By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
To an extent, such studies damaged Robertson‘s considerable inborn talent. While his later songs dwelt concretely upon legends, forced migration and mystic history -- “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” “Acadian Driftwood,” “The Saga of Pepote Rouge” -- he was best when his cloudy myths were viewed through cloudy eyes and effortlessly tapped the magic illogic of rock. What are “Rag Mama Rag” and “The Weight” about, anyway? In “When You Awake,” a kid sits on his grandfather’s knee and Papa explains: “When you awake you will remember ev‘rythingYou will be hangin’ on a string from your . . .When you believe, you will relieve the only soulThat you were born with to grow old and never know.”
The Band were a bunch of Canadian hayseeds (save for Helm, a Southern hayseed). They drifted together in Toronto under the aegis of an obscure rockabilly performer, Ronnie Hawkins. Joining one by one, they were all in his band, the Hawks, as of 1961, but they left him in 1964. (Other names they recorded under or considered include the Canadian Squires, the Honkies and the Crackers.) Used to playing fraternity parties and dark, bloody bars, they were plucked from obscurity in the fall of 1965 when Bob Dylan chose them to back him on his electric folk-rock world tour. (Again, save for Helm: Sick of the booing that greeted his first few dates with Dylan, he quit and moved back to Arkansas for the span of the tour.) Documented on innumerable bootlegs and 1998‘s Live 1966, the Hawks were electric Dylan’s wild mercury sound.
The tour‘s final show was in May 1966; Dylan’s legendary motorcycle accident happened in July. To recover, he retreated to Woodstock, and The Band joined him. There they recorded collaborative demos (which later emerged as The Basement Tapes) off and on throughout 1967 at Big Pink, the group‘s gathering place. After helping Dylan define rock on tour, they now explored folk music’s outer edges, drawing out new shapes and sounds, weaving in strands of ‘50s and ’60s R&B. a
When their debut came out in 1968, they faced a barren field. If only by virtue of others‘ exhaustion, the group had beaten out the competition. The Beatles had retired from live performance in August 1966; mired in fame, the Rolling Stones were in the midst of a two-year concert hiatus; Dylan would perform in public only five times over the following six and a half years, three of those backed by or accompanying The Band.
No other musicians had a better claim to being The Band, the word, an archetypal form. In The Last Waltz, Manuel recalls how they came upon it: “It was right in the middle of that whole psychedelic era. Chocolate Subway and Marshmallow Overcoat. Those kind of names, you know?” The world was still fascinated by psychedelic musings and free love; The Band posed in old-timey clothes more 19th century than 1960, and their first album featured a center-spread photograph with the group surrounded by four generations of family and the headline “Next of Kin.”
The Band were the last great rock band before the music began to eat itself and mock its own conventions, before the Ramones and Led Zeppelin, before the genre needed prefixes such as “punk” or “classic.” Dylan had combined folk and rock to create an electrified amalgam -- savage and hot. The Band cooled off that molten sound and conceived of a new music combining all that we had heard before. Dylan turned poetry into pop music; The Band found the poetry inherent in pop music’s sound. On their albums you hear pure rock spouting out in a howl as loud and clear as that which Robert Johnson gave to the blues.
Explaining my affection for The Band is like describing the rain or answering the dumbest of questions: What is love like? Is the heart a vessel or a bell? Is it a thing that starts out empty and needs to be filled, or a sympathetic tone you hit by chance? Insofar as that‘s concerned, The Band are of two minds.
The vessel: When pressed, I might tell you the only Band record worth having is the self-titled sophomore album (usually known as the Brown One, after the cover’s color). It‘s rollicking, warbling, snarling and smooth, like listening to all the best singles of the ’50s, ‘60s and ’70s at the same time while you barrel up and down the slopes of a rickety roller coaster. And here it is, from “Up on Cripple Creek,” The Band‘s sole Top 30 single: “Up on Cripple Creek, she sends meIf I spring a leak, she mends meI don’t have to speak, she defends meA drunkard‘s dream, if I ever did see one.” Love is a vessel. Keep me filled or set me loose.
A bell: After the Brown One came The Band’s quick descent into Malibu, heroin, solo turns at the mike, and pablum -- five increasingly disappointing full-lengths on Capitol and three double live albums. (The latter two are middling -- Before the Flood with Dylan; the indulgent Last Waltz -- but the first one, Rock of Ages, is great.) Yet if this is the sound of your heart, you never want that ringing to stop, and it won‘t if you pay heed to the proper frequencies. The fifth song on Northern Cross--Southern Lights tells me this. First there’s an insistent bass line and a couple of clinking synth fills; next there‘s a call from the guitar, a response from some horns. Up comes the chorus, and all three voices pull together as they hadn’t since the Brown One: “Ring your bellChange your numberRun like hellYou can‘t hide from thunderOh no.”
Hold off the rain. Love is a bell.