The Memories Will Linger On

Thoughts on The Band’s self-titled album

The Band cover, photo by Elliott Landy

The Band changed everybody’s lives.” With these brief but powerful words, Rick Danko summed up the impact the successful self-titled album had on The Band. Also known as The Brown Album because of its cover, The Band was released on September 22, 1969. America and Harvest were both considered as titles for this sophomore record. Yet Capitol Records and Albert Grossman, the group’s manager, decided to call it simply The Band, which would end the confusion about their name. 

Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson recorded their second album at the beginning of 1969. They rented a house in the Hollywood Hills, previously owned by Sammy Davis Jr., and they used the pool house as a studio. Even though The Band was conceived in the sunny and modern California, it sounds like it was recorded in the Deep South, in another era. 

The Band tells tales of a sepia world, a muddy world with horses and men in hats. The songs included in the album all have a common thread. They weave their way through a bygone America, even though Look Out Cleveland offers a glimpse of contemporary times. The chorus of Across The Great Divide, which open the album, sets the old-fashioned tone of The Band. Across the Great Divide/Just grab your hat, and take that ride/Get yourself a bride/And bring your children down to the river side. Vivid characters inhabit the songs, a point shared with Music From Big Pink, The Band’s first album released in 1968. Here, Crazy Chester and his dog Jack left the place to the hapless farmer from King Harvest (Has Surely Come) and his horse Jethro.

There was so much talent among the members of The Band. Rick expressed it perfectly: “People don’t understand how complicated The Band’s music is until they sit down and try to play it. It’s like rare jazz.” On the eponymous album, their strong musical skills are more obvious than ever. Rick played fiddle on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and Rag Mama Rag — a song recorded as an afterthought. Levon was on mandolin on Rockin’ Chair, and Rag Mama Rag, while Richard took his place behind the drums on the latter. Besides, Rick, Richard and Garth played horns on a few songs throughout the album, with the help of producer John Simon.

The twelve songs of The Band give life to evocative characters; Ragtime Willie, Virgil Caine, Ollie, Little Bessie. Listening to the album is experiencing a whole range of emotions. There is the ecstasy of Jemima Surrender, and the line “I’m a thief and I dig it” sung deliciously by Richard Manuel on Jawbone. There is despair with Whispering Pines, melancholy with The Unfaithful Servant, and longing with Rockin’ Chair

The talent of the singers, Rick, Richard and Levon, is beautifully showcased on this album. Rick has only three lead vocals on The Band: When You Awake, The Unfaithful Servant and Look Out Cleveland. Yet, the first two songs are gems on an album that contains a multitude. His quavering voice gives soul to the characters of these songs. Distinctive and poignant, Rick’s vocal contributions to The Band are some of his most acclaimed performances. The producer John Simon, who worked on Music From Big Pink and The Band, said: “Rick is actually a very studied singer. He expresses it in a very unique way, but he really is conscious of working with a microphone in an Appalachian tradition. I mean, he hears those old singers and knows how they do it.” Rick embodies the character of The Unfaithful Servant so convincingly that, for the time of the song, nothing else exists except his plaintive and beautiful voice. In 1997, in the documentary Classic Albums: The Band, Rick said, “The Unfaithful Servant, believe it or not, was one of the few songs I’ve ever recorded in my life, where it was done in the very first take.”

Levon Helm is heartbreaking with The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a song about Virgil Caine, a distressed Confederate soldier. A delicate subject, but as journalist Jon Carroll wrote, Levon is the only drummer who can make you cry. On The Band, Levon has more lead vocals than on Music From Big Pink, since when most of the first album was written, he wasn’t back with the group yet. On The Band, however, he offers performances on Rag Mama Rag and Up On Cripple Creek, which would become fan favorites.

And like on the debut record, Richard Manuel shines here, with Rockin’ Chair and Whispering Pines. The first conveys nostalgia, while the second is filled with sheer loneliness. If you find me in a gloom, or catch me in a dream/Inside my lonely room, there is no in between. Richard composed the melody on a piano left behind in his house. In his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon recalled: “Richard and Jane Manuel’s house came with an old piano that had one key really out of tune. Richard used to work out his music on it. So when we were in California, he spent days re-tuning the studio piano so Whispering Pines would sound the way he wanted it.” 

Reminiscent of an old America, yet timeless, The Band is a journey through a universe filled with one-horse towns and unfaithful servants. It carries us to Cripple Creek, and also in this anonymous town where we can smell the leaves from the magnolia trees in the meadow. Each song creates a universe of its own. Sophisticated and authentic all at once, The Band is soulful and shaped by the personalities of the musicians. They welcome us into their world, and we don’t want to leave it. They give us the feeling that we know them. Not only do we know them, but we love them — and we also love the characters they incarnate for the time of a song. Indeed, The Band changed the lives of Rick, Richard, Levon, Garth and Robbie, but it changed our lives as well.

Sources:

Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Caught In The Spotlight

The Last Waltz – The Band’s Decadent And Heartbreaking Farewell Concert

It was Thanksgiving 1976. Five thousand people reunited at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco were served a traditional dinner with turkey and pumpkin pie. Meanwhile, the five musicians of The Band waited backstage with Bill Graham, the producer and promoter of the show called The Last Waltz. It was The Band’s farewell concert. A farewell concert with prestigious guests, so different from the one they had performed at the same place in 1969. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson had played their first concert as The Band at the Winterland Ballroom. But now, seven years and a half later, they were used to this, and perhaps even disillusioned. And contrary to 1969, Robbie wasn’t suffering from a mysterious illness, possibly due to stage fright, that a hypnotist had tried without success to cure before the show. Now, gleaming chandeliers hung from the ceiling, a horn section accompanied The Band, and Martin Scorsese captured the event on film. 

The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink, was released in 1968, The musicians lived for several years in the quaint town of Woodstock, and people believed the album was actually recorded in the Big Pink basement rather than in studios in New York and Los Angeles. Perhaps a sign of the times, The Last Waltz is far away from the old-fashioned charm of The Band as pictured by Elliott Landy at the end of the 1960s. It was another decade, and the hippie movement had given place to something edgier. The Band didn’t escape that tendency. The decadence of the concert is surprising. Yet, despite this grandiloquence, their talent shines throughout the movie. It’s obvious as soon as in the first scene, Don’t Do It, which is in fact the last song The Band played at the concert. “We’re gonna do one more song, and that’s it,” Robbie warned the audience when the group came back on stage. Bill Graham had pleaded with them to get back for one last time, saying, “Do it for me. If this is The Band’s final concert, for god’s sake, give us one more. The final concert of The Band. Man, that’s heartbreaking.”

The public wasn’t ready to let them go. They had started together sixteen years before as The Hawks of Ronnie Hawkins, and on November 25, 1976, it was the end. In an interview for the movie, Robbie said to Martin Scorsese, “I couldn’t live with twenty years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.” Levon Helm, who disapproved of Robbie’s decision to break up the group, remembered he told Robbie, “I’m not in it for my health.” Those two irreconcilable visions set the tone for the interviews interspersed through the movie. 

The concert itself, however, is a celebration. Not the celebration of the end of The Band, but the celebration of those chaotic years spent together. Their alchemy is apparent throughout the show, and it culminates when Bob Dylan joins them on stage at the end of the night. They gave the performance of their lives, and for those few hours, nothing else existed than music and friends. It makes sense that the first guest was Ronnie Hawkins, the man without whom The Band wouldn’t have existed. He saw the exceptional talent of Rick, Richard, Levon, Garth and Robbie, and brought all of them together.

It also makes sense that fellows Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, immortalized in the movie performing the song Helpless with The Band, were invited. Joni is the only feminine musician who performed at the live concert. Emmylou Harris and The Staple Singers were added as an afterthought and were filmed on an MGM soundstage. Joni played an irresistible version of Coyote accompanied by The Band. In Testimony, Robbie admitted: “Joni’s songs might have been the most challenging of the night with their syncopation and chord structures that kept you on your toes, but we sailed through that one like a cool breeze.” 

Some friends of Woodstock also joined The Band. Van Morrison gave a thrilling — and acrobatic — rendition of his song, Caravan. Paul Butterfield appeared for Mystery Train, with the contagious energy of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel both on drums. Regrettably, however, Richard is barely visible in that scene of the movie — in fact, he’s barely visible in the entire movie at all, like Garth Hudson. 

During the evening, guests came on stage one after another: Dr. John offered a delightful moment with his song Such A Night. The legendary Muddy Waters, who Levon insisted on having on the show, performed while the musicians of The Band looked at him with admiration. An anecdotic moment occurred when Eric Clapton’s guitar strap broke during Further On Up The Road. Robbie, without missing a beat, played a solo as masterfully as Eric, if not more. Neil Diamond was present as well. He was invited because Robbie had produced his last album. When Levon heard he would play at the concert, his reaction was, “What the hell does Neil Diamond have to do with us?” 

And of course, there were The Band songs. The version of It Makes No Difference they played that night has become a classic. Rick sang his heart out, and Garth appeared beside him at the end of the song to play his sax solo. It’s one of those glorious moments of the concert, one that we wish could last forever. Luckily, cameramen were there to immortalize it. The Band also performed some of their staples: Up On Cripple Creek, Stage Fright, Ophelia, The Shape I’m In, always with an obvious pleasure.

The members of The Band played skillfully, as always, but it was the end. Their end. Even when I watched the movie for the first time, when I hadn’t heard The Band before, the inherent sorrow of The Last Waltz struck me. The most wistful scene is probably the one where Rick played his song Sip The Wine for Martin Scorsese, but it’s also apparent when Levon sang The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down with all his might — the most powerful rendition he ever gave of this song. He incarnated Virgil Caine for the last time and offered to the audience at the Winterland Ballroom, as well to generations of viewers of The Last Waltz, a performance that is the essence of music. And this is the essence of The Band, who throughout their career, had played those haunting songs reminiscent of an old America. 

The Last Waltz is the only thorough visual testament of The Band. (They didn’t appear in Woodstock, although they were featured in the documentary Festival Express.) And this visual testament is their last moments as a band. They had lived so much together until that Thanksgiving night at the Winterland. When they played I Shall Be Released with all the guests at the end of the concert, it didn’t evoke Big Pink, but something bigger than them. 

Even after all those decades, The Last Waltz continues to introduce new fans to The Band, which is peculiar. After all, it’s the conclusion of The Band, and it’s sometimes painful to watch those last moments. Even though we know Rick, Richard, Levon and Garth would reunite, years later, we also know the tragedies that await them. After the release of their first album, they became iconic and got caught up in a whirlwind. With The Last Waltz, those tumultuous years ended, but it was a bitter end — except for Robbie, maybe. The movie offers two versions of the story, and it goes beyond the traditional Robbie/Levon rivalry. The disparity between the exuberance of the concert and the melancholy of the interviews is obvious. And heartbreaking. 

Sources:

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

Time To Be Movin On

Rick Danko’s Self-Titled Album – An Unsung Gem

If you ever watched The Last Waltz — and since you are reading this blog post about Rick Danko, I suppose you had — you are familiar with the song Sip The Wine. In a segment of the movie, Rick plays this heartbreaking song for Martin Scorsese. This moment possesses a vulnerability. A vulnerability of which we have a glimpse through The Last Waltz, but not as much as that moment. Rick’s emotions are vivid when he said, “Just making music, you know, trying to stay busy.” What you might not know is that Sip The Wine is a track from Rick Danko’s eponymous album, released in 1977. Since then, it has sunk into oblivion and hasn’t been reissued by Arista. 

Rick was the first member of The Band to sign a record deal, even though he didn’t intend to leave the group. In an interview for The Melody Maker in October 1976, he said, “We’ve been together for 15 or 16 years and I for one wouldn’t stop making albums with the Band. Just so long as the Band wants to continue making records, I’ll be there.” After the last concert of The Band at Thanksgiving of the same year, Rick, who had joined The Hawks — later called The Band — when he was sixteen years old, was now on his own. This time, he and his old bandmates, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson, went their separate ways. It wasn’t the end of their friendship, but it was the end of The Band, for now at least. The group had known a few incarnations since the days with Ronnie Hawkins in another decade. In another life, even. The world wasn’t the same as when Rick joined The Hawks in 1960. And Rick wasn’t the same anymore. He had grown up and had his share of problems. For sixteen years, the members of The Band had lived together, played music together, and now it was gone. It’s not surprising that Rick surrounded himself with friends, and even family, with his younger brother Terry, for the recording sessions of his solo album at the Shangri-La studios in Malibu.

With The Band, Rick displayed a whole range of emotions in his singing. He always sounded authentic, whether he sang It Makes No Difference or Volcano, and it hasn’t changed here. Rick is especially heart-wrenching with Sweet Romance, one of my favorite songs. There must be a distant place/Far from every wrong face/Tears won’t fall by chance/On this sweet romance.

The entire album is a wise blend of upbeat songs like What A Town and Java Blues, and melancholic ones like Sip The Wine and Shake It. Others, like Tired Of Waiting and Brainwash, bear a worrisome atmosphere. The first lines of Brainwash set the mood: Crossed ideas and twisted fear/Chosen channels of a million tears/Strains the mind, night after night

What A Town, the opener of the album, is a song that Rick co-wrote with Bobby Charles, for whom he had co-produced the eponymous album in 1972. The song’s spirit, reinforced by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on guitar, is cheerful. What A Town is a clever introduction to this album; it’s not the best song, but it conveys Rick’s buoyancy.

Talented musicians play on the beautiful New Mexicoe. (The e at the end of Mexico is an homage to Rick’s hometown, Simcoe.) Garth Hudson is on accordion, while Eric Clapton plays guitar in his recognizable style, although he is more subtle than usual. Besides Garth, the other members of The Band also appear on the album. Robbie is on guitar on the lighthearted Java Blues, Richard plays electric piano on Shake It, and Levon harmonizes with Rick on the last track Once Upon A Time. The magic is still there, but Rick’s personality is strong enough to remind us we are not listening to The Band anymore.

I am listening to Rick Danko now, on the second day of summer, while a breeze comes through the window. Every song sounds perfect for this season, and I know I will always associate it with the strong sun and the coconut scent of sunscreen. After all, the album was recorded in Los Angeles, where The Band moved along with Bob Dylan after several years of living in Woodstock. The beach had replaced the mountains, but the song Small Town Talk, first released on Bobby Charles’ eponymous album, is reminiscent of the Catskills and of The Band song The Rumor

An ad for the record claimed, “Once you get a taste of Rick Danko, you’ll never get enough.” Unfortunately, the album didn’t have much commercial success. It could have been the beginning of a prolific solo career — Rick was talented, and he was honing his skills as a songwriter. Yet, it didn’t happen. Perhaps the audience didn’t get that taste of Rick Danko. Otherwise, they would have become addicted to him, to his catchy songs, and his outstanding ability as a musician and as a singer. Who else could sing Sip The Wine with so much intensity?

When the album was released in December 1977, disco and punk music were dominating the airwaves. Rick’s album combines multiple genres, but it is definitely not disco nor punk. It’s unique, and totally Rick Danko. Totally Rick Danko: no other words could define this record better. Poetic ones or embellishments of any sort couldn’t express more than this term the essence of this album. 

There Must Be A Different Place

My Modest Tribute To Rick Danko

Photo by Elliott Landy

The most beautiful smile in the world. These words instantly come to my mind when I think about Rick Danko — which is often. He’s the first member of The Band I laid eyes on when I came across The Last Waltz on PBS several years ago. He’s the one who stole my heart with his boyish grin and his “Happy Thanksgiving.” Rick was my introduction to The Band, a turning point I recounted in The Night I Met The Band. When I discovered The Band, I suffered from deep depression, and I kept few memories of this period, except the moment I heard them for the first time. 

Since then, depressions have come and gone, but my mental health deteriorated last March, about the same time as Richard Manuel’s death anniversary. Which is perhaps not a coincidence. Besides, it wasn’t the ideal moment to write a piece on one of my favorite songs, The Lonesome Tale Of Richard Manuel, and exposed raw emotions. I relate too strongly to Richard, and it sometimes breaks my heart. Rick, however, is always there to elevate my mood, even more so since I launched Rick Danko Page on Twitter. 

I started this fan account on a whim. Just for fun, I said to myself. I should have known better. And I should have thought about that quote from Almost Famous, one of my favorite movies: “I always tell the girls never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. If you never get hurt, you always have fun. And if you ever get lonely, you can just go to the record store and visit your friends.” Perhaps I have overlooked the part about never taking it seriously, but I have followed the advice about the record store. I am not Penny Lane living in California in 1973, but listening to music carries me to Woodstock in 1968. Being Asperger — high functioning autism, but you don’t want to know about that — means I am prone to obsessions. Since I was a child, my life has been revolving around obsessions about musicians.

When I created Rick Danko Page, my goal was to post twice a week, but it changed as soon as I launched the page, and I have been posting several times a week since then. I discovered there were so many subjects I wanted to cover, and I immersed myself in Rick’s life and music. I soon realized that Rick was underrated, and worse, that he was the forgotten member of The Band. If you would have asked me a few months ago, I would have answered that Richard and Garth were the forgotten members of The Band. Yet, when I started researching more intensively about Rick, it struck me that he wasn’t as recognized as I had thought. 

Rick Danko brought so much to the music world until he passed away in December 1999. He still does, because music is everlasting, after all. Twenty-two years after his death, in the darkness of my depression, I not only found comfort in Rick’s songs, but I also found inspiration in his resilience. Even though, unlike me, Rick had an upbeat personality, I related strongly to him during those hard days in March because he had suffered so much in his life. In 1968, he almost died in a car crash and spent weeks in traction. Then in 1986, his friend, spiritual brother, and bandmate, Richard Manuel, killed himself in a hotel room in Florida, which impacted Rick deeply. To add to the grief, Eli, Rick’s son with his first wife Grace, died in 1989, at eighteen years old, after a night of heavy drinking at the university. It’s amazing how Rick seemed to overcome the grief. Yet, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t suffering. Perhaps it only means that he kept his pain deep inside him and released it through his songs.

It’s a shame that Rick is so underrated, especially as a singer. He possessed a whole range of emotions. As I wrote in Farewell To My Other Side, he was the most versatile singer in The Band. He could perform some Motown on Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, be a young boy on When You Awake, or be an Acadian singing in French on Acadian Driftwood. (I just want to add for the record that he had the sexiest French ever, though, being a native French speaker myself, I must say the words aren’t very clear. But what the hell.)

Rick not only could sing like a bird; he was also in Robbie Robertson’s words, “the king of harmonies in The Band.” But he was more than that: he was the king of harmonies, period. It’s obvious, not only on The Band albums, but also with Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes and with his bandmates Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeld from the trio Danko/Fjeld/Andersen. 

The Band had five wonderful members, and it’s hard to give the same importance to each of them. We all have our favorite — or two or three. But it’s time to acknowledge Rick’s importance. His contributions to The Band are often neglected. Yet you can’t listen to a Band song without admiring Rick. His bass lays strongly the foundation for the other instruments. Or sometimes, it’s his fiddle or trombone playing that gives us goosebumps. And his voice. His beautiful voice weaves its way through the melody and marries perfectly with Richard and Levon’s. 

Rick was a sensitive and warm man who put all his heart into his songs. He could also act like a mischievous — and adorable — little boy, and indeed, as I like to repeat, he had the most striking smile in the world. His passion for music shone throughout his entire career. Not only on the more celebrated songs like It Makes No Difference and Sip The Wine, but also on those hidden gems his live shows are, many of them with Richard, Levon and Garth. The quality of these recordings is often poor, but Rick’s pleasure of playing in front of an audience, no matter how many people attended, is always there. He was born to play music, and he did it until his last breath. He deserves to be remembered not only as an ingenious musician and a gifted singer, but most of all as a wonderful human being. I already knew he was a beautiful soul, but going through depression with him has deepened this feeling and made me love him even more.

One Voice For All

The Influence Of Music From Big Pink, The Band’s First Album

Photo by Elliott Landy

For those familiar with the album Music From Big Pink, the title brings to mind quaint images of the house where the legendary basement tapes with Bob Dylan took place. Even though The Band didn’t actually record Music From Big Pink in Big Pink, the album conveys the spirit of the Catskills Mountains. The Band cut five tracks at the A&R Studios in New York at the beginning of 1968. Then, yearning to escape the winter, they flew to Los Angeles to finish the recordings. 

Most of those songs were created in the pink house where Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson — and briefly, Levon Helm — lived for a while. As Dominique Bourgeois, Robbie Robertson’s girlfriend, wrote in the album notes: “A pink house seated in the sun of Overlook Mountain in West Saugerties, New York. Big Pink bore this music and these songs along the way. It’s the first witness of the album that’s been thought and composed right there inside its walls.”

It was perhaps predictable that Bob Dylan offered to play on the album, but Robbie declined. Yet, The Band used one of his primitive paintings for the album cover — a cover that didn’t feature the band’s name. Another oddity for 1968: the album included a photo called Next Of Kin. Taken by Elliott Landy in Simcoe, Ontario, on Rick’s brother’s farm, the picture reunited the families of The Band. 

Music From Big Pink changed the musical landscape. It possesses some innocence, but also a refinement uncommon for a debut album. In his memoir, Levon Helm said, “We wanted Music From Big Pink to sound like nothing anyone else was doing. ” Definitely, they found their own voice. In a way, this album belongs to Woodstock, but it doesn’t exactly belongs to the 1960s. Music From Big Pink is ageless; it combines seamlessly soulful tracks and pastoral tales from another era.  

The cover of Music From Big Pink, painted by Bob Dylan

Tears Of Rage

We carried you in our arms on Independence Day. These powerful lyrics, sung like an angel by Richard Manuel, are the first on the album. Tears Of Rage is a beautiful song, but it came as a shock in 1968 and clashed with the music of those psychedelic times. In his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm said, “Few artists had ever opened an album with a slow song, so we had to.” Indeed, this first track, co-written by Richard Manuel and Bob Dylan, is the perfect introduction to The Band. 

To Kingdom Come

Robbie didn’t consider himself as a singer. Besides, The Band already had three wonderful voices: Richard, Rick and Levon. Yet, Robbie ended up singing his composition To Kingdom Come. After the quasi-religious experience of Tears Of Rage, this track changes the mood with his funky groove. It doesn’t seem out of place, however; it fits with the rest of the eclectic album. Moreover, Robbie displays his talent with a splendid solo at the end of the song.

In A Station

 I already wrote about this song in my piece Something To Feel. Still, there is so much to say about this Richard Manuel’s composition, which is one of my favorites. The melodious intro carries us to Woodstock, in Richard’s secret world. In an interview with Ruth Spencer for The Woodstock Times in 1985, Richard said, “I like to get out and wander around in nature sometimes. That song, In A Station, was totally inspired by Overlook Mountain.” He also said he thought of it as his George Harrison type song. It’s one of Richard Manuel’s treasures, a lovely song with introspective lyrics.

Caledonia Mission

Caledonia was a Canadian town, where Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, would drive by on the way to Six Nations to visit his family. Caledonia Mission is the first song of the album where Rick has the lead vocal with his singular voice. An unconventional voice, but a beautiful one. Robbie couldn’t put it better than he did in Testimony: “Back in the studio, I was enjoying Rick’s vocal on Caledonia Mission. The texture of his voice sounded so honest, so natural.”

The Weight

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead/I just need some place where I can lay my head. The Weight is probably the most known song on Music From Big Pink, and even from The Band. Yet, it almost didn’t make the album. Robbie wrote this masterpiece, inspired by Luis Buñuel’s films, and by actual characters who were part of the life of The Band. The structure of the song is peculiar. Levon sings the first three verses, and Rick sings the iconic Crazy Chester part. All along The Weight, Richard Manuel’s falsetto follows the melody of his organ part — indeed, he and Garth switched instruments for the recording of The Weight.

We Can Talk

We Can Talk is a Richard Manuel’s composition, different from his other contributions to Music From Big Pink. This one is almost absurd, but somehow, it shows Richard’s ability to reflect on the world. Through the song, Richard, Rick and Levon’s voices answered each other with obvious joy. One voice for all/Echoing along the hall. These words are the spirit of the song. And it’s impossible not to mention the evocative line: Stop me if I should sound kinda down in the mouth/But I’d rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the South. Modest as usual, Richard said about this song, “I don’t know where that gospel thing came from. I just got up one morning and found it on the piano.”

Long Black Veil

Long Black Veil fully reveals Rick’s talent, both as singer and bassist. This haunting song, first recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, seems to belong to another century. It’s the brutal story of a man hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. He refused to tell his alibi for the night of the murder: I spoke not a word although it meant my life/I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.

Chest Fever

Garth Hudson was the virtuoso in a band with four other accomplished musicians, which is saying a lot. Chest Fever is his song, even though his talent shines through the entire album. In concert, he would play a long intro called Genetic Method. The lyrics are nonsense, but all that matters here is the complex melody. Because, as Levon Helm wisely said, you don’t remember the lyrics, but the organ part. 

Lonesome Suzie

After the euphoria of Chest Fever, we came back to earth abruptly with the heartbreaking Lonesome Suzie. I wrote about this song in my piece The Lonesome Tale Of Richard Manuel. The Band had the arduous choice of deciding between Katie’s Been Gone, a Manuel/Robertson composition,and Lonesome Suzie. They let the producer, John Simon decide, and the latter made the final cut. Like In A Station, Suzie is a contemplative piece that offers a glimpse into Richard’s sensitive mind.

This Wheel’s On Fire

This Wheel’s On Fire is a contribution between Rick Danko and Bob Dylan, written during the basement tapes. Bob gave the typewritten lyrics to Rick, who was teaching himself to play piano at the time. In an interview with Ruth Spencer for The Woodstock Times, he said, “I worked on the phrasing and the melody. Then Dylan and I wrote the chorus together.” They recorded it at Big Pink first, and this version, sung by Bob Dylan, differs from the one on Music From Big Pink. On The Band album, Rick adapted the song to his hyperactive temperament, whereas The Basement Tapes version has a slower tempo, and a quasi-apocalyptic vibe to it. On Music From Big Pink, it sounds like nothing else, because, as Levon explained,  “Garth got some distinctive sounds on that track by running a telegraph key through a Roxochord toy organ.” 

I Shall Be Released

The album opens with Richard Manuel’s voice, and it closes with him on lead vocal again. I Shall Be Released, written by Bob Dylan, sounds like a hymn. Not only because Richard sings it in his pure falsetto, but also because Rick and Levon add lovely harmonies . I see my light come shining/From the west down to the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released. These lyrics end Music From Big Pink, and when the silence falls, it’s almost unbearable. The only remedy to this melancholy is to listen to the album again. 

Sources:

Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

Ruth Spencer – The Woodstock Times, Vol. 14, no. 12, March 21, 1985 and Vol. 14, no. 15, April 11, 1985

Another Tale To Tell

Rick Danko and Bob Dylan — 1965-1967

This Wheel’s On Fire — The 1965 Tour

Bob Dylan and Rick Danko met in 1965, when they were both at a crossroads in their lives. In March, Bob had released Bringing It All Back Home, an album ingeniously blending electric songs with folk ones. Four months later, the Newport Festival, famously known as when “Dylan went electric,” ignited a profound change. It led Bob to hire guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm as backup musicians for a few concerts and recordings. They were members of a band called Levon & The Hawks, with Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, and they had toured with Ronnie Hawkins for several years. When Bob wanted to engage Robbie and Levon permanently, the guitarist told him he would have to hire Rick, Richard, and Garth, too. 

Bob Dylan agreed to come to Toronto for a few days in September 1965 to attend a Hawks’ show at The Friar’s Tavern. Impressed by the talent of bassist Rick, pianist Richard, and keyboardist Garth, he engaged them as musicians. They played live together for the first time on September 23, at the Austin Municipal Auditorium, which had over four thousand seats. The Hawks were used to bars and clubs, and they had never performed in front of such a significant audience before.

It was a stressful time for The Hawks, who were risking jail after the police found marijuana in their car at the beginning of the year. The possibility that they could have to put their careers on hold for several years was never far from their minds. Once, while the five of them were talking about their experience with Bob, Richard admitted they needed to learn his songs to get better. Realistically, Rick noted that they may have to phone their parts from the Kingston Penitentiary. Richard, Levon, Garth and Robbie were eventually acquitted, however, and Rick received a one-year suspended sentence probation.

Rick Danko was only a teenager when he joined The Hawks of Ronnie Hawkins in 1960, and he had spent the last years on the road with his bandmates. Music was his life, yet nothing could have prepared him for what he would live with Bob Dylan. On October 1, Bob and The Hawks played at Carnegie Hall. Barely a few months ago, it wouldn’t probably have crossed Rick’s mind that he would play at Carnegie Hall. It was a prestigious venue, yet the brutal reaction of the crowd shadowed that achievement. The audience was there for Bob Dylan. They wanted to hear folk songs; they didn’t appreciate the five musicians and booed them. The experience shook The Hawks, but it was only the beginning of that chaotic yet wonderful adventure. 

A few days after the concert at Carnegie Hall, they accompanied Bob in the studio. They recorded Can You Please Crawl Out Of Your Window, and a song called Freeze Out, which Bob would record again later with the more poetic title of Visions of Johanna. In November, the band was excited to perform for a few shows with Bob in Toronto. It didn’t happen as expected, however. Or maybe that should have been expected after the tumult of the previous concerts. In his memoir, Testimony, Robbie described what happened during the concert at Massey Hall. “The light went down, and we took the stage in darkness and slammed into Tombstone Blues. The most extreme booing and yelling erupted.” 

The experience disconcerted The Hawks, and even the usually optimistic Rick suffered from it. They felt humiliated; they considered Toronto as their hometown, and to add to the disgrace, their folks were in the audience of Massey Hall that night. Yet, a while after that disappointment, Rick’s buoyancy came back. He said to his bandmates that he considered playing with Bob an incredible life experience. Levon, however, thought otherwise, and he left The Hawks in November. Bobby Gregg, who had played on the albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, replaced him.

In January 1966, during a break in the tour, Bob, Rick, Richard, and Robbie recorded some tracks in Nashville for the Blonde On Blonde sessions: One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later), I’ll Keep It With Mine and She’s Your Lover Now. The first song would be selected for Blonde on Blonde, which would be released in May 1966 — Rick’s modest but brilliant contribution to this iconic Bob Dylan album.

After Every Plan Has Failed The 1966 World Tour

Bob Dylan’s tour resumed on February 4, 1966, in Louisville, Kentucky. It would be known as a tumultuous one that would later be documented in Eat The Document. In April, Bob and The Hawks left North America and toured in Australia and Europe with a new drummer, Mickey Jones, who had replaced Sandy Konikoff, who himself had replaced Bobby Gregg. 

With his wild hair, wearing a fashionable polka-dot shirt, and sporting sunglasses even indoors, Bob became the symbol of rebellion. He didn’t care about what his fans wanted. He wanted to play rock music with The Hawks, and amazingly, he never gave up. It was terrible for the band, who were welcomed by yelling and booing when they came on stage. Yet a notable exception happened in Paris. Bob couldn’t tune his guitar during the acoustic part of the show, and when The Hawks started playing, the crowd was relieved. It was the only time the audience cheered the band and booed Bob.

Drugs of all sorts were part of the tour, which added to the craziness. In an interview with Robert Shelton in 1966, Bob confessed: “It takes a lot of medicine to keep up this pace… It’s very hard, man. A concert tour like this has almost killed me.” After having taken LSD, Rick informed Bob that he had ambitions to do more than just back up a front man. Even under the influence of drugs, it was an accurate reflection. The Hawks were accomplished musicians, and Richard and Rick could sing beautifully. Rick could do so much more than harmonize to the Behind of One Too Many Mornings. He was only twenty-two, but after years of backing Ronnie Hawkins, he understood The Hawks were talented enough to be on their own. After all, they already had been on their own when they left Ronnie in 1964 until they joined Bob Dylan the next year.

Meanwhile, the chaotic World Tour continued. During a show at The Free Trade Hall, in Manchester, after Ballad Of A Thin Man, with Rick’s haunting bass line dominating the song, someone in the audience yelled, “Judas!” 

Bob snapped: “I don’t believe you! You’re a liar.” Then he turned to the band and said, “Play fucking loud!” The band indulged him and kicked into Like A Rolling Stone.

The last show was scheduled for May 27 at The Royal Albert Hall, after almost four agitated months. Then, back in the United States for a welcomed hiatus, Bob rested with his wife Sara in their house in Woodstock. For their part, The Hawks lived in New York, and Rick shared an apartment in Gramercy Park with his girlfriend, Robin. 

At the end of July, they received a call from Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan and The Hawks. He informed them that Bob had had a motorcycle accident, and thus, the next shows were canceled. Rick described his mood and the one of his bandmates: “We didn’t know what to do. Bob broke some bones in his neck and was in total recuperation mode. We didn’t know where Levon was. We were road musicians without a road to go on.” Rick didn’t know they wouldn’t return on the road for almost three years, and when they would, they wouldn’t be The Hawks anymore, but The Band. 

We Shall Meet Again Big Pink And The Basement Tapes

In my piece You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere I wrote about the Basement Tapes, which was such a prolific period in the lives of Bob Dylan and The Hawks. Bob and the band spent the last months of 1966 working on various projects, but it wasn’t until the winter of 1967 that an important change occurred. Bob was editing Eat The Document, filmed during the tour the previous year. He asked his musicians for help, but according to Rick, what led him to Woodstock wasn’t Eat The Document, but a movie called You Are What You Eat. “I came up for the first time with Richard Manuel as part of Tiny Tim’s band for Peter Yarrow’s film. It was February 1967.” He realized that even though he was a country boy, he had been living in cities for years. They stayed at the Woodstock Motel for a few weeks, but soon, Rick went house-hunting. He found a pink ranch-house with salmon-colored clapboard called Big Pink, and he rented it with Richard and Garth. 

They settled into a country lifestyle, and like any country lifestyle worthy of the name, they adopted a dog. Or rather, Rick adopted a dog, from Bob Dylan, a German shepherd-poodle mix named Hamlet. However, the dog stayed in Bob’s life, who came every day to Big Pink to play music with Rick, Richard, Garth, and Robbie in the basement. Hamlet was a part of the house, as Rick remembered. “He slept on the carpet by the stove through most of the basement tapes music and most of the Big Pink rehearsals as well. That dog heard a lot of music.” 

Bob and The Hawks spent several months recording hundreds of songs. Poetic ones, cynical songs, traditional tunes, and silly songs. A casual day-to-day life replaced the chaos of 1966. They played music, wrote songs, chopped wood, played checkers, took the garbage to the dump, and cooked. Bob was living quietly with Sara and their children in a house called Hi-Ho-La. He established a routine and came to Big Pink almost every day. Rick, Richard, and Garth weren’t as righteous as Bob, and they were often asleep when he arrived in the morning. “If we were sleeping, he’d get us up. He’d make some noise or bang on the typewriter on the coffee table,” Rick said. During one of those sessions, Bob asked Rick to compose a melody for some lyrics he had written. This Wheel’s On Fire was born.

When Levon Helm joined his old friends in the fall, the basement sessions were drawing to a close. Bob Dylan’s band was about to become The Band. This exceptional moment in the lives of Bob and The Hawks lasted only nine months, but it had an influential impact, not only on music, but also on Bob, Rick, Richard, Garth, Robbie and Levon. Nothing would be the same for them, but the recordings in the basement capture this blessed time. Perhaps those moments at Big Pink were  a remedy for the excesses of the year before. No touring, no booing, no inquisitive journalists. Just the musicians and Hamlet gathered in a basement in the Catskills, while a tape recorder was immortalizing those moments that would never come back.

Sources:

Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

Howard Sounes – Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan

The Lonesome Tale Of Richard Manuel

The Story Of The Song Lonesome Suzie

Photo by Elliott Landy

Music From Big Pink, the debut album by The Band, opens with the haunting Tears Of Rage. It introduces the listeners to the sublime voice of Richard Manuel, and it sets the pace for the rest of the album, which contains songs emphasizing vocal harmonies among the three singers of The Band, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. All songs, but one. Lonesome Suzie, placed between the eccentric Chest Fever and the restless This Wheel’s On Fire, is sung only by Richard. The musical accompaniment is subtle — more subtle than on the other pieces of the album. Simple arrangements highlight Richard’s voice, which is the principal instrument. The other musicians back him with sobriety; Robbie Robertson’s guitar licks almost feel like a caress, Garth Hudson offers a delicate accompaniment on the organ, Rick’s bass lines are subdued, and Levon’s drums sound like a fragile heartbeat. The nakedness of Lonesome Suzie surprises after the sophistication of the eight songs preceding it. The emotion is all the stronger because of this. It takes our breath away and Richard’s falsetto reaches our hearts.

Richard Manuel composed Lonesome Suzie in 1967, during The Basement Tapes. In 1985, in an interview with Ruth Albert Spencer for The Woodstock Times, he admitted he wanted to write a hit record. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a hit, and the others songs of Music From Big Pink shadows it, The Weight being the most famous. Lonesome Suzie is poignant and reveals Richard’s personality. It’s impossible to dissociate him from the narrator of the song. He’s not only singing the words; he’s feeling them, and he probably had been feeling them long before that session in The Capitol Studios in February 1968.

Loneliness didn’t seem to be a part of Richard’s life, however; he had three brothers, and he had toured with his bandmates for many years. And yet. To write a song like Lonesome Suzie, he needed more than sympathizing with lonely people. He had to have known this feeling at least once in his life. This is perhaps more tragic since he hid his loneliness, only revealing it through his songs.

The character of Suzie takes shape with Richard’s words, with his voice carrying all those fragile emotions. Lonesome Suzie exposes Richard’s vulnerability, and contrary to In A Station and We Can Talk, which he wrote the lyrics as well, he’s alone with the words; Rick’s and Levon’s voices aren’t answering or harmonizing with him.

But who was Suzie? A few months ago, I wrote a Letter To Richard Manuel and I reflected on Suzie: “I needed to know who was the woman who inspired you to write that heartbreaking song. I wanted to discover who she was; maybe she lived in Woodstock in 1967, and you fell in love with her. But Suzie didn’t exist — or rather, she did exist, but not in the flesh. She lived in your heart; she was a part of you, a part filled with loneliness and that you kept secret.” Suzie didn’t exist indeed, but the song is a comfort for people who feel the same way she felt. Arlie Litvak, Richard’s second wife, had wanted to meet him since she was sixteen and heard Lonesome Suzie. She said he had a voice like a hug.

Lyrics are a key to the songwriter’s mind, especially when they are intimate, like the ones of Lonesome Suzie. Yet, a line of the song has always puzzled me: I don’t fit here/But I may have a friend to lend. Why does Richard believe that? He obviously fits there; he’s probably the only person who can ease Suzie’s pain. Or does he feel inadequate? And when he sings, If you can use me/Until you feel a little stronger, he talks to all the loners. His voice almost breaks with the last lines: I guess just watching you/Has made me lonesome too/Why don’t we get together?/What else can we do? He has reunited his loneliness with Suzie and made her feel a little stronger. The song ends with the hope that maybe she will make him stronger, as well. We want to reassure him, too, and tell him he is not alone. Or perhaps, as Bob Dylan wrote in Tears Of Rage, for which Richard composed the melody: You know, we’re so alone/And life is brief.

Like The Weight, Lonesome Suzie almost didn’t make the album Music From Big Pink, but for different reasons. The Band was hesitating between Suzie and Katie’s Been Gone, a beautiful song co-written by Richard and Robbie Robertson. They eventually chose the first, but the producer, John Simon, was worried that the album contained too many slow songs. He suggested The Band recorded a faster version, with horns, and Rick’s backing vocals. The result was lovely, but as Robbie said, “As we listened to the slow version and then the more up-tempo approach back to back, two things became very clear to me: the faster arrangement wasn’t lonesome, and I wasn’t concerned about the balance between slow songs and fast songs.”

There’s something magical with music; with their vivid imagery, songwriters can create a universe that seems real. Richard was gifted in that regard, perhaps because he was an introvert, and writing songs allowed him to get a grasp on his overwhelming emotions. In his memoir, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm said about Suzie, “It was a quiet song that told a story and was pretty typical of Richard’s general philosophy, which was to be kind to people. Richard was complicated and felt things really deeply, more than most people.”

Richard gave his soul every time he sang, whether he was in front of half a million people at the Woodstock Festival, or playing in a tavern with Rick Danko. Generously, he put so much of himself into his songs — the ones he wrote and the ones he sang — that he couldn’t come out unscathed. With Lonesome Suzie, Richard revealed a part of himself. He takes courage to do that. Regrettably, Richard’s death by his own hand in 1986 overshadows too often his incredible talent. He is much more than that — the way he died doesn’t define him. What defines him is the songs he left behind him, and Lonesome Suzie is perhaps the one that allows us to understand him the most.

Sources:

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

Going On Down To Yasgur’s Farm

The Band at the Woodstock Festival

Woodstock. The name evokes half a million hippies gathered in a field, cars abandoned on the road under the heat of August, and naked people sliding cheerfully in the mud. Yet, until the summer of 1969, before being associated with the most famous festival in history, Woodstock, in the Catskills, was known as the adopted hometown of Bob Dylan and The Band. The album Music From Big Pink, released by The Band, in July 1968, had led to a musical movement aspiring toward simplicity. Back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell would write in the song Woodstock

1969 was rich in history. The moon landing and the Woodstock Festival are inseparable from each other; these events happened three weeks apart and changed the United States forever. The summer of 1969 was magical on the East Coast, but it was different in Los Angeles, where the Manson Family created a climate of fear. Joan Didion resumed this anxiety in her book The White Album. “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.” 

It’s hard to reconcile these words with the Woodstock Music and Art Fair set in a pastoral landscape a week after the murders. When the idea of a music festival popped into Michael Lang’s mind, The Band was a myth. In the spring of 1969, almost a year after the release of their influential album, they finally gave their first concert. Why this interval? Because Rick Danko had suffered severe injuries after a car accident, and he was in traction for weeks, which stopped The Band from touring. This silence had generated curiosity from the public, and with their inaugural show at Winterland in San Francisco, they stopped being an enigma, at last.

Meanwhile, Michael Lang and his partners had been trying for months to find a place to hold their Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Only a month before the beginning of the festival, they made a deal with Max Yasgur, who owned a dairy farm in Bethel, in the Catskills. As Michael Lang wrote in his memoir, The Road To Woodstock: “The Band was to be a part of the festival from the beginning. Music From Big Pink had broadened the musical landscape and made a deep impact on me.” Of course, because Bob Dylan always kept the mystery about him, even more than his old bandmates from the 1966 tour, rumors soon spread about his appearance at the festival. The Band was scheduled to play on Sunday, August 17, and the hope about Dylan’s appearance grew as the days passed. 

A big thunderstorm broke on Sunday when Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson arrived at the festival. The site had nothing to do with the bucolic fields they were barely a few days ago. The Band played between Ten Years After and Mountain. Friday night had been dedicated to folk music, and Joan Baez and Melanie had amazed the crowd, playing acoustic guitar and singing beautifully. But when The Band came up on stage two days later, the audience had seen The Who, Janis Joplin and Santana among others. Perhaps for that reason, the sophisticated music of Richard, Rick, Levon, Garth and Robbie didn’t connect with the audience. As Greil Marcus explained, “Now, no doubt that in terms of prestige, The Band was king that night, to the other musicians if not to the audience.” 

They played seven songs from Music From Big Pink and a bunch of covers that would become their favorites over the years Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, Ain’t No More Cane, Don’t Ya Tell Henry. The Catskills were their territory, yet what they experienced at that moment wasn’t the quietness they had been sharing with Bob Dylan for two years. At the festival, they were a part of history, and it was intimidating. Touring the world with Bob in 1966 hadn’t prepared them for that crowd that city spread in front of them. They had known chaos with Bob three years ago, but Woodstock was on another level. It was a blend of madness and peace, bad acid, and people making love in the mud. Robbie Robertson wrote: “Most performers on the show wanted to take you higher, but we took the stage at 10:00 p.m. and proceeded to play a set that we might have done in the living room at Big Pink… talk about settling things down.” 

The heartbreaking Tears Of Rage took a peculiar resonance on that rainy August night, sounding almost like a eulogy. The quasi-spiritual atmosphere that surrounded The Band made them inaccessible to the audience, but backstage, among the musicians gathered there, their talent shone. They had influenced many of them with Music From Big Pink, and they would be remembered as the finest musicians of the festival. It wasn’t the same thrill as shouting Higher with Sly Stone or watching Pete Townshend and Keith Moon smash their instruments while the sun rose behind them. It was more profound. The song We Can Talk, so joyful, captures perfectly the spirit of the festival. Listening to it now, decades later, we can feel the ecstasy of that night. Toward the end of the concert, Richard Manuel, whom many considered as the soul of The Band, gave all his heart with the beautiful I Shall Be Released. It could have been the anthem of the festival, but somehow, it didn’t happen.

The performance of The Band was filmed, but wasn’t included in the movie that would come out in 1970. Many reasons led to that decision, shared by the members of the group and their manager, Albert Grossman. Levon Helm explained, “This is because we were offered half our fee for the movie rights to our performance, and Albert naturally said no.” Richard Manuel added, “There were no shots showing all of us onstage, just two or three of us at a time. So we let it go.”

The members of The Band offered an incredible performance that was released in 2019, on the 50th anniversary edition of The Band, also known as The Brown Album. Professionals as they were, they didn’t show their discomfort. When we hear them, we are comforted in our false beliefs that the Woodstock Festival was an Eden. While listening to these recordings, it’s easy to imagine the festival was the beginning of a new era. Sadly, it wasn’t. Once the festival ended, when Jimi Hendrix’s last notes had died and gave way to silence, nothing remained of those three days of peace and music. Only ruined fields, mud, and heaps of trash. 

The people who went to Max Yasgur’s farm created a community in those fields. It was a different world that couldn’t have existed in another time than during that exceptional summer where Apollo 11 and the Woodstock Festival became associated with each other. The image of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon is merging with Jimi Hendrix, playing The Star-Spangled Banner as nobody did before. 

The movie Woodstock opened with a local merchant from Bethel, Sidney Westerfield, saying these words: “It was too big for the world. Nobody has ever seen a thing like this.” Woodstock was more than the music; it was also the people who gathered in Max Yasgur’s fields for three rainy days in August. The musicians who played on stage became the soundtrack of those days for those who could hear them, that is. Perhaps The Band was, to repeat Sidney Westerfield’s words, too big for the world. 

They came on stage with their humble attitude and played haunting melodies. Even though they were still in the Catskills, the town of Woodstock must have appeared far away that night. They all had evolved since their musical sessions with Bob Dylan in the Big Pink basement. When they played at the festival, they probably realized how much their lives had changed and it was only the beginning. 

The Woodstock Festival represented a milestone in history, proving that half a million people could spend three days peacefully listening to music. But it was also a turning point for The Band. Nothing would be the same for them, but they didn’t know that when they played on that August night. They still had a part of innocence. Fame and addiction hadn’t taken its toll on the members of The Band yet. Perhaps it’s why hearing them sing those songs at Woodstock is so emotional. We know that, like in California, the Sixties would end on the East Coast as well. Laurel Canyon had lost its innocence, and Woodstock, the town where Richard, Rick, Levon, Garth and Robbie had found a sanctuary, would lose it soon, too.

Sources:

Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Joan Didion – The White Album

Michael Lang – The Road To Woodstock

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

Bob Dylan, The Band, The Basement Tapes and the story behind the myth

July 29, 1966, was a beautiful day in the Catskills, one that would have stayed unnoticed in history if destiny wouldn’t have intervened most unexpectedly. What happened in Woodstock along or near Striebel Road,  — even that fact isn’t clear — sealed the fate of the musicians who would become The Band. Upon leaving the house of his manager, Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle. Amazingly, the mystery surrounding this accident still endures today. Despite all the contradictory stories told by Bob’s entourage, the consequences of the accident are undeniable; the upcoming Dylan’s tour, a week away, was canceled. The months that followed the accident are now iconic. They are inseparable from the pink ranch-style house that would be a haven for Bob Dylan and four of the musicians from The Hawks, who had backed him up on his chaotic World Tour. 

Like most stories behind a legend, the change was not perceptible immediately. It took a few months to impact the lives of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. After his accident, Bob Dylan worked with Howard Alk to edit Eat the Document, the movie that D. A. Pennebaker had shot during the tour in the UK. Bob’s health had improved and his friends came to Woodstock to help with the film. Yet, after a while, as Rick said in This wheel’s on fire: “Then we got tired of the motel, and I went house hunting and found Big Pink.” Rick, Richard and Garth rented it for $125 a month, while Robbie and his girlfriend, Dominique, settled into a house on the Glasco Turnpike. The guys moved their musical sessions from the Red Room at Hi-Ho-La, the house where Bob was living with his wife Sara, to Big Pink. 

It was the year of the summer of love, of the emblematic Sgt. Peppers, of beautiful people with wild hair, wearing pearls and flowers. Less poetically, it was also the year of racial riots in big cities across the United States, among them the infamous ones of Detroit. Protected by all the agitation of that time, five young men found a refuge in the Catskill Mountains. Bob, Richard, Rick, Garth, and Robbie created their own universe protected from the modern world. Listening to The Basement Tapes — especially The Bootleg Series — we can imagine them jamming in the basement while Rick’s dog, Hamlet, lies on the rug. We can almost feel the warmth of the sun coming timidly through the dusty windows. 

In Woodstock, they were protected from the Vietnam War, from the riots. And from their ghosts and their past. The songs they played in the basement were so far from the music of that summer. They got back to basics, to old tunes that reflected a world that no longer existed, interspersed with songs written by Bob Dylan that contained enigmatic lyrics. Immersed in that cozy world, they forgot they had toured the world the previous year. They rediscovered the satisfaction of playing music without pressure. As Garth Hudson told Barney Hoskyns: “We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditional songs, some were written by Bob, but others would be songs Bob made up as he went along.”

Their pieces were an incredible blend of roots music, country, traditional, bluegrass. One of them, I’m your teenage prayer, written by Bob Dylan, is a doo-wop parody sprinkled with laughs and false starts. Rick Danko’s tenor voice is delightful, and Richard Manuel singing mischievously in the background captures the essence of The Basement Tapes. The lively Apple Suckling Tree is another example of the good time they had in Big Pink. 

Yet, they also wrote poignant songs, like Tears of rage and I shall be released, that would end up on Music From Big Pink by The Band in 1968. The chorus of I shall be released is now a classic: I see my light come shining/From the west unto the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released. Concerning Tears of rage, Richard co-wrote it with Bob. Dylan asked him if he could write lyrics for a melody he had just composed. Richard remembered: “I had a couple of movements that seemed to fit, so I just elaborated a little. I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant, but I couldn’t run upstairs and say, What’s this mean, Bob?’”

In addition, they played timeless songs like Ol’ Roisin the Beau, along with new Bob’s compositions like You ain’t going nowhere. I don’t care/How many letters they sent/Morning came and morning went/Pick up your money/And pack up your tent/You ain’t goin’ nowhere. Old songs popped up too, like the almost desperate rendition of One too many mornings, with Richard singing the first verse. It echoes the distress of This wheel’s on fire, which the slow tempo is distinct from the frenetic one of the version from Music From Big Pink.

According to Rick, the sessions in the basement lasted until the end of 1967. “For ten months, from March to December 1967, we all met down in the basement and played for two or three hours a day, six days a week. That was it, man. We wrote a lot of songs in that basement. It was incredible!” Levon Helm joined them in the last months. He had left The Hawks in the middle of Bob’s tour and was working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico when he received a call from his old friends, who wanted him back with the band. During those months when Levon was absent, Richard and Robbie alternated behind the drums. Richard was the most talented, and even after Levon’s return, he would be known as the second drummer of The Band. We can hear him on drums on many songs from The Basement Tapes, including Goin’ to Acapulco, a gem written by Bob, and Ain’t no more cane, a prison work song that sounds like it was recorded along the Brazos River rather than in a basement in the Catskills.

Unconscious that they were inventing the Americana Sound, they devoted themselves to the music they loved, the music they wanted to play. It offered them a sanctuary from the troubles that were going on in the United States. In the basement, the Vietnam War was forgotten, as were their obligations and personal struggles. They drove cars from the 1940s, wore vintage hats, and played traditional songs in a pink house. It wasn’t the hippie dream, but it was their dream. A dream different from the one of the flower children, yet no less significant. Those afternoons in Big Pink marked a path in their lives, a welcomed intermission that pushed their creativity to new heights. As Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1969, “You know… that’s really the way to do a recording — in a peaceful, relaxed setting — in somebody’s basement. With the windows open… and a dog lying on the floor.”

We feel a whole range of emotions with The Basement Tapes, which is perhaps the reason these songs still have an impact today. The life Bob, Richard, Rick, Garth and Robbie led in Woodstock during those months appears like a pastoral scene. We are drawn to that image of comfort and — relative — quietness, of living surrounded by trees and mountains. The Catskills triggered the inspiration of Bob Dylan and The Band, and the town’s spirit slipped into their compositions. 

What happened in Big Pink during those magical months was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It shaped Bob Dylan and the members of The Band. The influence of Woodstock is present on the first albums by The Band and on the next Dylan’s albums — Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding among them. It was a total contrast with 1966, where they were almost punk. A year later, they had changed. The world around them had changed, as well. The trepidation of a world tour gave way to a peaceful lifestyle set in an artistic town. Robbie described that atmosphere in his memoir, Testimony. “There was a real family feeling between Bob and The Hawks up in the Catskills. He was a very special friend and co-conspirator. We were already survivors from our year of living dangerously on one of the craziest tours in history.”

Listening to the sessions in Big Pink is a rift in time that brings us back to 1967. We don’t feel the riots, and the war, and the bad acid trips. Indeed, these five men were protected in Big Pink, and with the recordings made by Garth Hudson, we shared that oasis with them. Did they feel they missed something living in the Catskills rather than in San Francisco? Probably not. They knew they were finding their own voice. Although they weren’t conscious that their music would still live decades later, the shelter they created at Big Pink should have seemed like a benediction. It was exactly what they needed at that moment in their lives. And it’s exactly what we still need now. 

Sources:

Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide

Barney Hoskyns – Small Talk Town

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

Sid Griffin – Million Dollar Bash

Something To Feel

For Richard Manuel, the months spent in Woodstock with his bandmates, playing music in the basement with Bob Dylan, were rich in creativity.

We all have had a chapter of our lives that we would have wished to capture into a box to keep it forever. Did Richard Manuel feel that way in 1967 when he lived in Big Pink with Rick Danko and Garth Hudson? The answer will remain a mystery. Yet those months spent in Woodstock with his bandmates, playing music in the basement with Bob Dylan, were rich in creativity for Richard, memorable enough to capture into a box. 

Richard’s retreat in West Saugerties after a hectic tour with Bob Dylan the previous year allowed his inspiration to thrive. The mountains became his muse, and the Overlook Mountain inspired the song In A Station. Richard’s song subjects were diversified, and even spiritual, at some level. The Catskills offered him the motivation he needed, and the afternoons spent in the Big Pink basement provided him the opportunity to create. There were no obligations and no pressure; just playing music with friends. Richard sometimes left those musical sessions and went upstairs to write lyrics on the typewriter. It wasn’t his first experience in songwriting, since he had dabbled in it with his band, The Revols, when he was a teenager. He also co-wrote Beautiful Thing with Rick in 1966. 

“Richard made up a song about going upstairs from downstairs. A little song that has not been heard. Spoken words and little songs that were for the most part silly.”
Garth Hudson

Yet, this time it was different; he was free after years of touring with The Hawks, and then with Bob Dylan. Bob’s motorcycle accident forced Richard, Rick, Garth, and Robbie to rest. Once they moved to Woodstock, everything was in place to spark their inspiration. Richard, perhaps because he was the most sensitive, found himself hit by a creative wave. He co-wrote Katie’s Been Gone and Ruben Remus with Robbie, and Tears Of Rage with Bob. This one would end up on the album Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. 

This blessed period in Big Pink also generated three more brilliant songs that would find their place on the album: In A Station, Lonesome Suzie and We Can Talk. They all express different emotions, but they all show Richard’s vulnerability. Even the humorous We Can Talk contains the line We’ve got to find a sharper blade, or have a new one made. These lyrics are puzzling and demonstrate Richard’s keen ability to play with words. In Orange Juice Blues, one of his early compositions, he wrote ‘Cause I’m tired of everything/Being beautiful, beautiful, which, according to Robbie, was “a touch of anti-hippie humor slipping in there.”

“They had a typewriter set up in Big Pink’s kitchen, and Bob might sit down and type a few lines. Then he’d wander off, and Richard would sit down and finish the verse.”
This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band 

In A Station, with its George Harrison vibe, is the perfect ode to Woodstock. Must be some way to repay you/Out of all the good you gave/If a rumor should delay you/Love seems so little to say. Richard’s greatest strength was that he sought within himself to write his songs. He didn’t write realistic songs telling fragments of his life as Joni Mitchell did. His art was introspective, but in a dreamlike way. Lonesome Suzie contains his more melancholic lyrics, and he ends the song with a moving plea. I guess just watching you/Has made me lonesome too/Why don’t we get together/ What else can we do?

This fugitive moment in Richard’s life was prolific for him. In an interview he gave to Ruth Spencer for The Woodstock Times in 1985, he acknowledged the influence Woodstock had on him. When asked what was the impact of the town on the first three Band albums, he answered: “I don’t think they would have happened without it. I think this environment had a great deal to do with it.” 

For Richard, probably more than for Rick, Garth, and Robbie — and Levon, who joined them later — Big Pink was a refuge from the harshness of the world. In Woodstock, they lived in an artistic bubble. It was an idyllic situation that, of course, couldn’t last forever — and it didn’t. But those months proved to Richard he was a songwriter. Before the success and excesses, before something broke inside him, he gave the world beautiful songs that revealed his compassion. Those songs offered to the listeners an insight into his complex but fascinating personality. We time travel to Big Pink with him, decades ago, in a place and an age when life seemed simpler. It wasn’t simpler, however. Still, the glimpse we catch of that era in Richard’s songs brings us into a wonderful world, paradoxically filled with hope and sorrow.

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