Unlike my recent usual, “so what?” demeanor regarding any new music by the young or old, I waited impatiently for the arrival of Robbie Robertson’s first real solo record with all actual songs in twenty years. From the advance press it sounded like it was a return to form as evidenced on his first solo LP in 1987. The net was full of stories about Robbie writing and recording with artists as diverse as Eric Clapton, Trent Reznor and Robert Randolph.
Robbie had worked on his debut solo record in 1987 for a decade and recorded with the young and not-yet-superstar U2 and pre-“Sledgehammer,” Peter Gabriel among great studio musicians with guest appearances by The BoDeans, Maria McKee and former Band members Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. By the time the eponymous LP was released it looked as if Robbie had jumped on the proverbial bandwagon using the top commercial and critical artists of the day. Far from the truth. Anyone who knows the history of his previous combo, The Band, knows that Robbie is far ahead of his time with songs that remain timeless.
I received a copy of How To Become Clairvoyant but did not play it until a few days later despite really wanting to like the recording and the songs. Between the announcement of the record’s release and the street date, I had read and heard some less than flattering comments and reviews. I really wanted to love this record as much as his first and much more than his second, 1992’s Storyville. When I finally set aside the time to sit down and actually listen, undistracted, to the new release I did something I have not done in years – I played it all the way through twice in its entirety.
I love it.
I have a bit of personal history that makes it all the more special as an important new record by one of my most influential artists and musicians. Humor me while I recount a history primer of The Band from my memory and point of view.
Growing up in a small rural Southern town, I had the good fortune of being close enough to Huntsville, Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans and Nashville to get a clear radio signal and a plethora of music in every direction albeit at different times of the day or night. From my first introduction to rock music: Elvis, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Beatles and The Stones, I preferred the Anglo side of the aisle. My formative years of 1962-69 favored a majority of the classic Brit-rock of The Who, Dave Clark Five, Small Faces, Beatles, Stones and even Herman’s Hermits (whom I, unashamedly, love to this day). My idolatry of American music was restricted to Motown and Memphis pop and blues, The Byrds and, of course, Dylan. I could not help but become a fan of the pop sounds of The Monkees or the swampy blues-rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival but the British flag waved the highest in the bedroom of mine.
In 1968 that all changed.
While under the spell of the big O’s, The Zombies’ Oddessy & Oracle and The Bee Gees’ Odessa, I read an article in Hit Parader Magazine about a group of musicians who had backed Bob Dylan but now were releasing a record on their own as The Band. The short paragraph was accompanied by a black and white photo of five slightly unkempt guys of indeterminate age standing solemnly by a lake or pond. My first thought was, “The Darling Family” from the Andy Griffith Show. Unlike most other Hollywood concoctions, that band had a couple of members of The Dillards on board and actually knew how to play; therefore, I accepted them as a real band. I looked forward to hearing this new record by an outfit known simply as The Band.
When it made it’s way to Alabama, just like everywhere else in the country, it received little or no fanfare. On a weekend trip to town to look at album covers while my parents shopped, I spotted a strange LP in the bins of Woolworth’s that I had not seen before. It had a childlike painting on the front with no title or artist name to give it away. On the reverse, a piece of a verse and a picture of a common looking pink house. I looked on the spine and written in bold black type:
The Band Music from Big Pink
I had to have it. I begged and borrowed the extra dollar I needed from my grandmother, as she was easy to give in even for a foolish record. On the way home in the backseat of my parent’s car, I tore off the cellophane and opened the gatefold sleeve to see a photo of The Band with various family members and neighbors. It looked like one of my own family reunion photos. There was something proudly Southern about the photo as well as the track titles. Seeing the artwork credit to Bob Dylan along with a song by the man and two co-writes with Band members, I knew without a listen that this was an important record and not just to my 12 year old ears. I read the musician’s names as well as producer John Simon and photographer Elliott Landy and burned them into my memory banks before I heard a note.
When the vinyl was on the record player (no “turntables” around then), what I heard took me completely by surprise. I was automatically in love with the music but the lyrics and plaintive voices put images in my head that were like the short stories I loved to read and write. On my second listen to side one, I had to call my parents in to hear “The Weight.” It met their approval, as if I needed to ask. I could tell there were three different voices but they were so close in timbre and style that it was hard to distinguish them from each other.
It would be the next record that gave me insight to know which voice belonged to Rick Danko, Levon Helm or Richard Manual. There was only one song on Big Pink that did not measure up to the rest of the album – “In A Station” - the only lead vocal by guitarist and principal songwriter, J. R. Robertson. The song was good enough to be amongst the rest but something about the vocal just lacked the vision-enhancing spirit of the other three. I didn’t know what it was at the time but I noticed what would soon become my favorite instrument of all time – Garth Hudson’s Hammond B3. I forced all my friends to listen to the record and while some of them were stuck in the bubblegum pop of the time, the one’s that loved reading seemed to gravitate to The Band. Every song was a short story encapsulated in a three minute song.
Just about a year later after discovering Big Pink, the single of “Up On Cripple Creek b/w The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” hit the airwaves and WVOK-AM out of Birmingham played both sides at least once an hour. I played the single until the grooves were worn down with that white fuzz on the needle from having too many coins on the tone arm to avoid skipping.
On acquiring the eponymously titled second LP, The Band, also known as The Brown Album, I was taken one more step into that place that only the first three Band LPs can go. Even though the first two were recorded in proper studios, it was easy to imagine them in the basement of that big pink house. I looked up Saugherties in the encyclopedia and read all about the area that soon came alive with reports about the massive Woodstock Festival. Seeing the pictures on the news and reading every music mag I could lay my hands on, I was quite “The Band” scholar by the time the third LP, Stage Fright came to be. Once again, I loved the songs, the cover and music, but there was something of the spark of the first two releases missing. I attributed it to Todd Rundgren’s production. Even at an early age, I had a sense that, more often than not, a producer augments his own vision with that of the artist. This was not actually the case with Stage Fright but the songs, while more accessible, and lacked the spirit of the first two records.
By this time, I was playing in bands and in clubs way before the 18 year-old drinking age. I understood the three records musically but I could not escape the images that were conjured up by the lyrics and those three other-worldly voices. I couldn’t get the same imagery with the songs I tried to write or even in the songs of my other favorite artists of the time, except for new artist Jackson Browne.
Over the first five years of the seventies, not much was written about The Band, no TV appearances, no radio shows that I could capture. Manager Albert Grossman kept them from the press and did not allow interviews. With the influx of new music from California and the SouthernUS, feature writers grew tired of asking for an interview and moved on.
It was easy to become more than a little let down by the fourth LP, Cahoots, of which the title packed more punch than the music inside and only redeemed by the two singles the original “Life Is a Carnival” and the Motown cover, “Don’t Do It.” The stop-gap waylaying of their covers LP, Moondog Matinee, and the double live Rock of Ages filled out the catalog but, while both releases were great in their own way, they did not come close to the aural impression of the first three.
Looking back it was less than three years but it seems like a lifetime since a real LP by The Band had appeared on the shelves. They had become sidelined again as Dylan’s backing band on the studio recording, Planet Waves, his comeback tour of 1974 and the double live LP, Before the Flood.
1975 presented a gift of manna for Band fans. Northern Lights-SouthernCross, with a great front photo of the guys behind a pit fire at sunset, was the first release since their full-fledged moved to California. Maybe it was getting out of Woodstock that renewed him but Robbie’s new songs still had that Canadian/Southernfeel. One song, “Acadian Driftwood,” combined the two with a story of a French-Canadian family’s move from Nova Scotia to New Orleans. This song was unique due to the use of Rick, Richard and Levon’s voices as different characters for the first time since “The Weight.” “Forbidden Fruit” and “Ophelia” are Band-fan favorites but one song, “It Makes No Difference” and its lead vocal by Rick Danko, stands alone as the last true classic song by the true American Beatles. There is a live version by Gerry Rafferty that comes close but I possess a couple of tapes of Rick performing the song completely shit-faced stoned or drunk and it always moved the audience to tears.
The inner sleeve of Northern Lights…had a color and textured photo of The Band on a West Coast beach with the Pacific Ocean behind – a bigger vision than the black and white photo in front of a cold upstate New York pond. It seems like a century apart but it was only five years.
I worked in a mall record shop, played the LP incessantly, and moved quite a few copies despite having to remind customers that these were the same guys who did “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” With short notice in October 1976, it was announced that The Band were playing a show at our local university and, even adding to the treat, Chris Hillman would be opening the show. Once again, my friends and I arrived hours early to make sure we got the prime spot at front and center of the stage. There were not many die-hard fans in the line so I took a walk around the auditorium. From the side of the building I could hear The Band during their soundcheck. I will never forget the sound of them playing, “Forbidden Fruit” from Northern Lights…” and, of course, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I stood at the stage door listening and then, after the music stopped, I stuck around. In the bright autumn Alabama sun, out walks Robbie Robertson - alone. All I could say was “Thank you for the music.” He shook my hand and said, “Thanks for listening” and walked past me to the tour bus. For a rare moment in my life, I was speechless. This has only happened with three people I have met – Robbie, Marianne Faithful and Joan Baez.
The show was everything a Band fan could desire. The best songs from every LP was played and, note for note, stuck to the original arrangements. The Band are not known for jamming or stretching songs longer than the recording, a well-learned lesson as Ronnie Hawkin’s Hawks. The show, including encores, ran nearly three hours. Little did we know that this was a rehearsal for The Last Waltz taking place a mere 4 ½ weeks later. Reading about the show in Rolling Stone, it was a relief that The Band was just retiring from touring, not making records…or so everyone thought including members of The Band except for Robbie. A greatest hits LP arrived in the stores with a great new track, “Twilight,” an unreleased track from the Northern Lights sessions in Malibu. It was not long into 1977 that Islands was released.
Even without the benefit of Internet instant information, it was obvious that this was a mish-mash of outtakes and throwaway tracks to complete their Capital Records contract. The LP was not even up to even Cahoots standards; Islands included a Northern Lights…outtake, “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” I have multiple live and studio versions of the song by The Band, Rick Danko solo, Robbie’s awful techno remake, Annie Lennox, Richie Furay and even my own recording during my performing days. Nothing ever touches Rick singing this modern folk hymn. It holds its place in The Band canon of classic tracks.
Well into 1978, the long-awaited live LP of The Last Waltz came out a few months ahead of the movie. It was a massive three LP set with a heavy cardboard sleeve and a great LP-sized photo book of stills from the concert. The songs were presented as an ordered live concert with a sixth side of studio takes including guest artists The Staple Singers and Emmylou Harris and the second Robbie Robertson lead vocal on “Out of the Blue.” It would be 25 years before we would learn the actual order of the songs, including those left out of the film and record and, more disappointing, how much overdubbing went into the audio. I can watch the film today and get chills from the sound, however much studio fakery was used, and feel like it is a rock and roll spiritual experience.
The next segment will include my experiences with each of the members of The Band and my nearly half-century look back at the most influential musicians in my life.