Graded on a Curve:
The Band,
A Musical History

Part of what makes The Band so fascinating is they served two very different roles in rock history—first as the backing band that produced a hurricane of sound behind Bob Dylan during his epochal (and polarizing) 1966 tour, then as the purveyors of a totally original fusion of country, rock, R&B, folk, and soul music that would ultimately be labeled “Americana.” A unique designation given that The Band’s members—with the exception of drummer/ vocalist/ and mandolin player Levon Helm, an Arkansas boy—all hailed from Canada.

And Robbie Robertson—who passed away on August 9, 2023—was their leader, a role he assumed both because he became the band’s chief (and in time almost sole) songwriter and had the energy and organizational skills a laid-back Helm (the group’s original leader) constitutionally lacked. Robertson, a young Toronto guitar whiz of Native American/Canadian descent—Dylan once called him “the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness”—was every bit as contradictory a figure as The Band itself.

He was a Canadian who created American myths, and wrote songs so tightly wound they left little room for him to show off his guitar chops. And he became a case study in the fickle nature of musical genius—after writing the immortal songs on The Band’s first two albums—1968’s seminal Music from Big Pink and 1969’s The Band—his creative wellspring slowed to a trickle; The Band’s subsequent studio albums became increasingly spotty affairs as Robertson went from writing great story songs to stilted and didactic lectures on the loss of the America of his imagining. There are great songs on the later albums, but there are far more forgettable ones.

The Band was a powerful musical outfit—its players were uniformly crack musicians who’d honed their skills touring with Arkansas rockabilly and country legend Ronnie Hawkins, who’d decided he’d sooner be a big fish in Toronto and points north than a small fry in his native America. And they boasted three incredible vocalists in piano player and sometimes drummer Richard Manuel, drummer and mandolin player Levon Helm, and bass player Rick Danko.

I can’t think of another band with such an embarrassment of riches, and they used them to sublime effect, swapping verses and conjuring up lovely harmony vocals and engaging in alternately raucous and moving (see “Rockin’ Chair”) back and forth. Unfortunately all three were drawn to self-destruction—if the booze (especially in the case of Manuel) and drugs didn’t seem likely to kill them, their seemingly suicidal bent for smashing up cars did. At one point during The Band’s long sojourn in California, Manuel ended up living in a bungalow converted from the stable of TV’s Mr. Ed, where according to Helm he was “drinking seven or eight bottles of Grand Marnier orange brandy a day, relying on the sugar in the liqueur to keep his weight up.”

All of which took a toll on the group. The Band ultimately faced a double curse—Robertson stopped producing consistently excellent songs, and the rest of the boys—with the exception of the largely abstemious multi-instrumentalist and mad inventor Garth Hudson—were often too lost in their respective addictions to give it their all. And Robertson, as if he didn’t have enough problems, found himself in the unhappy role of group babysitter. Said Danko of the 1971 Cahoots period, “We were outrageous in our behavior, and it was impossible to get people in one place at one time. And when we did, it was hard to work because when we looked at one another and saw how wrecked we were, it was hard not to crack up.” Something tells me Robertson didn’t join in.

You can look upon the band’s career trajectory in two ways: they were either a band that reached their full potential with The Band or a band that never reached its full potential due to the reasons cited above. Or perhaps it’s better to say both are true. Either way it’s a pity, and The Band’s story is ultimately a sad one, and to make things worse it ended on a shabby note with Robertson unilaterally deciding to shut things down with a 1976 Thanksgiving Day concert (featuring guest appearances by seemingly everyone The Band had ever met aside from Hirth Martinez) that was ultimately—thanks to film director Martin Scorsese, who would become Robbie’s long-time bestie—immortalized in 1978’s The Last Waltz. It was a triumph for everyone but Robertson’s band mates, who wanted—no needed, because downtime gave them too ample an opportunity to consort with their demons—to travel the endless highway forever, not go out in a blaze of star-studded glory.

There are innumerable Band compilations out there, from the bare bones to the inexhaustible, but the most fascinating is 2005’s 111-track A Musical History. It takes you from the group’s days as Ronnie Hawkins’ band through their pre-Band days, during which they recorded variously as the Hawks, Levon and the Hawks, and the Canadian Squires. Also represented are the group’s various interactions with Bob Dylan—including live performances, cuts from The Basement Tapes, and their backing appearances on the 1965 single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” and 1974’s Planet Waves. It also includes both numerous studio and live recordings, several culled from 1970’s chaotic Festival Express tour by train across Canada. And you also get sketch tracks, alternate takes, and early versions of songs both well known and unknown. There’s even a jam session recorded in early 1970 at Robertson’s studio in Woodstock.

In short it lives up to its title, capturing the band’s raucous early days with Hawkins, a wild man if there ever was one, through their bid for musical independence and their discovery by Dylan at a Somers Point, New Jersey club called Tony Mart’s. (It wasn’t serendipitous—Dylan was there at the recommendation of a secretary of his manager Albert Grossman.) And before they knew it they were backing Dylan on a famously contentious tour across Europe and Australia—one so fraught with audience hostility that Levon Helm up and walked. From there they joined Dylan in Woodstock, where they rented a house they dubbed Big Pink and proceeded to make more history by home-recording the genre-bending songs immortalized on The Basement Tapes. Their time with Dylan set them to making a unique music of their own, leading to the release of Music from Big Pink and The Band—two of the most timeless recordings ever made.

Every member of the Band was indispensable—it’s what made them The Band—but Robertson was the linchpin. Had he not turned out to be a songwriter of genius, The Band would have just been a crack musical unit capable of doing amazing things. With his songs, they proceeded to record story songs that captured a bygone America that were somehow relevant to the historical present—songs that seemed to look backwards and forwards at once. They weren’t nostalgic, per se, nor were they sentimental, and the best of them weren’t even set in the past—songs like “The Weight,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Life Is a Carnival,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and even “Bessie Smith” seem to exist outside of time, set as they are in a mythical present.

It was a mysterious and wondrous thing—here was a largely untutored kid from Toronto writing songs about an America of his imagination, detailed and poignant songs that brought America’s complicated history to life. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a miracle from its opening lines, “Virgil Kane is the name/And I served on the Danville train/’Till Stoneman’s cavalry came/And tore up the tracks again.” Virgil’s name is “Kane” but it may as well be “Cain”—he’s singing about an accursed place, scourged for the sin of slavery. But the song is no parable—the devastation, pain, and hunger channeled through the voice of Southern boy Levon Helm are as the smoke from burning fields.

And Robertson did the same with songs like “Across the Great Divide” and “King Harvest Has Surely Come,” amongst others. And then there’s the pure hillbilly joy of “Up on Cripple Creek,” with its reference to “Spike Jones on the box,” and the sublimely lovely “Rockin’ Chair,” with its poignant vocal interplay between aging sailors Helm and Manuel. As for “The Weight,” it could be a parable, but of what? The sheer weight of living, I suppose. And on it goes. Robertson’s storehouse of songs seemed inexhaustible.

But it wasn’t, and that’s the tragedy of The Band. Robertson may have said that he called a halt to the band because the road was a killer, and implied that dealing with problem children Manuel, Danko, and Helm had become impossible, but the significant drop-off in the quality of his songs must have played a role as well. The fact is that after The Band he became good for a a small couple of keepers per album, tops. Which is, granted, is an amazing feat. The trouble is far too many of the other songs are bad songs, either because they’re uninspired or worse, “lifelessly didactic” in the words of band biographer Barney Hoskyns.

The noted rock writer Greil Marcus noted Robertson’s slide towards sentimentality, and he could have been speaking of many of Robertson’s later songs when he wrote of the tunes on 1971’s Cahoots, “Instead of growing organically from some musical seed, the songs were constructed like miniature soapboxes; instead of being peopled by flesh-and-blood characters, they were dominated by phantasmic abstractions.” Or put another way, he’d stopped telling loving detailed stories about America and started writing academic papers on it.

And Marcus notes something else as well—Robertson had largely run out of unforgettable melodies. There are too many songs on the later albums that I listen to and can’t hum fifteen minutes later. Fortunately the compilation omits offenders like “Last of the Blacksmiths,” “Shoot Out in Chinatown,“ ”Volcano,” and “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” Unfortunately, it includes songs like “The River Hymn,” “All La Glory,” “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” “Livin’ in a Dream,” “The Saga of Pepote Rouge,” and “Forbidden Fruit,” all of which attest to the flaws Marcus mentions, and they’re the collection’s only weakness.

It would be nice to report that Robertson’s post-Band career marked a rejuvenation of his powers, but he turned largely towards soundtrack work and the six albums he went on to bequeath us—after a ten-year hiatus from recording—are for the most part overproduced, cold-blooded, and largely undistinguished affairs. Even “Fallen Angel,” his elegy to Richard Manuel—who committed suicide in 1986 in a Quality Inn following a show (how the post-Robertson Band had come down in the world) at a suburban Orlando club called the Cheek-to-Cheek Lounge—is an execrably slick Peter Gabriel ripoff that would have set Manuel to cackling until he spit up Grand Marnier.

Robbie Robertson has left us with a formidable body of songs that will live on in our hearts until the rivers run dry, and his passing leaves only Garth Hudson, the largely uncredited genius behind the Band’s sound, still with us. Robertson was a complex figure and a flawed human being, but who amongst us isn’t? He may not have been the spirit of the band—I would grant that distinction to Levon Helm or Richard Manuel—but he led them across the Great Divide into the Promised Land.

He wrote brilliant songs that his bandmates breathed life into with their voices and their playing—without him we wouldn’t have Virgil Kane or Jack the dog or Ophelia or Richard Manuel telling us about the shape he’s in. Nor would we have little Bessie tearing up Levon’s racetrack winnings and throwing them in his face, or Rick Danko trembling beneath the stage lights, wanting to start all over again. In short, Robertson conjured from whole cloth a world filled with joy, wonderment, and sorrow, and we get to pull up a rocking chair and marvel. Robertson’s riding that endless highway now, with Levon and Richard and Rick, and I like to think they’ve made their peace with one another and their fates. That would make for a lovely song with some beautiful harmony singing, wouldn’t it?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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