by Seth Rogovoy
(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., August 1995) — The last few years have seen a flurry of activity surrounding The Band, the most since the group seemingly broke up for good in 1976. Two major books providing the first in-depth look at the legendary Canadian-American rock group were published in 1994. A long-promised retrospective, 3-CD box- set, Across the Great Divide,’ was finally released by Capitol Records in the fall of 1994. The spring of 1995 saw the release of a CD culled from the group’s legendary performance at the Watkins Glen festival of 1973. The current group touring under the name The Band took part in three of the highest-profile concert events of the 1990s — the 30th anniversary all-star tribute to Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1992, President Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993, and Woodstock ’94, the 25th anniversary of the original festival at which The Band performed.
But perhaps the most important development for longtime fans of The Band was the release in 1993 of the album Jericho, the first recording of new music billed to The Band since Islands in 1977. Stephen Davis aptly characterized the significance of this event in the liner notes to Jericho when he wrote, “a new album by The Band should be a cause for national rejoicing.”’ Indeed, for a long-time fan and professional observer of The Band like myself, this should be a glorious time, as we are now witnessing what appears to be a virtual resurrection of the greatest rock band of all time.
Why then do I feel like mourning instead of rejoicing?
The story of how Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson came together as The Band is a piece of Americana worthy of one of the group’s songs. It encompasses the history of Canada and the American South, the rise of popular music in the postwar era, and the explosion of rock music in the 1960s. It is a tale typical in how it embraces the travails of fame and the dark side of the music business and unique in that in spite of the forces working against it, the hero of the tale transcends mere entertainment and commerce to make truly lasting and resonant music, what some might even call art.
It is a story told in great detail and authentic flair in both Levon Helm’s autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band,’ written with Stephen Davis (William Morrow), and in Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, by English journalist Barney Hoskyns (Hyperion). Both volumes are must-reading for fans of The Band or students of American popular music, and Hoskyns’s volume in particular breaks ground as a serious, conventional treatment of the history of a rock band. Read side-by-side, the books are even more illuminating than singly, as they speak to one another in their contrasting portrayals of the same events and of the tensions within The Band that contributed to its ultimate breakup, tensions that inform the group to this very day, tensions that these books reveal publicly for the very first time.
The Band began life as The Hawks, fate having brought the five musicians together, one at a time between 1959 and 1961, into the rock ‘n’ roll finishing school that was Ronnie Hawkinss’s backup band. With Hawkins, they established a reputation as the best bar band in the world. By 1963, they were too good to play second-fiddle to a limited, second-rate talent like Hawkins, and they struck out on their own as Levon and the Hawks, uncertain about what path they were about to take.
Floundering in the obscurity of a long-term gig in a New Jersey nightclub, they were subsequently drafted into the key supporting role of Bob Dylan’s great heretical experiment of the mid-1960s, which combined serious, literate songwriting with electric rock ‘n’ roll. With Dylan they travelled around the world, absorbing new ways of thinking about the possibilities of rock music.
When the dust settled from their fiery collaboration with Dylan, which spawned the legendary recordings collected on The Basement Tapes, the Hawks had been magically transformed into their own, self-contained unit with their own, utterly unique sound and approach. With the release of the landmark Music From Big Pink in 1968, they were no longer merely the Hawks, the Crackers, the Honkies or the Canadian Squires. They were the one and only, The Band.
The group’s first two recordings, Music From Big Pink and The Band, were instant classics, rich, deep musical statements that stand to this day as two of the greatest albums of the rock era. The lesser efforts of The Band’s middle period, including Stage Fright, Cahoots, and the 1950s tribute, Moondog Matinee, each boast moments of greatness while hinting at the group’s lost promise. The band’s live recordings — Rock of Ages and the 1974 collaboration with Bob Dylan, Before the Flood — gives listeners who never saw them a taste of what made them such a compelling concert act, always pushing the envelope emotionally, spiritually, and musically, to the point that it all threatened to come undone (sometimes it did).
Their backup work on Dylan’s Planet Waves — ostensibly a studio recording but in reality one that serves as a document of how the group worked as an improvisational ensemble — has always been underrated to these ears. The two final studio recordings, Northern Lights/Southern Cross and Islands, showed that The Band still had considerable powers to draw upon even while offstage and off-record, as the books vividly illustrate, they were spiraling toward oblivion. Northern Lights was a painterly display of the group’s cultural roots and influences; Islands was an eloquent farewell. The soundtrack to The Last Waltz, of course, was as much a tribute to the music of an entire generation as it was to the group itself, and set the standard for tribute efforts, concert films and classy endings.
The recent box-set, Across the Great Divide, includes selections from most of these recordings and offers previously unreleased tracks dating back to The Hawks that every fan will want to have. The collection does not substitute, however, for the complete, original albums, of which there were only nine (11 including the Dylan collaborations The Basement Tapes and Before The Flood). Another disk or two would have allowed for the inclusion of all The Band’s officially recorded material. The group and its fans deserve such a package no less than those of The Police and Steely Dan, which have been the recent subjects of such complete, retrospective sets. Chalk it up as another missed opportunity by the marketing department at Capitol.
The Mystery of The Band
“Never has there been a rock group in which there was such a balance, such an even distribution of talent,”’ writes Hoskyns. “None of them put any less into the sound than any other. None of them was ever ‘just’ the drummer or bassist or keyboard player.”
Indeed, they were the Platonic ideal of a band as a pure, musical democracy. The Band had no leader or frontman. Three of the five members not so much shared lead vocals as they tossed them around, sometimes within one song, sometimes even within one phrase as if it was too hot for any one mortal to handle. While each had a distinctive vocal quality, they also blended together in a way that often made it hard even for aficionados to be absolutely sure who was singing what part.
Songwriting duties were shared among the members, at least for the first two albums, and although later Robbie Robertson took over the lion’s share of the writing duties, the fact that he didn’t sing lead and only occasionally backup kept him from ever overtly being considered the group’s leader. As we shall see, this was of more than just musical importance.
Adding to the mystique, they shared instrumental duties. While Robbie was the main guitarist, Levon the drummer, Rick the bassist, Richard the pianist and Garth the organist, at any given time in the studio or on stage they played musical chairs. Robbie might pick up the bass to free up Rick to play fiddle. Richard would move over to drums to free Levon to play mandolin. Garth might step out from behind his keyboards to play horn. In this way, the group was fully self-contained, which also distinguished them from other groups that routinely brought in studio musicians to help fill out the mix. (Like The Beatles, who engaged Billy Preston frequently in their last few years to play keyboards, they did, however, have one “unofficial member,” producer John Simon, who would occasionally augment their instrumentation when their hands and mouths were outnumbered by their instruments.)
As individuals they pretty much always remained faceless. The members of The Band were never recognizable pop stars like the members of The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Their image was one of dignified anonymity. Writes Hoskyns, “There was something about the group’s very reluctance to make themselves a pop spectacle that … set them apart from the madding crowd of rock victims ….” It was arguably not until the movie The Last Waltz plastered their classic Rushmorean visages on the silver screen that anyone really had any idea who these guys were.
The Tragedy of The Band
There was always a darkness at The Band’s core, a hollowness or echo variously interpreted as the ghostly spirit or timeless nature of the music. As it turns out, that hollow core may well have been a symptom of something much more earthly. As Hoskyns and Helm reveal, from its very inception, and even before that, The Band was wracked with power struggles, ego trips, financial squabbles, artistic differences and that trio of rock ‘n’ roll excess: womanizing, alcohol and drugs.
By the time of the group’s fourth album, Cahoots, writes Levon Helm, “… it was felt that Robbie was getting more than The Band. Greed was setting in. The old spirit of one for all and all for one was out the window. But … none of this was talked about much among the five of us, so resentment just continued to build.”’ Towards the end, they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the recording studio in what they regarded merely as efforts to fulfill their contractual obligations rather than the creation of lasting, musical artifacts.
In his autobiography, Levon Helm is particularly merciless in his treatment of Robbie Robertson, ridiculing his behavior and his intellectual aspirations, mocking his choice of friends and associates, and accusing him of cheating his fellow Band-mates. He even insinuates that Robertson’s business partners sicced the Internal Revenue Service on him after one particularly heated meeting at which Helm lost his temper.
Some of Helm’s most vicious attacks are saved for The Last Waltz, the group’s high-profile, multi-media finale. His attitude about the whole project, he writes, was “Do it, puke, and get out.”’ He calls the much-acclaimed Martin Scorsese concert documentary “a disaster”’ and claims that the entire soundtrack to the live event was re-recorded in the studio, except for his drum tracks. “It was mostly Robertson, showing off and acting like he was the king,”’ writes Helm. “For two hours … the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut.”
In fact, it was precisely the charismatic portrayal of Helm in The Last Waltz that directly led to his critically successful film career, including acclaimed roles in The Right Stuff and Coal Miner’s Daughter. Previous to the The Last Waltz, it can be argued, no one outside of The Band’s cult following knew Levon Helm from Helmut Schmidt.
This could all be excused, or even believed, except that Helm lets his own vitriol cloud his vision in one crucial and tragic way. In a particularly telling passage, Helm quotes Robertson in the film explaining his reasoning for not wanting to tour anymore. (At the time it was Robertson’s stated intention to take The Band off the road only, but to continue as a recording group. This was, apparently, an unworkable situation.)
“The road has taken many of the great ones: Hank Williams, Otis, Jimi, Janis, Elvis. It’s a goddamn impossible way of life,”’ said Robertson. Helm mocks this statement as just more evidence of Robertson’s self-inflating, self-serving posturing. Helm is so full of venom that he is incapable of seeing the tragic irony that now defines The Band’s post-Last Waltz career. For as things turned out, Robertson’s warning wasn’t mere posturing — it was downright eerie in its foreshadowing of what was to come.
It is fascinating that two books with totally different perspectives on The Band both begin their narratives in the same place, with the pathetic, 1986 suicide of Richard Manuel after a show by the re-formed Band at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Winter Park, Florida.
By beginning with Manuel’s suicide, the authors each imply that it is the key to understanding The Band in all its triumph and tragedy. To Hoskyns, it is indicative of the long arc of The Band’s career, from the bottom of the heap to the top and back to the bottom. Helm’s view is far different, however. He tells of hearing Manuel’s voice, “as clear as a good radio signal,” speaking to him during his funeral, explaining that he hung himself because it “was the one action I could take that was gonna really shake things up.” In other words, from beyond the grave Manuel absolves his Band-mates from any sense of guilt for defying Robertson’s warning about the perils of the road. His self-sacrifice, he reassures Helm, was merely a career move on behalf of his fellow musicians.
No one can say for sure if Richard Manuel would be alive today if Helm, Hudson, Danko and Manuel had not gone back out on the road as The Band in 1983. One could argue that touring kept Manuel alive longer, although both books indicate that Manuel had quit using drugs and alcohol only to relapse when The Band re-grouped and hit the road anew.
Perhaps the indignity of The Band headlining at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge drove Manuel to his last desperate act. Helm concedes the possibility when he writes, “I know Richard felt we weren’t getting the kind of respect we were used to.” One could blame American culture for the way it treats its artists like disposable commodities: while in fashion to be lauded, while out of fashion to be consigned to the dung heap, or the Cheek to Cheek Lounge.
The whole notion of pinning blame for someone’s suicide is unseemly, of course. But one cannot help but wonder if Helm has ever gone back over what Robertson said at The Last Waltz and realized that maybe, just maybe, he saw something coming that Helm did not, something that he was trying to prevent by taking the band off the road before it met its tragic fate at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge.
Back to Jericho
After The Last Waltz in 1976, the members of The Band briefly went their own separate ways. Helm released a number of fine solo albums, using various ensembles that included some of his Band-mates, other veterans of The Hawks, musical confreres like Dr. John and Paul Butterfield, and Booker T. and the MGs. Rick Danko released an excellent solo album in 1977, and Garth Hudson worked on various projects, including a brief stint with the new-wave group The Call.
After a series of tentative get-togethers in various duos and trios, playing small clubs and halls in and around New York City, the musicians re-grouped as The Band in 1983, and since then — with various “reinforcements”’ but always without Robbie Robertson and since 1986 without Richard Manuel — they have been plugging away, for the most part on the secondary touring circuit playing clubs and small theaters or occasionally larger venues in the warm-up slot.
So today we are left with the reality of a group called The Band serving up nostalgia for old fans and making new ones among a new generation who have heard of them but never heard them. What today’s concertgoers see is not The Band of old, of course, but a close facsimile, one that approximates the real thing but inevitably falls far short.
Richard Manuel’s vocals are sorely missed, as is the three-way, tag-team singing style Manuel, Danko and Helm perfected. Jim Weider, the group’s new guitarist, is competent, but he is no Robbie Robertson. Like the Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead, the group now tours with two drummers. Ostensibly a move to free up Helm to play mandolin on some songs, it only underlines how far they have come from their days as a versatile, self-contained unit. After a short, embarrassing stint with Billy Preston on keyboards, Richard Bell is now behind the piano, a move that at least boasts the poetic justice of Bell’s having once been a member of the Hawks. The group has also occasionally appeared with two guitarists, further distorting its original image. Even the stage setup has changed. At some point in the mid-1980s, Levon Helm’s drum kit moved to the front of the stage from its usual position in the back, where the drummer traditionally sits and where for 16 years Helm had no problem sitting, keeping the beat and taking his vocal turns. He even calls it “the best seat in the house.”
To say that the group misses the instrumental and vocal contributions of Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson is stating the obvious. To say that it misses the chemistry that, for whatever reason, came from the original quintet is obvious to anyone who was lucky enough to have seen them when they were all still together — that intangible mix that is captured on the group’s early albums. To say that the group misses Robertson’s songwriting skills is a little more subtle, for Jericho is an artfully, craftily assembled album that sounds an awful lot like a vintage album by The Band.
Perhaps Helm’s most vicious charge against Robertson is that he took songwriting credit where credit wasn’t due, and then robbed his partners of what little remained of their performing royalties. Helm claims that Robertson should not have gotten sole songwriting credit on the bulk of the group’s material, as was the case. He argues that if every member did not contribute in some way to the writing or crafting of the group’s work, at least Garth Hudson, the only trained musician and arranger in the group, definitely deserved equal billing.
One need look no further than Jericho for strong evidence that if it were not for Robertson, there would have been no songs at all after The Band’s second album. The surviving members had 16 years since Robertson left the group to come up with one album’s worth of songs. Instead, virtually all the songwriting duties on Jericho were farmed out to outside songwriters and musicians associated with the group. (An insider told this writer that Robertson once agreed to write new songs for the group on the condition that they did not call themselves The Band.) Rick Danko, who showed himself to be an estimable songwriter on his 1977 solo album, contributed nothing original to Jericho, and Helm shared one-fifth credit on one song and one-third on the title track, which is, ironically, a paint-by-numbers version of one of Robbie Robertson’s typical historical dramas.
Perhaps the most insulting aspect of the album is that none of the founding members took part in drafting “Too Soon Gone,”’ the album’s epitaph for Richard Manuel, which was written by songwriter Jules Shear, a friend of the group, along with Stan Szelest, a one-time member of the Hawks who briefly held Manuel’s chair in the resuscitated group before suffering a fatal heart attack. (Robertson, incidentally, penned a gorgeous ballad in Manuel’s memory, “Fallen Angel,”’ for his first solo album, as compelling a eulogy as has ever been recorded.)
To add insult to injury, Manuel’s name was spelled wrong under his photo in the booklet that comes with the Jericho CD. And for all of Stephen Davis’s insights into the group, which are many and considerable, he shows himself to be either inept or an accomplice in the project to rewrite the history of The Band by referring in Jericho’s liner notes to Northern Lights/Southern Cross as The Band’s last studio album, conveniently overlooking Islands, the Robertson-dominated album which Helm has pretty much disowned and which is omitted on all promotional materials put out by The Band’s current management.
The Legacy of The Band
As I write this in the summer of 1995, The Band is touring the summer circuit throughout the country, at festivals and theaters and fairs, occasionally holding down the opening slot on a bill with other groups from their era, such as the Grateful Dead. Levon Helm has apparently recovered from a liver ailment that caused the cancellation of a number of shows in late spring. The group’s inclusion in the 25th anniversary of the original Woodstock Festival introduced these living legends to a whole new generation who had only heard about them from older brothers and sisters or, just as likely, from their parents. Interest in The Band as a historic musical force and as a living entity is probably at its highest point since The Last Waltz.
It no doubt does not hurt that in contemporary pop music there is a whole new wave of groups — a subset of the so-called alternative rock movement — playing a brand of organic country-rock that recalls the music of The Band. Reviews of albums by groups with names like the Jayhawks, Hootie and the Blowfish, Counting Crows and the Wallflowers inevitably invoke The Band as an influence, if not a model. Blues Traveller even enjoyed a full-fledged radio hit that borrowed, if it did not actually steal, the chord changes and structure of “The Weight.” But fans of The Band should hesitate before rushing out to buy too many of these albums by their supposed musical progeny. Of all these groups, only the Wallflowers evidence any real originality or vision, which isn’t surprising given the group’s lead singer and songwriter: one Jakob Dylan, son of Bob. The rest are for the most part uninspired and uninspiring.
No one — least of all this writer, still a fan — begrudges Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson the right and opportunity to make a living playing music identified with The Band. But given the whole trajectory of their career, there is perhaps a more dignified way for the surviving members of The Band to continue playing together old and new material in a way that would pay homage to the group’s legacy and to the memory of Richard Manuel while at the same time acknowledging what has been lost.
It would be perfectly fitting and make historical and musical sense for the current group performing and recording under the name of The Band to call itself The Hawks. “The Hawks,” after all, was simply the name of a group that kept evolving over time, as opposed to “The Band,” which I am arguing should be confined artistically, if not legally and in reality, to the five musicians — Helm, Danko, Manuel, Hudson and Robertson — who played by that name from 1968 to 1976.
The current group touring and recording as The Band may well be a “living, fire-breathing R&B orchestra,” as Stephen Davis calls it in the liner notes to Jericho. Interestingly enough, the description much more aptly characterizes The Hawks of yore than The Band. Perhaps even Davis realizes that this group calling itself The Band is really The Hawks in disguise.
The Hawks’’ legacy as the greatest bar-band in the world is totally respectable, and — judging from his solo work, his post-1983 concerts and his autobiography — apparently what Helm is most proud of. “The main thing that still gets my juices flowing is to get over to the venue on the night of the job, wherever it might be, anywhere in the world,” writes Helm. “The man that’s running the joint knows we’re coming, and he invites me in and helps me set up my stuff. We play some music, and then he pays us. That’s the only way I ever wanted it.”
The Band died once when Robbie Robertson bowed out, and a second time when Richard Manuel left the scene. The Band is dead. Viva The Hawks forever.