Monday, November 24, 2014

The Band's Twilight by Peter Reum

The four Canadians and Arkansan that made up one of rock music's most celebrated combos have had a history of musical accomplishment that brings a sense of wonder to this listener, and yet, there is a nagging feeling that there could have been so much more. The phrase "if only" enters my mind when I think about these men. Rarely has a band had so much amazing talent, accomplished musicianship, and the writing ability to release one juggernaut after another, only to wheeze out as the Seventies churned toward the new millennium.

As time passed, some of the various members struggled with substances, cancer, mental health issues, and finding a direction. I have spent the last few weeks reading through several books on The Band, and they all chronicle a group that needed some direction. The latest book I am finishing is simply entitled The Band, and is written by Craig Harris. Mr. Harris chooses to steer a careful course through the various controversies that plagued The Band after The Last Waltz. The period of the group's major work, from 1967 through 1976, is full of unrivaled musicianship, yet at times, the group sounds somewhat robotic.  I have never enjoyed an entire Band album except for their second album, a true classic.

The Band's eponymous classic second album

Several of the books and articles I have digested to try to comprehend the complex dynamics in The Band have mentioned the resumption of touring after The Band's second album and the income from record sales and touring as being a possible cause for the deterioration of relationships within the group by the time Stage Fright was released.  In particular, there was some degree of resentment that songwriting royalties were not distributed in a manner reflecting the perceived group members' contributions to the credits on various compositions. To be fair to Robbie Robertson, there is also the cited growing infatuation with various substances that some group members had, with almost unrestricted access to drugs and alcohol due to the money pouring into their bank accounts. This use of mood altering chemicals seems to have diverted members' attention away from music and toward good times. The level of group involvement around writing and recording seems to have diminished during the Stage Fright sessions even further than the time from Music From Big Pink to The Band.

1970's Stage Fright Album 

There is a shadow over the next few albums, with a reaction of disbelieving shock from The Band to the wild praise and adulation their recordings and performances received. The cognitive dissonance of such a glowing reception after years of playing bars and small clubs in the South and in Canada was certainly a factor in the group's disbelief of their own accomplishments. Rick Danko is quoted by Craig Harris as saying that the change from poverty to having a million dollars pouring into his bank account was too much to assimilate. Still, the music poured out of the group, with Robbie Robertson becoming somewhat of a latter day Brian Wilson, working to write the tunes the group would record with occasional input from other group members.  It is this input, and the debate over the amount of it that deserved a co-credit that tore apart the relationships between Robertson and some of the other group members over an extended period of time. Unspoken resentment and anger seeped out from both sides of the predicament and slowly poisoned the group's rapport.

Being a  therapist myself, the obvious question that arises is why would a group that was so talented slowly destroy itself ?  The years of  hard living and knocking around playing bars and clubs for drinking money certainly reinforced a frustration that these guys must have had with knowing they were good, yet earning a subsistence living. When they were asked to tour with Bob Dylan, the reception was even worse on the 1966 tour than they had in the old clubs and bars they played. Records from the first half of the Sixties that they cut are in some cases remarkable and in some cases forgettable. The listener is referred to the 2005 A Musical History boxed set for a chance to hear these recordings. The chops they had developed playing live served them well with the chimerical person that was Bob Dylan in his 1966 tour. Like many artists for whom success came late, the contrast with bars and clubs must have been dazzling.

The key moments that gave the group a chance to evolve are now available for the world to hear with the release of The Basement Tapes. It is simply stunning to hear these guys and Bob Dylan work through so many diverse tunes. The relationship that they had was truly symbiotic. I have always enjoyed the Basement Tapes, and their legend approximates Brian Wilson's work on Smile for being unreleased officially for such a long time.  Had Dylan continued to work with The Band as a co-writer, the dynamics in The Band would have had less possibility of imploding like they did.  The group leader was Levon Helm in the early days, and his return to Woodstock and being mostly shut out of the writing credits  for Music From Big Pink and The Band undoubtedly caused him to have some heartburn. The question of what constitutes co-writing a song is a matter for courts to decide.  

By 1971, Richard Manuel's alcohol dependence, as disclosed in Craig Harris's book, had entered a into a severe stage, with corresponding mental and physical deterioration following. Levon Helm also disclosed that Manuel's use of stimulants had become a problem.  Rick Danko had difficulties with prescribed painkillers after a terrible auto accident in the early Seventies.  The Cahoots album, an uneven effort, has high peaks and deep valleys. It appeared, based upon subsequent interviews with Robbie Robertson, that his fatigue and frustration with the group dynamics as a whole brought on a relocation back to Canada and a need for some distance emotionally from the whole mess. 

The Band's 1971 Cahoots album

The  Band's dishevelment began to impact their wallets, according to Harris, when Capitol Records began wondering where the new album was following Cahoots. The live Rock of Ages album showed the group in a favorable light, and the double set is one of the best live sets in the history of Rock. The group continued to have lucrative dates playing live, but there were times when they sounded a bit frayed. The group did not spend time together writing, and Robbie Robertson drifted into experimentation with avant garde music that defied any use by The Band.  The group continued as a performing unit, but Moondog Matinee, 1973's oldies album, did not have a single tune composed by any of the group members.

Mobile Fidelity High Fidelity release of Rock of Ages

1973's Moondog Matinee album

As for Moondog Matinee...It was an opportunity for Richard Manuel to step out and shine. His vocals and playing on this album bring out his musical drive and spirit. The group as a whole may have recorded this oldies album to avoid the whole songwriting argument and just be a group playing together like the early days. For whatever reason, this album is unique in The Band's catalog, and it seemed to quiet down the dysfunction for a short time. There was a long and protracted dry spell for any new Band material for almost 24 months. Again, the group seemed to avert the simmering discontent by agreeing to record Planet Waves with Bob Dylan, followed by the release of the Before the Flood double live set in 1974. Their busy schedule did not totally preclude writing new material, but clearly, the time spent with Bob Dylan may have given The Band a chance to work together with another songwriter who was outside the royalties mess that plagued The Band themselves. Robbie Robertson spent part of 1975 assembling a somewhat Frankenstein version of the Basement Tapes. The good news was that the resulting double set had diverse songwriting credits with Richard Manuel's songwriting from 1967 having ample representation.

The 1975 Northern Lights-Southern Cross album

The group seemed to have a period of balance during the recording of Northern Lights-Southern Cross. All writing credits go to Robbie Robertson, and the songs here are some of his best ever. The vocals are shared by Helm, Danko, and Manuel.  All three men sing the hearts out on this album. Sales were disappointing, this may have been taken as a message by Robbie Robertson and the rest of the group that their best effort was not enough for sales success, and it was time to leave Capitol. According to Craig Harris, the release of The Best of the Band was a signal that Capitol thought the group was running on fumes sales wise and the contract with the group was best allowed to be run out after the final album due. A highlight of the Best of the Band was an outtake from Northern Lights-Southern Cross, Robbie's Twilight. On one level, Twilight is a song about growing old and being left behind by family members. On another level, it could be seen as a song of realization that the group's time together was coming to a creative end.

1976 brought The Band to their own studio, Shangri-La, an old bordello. The old camaraderie of Big Pink was replaced by group members coming in and recording ideas that were less directed than in the past. These musical sketches were available for other group members to add their ideas, but that did not happen as often as might be imagined.  When the whole idea of The Last Waltz was floated, due to Robbie's reluctance to tour any longer, the group went along with the idea, thinking that things would continue in the studio after the San Francisco Thanksgiving 1976 show. The final recordings that comprised the last Capitol album, Islands, happened during the rehearsals and after the Last Waltz was over. The record was released in 1977, with somewhat of a feeling of being a last wheeze. The highlights are few, and the album is played smoothly but seems to lack any spirit.  The album's artwork was fairly slight, and probably did not help sales.  To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, The Band went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Band's final Capitol effort-1977's Islands

1977 also brought two important reasons for there being no further recordings by the group with Robbie Robertson. Rick Danko released an excellent self-titled album on Arista, and Levon Helm signed a solo contract with ABC Records with his first effort, Levon Helm with the RCO Allstars also an excellent effort. Interviews from later in the Eighties and Nineties with Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson reveal a fundamental disagreement about The Band's direction which festered and which was not ended until shortly before Helm's death from cancer. Both men were angry about their disagreements, and an ongoing gunfight was conducted in the music press for over 30 years. What is clear is that when Robbie Robertson began producing soundtracks for film director Martin Scorcese, there was little need to write for The Band or for a Robertson solo album as well.

In 1978, The Last Waltz was released, with the accompanying soundtrack being a one off album for Warner Brothers Records. Had the group been motivated to do so, there was interest at Warner to release more Band music. With Danko and Helm's solo work out, their interest was more focused on their solo careers. Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson did not record albums, but Hudson had a busy studio and road career playing sessions and concerts. Perhaps the person that was left behind for a number of years was Manuel, whose struggle with substances made him a pariah as far as a solo recording contract with a major label went. Sadly, the state of the art in substance dependence treatment was primitive at best in those years after The Band went on hiatus in 1977. As was the case with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, Manuel's health deteriorated, leading to a state of deep and lasting sadness and isolation.  Taken in context, and based on accounts from Band members, Richard Manuel's 1986 death by suicide appeared to be an impulsive act which he performed to rid himself of the deep emotional agony he felt. His loss to the Band and to the Rock Music world is incalculable. The songs he wrote and a life of incredible singing and playing on records and in live performance is a body of work any musician would be proud to claim. 

In the Eighties, members of The Band toured, gradually developing a set list that slowly excised most of Robbie Robertson's songs from their repertoire. Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson were deeply saddened by the loss of Richard Manuel, but not enough to bury the hatchet. As time went on, Craig Harris's book describes the remaining members of The Band sans Robbie struggling to make a living and adding new group members, whose presence waxed and waned, depending upon how well the group was compensated by tour promoters.  The Band sans Robertson recorded three albums from 1993 to 1998, Jericho, High On the Hog, and Jubilation. These efforts had excellent musicianship that a listener would expect from The Band, but the songs were not always up to par. Despite Robertson and Richard Manuel being missing, with the exception of some tracks on Jericho being left over from Manuel's work with Levon Helm being included, many of the songs were written by songwriters outside of The Band. After trying to kick his prescribed painkiller or opioid habit for many years with several attempts at substance dependency treatment, Rick Danko died of heart failure in late 1999. His recorded work outside of The Band was considered to be especially strong, with several collaborative efforts gaining very high praise.

The Band-Jericho from 1993

The Band-High On the Hog from 1996

The Band-Jubilation from 1998

Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson began the new Millennium with a number of albums that were highly praised and very well received. The Band as a group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Robertson/Helm silence precluded members from playing at the induction ceremony. Levon Helm's incredible struggle with cancer led to him holding concerts in his barn/studio that were instrumental in cementing his legacy as both a musician and a live performer, with musicians from the cream of the music world making the trip to play with Levon, his daughter Amy, and other amazing musicians. Levon became the man who everyone wanted to play with. His small and intimate setting led to some of the best music any of the members of The Band ever made. Robbie Robertson continued to work with Martin Scorcese, and  released several excellent solo albums in the Nineties and first Millennium decade, including two outstanding albums of Indigenous Music which helped him to allow people to see the Native side of his heritage that was unknown for most of his career. Garth Hudson released several albums of solo music, including a double album set with his wife Maud singing vocals. His keyboard ability shined brightly, as his eclectic style of playing finally became the center of his music, finally unhindered and unmasked. 

Somehow Garth's stoic and taciturn nature allowed him to be the member of The Band who stayed above the disagreements and rancor that the others experienced. That all of the surviving members were deeply in grief about Danko and Manuel's deaths was never in question. The way their grief came out was quite different. Helm lashed out at Robertson, blaming Robbie leaving as being a prime cause of the two mens' deaths. Robbie Robertson's grief was more contained, with short and sympathetic feelings expressed to the surviving family members of both men. Garth Hudson communicated privately with the two men's families, staying out of the public spotlight.

Finally, in 2012, Levon Helm sadly was pronounced as terminal due to a return of the throat cancer that he fought so valiantly. When Robbie Robertson heard about Helm's cancer and prognosis, he came to Helm's hospital bed and both men had the heart to heart conversation that had taken thirty plus years to happen. The anger in books, interviews, and press was set aside. Today, as Robertson and Hudson are the two surviving members of The Band, their body of work has been treated with the respect Capitol needed to give it much earlier. Thanks to Cheryl Pawelski, Rob Bowman, and others, The Band's work at Capitol has been reissued with excellent liner notes and a comprehensive six cd boxed set has collected gems from their career that add perspective to their career. 

The Band-A Musical History 2005 Boxed Set
(would that every group's body of work be treated with as much respect)

What's to make of the drama that followed this highly accomplished rock group? In the end, all that will  matter is that rush a listener gets upon hearing The Band's best work for the first time. Were they passionate, rancorous, irrational, insane? I will not label them. These are men who loved each other as one would love a brother. The parable of the Prodigal Son comes to mind. The brother who stayed with his father was angered by his father's reaction when his younger son came home after years on the edge of dying in a foreign land. His father threw a banquet, remarking to his loyal and angry son that his inheritance was secure, but the joy of seeing a son who was thought dead was too wonderful to be ignored. The father forgave his prodigal son, as Levon and Robbie forgave each other on Levon's deathbed. The power of unifying brotherly love overcame whatever anger had kept them apart. 

Text copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved
Artwork is copyrighted by Capitol Records

The author recommends books on The Band by Craig Harris and Barney Hoskyns
Levon Helm's autobiography with Stephen Davis This Wheel's On Fire is an essential read to comprehend his differences with Robbie Robertson that led to mutual shunning for so long