Thoughts On: THE BAND, The Band

Published on July 3rd, 2012 in: Music, Music Reviews, Retrovirus, Reviews |

By Paul Casey

Part two in a continuing series on THE BAND’s discography.

To read the whole series, go here.

the band recording album by elliott landy
Photo © Elliott Landy, 1969

Recorded primarily in a Los Angeles house that once belonged to Sammy Davis Jr., THE BAND’s second, self-titled LP, is considered to be their masterpiece. It is the album on which the legend of THE BAND was built. Unlike Music From Big Pink, Robbie Robertson gets a writing credit on every song, collaborating with Richard Manuel on three tracks, and Levon Helm on one. It does not have the diversity of their debut, but instead comes their most cohesive work.

“Across the great divide
Just grab your hat and take that ride
Get yourself a bride
And bring your children down to the riverside.”
—from “Across The Great Divide”

The Band opens with an invitation. A non-psychedelic “Magical Mystery Tour.” Frontier living. Where bad dates end in shoot-outs and stray bullets. Sure, you could end up dead, but she’s worth it. You need a sense a humor about these things.

“When I first went down south I remember that a quite common expression would be ‘Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again.’ At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, ‘God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.’ In Americana land, it’s a kind of beautiful sadness.”
—Robbie Robertson from Rob Bowman’s liner notes

That a group in the late 1960s would write a song mourning the fall of the South is strange. That the person who wrote it was Canadian makes it stranger still. In the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.; of Bobby Kennedy; and the continuing struggle for civil rights, how does Robbie Robertson do it? How does “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” work, exactly? Released a little over a month after the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the song and album were completely apart from the prevailing mood. (Although THE BAND played a set at Woodstock, they did not play any material from their new album.)

the band cover

Folks who have long held entrenched views on the South of America, and particularly their issues with African Americans, and anyone else of divergent heritage, somehow acquire a human perspective through this song. Robbie Robertson avoids accusations of strange political affiliations and manages to turn the song into THE BAND’s second anthem—”The Weight” being their first—and most acclaimed work. A human story. Loss of family. A man who will not submit. The political cause is irrelevant.

“Like my father before me,
I will work the land
And like my brother above me
Who took a rebel stand
He was just 18
Proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
And I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up
When he’s in defeat.”

Levon Helm took the lead. Helm being from Arkansas, and the only American in the group, it made sense, and gave the song a personal meaning that it would otherwise have lacked. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is what separates The Band from Music From Big Pink. The mood of the song, and the aesthetic appeal of the constructed history the group and the alternate America that they wished to belong to, is overwhelming. Musically The Band is as varied as their debut, but the tone is unified. This is a vision of old time America, and nothing else.

“When You Awake” is another generational storyteller song. Wisdom-imparting, something which so many of Robbie’s songs are fixated on. Apart from perhaps “Acadian Driftwood,” this is the purpose of THE BAND’s use of history. It is not about education, or political commentary. It is the human story that is served. A grandfather who is giving mystic, life advice to his ancestors is where “Dixie’s” heart is, too. The great void is the same for all, whether they are Yankee or Confederate.

“Ain’t no reason to hang my head
I could wake up in the morning dead.”

richard manuel by elliott landy
Richard Manuel
Photo © Elliott Landy, 1969

There are no compositions on The Band solely credited to Richard Manuel, all three tracks being collaborations with Robbie Robertson. “When You Awake” and “Whispering Pines” do recall the out of place and somber character of Manuel’s earlier work. It is hard to know how much input Manuel had with these songs, considering Robertson’s claims of his quickly declining interest and ability in the writing process. Regardless, “Whispering Pines” is as perfect a document of Manuel’s artistic sensibilities as “Tears of Rage” or “In a Station.”

“If you find me in a gloom
Or catch me in a dream
Inside my lonely room
There is no in between

Whispering Pines
Rising of the tide
If only one star shines
That’s just enough to get inside
I will wait until it all goes round
With you in sight
The lost are found.”

I wager that there is no more poetic description of Manuel’s gifts to vocalize the hopes of the lost, than the above. If “Whispering Pines” was Robertson’s gift to his friend, it is doubly poignant. The third song co-written by Manuel and Robertson is another rebel song. “Jawbone” is outta step with society. In another time, perhaps. The switch between verse and chorus is something THE BAND do particularly well. A shift from down and out and moody, to the exaltation of the chorus.

“I’m a thief and I dig it.
Up on a rig
I’m gonna ring it.”

Manuel’s voice here has the sound of the room behind it, backed away from the microphone, you can almost hear the walls shake as he mixes very modern slang with a tale of a different kind of outsider. “Jawbone” has a little bit of the humor that was on Manuel’s “We Can Talk” and elsewhere on Big Pink. Although The Band is a somber album, there is more than enough time for absurd tales from those of disrepute.

Levon Helm wanted “Rag Mama Rag” to be a single, likening it to the simple, charming flavor of “Blue Suede Shoes.” It had a distinctive sound sure, but more importantly, you could dance to it. “Up On Cripple Creek” is defined by Garth Hudson’s use of the clavinet to get a Jew’s Harp sound on the verses, and by his smooth switch to the organ for the chorus. Could be a chapter in a Bukowski novel. Gambling, drinking, and women. Out of step with things. Spending too much time at the track. If I could only catch her with my yodel . . .

“Up on Cripple Creek
She sends me
I don’t have to speak
She defends me
A drunkard’s dream
If I ever did see one.”

helm robertson manuel by joseph stevens
Robertson, Helm, Manuel
Photo © Joseph Stevens, 1969

Both songs are about fucking. Levon had a skill for these kind of raucous, frequently absurd love songs. He had a great appreciation for Dylan’s “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,”written during The Basement Tapes. THE BAND recorded their own version—which appeared on the official release of the Tapes—showcasing Helm’s talent for expressing absurd sexuality in a raw and amusing way.

“Jemima Surrender” is the first song where Helm gets a credit for co-writing alongside Robertson. It’s a dirt rocker and chugs along like a steamboat. “Look Out Cleveland” meanwhile, is a flyer. Soars good. Drew Carey should have covered it.

“Rockin’ Chair” is perhaps the most beautiful song on the record. Garth Hudson on accordion; the percussive guitar of Robbie; and Manuel, Danko, and Helm swirling in and out on the chorus. The counterpoint that closes the song is evidence of THE BAND’s vocal appeal. Rough—very rough—but voices that were meant to sing together. Warm, comforting, and a provoker of dreams. Like the title.

“I can hear something calling on me
And you know where I want to be
Oh Willy don’t you hear that sound?
I just want to get my feet back on the ground.
I love to see my very best friend
They call him Rag-Time Willy
I believe old rockin’ chair has got me.”

If “Whispering Pines” is Richard Manuel’s standout vocal performance on The Band, then “The Unfaithful Servant” is Rick Danko’s. “Across the Great Divide” is the beginning of the journey, and this is where the train pulls in.

“Unfaithful servant
I can hear the whistle blowing
Yes that train is a comin’
And soon you’ll be a going.”

rick danko by jospeh stevens
Rick Danko
Photo © Joseph Stevens, 1969

Unlike most of the songs on The Band this is a solo vocal, something that their next release, Stage Fright, would focus on. Although Manuel’s falsetto was the cause of much chatter, due to its fragility and desperate sadness, Danko was a superb vocalist and could handle anything which Manuel could. A listen to both the early version of “Endless Highway” and its later completed studio recording gives insight into how Manuel and Danko differed. Robbie Robertson would again provide Danko with this kind of showcase for “It Makes No Difference” on Northern Lights – Southern Cross.

“Corn in the fields
Listen to the rice
When the wind blows ‘cross the water
King Harvest has surely come.”

“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” closes the album. It’s a union song, and from the same feeling which made Neil Young want to start Farm Aid. Close to the ground. A bit of rebirth, but not enough. Natural cycles are a bitch. Hard work only counts for so much. Richard Manuel cries; Levon helps with the chorus.

“I work for the union
Cause she’s so good to me
And I’m bound to come out on top
That’s where she said I should be
I will hear every word the boss may say
Fore he’s the one
Who hands me down my pay
Looks like this time
I’m gonna get to stay
I’m a union man now all the way.”

I guess it’s the sun going down. Today’s been a bad day, but tomorrow could do it. The world could turn to my advantage.

The Band is the start of the legend, or fable, or myth, of these five musicians. They would never make a record like this again, though that applies to most of their work. This is the final word, or the first word on this created roots music. Much of the love for THE BAND begins and ends with this album. This is a shame, as we shall see.

the band group shot

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