As I sit down to write this, quarantined from the world and from Wildwood Guitars, I have an original pressing of The Band’s seminal 1969 self-titled record spinning on my turntable. During these chaotic times, I need something warming, something that feels like sitting on a porch surrounded by tall trees and soft sunshine, something that inspires you to pick up a guitar, and for that something, I always turn to The Band.
You know them, or at least you know their music. “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” are staples that any music lover should know, but the history of their rise and fall is the stuff of music legend. From their humble beginnings touring circuits in North America to private jets and sold out arenas all the way back to dirty clubs, the story of The Band is something everyone should know.
I write this in the early spring of 2020, 43 years after The Band performed their farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, on Thanksgiving Day 1976. It was an event for the ages. They had a full turkey dinner, ballroom dancing, and one of the finest lineups Rock ‘n’ Roll had ever seen. Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, and many other friends joined The Band onstage for their final goodbye. The original lineup of The Band ended that night, but it began 15 years earlier with the man who opened up the concert, Ronnie Hawkins.
Ronnie Hawkins was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. His band Ronnie and the Hawks played every night at clubs across the Mississippi Delta, tearing the roofs off of every single one. At one stop in Helena, Arkansas, Ronnie met a young man by the name of Levon Helm. Ronnie quickly hired Levon on as a drummer and they took The Hawks all over the south. Ronnie and The Hawks got the opportunity to tour the Canadian circuit as well, traveling from Quebec through Toronto onto Detroit and back. The group met a kid who kept hanging out at the shows, Robbie Robertson, and soon he was playing bass and eventually guitar for The Hawks. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson all eventually signed on, and all the pieces were in place.
The five men who would eventually become The Band were together, and with Ronnie Hawkins leading them, they sharpened their musical swords all over North America. The constant grind of touring honed them into polished and collaborative musicians. Ronnie was several years older than the rest of the group, and after years of endless touring, he was getting tired. Levon, Robbie, Rick, Garth, and Richard, “quit” and went off on their own.
They kept playing the same circuits they had been, but now they split singing duties between Richard, Levon, and Rick. Occasionally, they’d find themselves playing gigs in one place for weeks or months. That all changed when they got a call from Bob Dylan asking them to back him up on his first electric tour.
Folk purists hated Bob Dylan with a backup band, and audiences rained boos on them across the US and England. This affected Levon so much that he quit for nearly a year and went off to the Gulf of Mexico to work on an oil rig. The Dylan tour ended with the rest of The Band, and eventually the group reconnected and moved to Woodstock.
In 1967, Bob Dylan and The Band recorded The Basement Tapes in their shared home and studio affectionately called “Big Pink.” A year later, The Band’s first record, Music From Big Pink, changed the landscape of music. Compared to what was popular at the time, it was a refreshing roots-driven record that was masterful without being pretentious. Their second self-titled album continued down the same path as they focused on songwriting and storytelling, with no single musician taking the spotlight.
That was what was so unique and special about The Band, and why so many artists wanted to learn from them and play with them. Each member played an equal and essential part in making The Band what it was. Levon’s vicious backbeat and hearty southern voice, Rick’s groove and high lonesome harmonies, Robbie’s ripping rhythm and perfectly placed lead lines, Richard’s hammering keys and rough riveting voice, and Garth’s musical mastery of multiple instruments gave The Band a lineup of talent that few could match. Their live performances were legendary because all five members, after years of practice, trial, and error, were well-oiled musical machines. Their second performance under the moniker The Band was Woodstock, and their peak fame and popularity saw them play the largest venues in the world.
I’ll paraphrase one of my favorite stories from Levon’s gritty autobiography This Wheels on Fire (an excellent read if you want a first-hand perspective on the birth of rock ‘n’ roll). The Band played the legendary “Summer Jam at Watkins Glen,” where The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and The Band played for 600,000 people. At the time, it was considered the largest attended concert ever. A torrential downpour ripped through the area halfway through The Band’s two-hour set. While the rest of the group retreated to shelter, Garth Hudson remained. He continued to launch the whimsical and gospel-like chords of “The Genetic Method” out across the drenched fans. Minutes passed with the rain still falling and Garth still playing, until he launched into the unforgettable chords of “Chest Fever” and, like a story of biblical proportions, the rain ceased and the blue sky opened up above. Now I’m sure it didn’t happen exactly this way, but what a wonderful image! Thinking of Garth Hudson in that moment gives me chills. Alone in front of 600,000 fans, he fought back against nature, and music won.
The Band was a live show that had an obligation to a record company to produce a certain number of records. Their first two, Music From Big Pink and The Band, are pure perfection and utterly changed the formula of rock ‘n’ roll. Stage Fright and Cahoots were fantastic, with darker undertones that were omens of what would come. Rock of Ages and Before The Flood (with Bob Dylan in 1974) are magical live performances captured on tape for posterity.
For all their greatness, there are several records that fall short of the mark. Due to growing artistic tensions in the group and substance abuse issues, records like Moondog Matinee and Islands feel like a departure from the working-class style that made The Band so appealing. Islands would be the last record released by The Band with songs performed by all the original members.
Now if you are reading this and are a big fan of The Band like I am, you may be asking “How do you feel about Robbie Robertson?” The major rifts caused by Robbie Robertson are an essential part of The Band’s story, but I don’t like talking about it because it makes me sad. It makes me sad to think about the music that could have been made and the animosity that grew between these men who were brothers in arms for so long. Anyway, emotions aside, here’s the story of The Band’s downfall.
As I’ve said before, these were working-class musicians. Guys who lived and died on the road, night after night, just trying to make their living. They got lucky and they struck it big. Really big. They had dabbled with recording before the official debut of The Band, but nothing ever found any commercial success. From the beginning, Robbie was the business mind, negotiating contracts and making sure they got paid, and when record deals started arriving at the doorstep, Robbie learned how to get the best deal and have the most control.
He found out that the money wasn’t in the record deal itself, and definitely not in touring, but in the royalties that would be paid for songwriting credits. That was real money, money that would roll in for decades. As a result, you’ll notice on the back of records and on inner sleeves that Robbie Robertson has sole songwriting credits for the vast majority of the songs The Band ever released. Squabbles over credits–and by extension, money–are what ultimately undid the brotherhood of The Band.
It is this humble writer’s opinion that Robbie Robertson could not have written all those songs alone. Listening to their music, you can hear them collaborating, and that’s what made them so special in the first place. With songwriting credits going to Robbie, that meant Richard got no money for songs he helped shape, Garth got nothing for the melodies and bits of hidden musical magic he put into every record, and Levon got nothing for setting the groove and singing his heart out.
Later on, this ruined some of their lives. Garth lost his farm when things got rough, and Levon almost lost his famous home and studio when he got throat cancer. That puts a sour taste in my mouth to say the least.
The darkest chapter in The Band’s history happened about a decade after The Last Waltz. The Band had reformed with only Levon, Rick, Richard, and Garth, and they began to tour around the US. They were years out of the spotlight though, so they were playing small clubs in strange cities that were hundreds of miles apart from each other.
In March of 1986, the new group was in Florida, and had just finished a show in Winter Park. Levon and Richard spent much of the night talking, and Richard thanked Garth for all the great years before retiring for the night. In the morning, Richard Manuel was dead. He had hung himself in his hotel room after finishing a bottle of Grand Marnier. Richard’s funeral was filled with friends and songs and deep sadness, and Robbie wasn’t there.
I don’t hate Robbie Robertson. He helped shape the music I hold so dearly. His guitar solos are forever etched into my mind and I want his lyrics played at my funeral. I wasn’t in the room, and I have no direct knowledge of the situation–only hours of time spent reading and listening–but I can’t easily forget the part Robbie played in the downfall of The Band.
They continued on after Richard’s death. Until Rick Danko’s death in 1999, Levon, Garth, and Rick continued to record and tour. Their 1993 record Jericho has a cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” that is better than the original, but nothing could replicate the energy of those early years.
The Band is the epitome of what I want music to be. I haven’t been able to find anything that scratches the itch like they do. Their songs have no frills, and every note and lyric is essential, like it has always been there. As musicians, they are masterful without being virtuosic. Nobody shows off, and no one takes the spotlight without passing the torch. It was always all about the music. Even when their fame was gone and the hundreds of thousands of concertgoers had diminished to just hundreds, they were still playing music with each other because their bones told them they had to. I’m no real musician, but I dabble in plenty of artistic adventures, and what The Band captured is the essence of what I want from art. Unapologetic and wholly unique, it exists for itself and the success is a fortunate byproduct. Four Canadian boys and a kid from Arkansas connected to the heart of what it meant to work and to live. They weren’t flashy, they weren’t fancy, they weren’t gods among men–they were just The Band.