There were many remarkable moments in the history of The Band. The first was the incredible luck we all had that these teenagers found themselves in the same band at all. I’ve been in probably two or three great bands out of all the bands that went through my life, but you can use yer left foot to count the bands with all players as equally talented and apposite as these 5 knuckleheads from Ontario. Extremely rare, even amongst very successful bands. Even the Beatles only had three really talented guys (let the e-mails commence).
Second, these five young guys found themselves in a touring band backing a successful R&B guy with solid bookings. They were the Hawks from 1961 to 1964 and they quit Hawkins and went on their own as Levon Helm and the Hawks and there seems to be little evidence this was a problem with the Hawk himself. The guys played around the Ontario circuit and made some friends.
Third. Helm, Hudson and Robertson did some session work for John Hammond Jr. on his So Many Roads album. In late 1965 Dylan was looking for a backup band he wanted for more electric work and Hammond recommended the Hawks. Dylan went to see the Hawks at a small club in Toronto. Yup.
Number 4. Dylan hired Helm and Robertson for his backup band but after two concerts Helm and Robertson went to Bob Dylan, one of the largest stars in the current folk lexicon and told hisself that the Hawks were a unit. You take all or you take none. The tambourine man accepted and the Hawks were in.
Now comes a watershed snapshot in rock history. Dylan was the bard of the unwashed, the godson of Guthrie and Seeger, the lover of Baez and the icon on the acoustic folk throne. But he wanted to go electric and he couldn’t have chosen a better band to back him up. They were perfect. Except.
The folks coming to see Dylan on the 65/66 tour were looking for Blowin in the Wind with a lonely Bob at the mike but got the Hawks rockin Like a Rolling Stone. The derisions and boos were so bad that Helm left the tour after a month and went to work on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast.
OK now that’s Number 5. Levon Helm had grown up wanting to be a musician since the time his parents brought him to see Bill Monroe when he was 6. He joined the Hawks before he graduated high school and spent the next 7 years of his life doing what he loved and in that short period ended up on a world tour with Bob fucking Dylan.
Jeez, life sucks.
At least it sucked enough to send the guy to an oil rig. I have always loved Levon, his voice, his driving drumming, his Americana. Something must have been really bad on that tour. Certainly, it distressed Dylan as well as he became more and more belligerent with the derision but thank God for the man. That tour was perfect for rock, and spawned a railroad of talent and new directions for everybody within hearing.
But, we still have Levon on that oil rig.
In July 1966 Dylan ran his beloved 1964 Triumph T100 into a cracked vertebrae and a much needed break from amphetamines and the touring that breaks everyone eventually. He retreated to a cottage in West Saugerties in upper New York and brought music, drugs, artists, Moon Pies, Yoo-Hoo and the Hawks to the still and starry life of Woodstock.
Big SALMON?? Yeah, no: Big Pink.
Richard Manuel, Danko and Hudson rented a salmon colored house at 56 Parnassus Lane in West Saugerties where a series of jams with Bob Dylan in the basement, with pipes, laundry, car parts and a clothes line, became some iconic..um basement tapes.
So here’s Number 6. After two years on the oil rig, Levon Helm returneth. Do you have any idea how long I would have lasted on a Gulf oil rig after leaving a tour as Bob Dylan’s drummer? Hint. It’s somewhere south of two years.
6A. Any idea how many of your original band mates would still be together after two flippin years?
October 1967 Levon rejoined the Hawks and they changed their name to the Crackers, then the Honkies, but it just didn’t have the ring of say, the Meat Puppets or Cherry Poppin Daddies. So in spite of alternatives, or because the record company called the day before pressing, a flash of creative smoke curled up on a coach behind the pool table (probably Manuel) said “Hey man. We’re The Band.” Those were the days. I remember spending hours trying to name our bands. Hours. Finally you fall asleep in a tequila haze, waking up hours later shouting “Penis Envy!” and there you have it.
The Band. They collaborated and wrote songs together and released their first album Music from Big Salmon. The record company objected because it sounded like a Disney project. So they changed the name. Music from Big Pink.
Now this is early 1968 and the world was listening to Sgt Pepper, Jimi’s Experience, the Who. And then we heard this.
The songs from this remarkable, smoke filled lesson in soul were rehearsed in the basement of the salmon house in Woodstock and when they went to the city to lay the vinyl they were asked how they wanted the tracks to sound. They looked at each other and said, “Well, like they sounded in the basement.”
The next year they released The Band. Their second album was a ride in dusty Americana smelling of driving on state roads when you don’t have to, then stopping in a honky tonk because you don’t have to. Robertson had taken over song writing on most of the tunes, with co-writing credits only on three others. And this Ontario son wrote like Twain loading a pipe, sunken on a sofa and staring into a fireplace.
1970. My favorite album by these guys, Stage Fright. There are many reasons why one album by any band captures you. The memory of a girl in a yellow print dress on a perfect summer afternoon, the 8 track player in your mother’s ’67 Bonneville, or dancing down St 73 in Vermont with a back pack full of Wild Turkey singing Time to Kill in yer head because we didn’t have no earbuds and climbing the face of Mt Horrid because yer just too drunk not to.
The Band continued to tour and record through the early to mid 70’s. In 1974 Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan had both moved to Malibu, and the other band members followed. Living in Malibu in the mid-70’s and still writing about the wilderness of American thought couldn’t work, both on personal and creative levels. In 1975 they released Northern Lights-Southern Cross which apparently no on liked but me.
By 1976 so much had changed. I had been married for two years. Nixon had resigned and was replaced by another Nixon and so on. Robbie Robertson met Martin Scorsese and decided he wanted to make movies. Fuck this band shit.
The Last Waltz is arguably the most bitter/sweet documentary ever filmed. You can’t watch it without thinking Robertson was the only guy on the set that thought retiring was a good idea. What? We’re musicians. Whatta we gonna do? Where we gonna go? Is that salmon house in West Saugerties still available? Can we just start over or keep going? What happened to Robbie? Movies?? Really??
The Last Waltz is also a powerful musical statement. You can tell from the performances that no one was done, not even Robbie. The joy and the power were crazy. And everyone was so damn young. Folks like Eric Clapton basically early in his career, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell singing her new song just released Coyote, still my favorite of hers, the Hawk, and Dr. John.
On one level I don’t know what happened to these guys, what could have caused such an ending, an impasse just as they’d graduated to a private plane, a nice hotel room and limos they didn’t arrange.
On another level I know exactly what happened. Sometimes you just want to go home.