Biographies & Memoirs


Threepenny Review

Fall 200419

There’s a great sweep to the Band’s story, beginning in Arkansas and Ontario in the 1950s, tracing an arc through to the last year of the twentieth century. It’s a far-reaching bow that carried Levon Helm (born in 1940 in Marvell, Arkansas), Robbie Robertson (1943, Toronto), Rick Danko (1942, Green’s Corners), Richard Manuel (1943, Stratford), and Garth Hudson (1937, London) through their barnstorming years as Ronnie Hawkins’s and then Levon’s Hawks in the early sixties, into the noise they made as the unnamed musicians backing Bob Dylan’s furious shows in 1965 and 1966, and to their fraternal refounding as the Band in the Big Pink house in Woodstock, New York, in 1967. The curve brought their offer of a new music and a new point of view—a point of view that was also a sense of weight, a sense of weight that in the fractured, whirling America of the late 1960s and early ’70s was as much as anything a kind of gravity. The arc circled over the finale of the Last Waltz in San Francisco in 1976, after which Robbie Robertson left the group and the rest played on as the Band, but with barely any new music of their own, without, in some cursed way, a voice, playing back through their own past in small clubs like the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Winter Park, Florida, where, following a show in 1986, Richard Manuel hanged himself. It was an arc that bent toward an end but even through another decade did not reach it—an arc that touched down only in the last month of 1999, when Rick Danko died in Woodstock, and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson let the working name of the Band die with him.

That is one way to tell the story—but there are moments all through the Band’s music where the Band’s story seems to tell itself. In “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” these are moments which are also incidents, or events, where something happens and then is over, or lost, left behind by the story which is also the song, a story that returns to what was lost as the song rounds its next turn, and so the cruelest moment of the song is when it ends.

It was 1969 when the song appeared as the last track on The Band, the group’s second album, but there is no fixed time in the music. The music sounds old, but in the way a landscape can feel old; in the same way that a landscape promises it will renew itself, the music points to the future. It seems to assume its own permanence, that it is a language that will always be understood, and it’s a shock when you realize the singer seems most of all convinced that no one will understand what he’s talking about, or care if they do.

“Corn in the fields . . . Listen to the rice as the wind blows cross the water”: as if speaking for the landscape, not as someone with a name and a fate, Levon Helm leads the first chorus. As he taps his cymbals, drawing a circle around himself, Garth Hudson’s clavinette drops rain into the image of a farm alive with movement and sound, weather and work, so alive you can believe you can hear the crops grow. “I remember from my youth, people out there in the country somewhere, in a place we all know, it may have been there, it may have not,” Robbie Robertson said nearly thirty years after he wrote the song, fixing it in “the idea of ‘Come autumn, come fall’—that’s when life begins. It’s not the springtime, where we kind of think it begins, it is the fall—the harvests come in.”

Richard Manuel, the tale-teller, is less a singer than an actor inside the verses of the song. In an instant, drawing words out of his throat as if the act takes all the strength he has, as much strength as the Band itself uses as it pulls the rhythms of the song against its melody, he makes it plain that the pastoral vision of the opening chorus is inhuman. It has no room for failure, defeat, fear, shame—everything this man’s voice is made of. The warm assurance of each prayerful “Corn . . . in the fields” is his memory mocking him, the ruined farm he left behind now leaving him walking city streets filled with bums and drunks. As he describes the disasters of his life, never mentioning the family that must have worked the farm with him, that he has left behind as well, the desperation in his voice grows stronger, more pathetic, more absolute. Each time the promise of the trees, the meadow, the moon, of people celebrating the harvest, circles him in a chorus, the promise seems at once irredeemable and undeniable, a truth that is also a lie, a lie that is also the truth.

Nothing in the man’s voice is so flesh-crawlingly pitiful as the faith he puts in the union that he insists will save him and all those like him, a union for farmers at the mercy of speculators, a union for factory workers treated like machinery, to be discarded when they break—it isn’t clear and it doesn’t matter. The desperation is greatest in the man’s awful cry of belief, so great its language breaks into pieces, the classic pledge “I’m a union man, now and always” falling apart as it’s spoken: “I’m a union and now always . . .” But that terror may even be worse in the utter lack of irony with which the man describes the promise of the union, even as the broken promise of the land he has abandoned, that has cast him out, shadows his words: “Here come a man with a paper and pen, telling us our hard times are about to end—” In American folk language, the man with a paper and pen means only one thing: the con man who will shake your hand, look you in the eye, and charm you into signing away everything you have, even if it is only your name. “I’m bound to come out on top,” the singer says, and Richard Manuel makes you believe that the man in the song believes what he says, and then you do turn away, ashamed to listen any longer.

Or rather you would, if the song did not, when the singer finishes his story, turn into a different story: more complex and impossible to fix. In a few stanzas, the song has caught a repeating story—a farmer and his farm in Wisconsin in the horrifying depression of the 1890s, in Oklahoma and Arkansas in the Great Depression of the 1930s, in the depression that doesn’t make the news, the depression that for a family farm in any state or province can arrive at any time. But the man has only told you what he can put into words, and there is a way in which it is only when the words end that the song begins.

You don’t want to separate one element of the music from another; you want the music to sweep you up and take you away, and it does that. But over the years, as you return to the song, or find it returning to you, on the radio, on a CD player in a store—or in the instant of first playing it, then finding yourself unable to play anything else, playing the song again and again, as if to prove the music is as inexhaustible as it seems to be—the parts of the music stand up in turn.

The man Richard Manuel portrays has told you what he can; now the other members of the Band take a single step forward to tell you what he can’t. Out of the man’s fright, his hopeless embrace of any way out, comes a different story altogether. Robbie Robertson begins a guitar solo, made of the thinnest notes, notes so edged and brittle you can almost feel them break as they bend. The story these notes tell is about holding on, not letting go; about determination and courage, about a quest and an escape. You no longer see a ruin, or a fool; you see a man with his eyes level and clear, with a life ahead of him, a life he has begun to lead.

Far beneath the quick and wary steps in Robertson’s solo is something like an underground stream—or whatever image Garth Hudson’s organ calls up. The stream breaks the surface, and makes an image of freedom, of a man racing the banks of what is now a river, then lying in the grass and looking up at the sky, an image of harmony. Hudson had pushed the drama when the singer poured out his heart, poured out his fears and the hopes he was almost scared to voice; now there is no drama, only a horizon that recedes as the man gazes on it, promising there will never be an end to it. We believe in linear time, in an accumulation of events that leave both us and the world changed; that story is in the solo Robertson is playing on top. Ancient peoples believed in circular time, where there was change within a circle, as one season gave way to another, but the circle did not change, and farmers feel that rhythm no matter what their calendars: “A dry summer, then comes fall / Which I depend on most of all,” the farmer has told you, and the perfection of that circle is what you can hear in the music Hudson is making far below. The sound grows quieter and quieter, making you strain to hear it, right up until the point where the sound, fading out, stops cold.

The truest story, or the hardest, the most fragmentary and at the same time the most complete, is beneath even the one Hudson tells.

Throughout the song, there has been a submerged but constant sense of struggle, of resistance, against—what? Fate? The ultimate triviality of one man’s failure in the face of the world that doesn’t notice and doesn’t care? The beauty of the world, of grass and sky, flowers and the rising of the moon, all of it a trick to fool men and women into thinking that, the gospel song they sing to the contrary, the world really is their home? From the start, this feeling of resistance has come from Levon Helm’s bass drum and Rick Danko’s bass, locked in a dance that is one step forward, one step back. But at the close of “King Harvest,” as the rhythm the two are making emerges from the music, you realize it is primary, the foundation of everything in the song, but also its last word, the song’s judgment on itself.

Listen: the slow, steady tapping of Helm’s stick is the sound of a man rapping his knuckles on a porch railing, a hundred times, a thousand times, never a change, never a sign that anything will change, or can, or even should. And the sound Danko makes—thick, twisting, strong—is the sound of a man listening to his own heart, or to something he cannot see and cannot name, moving below the ground beneath his feet. Robertson’s guitar solo opens a road out and takes it, Hudson’s enveloping melodies are an embrace that never breaks, and Helm and Danko’s two-step, as uncanny as it is plain, is a door swinging open in the wind in a house abandoned years ago.

The Band’s strongest music would always seem unfinished, as if there was always more to be said—as Ronnie Hawkins’s 1963 cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” will always seem unfinished. The band locks into place with the first beat, Robertson shooting out flashes, giving Hawkins’s weak vocal the support it needs. And then the first verse ends and the song goes right over a cliff. An otherworldly growl comes up as if out of the ground, turning into a scream that all but reaches out of the speakers, then falls back, as if whoever is making this sound has turned his back and run away, as scared of the sound he’s making as you are. Robertson takes over, his lead lines scattered, fractured, what ought to be a straightforward blues progression matching Hawkins’s nightcalls with an abstraction no less impossible to track. Another verse, another roll of madness, then a flurry of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” licks on the guitar, wrapping everything up—except that it’s at this moment that the monster returns, charging through the back door when you’re watching the front, rising with a rhythm Hawkins never had as a mere singer of words and melodies, his final scream his hands around your neck, and Robertson sealing the moment as if he’s been in cahoots all along.

The abstraction would remain, growing into a sensibility, shared by all the musicians in the Band: a bet that the pieces did not have to fit, that nothing had to be explained, that you could communicate more deeply through hints and warnings than through statements and clichés. But “Who Do You Love” also left a question: as Helm, Robertson, Danko, Manuel, and Hudson went on, as they took their name and found their sound, as audiences turned to their music as if was not only a set of songs to be listened to but a country that could be lived in, would they ever match those screams? Could any country be complete without them?

Two years later, playing in a half-circle around Bob Dylan, the Hawks—with Mickey Jones in the place of Levon Helm, who had left in despair over audiences enraged by the turn of a folk singer whose words you could understand toward a sound so big it demanded you surrender one kind of meaning for another—are not tight. They are loose. You can hear the Band they will turn into a year later, when Helm rejoined the fold in Woodstock. “We had played together for years,” Danko would say long after. “We could almost predict what we would do next.” Here, in “Tell Me, Momma,” the thrill is in hearing just that, but also hearing that you cannot hear what the musicians must be hearing. It doesn’t seem real, how a bounce off of Danko’s bass falls into a cymbal smash as if nothing like it had ever happened before, the way the sounds from Hudson’s organ seem to slither around everyone’s feet, forcing them to jump as they reach for the next change, the rhythm section—whatever instruments it’s made of at any given moment—seemingly running on its own track, Robertston playing here as if he’s one person and there as if he’s someone else, each musician trusting that the others know him better than he knows himself, so that when it feels as if the music is a Ferris wheel spinning too fast not to break free and roll straight out of the carnival, the music can always call it back, just like that.

With the Band’s own voices lining out the territory of the music, this is what you hear in Music from Big Pink and The Band. You hear the trust of one musician for another, of each for all, and you hear that musical value turn into a social value: you hear that trust as comradeship. You hear that sense of comradeship expanding to take in another sort of territory, as the names and faces, places and incidents in the songs make their own town, and then their own new nation. That nation may feel as if it is somewhere in the past, but as with “King Harvest,” the songs use old motifs to act out a drama in which change is illusory and novelty a form of vanity. “The Band came from nowhere specific and their evocations were indistinct but they were the whole of the American past and all its space,” the critic Nik Cohn wrote in 1973. “Small towns in the Civil War, at the turn of the century, during the Depression; saloons with cracked windows, and dance-halls with leaky ceilings, and hotel rooms with naked lightbulbs . . . gold rushes and oil strikes, eternal dreams of wealth; bad debts, hangovers.” So they meet and turn away, the characters in “The Weight,” “Across the Great Divide,” “We Can Talk About It Now,” “Chest Fever,” “Get Up Jake,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and half a dozen more: they find themselves pulled toward one another even as they look for an exit, opening their mouths to say a simple “Yes” or “No” and hearing parables come out instead.

The people in the town the songs make don’t trust each other, certainly; why should they? Looked out your front door lately? Read the newspaper? But they are incapable of pretending they don’t see or hear. Against his will, the singer in “Lonesome Suzie” finds himself embracing her; the man in “Chest Fever,” his face whipped from one direction to another as different singers take his voice, is trying to save the woman in the song, or anyway find out who she is, what she looks like, what her name is—as you give yourself up to the teeming wilderness of the sound, where those old screams from “Who Do You Love” again and again find their match in hilarity and confusion, you can’t imagine the people in the song understand the words any better than you do. In “The Weight,” a traveler arrives with a task to accomplish, everyone he meets adds to his burden, he asks everyone for help, and everyone who doesn’t smile at him laughs at him. It’s a modernist minstrel show, every character in a kind of blackface, made up as someone they’re not. It’s pure comedy—but as the historian Constance Rourke wrote in 1930, in the minstrel show there was always a dark undertone, something no blackface could ever lighten: an undertone of defeat, and of tragedy.

Here the looseness of “Tell Me Mama” is more playful, and the trust between the musicians deeper. “Tell Me Momma” took a fast tempo, which can hide almost anything; “The Weight” seems to slow down with every verse, revealing more in every chorus. The sound is full of air, full of space, but too much is happening—vocally, instrumentally, emotionally, the story telling shaped less by plot than by a shaggy dog, by the abstractions of gaps and non sequiturs—to hear all at once, or, for that matter, ever. There’s hardly a funnier moment in the Band’s music than the traveler arriving in town and, after asking the first person he meets if he knows “where a man might find a bed,” gets his answer: “No.” You’re as baffled as the singer, you figure what the hell just as he does, but the chill he pretends not to feel is already in your bones. One riddle follows another, the singer can’t tell if the townspeople are dead or alive, real or phantoms; shadow voices echo in the verses, and in the chorus they rise up.

The singer, Levon Helm, splits into himself, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, or rather they come together, the three of them, as the one man the singer has to be. Not as one, but one following the other, their voices come together, letting you know that what you first heard as echoes were fully present all along. With the chorus ringing, each voice now reaches for the last syllable of the last word that the voice before it has left behind, and when they fall almost together on a single word, the word “free,” they make that single voice. It’s unstable, dissolving even as it forms, and while every word that led to it—“Take a load off Fanny, take a load for—”—is full of puzzlement, of the-joke’s-on-me-but-at-least-I-get-it, with this word, for an instant, that undertone of defeat, more than anything of regret, wipes out everything else. The song opens up like a well, and the word drops into it like a stone; in certain moods, even as the song goes on, you cease to hear the song, listening for the sound of the stone hitting the water, which you never do hear.

The town made by the simpatico of the Band’s music was not necessarily a place anyone would want to live in: sometimes, as with “Up on Cripple Creek,” it offered magically easy answers, but often it allowed for no answers at all. And the Band didn’t live in it long themselves. In anyone’s art, if there’s luck, hard work pays off, and a moment emerges where one does what one could never do before—in the case of the Band, what none would ever do without the rest. Even as that moment makes itself known, even as you recognize it for what it is, you may recognize that the moment will not last, and so you take everything it will give. It didn’t last: as the Band went on you could hear voices and instruments separate where before you could hardly tell them apart. An alternate version of “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” from the sessions for the 1970 Stage Fright, is an intimate drama, with Helm humming parts that on the finished recording would be played by Danko on fiddle; you can hear people reaching out to each other, but you can hear their estrangement before and after you hear them reaching out.

In a score of recordings—in Richard Manuel’s “Share Your Love,” from the 1973 Moondog Matinee, Levon Helm’s singing on the unreleased take of “A La Glory,” Robbie Robertson’s cracked and soulful demo for “Twilight,” in “Chest Fever,” and especially “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from the Last Waltz, where what in 1969 had been a story, told face to face as the singer stopped you on the street and made you listen, became an event, history collapsing on the singer as if it were a house that in his guilt and fury he was pulling down upon himself—you hear what slipped out of the grasp of the group. You hear what one person must now give to the full, where once Helm, Hudson, Danko, Robertson, and Manuel could only take a song to the full if no one’s contribution could be separated from any other. You hear what was lost, and you hear what few others ever touched.

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