ARCHIVE HIGHLIGHT

Into the Big Pink Yonder
The Band and I
By Barney Hoskyns

From Gadfly March/April 2001

 

A 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.

Barely 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.

Years 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.

I 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.

My 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.

* * *

The 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.

Bassist 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."

The 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.

Danko 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.

Dylan, 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."

Many 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.

Two 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 little."

By 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."

Like 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.

"Back 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."

Right 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.

Three 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).

"There 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."

* * *

"Everyone 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 meat."

To 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."

Yet 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.

Robertson 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)."

The 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 California.

What 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.

The 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."

Much 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 was Levon's."

"I 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 themselves."

For 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."

What 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.

* * *

The 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.

Many 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.

The 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 them.

"I 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 the scenes.

With 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.

Received 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.

Ironically, 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.

A 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 it?"

What 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 alcoholic.

More 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."

Helm 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.

Helm's 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."

"I 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."

It 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 the group?

Three 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.

* * *

Rock 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 years.

What 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.

Coming 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."

By 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 directions.

The 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."

That 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.

Little 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 Hoffenberg.

The 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 Come").

Moondog 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."

A 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."

Malibu, 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."

Helm 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.

"Tour '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."

Recuperating 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."

"We 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.

Although 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."

All 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.

A 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."

It 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.

When 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."

It 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.

Given 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."

The 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.

* * *

Without 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.

Robertson 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.

"What 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."