped
sticks for the very different climate of southern
did Los Angeles—Rock Babylon—have to
do with the sinewy, old-world sound of The Band?
Very little. But in L.A. there was little chance
of your station wagon getting stuck in the snow,
and the group's road manager, Jonathan Taplin, found
an amazing house off Sunset Boulevard—the
place where Sammy Davis, Jr. had nested with May
Britt, no less.
recording of (most of) The Band in
Sammy Davis' pool house makes the group lo-fi pioneers
of a sort. Few bands had set up shop in such makeshift
conditions, but the rough, no-frills sound defined
the down-home character of their music. "Everything
in rock was kind of going in that high end direction,"
said Robertson. "We wanted something different,
a kind of woody, thuddy sound."
of the subject matter of The Band's
"story songs" derived directly or indirectly
from drummer and Arkansas native Levon Helm. "The
inspiration for the greater part of Robbie's song
catalog came straight out of Levon's mouth, I think,"
says Band friend and associate Ian Kimmett. "I
mean, Levon was a very passionate southern man.
The crafting, the composing and the song writing
nucleus may have been Robbie's, but the storytelling
started thinking that the music was finally taking
shape," Helm told me in 1998. "We had
actually figured out some methods of how to really
turn the heat up and get the music to cook. We'd
sit and talk about medicine shows and, shit, the
tune would just come to us. A lot of those good
lessons that Bob had given us had started to manifest
Rick Danko, The Band's secret lay in the fact that
each of the group's members thought in terms of
the whole sound and that all of them played several
instruments. "Levon, for example, is as much
of a bass player as he is a drummer, as much of
a guitarist as he is a bass player," Danko
said. "We listened to each other, complemented
each other, balanced each other out."
The Band did more effectively and
distinctively than any comparable album of the period
was bring America's past back to life—put
it center-stage in the rock spotlight in ways that
were never reactionary or cosily nostalgic. Made
by four Canadians and an Arkansas renegade, it was
music that spoke movingly of an older, funkier world.
Band had good reason to call their third album Stage
Fright. On the eve of their live debut
at Bill Graham's Winterland Theater in San Francisco
on April 17, 1969, Robbie Robertson came down with
a bizarre illness that almost did in the show. Even
Robertson himself wondered whether fear wasn't a
contributing factor that night. Here the group was,
headlining for the first time with their own material,
with no Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan to shield them.
people, when they heard the song "Stage Fright"
for the first time, assumed Robertson was writing
about Dylan. But "Stage Fright" spoke
as much for the five men who'd shied away from the
limelight in the Catskills as it did for the counterculture
icon who'd mellowed into the backwoods bard of Nashville
Skyline. When The Band played the Woodstock
Festival in August 1969 and then backed Dylan at
the Isle of Wight two weeks later, the scale of
the gatherings shocked them.
success of The Band caught the quintet
by surprise, making them stars in their own right
at last. After touring for the first three months
of the year, they returned to Woodstock to limber
up for their next album. This time, the fraternal
spirit was harder to summon. Although some of them
were starting families, fame and money had disrupted
the group's tenuous chemistry, and drugs and alcohol
were messing with the health of at least three of
found myself writing songs I couldn't help but
write," recalled Robertson, who'd always been
wary of confessional or autobiographical writing.
Like the title song, "The Shape I'm In,"
"The Rumor" and "Just Another Whistle
Stop" did more than hint at the turmoil behind
Bearsville wunderkind Todd Rundgren
at the controls, Stage Fright was
cleaner, more polished than its beloved predecessor.
This time around, The Band sounded like a rock group,
with each instrument clearly defined in the mix.
Also noticeable on Stage Fright was
the relative lack of harmony singing. Only on "The
Rumor" did Helm, Danko and Manuel properly
come together, weaving lines in the rough-hewn neo-gospel
style they'd mastered on Big Pink
and The Band.
more coolly than The Band, Stage
Fright nonetheless reached the Top 5
in the Billboard Album Chart after its release in
September 1970—the highest-charting album
of their career. Held in less affection than its
two predecessors it might be; a compelling testament
of a troubled time it will always remain.
following Stage Fright, The Band spent
the ensuing three months touring America. After
finishing the tour in Miami in December, The Band
went into winter hibernation in Woodstock. Here
Albert Grossman was recovering from the death of
Janis Joplin, one of his biggest acts, and building
a large recording studio. He was now at the hub
of a music scene that had burgeoned in and around
the town. Dylan was gone, but Van Morrison and others
owned houses in the area. Grossman wanted to establish
a complex of studios and restaurants in Bearsville,
two miles west of Woodstock along Route 212.
barn-like structure in the middle of a forest clearing
off 212, the main Bearsville studio soon became
second home to The Band, then gearing up to record
their fourth album. "In my mind, I had my own
key to the studio and had drums set up everywhere
that I never had to take down," Levon Helm
said. "I had this wonderful world built up
in my head where The Band would just be making music
all the time, and it would just be hand over fist
with money and albums, and who's got time to count
Helm hadn't reckoned with was Robertson hitting
a nasty patch of writer's block. "It was frustrating,
a horrible feeling," Robertson remembered.
"I just didn't have the spirit to write. A
lot of the songs were half-finished ideas."
Richard Manuel, meanwhile, was fast becoming a chronic
than ever, Robertson had to hold The Band together
and keep it on course. "I saw that Robbie became
the leader because nobody else wanted to be the
leader," said Bill Graham. "Levon had
been the leader, but he wasn't enough of a decision-maker."
today contends that Grossman encouraged Robertson
not only to assume the role of leader but also to
fix it so that he received the major share of the
group's song writing royalties. "Robbie and
Albert wrote all the songs, and the rest of us were
just lucky to be there," he told me with a
bitter laugh, his throat sandpaper-raw from chemotherapy
sessions he'd been undergoing after being diagnosed
with cancer of the vocal cords.
bitterness toward Robertson has become legendary,
to the extent that he couldn't bring himself to
attend Rick Danko's funeral when he heard Robbie
would be present. "Robbie's got people who'll
say that he wrote everything, and that's the same
people that are helping him spend the fuckin' money,
but he knows it ain't right, it ain't fuckin' true...
and it damn sure ain't fair for him and Albert's
estate to spend all The Band's money."
can't emphasize how much success had changed everything,"
Danko explained to Stephen Davis, co-writer of This
Wheel's on Fire. "We were outrageous in our
behavior, and it was impossible to get people in
one place at one time."
would be pointless to pretend that Cahoots
is on a par with The Band or Music
From Big Pink, yet it's by no means an
abysmal album. "Life is a Carnival," with
its astounding antiphonal horn arrangement by Allen
Toussaint, remains the single funkiest track The
Band ever recorded, and Bob Dylan's "When I
Paint My Masterpiece," sung by Helm, is a droll
fusion of Parisian chanson and Arkansas
hoedown. And if Cahoots is above all
an album of lamentation, a record that mourns the
passing of key American traditions ("The River
Hymn," "Last of the Blacksmiths,"
"Where Do We Go From Here?"), Robertson's
pining for bygone tradition should be seen in the
context of the collapsing state of The Band itself.
Were his elegies for the blacksmith and the American
eagle actually sublimations of his feelings about
decades on, Cahoots can be heard afresh
as the sound of The Band continuing the process
that Stage Fright had begun: adjusting
to a modern world in which they didn't belong.
of Ages is one of the most powerful albums
of live rock and roll ever made—up there with
The Who: Live at Leeds, James Brown:
Live at the Apollo, Volume 1 or just about any
other in-concert souvenir released in the last forty
made these final dates special was the decision
to add a group of seasoned New York horn men to
the mix, with their arrangements written by the
great Allen Toussaint. On their night, The Band
was already a formidable live unit. With the addition
of Toussaint's horn charts—alternately subtle
and surging—they were awesome.
after the slightly cramped, confining production
on Cahoots, the live album is explosive
and panoramic, sizzling with live ambience. "Everything
seemed to go just right," said drummer Levon
Helm. "Nobody's concentration was affected
by anything. I love horns, and the bigger the band,
the better it sounds to my ear."
the final show on New Year's Eve, the expanded Band
was in majestic form. Eighty percent of Rock
of Ages hails from that final night,
including the sublime piece of Garth Hudson keyboard
improvisation known as "The Genetic Method,"
intended to take the show up to "Auld Lang
Syne." Rock of Ages runs through
most of The Band's great songs—from "The
Weight" to "Life is a Carnival"—and
adds something to all of them. The horns pull them
apart and contort them, leading them off in unexpected
Band spent much of the ensuing eighteen months in
retreat. "I was rebelling against the album/tour/album
cycle and questioning whether that was the way to
work," recalled Robbie Robertson. "I didn't
think you could necessarily just set the alarm,
wake up and work. For the benefit of the music,
I decided I would rather wait until tomorrow."
suited the other members of the group. Woodstock
was an easy place to do nothing and certainly an
easy place for a chronic alcoholic like Richard
Manuel not to change. While Manuel drank, Helm and
Danko struggled with drugs. Eventually Robertson
so tired of what he called "the little hippie
drug town" that he moved up to his wife Dominique's
home town of Montreal.
music was made by any of the members during this
period. "People weren't willing to put in that
time developing the music and not get something
from it," wrote Helm in This Wheel's On Fire.
By the spring of 1973, Manuel was floundering badly.
He'd separated from his wife Jane and was holed
up in a house with an ancient beatnik named Mason
Band's decision to go into the studio that summer
and cut a bunch of "oldies but goodies"
probably saved Manuel's life. It certainly took
them back to their roots as the Hawks, the premier
bar band in Toronto. It also chimed with the general
mid-'70s wave of nostalgia for the R&B and rock
and roll of the '50s and early '60s. Robertson later
described the cover versions on Moondog Matinee
as "an interesting experiment in translation,
translating things that usually got lost in translation."
Among the songs were rock and roll classics by Chuck
Berry ("Promised Land") and Fats Domino
("I'm Ready") and R&B ballads by Bobby
"Blue" Bland ("Share Your Love With
Me") and Sam Cooke ("A Change is Gonna
Matinee, its title a nod to DJ Alan Freed's
groundbreaking R&B radio show of the early '50s,
served as a fantasy jukebox. It was a set The Band
might have played as the Hawks a decade before,
but subtly treated and transformed by five musicians
incapable of stale duplication. For the British
writer Mick Gold, Moondog Matinee—like
Rock of Ages before it—expressed
"a faith in rock and roll as a living tradition
which could be invoked as well as added to."
lot happened to The Band in the period leading up
to Northern Lights-Southern Cross. After
a lost eighteen months between early 1972 and mid-1973,
they emerged to play in July to 600,000 people at
Watkins Glen in northwest New York State. In October,
they followed their old mentor Bob Dylan out to
southern California. "My original idea was
to move to California for about three months,"
Danko remembered. "Instead we came out and
stayed eight years."
where most of the group found homes, was very different
to Woodstock. Some members—Robbie Robertson
in particular—adapted smoothly to California.
Others, notably drummer Levon Helm, found the L.A.
lifestyle painfully phoney. "We were like fish
out of water," remembered Helm's common-law
wife Libby Titus. "It was a floating gold iceberg,
white beach houses and $3000-a-month rents, but
it was all completely unreal."
loathed L.A. but was grateful to Dylan, who asked
The Band to back him on his first American tour
since 1966. Preceded by the recording of the underrated
Planet Waves, "Tour '74"
was a huge event: five million postal applications
received for a total of 650,000 seats. The scale
of the tour was unprecedented, with Dylan and The
Band flown from city to city on a forty-seat Boeing
720 known as the Starship One. It was all a long
way off from the low-key jam sessions at Big Pink
six and a half years earlier.
'74 was your typical Coliseum-type tour across America,
all the big hockey and basketball places,"
says Helm. "Of course, compared to now, with
some of the pyrotechnics, it was a fairly tame show.
If that kind of a tour went on now it would be filmed
and presented on VH1."
from Tour '74—and then from a subsequent and
equally massive stadium tour supporting Crosby,
Stills, Nash and Young—was tricky. The sudden
influx of money exposed the group to myriad temptations.
"The Band had too much fun," says their
old boss Ronnie Hawkins. "Everybody partied
too much, drank too much, drugged too much."
were just going out there to sort of spice things
up a little and get away from Woodstock's weather
for a while," Helm recalls. "And everybody
got out there and I thought got overtaken by the
bright lights and wanted to stay." A new version
of Big Pink at least put them back on the right
track. Stumbling on a run-down former bordello near
Zuma Beach, they knew they'd found their new HQ.
Hence the name Shangri-La.
the first real work done at the studio was the mixing
of the Basement Tapes double album
released in July 1975, The Band knew the time had
come to record some new material. The difficulty
was getting the group's five members in the room
at the same time. "Of all our albums, Northern
Lights took the longest," recalled
Danko. "Because we had our own studio, everybody
would just saunter in when they felt like it."
eight songs on Northern Lights-Southern Cross
were Robertson's, and they proved that the muse
hadn't deserted him. Most of them were extended
story-songs, and at least one (the opening "Forbidden
Fruit") touched directly on The Band's problems.
The consensus among most of its reviewers was that
it was The Band's best studio album since Stage
Fright, or maybe even The Band.
Certainly it was a happier-sounding record than
either Stage Fright or Cahoots.
If there was less sense of brotherhood in its grooves,
the group sounded like it had rediscovered its musical
soul. "They sound as if they're aiming their
music at each other, not at a finished product,"
wrote Greil Marcus in Creem.
quarter century on from its release, Northern
Lights-Southern Cross remains a powerful
corrective to the received notion that The Band
never again reached the peaks of their '60s work.
By the time they came to record Islands,
however, they were tired: tired of touring, tired
of Los Angeles, tired of each other. The sales of
Northern Lights-Southern Cross had been disheartening,
and at least three of the group's members were preparing
solo projects. "This was the first sense I'd
had of Robbie's slight alienation from the whole
thing," recalled Jonathan Taplin. "He'd
made a good bit of money and he had a beautiful
house on the beach. He didn't really want to be
a babysitter any more."
took the arrival in March 1976 of Band fan Eric
Clapton to get the five men together in their own
Shangri-La studio for the first time since Northern
Lights. "There was a lot of bitching,"
recalled Clapton, the sessions for whose No Reason
to Cry album provided a certain boozy
respite from the tension.
Capitol asked the group to tour to promote The
Best of The Band that centennial summer,
none of the members was too keen. "I watched
The Band coming apart through substance abuse and
musical stagnation," recalled Gary Gersh, then
a Capitol A&R man. "The chemistry began
to unravel, and as with most of these situations
it wasn't a pretty sight."
should have come as no great surprise when Robertson
suggested The Band call it a day, at least on the
live front. "I came up with the idea of The
Last Waltz," he said. "I said
to the guys, listen, we don't want to travel town
to town any more, we should evolve to the next stage."
Within days Robertson had secured commitments from
some of the biggest names in the business: Clapton,
Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Dylan.
the huge amount of work The Last Waltz
entailed, the recording of Islands
was a small miracle. For Robertson, juggling the
various balls proved gruelling: "I was wearing
too many hats on both business and artistic levels,
and it wore me out." The Band members were
not, he noted, "in album mode."
Last Waltz, on 25 November 1976, was
a triumph, but one tempered by anger and sadness.
"I didn't get a lot of joy from seeing The
Band fold itself up," Helm wrote. As far as
he was concerned, his group had been railroaded
"from productivity to oblivion." The last
time the five original members stood on a stage
together was for the filming of two additional songs—"The
Weight" (with the Staple Singers) and "Evangeline"
(with Emmylou Harris)—for Martin Scorsese's
superb documentary film.
Robbie Robertson, The Band re-formed in 1983 and
toured North America. Three years later, midway
through another tour, Richard Manuel hanged himself
in a Florida motel room.
remains in Los Angeles, where he is currently in
the employ of DreamWorks SKG. Following Danko's
untimely death, Helm and Hudson returned to Woodstock,
where they live to this day. Helm remains in remission
from his cancer.
Levon and Garth and I have is stronger than family,"
Danko told me before his death. "We've known
each other almost forty years and we've never once
slapped one another. We've never come to blows.
We've always been able to talk things out. And we've
always protected one another."