Levon Helm's funeral is held today in Woodstock, the Catskills town where The Band — following in Bob Dylan's footsteps — settled in the late '60s. Al Aronowitz visited the group there in the summer of 1968 and filed this report for Rolling Stone. Rest in peace, brother——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
NEW YORK — Big Pink is of those middle-class ranch houses of the type that you would expect to find in development row in the heart of suburbia rather than on an isolated mountaintop high above the barn architecture of New York State's rustic Woodstock.
When The Band moved into Big Pink in the spring of 1967, the house looked as if it had been tenanted by little more than a housewife with a dustmop who only crossed its threshold once a week to clean it. The Band, of course, had spent its six previous years living in hotels, motels, rooming houses, bus stations, airport terminals, and the back seats of newly wrecked cars. What The Band brought to Big Pink was the dust of the road. But then, that's the story of how The Band got to be The Band.
"We've played everywhere from Molasses, Texas, to Timmins, Canada, which is a mining town about 100 miles from the tree line," explains guitarist Robbie Robertson. "We've played such far-out places that I couldn't even begin to tell you about them. We played towns and joints and places that were 85 per cent Oklahoma Indian. We played places where the people didn't come to hear you, they'd come to mess with you. They'd flick cigarette butts at you and throw money at you and steal your things, and, if you got past that, then they'd listen to you."
For a musician, the dust of the road becomes part of the skin. It gets into your hair, your nose, your eyes, your mouth, your voice, and your music. When Robbie Robertson talks about Molasses, Texas, and Timmins, Canada, he isn't boasting about the grime embedded in his pores; he's merely verbalizing the stories that his guitar has to tell. There was the time The Band went into the shantytown of Helena, Arkansas, to pay homage to Sonny Boy Williamson, 6'3", 70 years old, a blues man with a white goatee and tuberculosis who was spitting blood into a can on the floor next to him as he got The Band drunk on corn liquor and played with them until the police ran them out of town.
"The cops couldn't understand what we were doing there," Robertson remembers. "You've got to realize that this is near a place where they had hung 13 guys from a water tower a few years back."
There was the time The Band played Fort Worth, Texas, working in a gangster-owned club that had been bombed, burned, gassed, and robbed so often that nobody even bothered to lock it up at night.
"We had to wear guns and take turns staying through the night to guard our equipment," Robertson remembers. "One night, the police came busting in with dogs. The dogs nearly got us, and we nearly got the dogs. The next night, someone shot off a tear gas bomb in the club. It stunk up the place for four days. We would be playing, and the people would come in and their eyes would tear up."
At 24, Robertson could be considered the leader of The Band, if The Band bothered itself with such considerations. They've been together too long not to know what each one has to do without needing someone to tell them.
"There are five of us," says Richard Manuel, who plays the piano, writes some of the songs, and does most of the singing, "but we think like one."
Just as The Band has rubbed elbows in the same road dust, it has drawn its water from the same well. Like Robertson and Manuel, two other members of The Band come from Canada. Rick Danko, who plays bass guitar, was born the son of a woodcutter in the Canadian tobacco belt village of Simcoe, where he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a wind-up Victrola and a battery radio. "We didn't have any electricity," he explains, "until I was 10."
Garth Hudson, who plays organ, had started out planning to attend agricultural college until a photograph of his uncle playing trombone in a dance band led him into the study of music theory and harmony. "By the time I was 13," he says, "I was the only one in London, Ontario, who knew how to play rock 'n' roll."
The only American in The Band is drummer Levon Helm, the son of a sharecropper from the South Arkansas Delta country. Actually, Helm was the first member of The Band to join it.
"I was right in my last year in high school when I got drunk one night at the Delta Supper Club in Helena," he says. "Ronnie Hawkins was playing there. I went up and asked him to let me sit in with the drums and I had a job in three weeks."
From Toronto, Ronnie Hawkins had been barnstorming through Canada and the States, leaving a trail of local hit records behind him. Those were the days when rock 'n' roll was still called rhythm-and-blues. Out of the void between the two musics came that spontaneous combustion of country soul and city flash known as "rock-a-billy". Paced by the camel walk, inspired by the Southern Rabbit minstrel shows, and with an excitement that now leaves musicians at a loss to describe him, (other than calling him a "sort of white James Brown"), Ronnie Hawkins became a pioneer, a legend, and a king of rock-a-billy. At his peak, he had three hit records that sold over a million copies each. One by one, the members of The Band gravitated to him, and, one by one, he hired them, until it was Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.
"We played on bills with Conway Twitty, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Warren Smith, and Little Richard," says Robertson. "At one point, when I was about 18 and we had been into it long enough and knew enough, we were playing hard, fast, and tight — and we knew how wicked it was because there was no dancing around. We were out there for blood. At that point, everything in our lives changed right then."
One day three years later, The Band quit Ronnie Hawkins to go on their own. "Ronnie didn't hire everybody because they were cute kids," says Robertson. "He took pride in being able to spot people on their potential." At the end, Hawkins had been paying The Band $150 a week each. On their own, they had to take turns stealing from supermarkets to have enough to eat.
"We played four prima-donna months," remembers Helm.
Then, in the summer of 1965, The Band took a job playing at a nightclub in the seashore resort of Somers Point, New Jersey, "We'd barely heard of Bob Dylan, but somehow he had heard of us," says Helm. "We were lolling in the sand when he phoned us and said, 'You wanna play the Hollywood Bowl?' So we asked him who else was going to be on the show. 'Just us,' he said."
With Dylan, from Molasses, Texas, to Timmins, Canada, came such road-dust stops as Stockholm, Cardiff, Copenhagen, Paris, Glasgow, Sydney, Dublin, and the Royal Albert Hall in London. Eventually, some members of The Band also played with Dylan on his Blonde on Blonde album. It was with Dylan that The Band found maturity.
"It turned out to be not just songs," says Robertson. "It turned out to be a whole dynamic experience. He was sailing. We were sailing. We did it until we couldn't do it any longer. We went all over the place until, finally, it was about to burst. We were so exhausted that everybody said this was a time of rest. When we went up to Woodstock, we stopped listening to music for a year. We didn't listen to anything but what you didn't have to listen to, like opera. That's why we couldn't play things like the Monterey Pop Festival. We weren't — and we aren't — looking for blood any longer. We're just looking for music."
It was after Dylan's motorcycle accident that The Band moved up to Woodstock to play music and write songs with him. Their music was for no one but themselves. A friend found Big Pink for them, in the West Saugerties hills near Woodstock. In the cellar of Big Pink, they set up their equipment and a home recording studio. They became a band of hermit musicians.
"In Woodstock, we would meet in a little diner in the country and would be greeted like a mechanic from down the road," says Robertson. "You feel like you're in the mountains, because you are in the mountains, and you get the feeling that you can look down on New York City. The music that we play now is mountain music because the place where we are now is the mountains."
If The Band has drawn its water from the same well, the water sparkles, with clear, cool country soul. The Band sings in the rough-hewn harmonies of honest mountain air. The music from Big Pink has the taste of Red River cereal. It has the consistency of King Biscuit flour. It rings with the now-ancient echo of John R, broadcasting from Nashville over Radio Station WLAC, 1510 on the: dial, its signal faintly received but eagerly listened to by an audience that took root in Stratford, Ontario, and Elaine, Arkansas, all with the same passion. It is music which comes from a band that has nothing but music to offer. The Band doesn't even have a name.
"I suppose a lot of people are going to try to call us Bob Dylan's band, but even he doesn't call us that," says Robertson. "The only name that we do have is the name all our neighbours, friends, and people who know us call us. They just call us The Band. When we decided to put a record out, the company asked us what we were going to call ourselves, and we told them that our names are our Christian names, the names that our parents thought were groovy for us. We told them that our friends refer to us as The Band, but we don't refer to ourselves." As a result, the LP is simply called Music From Big Pink (Capitol).
If Music from Big Pink sounds familiar, the reason is that you might have heard some of it before from Uncle Remus. If it sounds traditional, the reason is that it has nothing to do with fads. If it sounds gritty, the reason is that it's full of road dust. If it sounds real, the reason is that it is.
The Band's connection with Bob Dylan in no way obscures its importance as an individual entity. While the Dylan influence has undoubtedly contributed to the group's growth, The Band is so far from imitative that comparisons are a waste. Nor is The Band concerned with how their music will be labelled. When asked how seriously they take their music, Robbie, speaking for the group, says (and means it): "Just seriously enough to satisfy us, enough so that we can smile at one another when we're through playing."
© Al Aronowitz, 1968
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