L-r (Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel)
Robbie Robertson: “I had, with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, played guitar through your brain. I had played raging, screaming solos. When I started playing guitar it was with a vengeance. It was with such anger. It was with such ambition. I was in my early twenties with Bob Dylan. Same thing, a hundred guitar solos a night. I’d done this to my death.
[With the Band] the song is becoming the thing, the mood is becoming the thing. … But there’s a vibe to certain records, a quality, whether it’s a Motown thing or a Sun Records thing or a Phil Spector thing. I wanted to discover the sound of the Band. So I thought, I’m gonna do this record and I’m not gonna play a guitar solo on the whole record. I’m only going to play riffs, Curtis Mayfield kind of riffs. I wanted the drums to have their own character, I wanted the piano not to sound like a big Yamaha grand. I wanted it to sound like an upright piano. I wanted these pictures in your mind, I wanted this flavor.”
In 1966, Dylan had moved to Woodstock, NY, which since the early twentieth century has been a well-known artists’ colony. Members of the Hawks had been visiting the area and all eventually wound up moving there. The guys rented a house in West Saugerties, NY which they christened Big Pink. (Robbie lived nearby with his future wife.)
They set up the basement of the house as a recording studio (two-track reel-to-reel tape recorder) and started writing and recording songs. Dylan, now married with a couple of kids, joined them on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, all the guys in the band were on a modest retainer paid by Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman.
By all accounts, 1967 was a great period of creativity for all concerned. The guys felt that after so many years on the road playing in shitty clubs it helped to have a nice homey environment rather than a cold recording studio. They could walk out the door and there were woods and a dog and you know, the whole country thing. I think that that to a large measure explains the debut album’s feel.
The officially unreleased recordings of Dylan and the (still unnamed) band became known informally as The Basement Tapes. A couple of songs on the album (“Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,”) eventually wound up on Music From Big Pink.
“I didn’t know how to record the way other people were recording, and I didn’t want to,” said Dylan. “The Beatles had just released Sgt. Pepper which I didn’t like at all,” he continued. “I thought that was a very indulgent album, though the songs on it were real good. I didn’t think all that production was necessary.”
Robbie: “One of the things is that if you played loud in the basement, it was really annoying because it was a walled room. So we played in a little huddle: if you couldn’t hear the singing, you were playing too loud.”
(Couldn’t find this on YouTube.)
The guys were having such a great time playing that they were pretty sure Levon would want to come back. (Plus they now had a record deal.) He had given them his father’s number so they could always find him. Helm, during his time away, hadn’t been tremendously engaged. He hung around New Orleans with a buddy, worked on oil rigs when he needed money and then, by his own admission, sat around watching TV and “waiting.”
Within the small, clubby community of Woodstock, people would see the guys from the Hawks getting around town. Sometimes they’d stop in a store to buy something and someone else would say, “Oh, he’s with the band,” meaning Dylan’s band.
But now it was time to do their own thing and so, after kicking around some other names (“The Honkies,” “The Crackers,”), The Band they became. (Actually they signed a contract as The Crackers but the record company called them The Band.) Around the time Levon returned, the guys hooked up with producer John Simon whom they found to be very sympactico to their sound.
As I recount in my Music From Big Pink post, the band recorded the album in LA and NYC. Clearly, some of Dylan had rubbed off on them in that there was very little R&B on the album and it leaned much more heavily to his introspective style. (Robbie felt, however, that Dylan was a little too “wordy.”) I’ve already written in that post about the album’s impact so I won’t belabor it here.
I will say in retrospect they could perhaps have kicked the energy level up a little bit more, which they were fully capable of doing. Their sometime bandmate Al Kooper wrote a glowing review for Rolling Stone.
The Band were now free and clear of the shadow of anyone – Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, etc. Not only were they a great ensemble but they had carved out something unique. They simplified music at a time when it was going exactly the other way. In a sense, they were the original “back-to-the-country” guys.
In his induction of The Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Eric Clapton reveals that he (seriously) wanted to be a member but didn’t have the balls to ask. I watched this video and it’s weird but he bemoans the fact that he was a working musician and there was a band he desperately wanted to be part of but couldn’t, like an exclusive club that would not let him in. And yet half the world would want to be in his bands. The grass is always greener somewhere else in Eric’s world.
But you have to put yourself back in the times to get the full flavor of this era. Dylan had a mystique and that aura carried over to everyone who played with him. So I think The Band got the benefit of that, whether they wanted it or not. That said, they were also a group that could play pretty much any style of music and, among them, could “command seventeen different instruments.”
Shortly after the release of Big Pink, Rick Danko crashed his car, preventing the band from touring behind the album. This only unintentionally served to enhance the mystique around this band that no one really knew.
Once Danko had recuperated, they played their first gig as The Band at Bill Graham’s Winterland in April 1969. (“First time in four years we didn’t get booed,” says Levon.) In August of that year, they played Woodstock and made the cover of Rolling Stone. And in September they released their terrific second album, The Band. (AKA The Brown Album.)
By now, Rolling Stone had decided that they were the Second Coming and treated them thusly. (Jann Wanner worshiped Dylan so much it’s a wonder he didn’t ask him to marry him.) People started treating them differently, never good for a working band such as The Band.
Here’s a rockin’ little number from The Band I’ve always loved, “Rag Mama Rag.” Robertson gets writer credit but Levon says this was a group improvisation:
Another great song is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Sung again by Levon, I always found it odd that a Canadian guy wrote a song about the loss of the American Civil War. But I’ve come to understand it was Robbie’s visits to the South that prompted this. Supposedly Levon’s father Diamond said, “Don’t worry – the South is going to rise again:”
By now, the guys had been on the road in one fashion or another for the better part of 10 -12 years. Now that they were on top of the world the only questions were – how long could they stay there? And how much gas was left in the tank?
Next (and final) post – Last Tango at Winterland
Sources: Wikipedia; Ronnie Hawkins’ online bio; Testimony, Robbie Robertson; This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm; The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese: Ain’t in it For My Health, Levon Helm movie bio.