The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Levon and The Band Put Down Roots in Woodstock
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.