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The Killer is dead. Long Live the Killer…

October 31, 2022 Leave a comment

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The Jessup Flannerys

October 27, 2022 Leave a comment

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That time when Ted Cruz ruined the national pastime

October 25, 2022 Leave a comment

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Christmas in Prison

October 23, 2022 Leave a comment

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Between inning gibberish and the Wilder brigade

October 21, 2022 Leave a comment

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The Band Essays – complete

October 20, 2022 5 comments

These essays were all originally posted for my subscribers over on my substack page. One for each of the songs on The Band’s iconic second album. I’m including them all here, and hope after reading ’em that maybe you’d become a subscriber yourself. I need you, and I’d love to have you.

Anyway…here they are…in order. A little introduction first, and then we dive in track-by-track….

INTRO

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

—Across the Great Divide

I do some of my deepest thinking when I’m cutting the grass.

I flip on my old-school cans, fire up a podcast or some music, and try not to get so distracted to where I run over rocks or dog shit. I have an old riding mower that wheezes a lot, but it looks like she’s gonna get me through another season without conking out. She’s a good ride, and she’s got cup holder to boot. Any chore you can do while seated and sipping a cold drink is good business.

If I was President and had to make a crucial decision, I’d hop on a riding mower and start working on the White House lawn. With a beverage.

It dawned on me last week while mowing that The Band’s self-titled second record is the greatest North American rock-era record ever made. I had a podcast in my ears at the time, and it was discussing “the brown album”, as it’s become known, song by song. I decided then and there that I needed to write about this record. These songs. What they said and what I thought they said and how the men creating this music have managed to burrow into my brain. How four world-weary Canadians sat at the feet of the single American in the group, a deep southerner, and managed to make music so distinctly American that the initial idea was simply to call the record “America”.

If you were going to record such an album at the tail end of the 1960s, where would you go? I think the answer is obvious. You would go to Sammy Davis Jr’s pool house too. What’s more American than that? The ghosts must have danced like hell.

I’ve listened to this record on LP, on cassette tape (I remember bringing it into an office I worked at, and playing it on a boom box on the floor next to my chair), on CD, on Itunes, and finally now on the streaming services. For over 30 years I’ve reached for it when it was needed, and after all that time it’s easy to take something for granted. It’s almost like these songs always existed. The thought that somebody actually sat down at the edge of the bed with a guitar, or tinkled quietly on a piano while a baby slept nearby, and created these songs? And did so during my own lifetime? We’re gonna need a deeper dive into this.

My musical tastes were shaped by my older brother, and I probably came into the Band through the Dylan screen door. Maybe the Basement Tapes, which I remember my brother sending me on various mix-tapes. Getting one of these in the mail was like Christmas morning. I’m sure I heard songs like “Katie’s Been Gone” and “Bessie Smith” and “Yazoo Street Scandal” before I heard the brown album. I loved Dylan at the time and still do, but he’s frequently full of shit so I never hovered long enough to get completely obsessed. I left it to others to go through his garbage. To me the Band songs were the best songs on the original Basement Tape release. I mean, I love the goofiness and artless simplicity of “Apple Suckling Tree” and “Tiny Montgomery” as much as anyone, but neither of these ever kept me awake at night. You know what I mean?

I don’t know if the Band got more from Dylan than Dylan got from the Band. Library shelves have been filled pondering questions less weighty. But the relationship surely raised the Band’s profile, and certified them cool sooner than a group with no front-man might have been. What started as a wild, somewhat simplistic bar band backing the wild and somewhat simplistic Ronnie Hawkins….turned in on itself in the Catskill mountains and created the Americana genre, which nobody knew what to call at the time. It was the kind of music that required as much listening as it did playing, so the amps were turned down and the circle became smaller and tighter and the voices shared lines like they were a bottle of moonshine.

Dylan is the one who stuck the push-pin into Woodstock NY on the map, but The Band are still the mystique that everybody is looking for who goes up there. All these years later people still want to share in the magic of that ugly pink house, which is currently rentable as an AirBnB (minimum of a 3 night stay, basement not included). If that type of 21st century commerce doesn’t signify the end of something, I’m not sure what does. But 50+ years on the Band remains as synonymous with the town as the festival that stole its name.

So here’s what’s next. I’m gonna write a column about each song on the album, in order. They may read a little disjointed, because writing about music can feel like asking your sick dog what’s wrong and getting upset that he doesn’t answer. But so be it. I’m doing this because that’s what the voice in my head told me to do while I was riding the tractor. Just so I can have the words and maybe share them with my grandkids someday if they ever get an inking to dissect me.

I hope you decide to take the ride down to the riverside with me.

In a bit…

–tf

The Band essays – Track 1 Side 1 – Across the Great Divide

A few things to get out of the way up front. What I’m not going to do is tell you what I think these songs are “about”. Too many have already tried that over the years, and it never ends well. I’m suspicious of anybody who claims some hidden meaning to “The Weight” or “Chest Fever”, for example. I avoid these people are parties. I once read about a Shakespearean scholar discussing the relationship between Hamlet and the Band song “Ophelia” and it nearly broke me.

It’s so much fun to liken songwriting to catching fireflies, but mostly it’s just a half drunk or stoned guy sitting on the couch with a guitar and a thesaurus. That’s not to say that the genius is fakery, only that at it’s structured in such a way that what I think a great song means is not what you think it means. And it’s certainly not what the guy who wrote it meant. He’s the LAST guy you want to ask.

That being said, if it’s not a great song, nobody is gonna give a shit what it means anyway…so lucky for us….

….Across the Great Divide is a great song….mostly because of Richard Manuel, who sings it like the guy who gets home at 3am, thinking he might be able to slip into bed unnoticed, only to find every light in the house on. Shit. Now he’s gotta talk his way out of this. Manuel is so good that in less than 3 minutes his wife has already put the gun down, although he’s still sober enough to ask her where she put it. Just in case.

For a woman to DRAW on you? No telling what the poor boy did. Better left unsaid.

He gives you a little glimpse of what might be keeping him out late…

Harvest moon shinin’ down from the sky / A weary sign for all
I’m gonna leave this one horse town / Had to stall ’til the fall, now I’m gonna crawl
Across the Great Divide

….which is the sort of thing drunk guys at bars have been boasting to each other for years….as their wives and kids wait for them to bring the pay packet home.

But you ain’t going nowhere….as another famous basement dweller once sang.

Now Molly dear, don’t ya shed a tear / Your time will surely come
You’ll feed your man chicken ev’ry Sunday / Now tell me, hon, what ya done with the gun?

Richard Manuel’s voice has that quiver in it…and when he’s being ribald you can hear him winking at you, and when the blues get him it’s a race to see who cries first. Levon Helm and Rick Danko are two of the greatest white rock and roll singers of all time, and neither is the best singer in his own band.

I’ve always been insanely jealous of Robbie Robertson, and not only for his brooding good looks and crazy guitar bona fides. He was like a playwright knowing that the greatest actors in the world are tossing pebbles at your window in the middle of the night, asking for a script. It’s not a coincidence that Robbie’s great songs dried up when the Band broke up. It must have been like going from Broadway to summer stock.

Speaking of Levon….everytime the song lurches to a stop…..he drop-kicks it forward with a drum-fill right out of the proverbial woodshed. And then those crazy horns, bleating like the drunk guy who, like the joke says, is trying to hold on while lying down. This was 1969, and hearing wild mountain men blowing into tubas was as seismic as rock operas.

Robbie once compared the brown album to its predecessor Songs From Big Pink by saying “Big Pink was Sunday morning and The Band was Saturday night”, and “Across the Great Divide” fits that to a T…that is if you allow your Saturday nights to creep into your Sunday mornings…..

Robbie’s guitar here is so understated you almost miss it. His amp is turned down so low the group’s dog could sleep next to it. Little fills pop up in the only spaces where they fit. Anyplace else he’s gonna get in the way, which is what most guitar players at the time were making their living doing. Eric Clapton heard the way Robbie played and was immediately embarrassed by his own band, which he promptly disbanded. Robbie could certainly shred with the best of them, but he was becoming the most economical guitar player in rock history. If less is more, then nobody brought more to songs than Robbie Robertson.

Mostly Robbie is content to tag along with Rick’s bass here…..which is why your feet are tapping on the floor listening to the song. Rick is the one of the funkiest white bass players ever. He played it like it was an Allen Toussaint horn part. As a rhythm section, he and Levon could change your religion.

Across the Great Divide is a wonderful opener, like popping the tab of that first cold beer of the night.

We’re gonna be drunk soon listening to this record. More to come soon.

In a bit…

—tf

The Band essays – Track 2 Side 1 – Rag Mama Rag

Levon Helm once said that he thought Rag Mama Rag could be a “radio” song. He rightly said it contained the same wild elements as “Blue Suede Shoes” and that it was “danceable”, one of his favorite words.

A quick look at the charts when Rag Mama Rag was released as a single show them dominated by “Close to You” by the Carpenters, a song that most certainly did not contain the same wild elements as “Blue Suede Shoes”. It also was not very danceable. (to be fair, Karen Carpenter was a bad-ass drummer though…)

The Band reiterated over and over that while up on their mountain or ensconced in Sammy’s pool house they had absolutely no idea what the current music scene sounded like, and nothing showcases this more than Levon thinking this wild piece of music, which sounded like it was cut in a brothel during peak hours, was gonna take on the Carpenters or “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.

And as Levon eventually admitted, “But I’ve been wrong before.”

It sounds just as wacky today. Danko’s untutored fiddle scratching away at that intro, before Levon works his way in between tuba snorts, singing about who-the-fuck-knows-but-it-sounds-filthy. It might be the group’s most famous game of musical chairs, as Richard Manuel takes over the drums while Levon plays the mandolin. Garth Hudson pounds away on Richard’s piano like it just swore at him. I close my eyes and I can’t get the image of Garth dressed like a saloon bartender out of my head. Levon called him “Honey Boy” because he sweetened everything up, and here he’s the one keeping the rest of the boys from jumping the tracks.

I honestly don’t think that guys who don’t love each other can sound like this.

When Levon re-joined the Band at Woodstock, he arrived to find that Richard had taken over on drums, and gotten so good that Levon figured he’d better brush up on his mandolin skills. From then on when Levon was asked who his favorite drummer was, he’d answer “Richard”. And you can hear why here. Richard played like he was always in danger of falling off the stool. His right arm would stick out like it was in sling, and he’d hit Levon’s high-hats so hard that he’d sometimes break them. But when he hits that breakdown in the song and goes around in a circle, and it’s just he and Levon….well….

A critic once wrote that Levon was the only drummer who could make you cry. Well, Richard was the only drummer who could make you LAUGH. His performance here is madcap and absolutely perfect, and even Levon, one of the greatest drummers who ever lived, could not stop twinkling when he heard it.

Levon was always pissed that Robbie Robertson got the sole songwriting credit on this (and many other) songs. He always claimed that it was much more of a group effort. This is a point of contention that has seen assorted referees pushing both sides back to their neutral corners for years. What’s clear to me is that Robbie could never have written this (or many other songs) without having Levon Helm in his life. The music of Rag Mama Rag was in Helm’s southern DNA, and only after the 2 pricked their proverbial fingers and swapped blood could Robbie channel this and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, another obvious example. That being said, songwriting is words and music. Inspiring a song doesn’t entitle you to a co-writing credit. It is also NOT the arrangements. If it was Garth would be a millionaire. Maybe Robbie could have been a little less dickish when it came to credit (bands like REM and U2 and The Tragically Hip decided early on to credit everything to the group), but I’ve yet to hear any evidence that anybody other than Robbie sat down and came up with the words and basic melodies to these songs.

Subsequent events were answer enough for me. Without Robbie, and with Richard unwilling to try, they could not come up with a single memorable original song. And Robbie, without the others kicking his pomposity in the balls, started sounding like a really bad Peter Gabriel impersonator. He’s never written anything that belongs in the same time-zone as Rag Mama Rag since he broke up the group. Which makes me think that maybe Levon had a point after all.

The sum was always greater than its parts.

Rag Mama Rag is so much fun that it almost sounds illegal, and remains one of the most beloved Band tracks of all time. I wish had written it.

In a bit…

—tf

The Band essays – Track 3 Side 1 – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

I have always thought `Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I now request the band to favor me with its performance…

—Abraham Lincoln (less than a week before he was assassinated)

It’s time to write about The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and I really don’t know how this is gonna end up. So here goes nothing.

It’s a great song that’s also become some sort of paean to the odious lost-cause narrative, the south will rise again and all that bullshit, which I suppose most folks didn’t really think much about until people started scaling the walls of the US Capitol and spearing cops with confederate flags on live TV. There’s no telling how many of these guys fired up this song at dollar beer Karaoke night and wailed away at the “na na na na na na” part. So surely some reckoning is in order. But don’t get mad at me until you read this entire thing, because there are lots of moving pieces here.

But first you re-watch “The Last Waltz”, and you notice in some of the interview sections the Band is sitting together under a giant rebel flag hanging on the wall. I’ve seen the film 20 times and never noticed. Now, in our current environment, it’s shocking. One wonders if Muddy Waters or the Staple Singers, who appear later in the film, would have felt comfortable in the same room.

People who argue that this sort of thing is harmless also argue that “Sweet Home Alabama” is not racist. It is of course, unless pledging love for the infamous segregationist Governor George Wallace was some sort of joke with a missing punchline.

And surely the times they are a ‘changing. I think Abraham Lincoln said that. No matter. We call bullshit on bullshit more often now. Or maybe we just have a larger canvas to do it on. I suspect Levon Helm would have been retroactively appalled at how casual the flag appeared in the film. They airbrushed the cocaine from Neil Young’s nose but left this in?

Robbie Robertson admitted that he had to go to the library to research our nation’s Civil War, which he knew next to nothing about. The song barely scratches the historical surface. We meet Virgil Caine, just another piece of cannon fodder fighting for the perpetuation of slavery, which is not mentioned in the song of course. Virgil clearly owned no slaves, but what is not clear is if when he sings “they should never have taken the very best” he’s talking about the Yankees….or Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee. He lost his teenage brother in the war, and barely survived it himself. Now he’s back into grinding poverty, “chopping wood”, and somehow heartened by the sight of Lee passing through town, the man most responsible for his being “hungry and just barely alive” back in the winter of 65. And still now.

I’d like to think by this time that Virgil would have realized he’d been played. But as historian Shelby Foote once put it, “Southerners were very strange about that war.”

Ok, let’s cut to the nut. What’s troubling about the song is how it’s been interpreted.

As sung by Levon, it’s a heartbreaking lament…..one of the most anti-war songs I’ve ever heard, written at the height of Vietnam by a Canadian who was watching his own country shelter men who trusted their government a wee bit less than Virgil Caine trusted his. General Lee, a man responsible for more American deaths in war (they were ALL Americans) than any general in history, rode off into the type of glory that gets encased in marble, while Virgil Caine is left to rot with the stigma of the lost cause. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I’m thinking at the end of this song is that the south is gonna rise again. “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat” sings Virgil. Resigned. It’s over. I can’t imagine Virgil hanging a CSA flag on his wall.

That the song has often been hijacked by racist goobers does not mean it was written for them, which is something our culture cannot seem to grasp. Virgil Caine is not a real person. He’s a character created by Robbie, and voiced by Levon. Could that voice have railed directly against slavery? Perhaps. But Virgil Kaine is likely more concerned with how he’s going to feed his family and tend to his brother’s grave in a land of suddenly shocking desperation. He fought because he was conscripted, not so that fucking Jefferson Davis could keep his slaves.

Robbie may have assumed that his audience was sophisticated enough to grasp such things. I’m not sure he anticipated how stupid we’d become, or how historically ignorant. Northern pick-up trucks are more adorned with the stars and bars than ever before. These people might well think the song “Strange Fruit” is about an apple tree.

That ain’t on Robbie and Levon. That’s on us.

Find another song for your lost cause party, Bubba. This ain’t it. Play “Sweet Home Alabama” instead.

In a bit..

–tf

The Band essays – Track 4 Side 1 – When You Awake

Snow’s gonna come and the frost gonna bite
My old car froze up last night
Ain’t no reason to hang my head
I could wake up in the mornin’ dead

–When You Awake

Rick Danko sings these lines at the end of this song. The advice he received while sitting on his grandfather’s knee as a child has sunk in. It’s a mean old world, and hearing “you might be right and you might be wrong” is as close to comfort as he’s gonna get.

There’s something lovely about When You Awake though. The way the music bounces and then glides like a backyard stream, and the artless simplicity of the story. We all reach that fork in the road eventually, and we all have to decide if we’re gonna go glass half-full or half-empty. “Use your days and save your nights” is such a great line, and the way the Band’s three voices instantly find their slots in the chorus is always thrilling to hear. Even when you know it’s coming you hold your breath because it’s more fun that way.

It sounds like it may have been written in the last century. Rick Danko had a voice that was a cross between Sam Cooke and a Civil War private. You can hear the twinkle in his eye. Smell the rye on his breath. He’s never met a stranger. There’s no judgement in Danko. He sometimes comes across as guileless. He’s probably been taken advantage of a thousand times. Handsome as hell with a heart as big as a watermelon. All his life he has sung for his supper, until that big heart couldn’t order another breath. He didn’t know how to do anything else. He wanted to save the world but by his own admission settled for helping the neighborhood. Danko was old when he was young, and remained young as he got older. That’s a neat trick. Everybody should have a little Danko in ‘em. The world would be a nicer place to visit.

Again it’s worth noting that this was 1969. This was Woodstock and Manson and Altamont and never trusting anyone over 30. Music was either tight-assed or deliberately freaky. Only the Band was soliciting a generation that it was suddenly cool to despise.

All I know of my own grandparents are stories……the ones passed down, and the ones I conjured up in my own head after viewing all those black and white photos found in my parent’s basement. Children of irish immigrants who expected no quarter and gave none. Every day was a struggle, and since they never expected otherwise they were hard to rattle. My Mom was one of 13 kids sharing the same bathroom, so I’m not sure how much time her Dad had for kids on the knee. My Dad’s father was a bit of a ne’er do well, working when he found a job that would tolerate his frequent no-shows due to the excessive singing of rebel-songs the night before…and not so much when he couldn’t. He once entered New York City driving the wrong way through the tunnel, and made it out the other side alive….despite swallowing his lit cigar in the process.

My grandparents were haunted by the Great Depression, and looked old before they got old, and I miss them even though I never knew them. They deserve their own songbook, and I can’t hear When You Awake without thinking of them.

Even on a record that doesn’t sound like anything else at the time, When You Awake stands out for its oddballness. Its sudden key change when it hits the chorus….and Robbie picking and pulling strings like he’s Chet Atkins on a bender. When the piano didn’t work Richard Manuel moved over to the drums, and Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ is whirling in the background like it’s his job to keep the rest of ’em in line. The only cover version of the song I could find was done as a solo ukelele piece, which seemed wildly appropriate for some reason.

Bob Clearmountain is a world famous record producer and mixer who was asked by Robbie to re-mix the first 4 Band albums as part of a re-issue campaign. (“Don’t get HIM”, Robbie remembers being warned by a friend. “He’ll make all the drums sound like fucking ‘Born in the USA’!” Yea, Clearmountain was responsible for that huge 80s drum sound…..but he wasn’t about to mess with Levon and Richard) In any event he was asked, after completing his re-mixes, what his favorite Band track was.

His response?

When You Awake.

I thought that was pretty cool. And pretty telling.

In a bit..

–tf

The Band essays – Track 5 Side 1 – Up On Cripple Creek

“This living off the road / Is getting pretty old”

—Robbie Robertson / Up On Cripple Creek

“The hotel manager don’t bring me down. I’ll sit there and jaw with him all day…”

–Levon Helm

Nothing to see (or hear) here….just Garth Hudson inventing funk with a Hohner clavinet played with a wah-wah pedal after each chorus. And doing so a full 3 years before Stevie Wonder cut “Superstition”. Everybody just assumed it was an old Jaw Harp (sometimes called a “Jew’s Harp”, nobody seems to know why…not even Google). “It was easy to do”, shrugged Garth. Hudson was an inveterate tinkerer….one of those guys who continually ask themselves “I wonder what’ll happen if I try this?…”, which is the one thing all mad geniuses have in common.

(When Robbie broke up the group, and they reformed with various line-ups, Levon would always say it was still The Band as long as Garth was involved.)

The Band were so casually ground-breaking that this sort of invention barely registered. Levon’s drums here have been sampled by numerous hip-hop artists, including the Beastie Boys. Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg includes the song in his Rhino CD collection of outstanding drum tracks, and says the snare “splits the music in half”, which is as good an explanation as any. The fact that Levon sang and played at the same time on the same track is, to quote the song, what “gives my heart a throb to the bottom of my feet.” It’s a simply titanic performance. If this had been the only time Levon had been captured on tape we’d still be talking about him in reverent tones.

Up On Cripple Creek, with all its slinky references to the south…..the Mississippi, Lake Charles, the Gulf of Mexico….and all its sly sexual double entendres (unless you think they’re really having donuts and tea), sounds like some wild traditional folk tune uncovered by the Alan Lomax’s of the world. The fact that it was written by a 25 year old Canadian while on vacation in Hawaii a year before the Beatles broke up is the kind of thing that happened back then that doesn’t happen anymore.

Nobody quite knew what to make of the song at the time, and the group mercifully turned down an appearance on the top ranked Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour when they were asked to mime to it while perched on hay bales….like some sort of Hee Haw outtake. They did get to sing it live on Ed Sullivan, however….although Robbie and Richard had to share an amplifier and Levon didn’t have any monitors so he sang it deaf. (Richard Manuel kept a photo of he and Ed Sullivan taken that night in his wallet for the rest of his life.) It’s no wonder these guys went up to Woodstock and didn’t want to come back down.

Robbie Robertson seemingly devoured every sight and sound (and book) he ever came across. He took a bus to Arkansas to join a crazed bar band when he was 15 years old, which had to be an adult dose. With Levon as his tour guide, he chronicled the bumps and grinds of the American south without being hampered by the world weariness of those who actually lived there. A place Bob Dylan later perfectly called “the land of Coca-Cola”, the only drink Robbie was old enough to order in the joints they are playing. It was a place that sang to you if you knew how to listen. In a world increasingly focused on big city tumult, Robbie would gaze at a lone shack across an endless cotton field and wonder, “what is their story?”

And then Levon would tell him their story. And Robbie would take it all in, and then say about the next shack across the great divide….”what’s their story?”

And then pretty soon Robbie would be like James Agee with a guitar. If “Let Us Know Praise Famous Men” needed a soundtrack, Robbie Robertson may have already written it.

That weariness would of course set in later. It was the tail end of the 60s by now, and drugs and all they inspired were like dive-bombing summer mosquitoes. Once Robbie started hearing how great he was, he lost his equilibrium, and the only way to get your balance back in those days was to shove stuff up your nose. Robbie looked out the window for years, and then suddenly started to get distracted by his reflection in the glass. This drove Levon crazy. Levon was certainly no choirboy out there. But he forever remained skeptical of anybody hanging around who wasn’t there first and foremost to dance.

As a musician myself I’ve been playing and singing Up On Cripple Creek for years. Solo. As part of a duo. Or with a band. I think I probably sang it last week. There’s always a spark there. I never get tired of it. If I’ve had enough liquid lubrication I’ll even attempt the yodel, but a man’s got to know his limitations, as Clint Eastwood once said. I always sing it too fast, because I can’t wait to get to some of those lines. “I can’t take the way he sings, but I love to hear him talk….” Invariably, there’s somebody at the bar or at a table mouthing along to the words. The older ones. The ones around my age.

They are the ones who have been out there. On that road. Tired. Lonely. The ones who know Bessie……even if they haven’t seen her in a while.

In a bit…

—tf

The Band essays – Track 6 Side 1 – Whispering Pines

If You Find Me In A Gloom, Or Catch Me In A Dream
Inside My Lonely Room, There Is No In Between

–Whispering Pines

There’s sad songs, and then there’s Whispering Pines, which makes most sad songs sound like the Hokey Pokey.

It is so desolate that you actually worry for the singer. And since it was Richard Manuel, we had a right to worry. Richard…..the one everybody meeting the group seemed to gravitate towards. Eric Clapton (who called Richard a “a bit of the holy madman”). Van Morrison. Countless others. They were captivated by the mad twinkle in his eye. His blushing vulnerability. His innate sweetness. His roguish charm. And the fact that he could stay up later, drink more, and still sing like Ray Charles the next morning.

He was the type of man who, as Band producer John Simon put it, “drove 150 miles an hour in his driveway.”

When Richard had to vacate one of his houses, he left behind 2000 Grand Marnier bottles. He drank until his liver pressed up against his stomach. Even as a teenager, his bandmates knew they had an alcoholic on their hands. But this was the old days. The Band never interfered in each other’s private lives. Ever. Not that any of them were in any position to judge….having enough vices of their own to increase the seven deadly sins. Richard was never going to ask for help, and nobody was ever going to offer any. He was always gonna be alone in crowded rooms.

Maybe it was his voice. Maybe that is what shone a light on Richard. At times it almost seemed to split itself in two. It would almost choke on itself…..and that high falsetto could climb mountains. Even his own bandmates were in awe of what he could do with it.

Or maybe it was what could and should have been. Richard was every bit Robbie Robertson’s equal as a songwriter, which is to say that Richard was one of the best songwriter’s alive. And then it all dried up. He came up with the gorgeous melody of Whispering Pines on a borrowed piano, but couldn’t find the words. So Robbie got inside both Richard and the tune and penned one of his greatest lyrics, and you had to wonder why they didn’t split chores like this again and again. They could have been one of the greatest songwriting duos in history.

But then even the melodies dried up. Nobody can really explain why he stopped. He just did. I’m not Dr Fucking Drew, so I don’t know the timeline of when a serious addiction might finally overwhelm a serious talent. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it at all. Maybe the drink held off his insecurities long enough to give us his great songs….before even that wasn’t enough.

But I do know that nobody can write something so sad without being enveloped with sadness. Great art doesn’t work that way. Great art is intuitive. When it’s not, it’s derivative, which means it’s not art at all. It’s photocopies. If I walk into the house of a songwriter and hear he or she playing Whispering Pines, I’m both jealous as fuck (because I wish I wrote it), and worried as hell (because it’s so nakedly vulnerable). Asking where music like this comes from is like expecting a pill (or 2000 Grand Marnier bottles) to cure the blues.

Whispering Pines is one of his last great pieces of music, and it’s hard to listen to knowing what’s ahead. Knowing that some 15+ years later Richard would hang himself in a shitty motel bathroom after playing 2 nostalgia heavy Band sets at a shitty fern bar near Disney World. It took a frantic Levon Helm and Rick Danko 5 full horrifying minutes to cut their brother down. Richard Manuel was 43 years old.

Richard wrote Whispering Pines on a piano that had a single key that was out of tune. He liked it so much that he had the studio piano de-tuned to match the note when they were recording. You can hear it in the vamp that begins and ends the tune. It doesn’t sound wrong, it sounds elegiac. Whispering Pines is not rock and roll. It’s not country music. It’s not the blues. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s little pieces of all those things cut up and thrown into the air, and re-assembled late at night with too many ghosts (and bottles) in the room.

There’s a sad coda I’m remembering now. At the end of “The Last Waltz” concert film the Band starts up “I Shall Be Released” with the stage filled with their guests, Dylan and Neil Young and Van Morrison and the rest. They literally swallow Richard, and as he sings the second verse of the song the camera is nowhere to be found. His voice fills the screen, but he may as well be in fucking Stratford, Ontario for all the movie cares. He was the greatest singer on that stage, and today he’s the least remembered.

For this and his other songs, he should be immortal.

In a bit…

–tf

The Band essays – Track 1 Side 2 – Jemima Surrender

Back in the album days you had to stand up and flip the thing over, so the juxtaposition between the quiet desperation of Whispering Pines, the last song on side one, and Levon Helm howling like a dog in heat in first song on side two was less jarring. But on CD and on a streaming service the two second pause is not nearly enough…and even when you know it’s coming it’s still kinda like somebody putting a boot in your ass.

Jemima Surrender is so leeringly lascivious that it inspired an American cognitive psychologist and self-professed radical feminist to form “The Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band”, a group who were “tired of hearing pop music glorify the subjugation and degradation of women…We loved to dance but we were dancing to songs that were degrading to us”. The group released songs like “Abortion Song”, “Sister Witch”, and “Ain’t Gonna Marry” and helped inspire the Riot Grrrl do-it-yourself genre decades later. For this reason alone Jemima Surrender is still a banger.

I’m not sure what Levon Helm thought about all of this. Lines like…

I hand you my rod and you hand me that line
That’s what you do, now, we ain’t doing much fishin’
Or drinkin’ any wine

…..aren’t exactly subtle or deep. To be clear, we’re not dealing with “Brown Sugar” level offensiveness here, but the track does contain more dick references than an AC/DC record.

Jemima Surrender, that’s all you have to do
I’ll bring over my Fender
And I’ll play all night for you

I mean….ok.

And the title suggests an interracial tryst by using a name familiar to most by the picture of a Gone With the Wind-era Mammy on their maple syrup bottle. Just tossing that out there in case you missed it. Such things tend to make some folks nervous.

And then there’s this…

You can change your name
You can find a new walk
You can change your lock, it’s all the same
You don’t have to give out
If you’ll only give in
You can jump and shout
But can’t you see girl, that I’m bound to win

…which isn’t quite as bad as Mick Jagger singing “Hear him whip the women just around midnight” but you may be forgiven for considering it to be in the same zip code.

Levon and the rest of the boys were probably no more neanderthal-ish towards women than any other rich, famous, good looking male rock stars were at the time, if that means anything. Their former bandleader Ronnie Hawkins did an interview in Rolling Stone magazine where he dished, detailing “a dozen orgies in each town” and including such tidbits as “Levon was always the best fucker…he’d go first and then Odessa would say ‘Mr Ronnie you can go ahead but I think Mr Levon has taken it all…’ and “he’s a big boy that one…more meat than the Toronto abattoirs..”

Levon had a steady girl at home at the time and was pissed at Hawkins. Ronnie couldn’t understand why. “Hell, if someone said I had the biggest dick in America, I’d be happier than a dog on meat!”

It’s nice work if you can get it I guess.

Honestly, I never really sat down with the lyrics to Jemima Surrender until recently. They weren’t printed on the album or anything, and while I’d catch bits and pieces, “gonna ride in my canoe”…”let my river flow”…I was too busy listening to Garth rollicking away back there on Richard’s piano. Richard plays the drums here, sounding like somebody trying to hold on to a carnival ride….and that’s Levon’s chuggy Drop-D tuned rhythm guitar out front….with Rick singing a delightfully demented harmony. Robbie takes a rare solo, and you can almost smell his amp burning. The tune itself is almost ribald without lyrics. It’s a kick-ass group performance.

The Band could rock with anybody. When Dylan decided he wanted to put down the acoustic guitar and start making loud noises, he didn’t hire the guys who would cut Whispering Pines. He hired these guysJemima Surrender is Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and Ronnie Hawkins. Jemima Surrender is the life they lived every day until Woodstock allowed them to, as Rick Danko put it, wake up in the morning instead of going to bed in the morning. Jemima Surrender is what their old mentor Ronnie Hawkins was expecting all the time…..that their albums would sound like what he called “Howlin’ Wolf on benzedrine”. Instead what he heard was “country as hell, but it’s funky country…”

Man, I like that. It might be the best description of this album ever uttered.

Funky Country.

Onward!

In a bit…

–tf

The Band essays – Track 2 Side 2 – Rockin’ Chair

I’m knocked out by older people. Just look at their eyes.
Hear them talk. They’re not joking.
They’ve seen things you’ll never see.

–Robbie Robertson

It’s not often that old age is dealt with in song. Even less often is when it’s dealt with in a non-condescending way. Much like John Prine’s “Hello in There”, which it predates by 2 years, Rockin’ Chair sits at the feet of its subjects and simply listens. A couple of old salty seadogs have earned this rest, and they’re gonna face it the same way they faced their toil. Head on…

Oh, to be home again,
Down in old Virginny,
With my very best friend,
They call him Ragtime Willie
I can’t wait to sniff that air,
Dip that snuff, I won’t have no care,
That big rockin’ chair won’t go nowhere

I’ll once again remind you that this was the late 1960s. Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, was in his mid 20s. This sort of thing just didn’t happen back then. This sort of empathy just wasn’t shown to a generation that nobody trusted anymore. While the Beatles were dressing up as somebody else and trying not to get sued by Mae West (“what would I be doing in a lonely heart’s band?”), the Band gathered all of their kin at Rick Danko’s parent’s farm in Simcoe, Ontario for an album photo shoot.

Nobody quite knew what to make of them.

It was like that Butch and Sundance question.

“Who are those guys?”

The first time the Band toured abroad they were constantly being asked about things like the Manson Family and the Vietnam war, and they never felt comfortable being shoved into that corner. Finally Levon covered them by saying “these guys are all Canadians…they don’t know what the hell you’re even talking about”, which wasn’t true but it worked. They were always more comfortable inside the music than outside of it.

Rockin’ Chair is Richard Manuel’s vocal…..and he’s like a ventriloquist here. When he sings “I’m pushing age 73” you believe him, and when he hits the chorus, he suddenly floats over the top of it like it’s a gentle ocean wave, before resuming his place in the verses. It’s a stunning tour de force, driven forward by Levon’s propulsive mandolin and Garth Hudson’s old-timey accordion. You can almost hear the floor creaking on the front porch. The song sounds positively ancient….like it was carried around the world in the hearts of the men who spent their lives at sea. It’s hard to imagine it actually being written down. More like something passed down. As Levon put it…”There was nothing normal about (this music). The title we (initially) had for the record was Harvest, because we were reaping this music from seeds that had been planted many years before we’d even been born..”

Only a man wise beyond his years can write a song like Rockin’ Chair. Robbie Robertson treated his songwriting that same way he did his guitar playing. That is, he never popped his head in the room to say “look what I can do!” He served the song by never intruding upon it. It sounds like we’re eavesdropping. It sounds like the kind of exhaustion that a man who is finally coming home is actually looking forward to.

We don’t seem to agree on anything anymore. Even our own history. I think that has a lot to do with how each successive generation views the one before it. I was very close to my own Father, but there were still things left unsaid between us. There were parts of him that would always remain locked away. There’s a old blessing about children that I’ve heard…..”may your mistakes be your own…”, and mine surely were. And that embarrassed me, because I didn’t ever want him to think that somehow they came from him. And around and around it went until Alzheimer’s robbed him of the ability to sagely call me on my bullshit.

He seemed totally devoid of cynicism, while I currently carry it around like it’s my fucking cell phone.

Why is that? What were the parts that he held in reserve? Why am I not half the man he was? I waited too long, and then the lights went out.

I can hear something calling on me
And you know where I want to be…

Oh Willie, can’t you hear that sound?

So sings Richard’s 73 year old voice…..clearly suggesting that the song is about death. But he has his home. He has his friend. His mind is still clear. He’s ready to rock.

As a friend of the Band wrote decades later….”it’s not dark yet…but it’s getting there.”

In a bit…

—tf

The Band essays – Track 3 Side 2 – Look Out Cleveland

Was Wednesday evening when first we heard the word,
It did not come by train nor bird.
T’was when Ben Pike stepped down to say,
“This old town’s gonna blow away…

–Look Out Cleveland

I’m 56 years old and that’s how old I was when I learned that this is not a song about Ohio.

Apparently there’s a city just outside of Houston, Texas called Cleveland and that’s what the song is referencing. You’re never too old to learn stuff boys and girls.

Anyway…this is the kind of barroom stomp that I love….the sort of song I’d sing in front of my mirror with a tennis racket back when I got home from school and had the house to myself. You can almost smell the sawdust on the floor when the piano and guitar come roaring in together. Surely this storm is gonna be a doozy.

It’s ominous but you get the feeling that these people have no intention of leaving. They’ll stock the coolers with beers and steaks and hunker down. “Hidin’ your money won’t do no good / Build a big wall, you know you would if you could….”, so sings Rick Danko, sounding like he’s trying to be overheard above the din of a large hurricane party.

The Band were so good at playing gut-bucket rock and roll that it may have unnerved them. Like they were afraid they’d simply resort to auto-pilot so why bother. So instead they turned inward and grew quieter. Even when they played in front of an audience they’d often face one another, almost ignoring the crowd. There’s a reason that their classic film “The Last Waltz” is one of the only concert documentaries with zero crowd shots. They might have played that show without one. The Band’s stage fright was cured only by impressing each other (and showing off for their peers). As good as the music we got to hear was, my guess is that they’ve made even greater noises in that basement.

But every once in a while……they’d get that wild look in their eye and dance like nobody was watching, and tracks like Look Out Cleveland were the result. The story is straight out of the blues tradition, and the writing is something Randy Newman would have been proud to put his name on.

When they first started backing Dylan the shows became infamous because the folk purists were outraged. They booed and booed, and Dylan being Dylan would taunt them by doing things like taking interminable time to tune his guitar, suggesting that if they didn’t want to wait they should go bowling instead. He enjoyed the chaos, as he always considered himself the star of the constant drama playing in his speed-addled head. This was great theater. Most seemed willing with their roles as extras.

Levon, on the other hand, had no patience for these pseuds, and could not understand why thousands of entitled young people would rather sit through 349594 verses of “Desolation Row” than bob and weave to “Like a Rolling Stone”. So he quit in disgust and started working on oil rigs in the gulf, the sort of places where nobody screamed “Judas!” at you for plugging in your guitar. He was only coaxed back into the fold when the Band got a record contract, and with it a large advance, and Rick finally tracked Levon down by phone to ask him who he wanted to give his 6 figure share to. Danko may have added that the world had since grown more tolerant of electricity. Levon was on the next plane.

Imagine somebody booing Look Out Cleveland? I don’t want to live in that world.

Robbie’s licks here sound like lightning bolts. They split the sky, and whenever there’s even a slight pause in the mayhem, he jumps in. As great of a player as he was…..there had to be an almost unbearable temptation to stretch that few bars into a few more and then a few more. It was the time for it. Hell, even Creedence Clearwater Revival, the most economical band in the world, would interrupt Fogerty’s seemingly endless string of 3 minute masterpieces for the tuneless “Keep on Chooglin”, just to remind everybody that they could be just as boring as the Grateful Dead if they put a little effort into it. The only time in the Last Waltz that Robbie played more than a few bars was when Eric Clapton’s guitar strap fell off and Robbie had to cover until Eric could figure out how to put it back on, which could take a long time in those days due to excessive consumption of enough powder to bake a cake. So yea….nobody would have blamed Robbie for cutting loose. But he never did, and if Look Out Cleveland leaves you wanting more, then all the better. It’s better than being left on the side of the road.

And as the eye of the storm passes…..you hear Garth Hudson’s wild organ finally stepping front and center, like darkening clouds. And then it’s over….cut like somebody taking a knife to the tape.

You can’t say the place wasn’t warned.

In a bit…

—tf

The Band essays – Track 4 Side 2 – Jawbone

Temptation stands just behind that door
So what you wanna go and open it for?

–Jawbone

Richard Manuel had a crazy sense of time. He was wildly inventive, and got bored easily. So his songs tended to jump around and start and stop and glide and stomp. It’s hard to listen to something as structurally unique as Jawbone and not smile. At the start it sounds like a rubber band bending….as both he and Levon set the table with a drawn out harmony they sing like they are sounding out the words. Then it switches up, and switches up again in a syncopated mid-section that can only be pulled off by guys who were practically living in each other’s pockets in 1969. The timing is crazy. It doesn’t sound like anything else on the record. It doesn’t really sound like anything else ANYWHERE.

“Richard wasn’t happy until he made me change rhythm patterns at least twice”, Levon remembered fondly. “I could always depend on a good workout when Richard was helping to write the songs. He might want to go from a shuffle to a march, and vice versa. It was stuff that kept you on your toes all the time. That sort of thing was easy for Richard, so he didn’t give a damn. He could play drums left-handed or right-handed. It didn’t matter.”

I’m not a drummer, but you don’t have to be to realize that a song using a 6/4 time signature might be one of the reasons why so many of them are anti-social.

Music is always best when it’s shared. When the songs are collective and everybody is in the room at the same time. When a smile or a nod is what you’re playing off of….and not a click track and somebody’s voice in your headphones. This type of musical telepathy is only accrued after 1000 nights and then 1000 even longer nights. These kinds of records can only be made when you’re able to go to bed with the songs, and wake up next to them. You can’t be on the clock. Richard Manuel could write a track like this knowing that Garth Hudson was back there keeping the train on the track….and that Levon and Rick and Robbie would instinctively know what his nod and his smile meant. I suspect the Band didn’t talk as much about the songs as they did feel for them, like they were braille on the wall.

And the thing about recording live is you have to be good enough to record live. And I don’t mean good enough for a live concert audience, where the occasional bum note vanishes into the crowd noise. I mean being note perfect, over and over again, with the tape rolling and the instruments bleeding all over each other. Bands aren’t this good today because they don’t have to be this good. A bum note can be fixed with a few mouse clicks. And most bands now don’t have those 1000 nights behind them. Today records can be (and sometimes are) made without any of the band members being in the same room (or the same zip code) at the same time. When they were recording this record in Sammy Davis Jr’s pool house, Levon was living in a loft above his drum set.

There’s a difference.

Jawbone is the difference.

Eric Clapton was so enamored of the Band and their brotherhood that he traveled to Woodstock and asked if he could join. Clapton’s latest band was Cream, which featured 2 men (Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) who fought so viciously that they frequently reduced the tender-hearted Clapton, caught in the middle, to tears. Robbie just smiled and let him down easy. Of course he could not join. The Band was a closed society….five men who were like the fingers of a closed fist. Separately, their talent was undeniable. But underwhelming. Together? Their collective synergy was rivaled only by the Beatles, who were equally in awe of them. George Harrison too spent time in Woodstock, equally seduced by the type of camaraderie that he once took for granted. Everybody wanted to be in a band who could communicate without words.

The Band somehow kept their suitors at bay without putting them off. They would hang out and sometimes play with Dylan and Van Morrison and Clapton and Harrison and countless others, but were never distracted by any of them. Not a trace of what any of these legendary figures had already done found its way into the grooves of this record, or any of their others. They seemed only influenced by what music critic Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America”.

Even Robbie, who went toe-to-toe with Dylan during many a sleepless night on tour, pilled to the gills and hiding behind the same style of shades, never tried to emulate him, the way everybody from Sonny and Cher to the Turtles did. When Dylan first heard “The Weight” he was stunned to learn that Robbie wrote it. He assumed it was some old spiritual or gospel song.

I have no idea what he thought of Jawbone. Other than he could never have written it.

He wasn’t Richard. Or Robbie.

In a bit…

—tf

The Band essays – Track 5 Side 2 – Unfaithful Servant

“God don’t like complaints.”

–Rick Danko

Unfaithful Servant is one of the great lead vocals. Rick Danko’s voice almost quivers at times. There is something so vulnerable in his performance of Robbie’s somewhat creepy song of the not-so-genteel old south…which reads like something out of a gothic Handmaiden’s Tale, with sexual exploitation bubbling just beneath the surface. It’s all the more extraordinary because Danko remembers singing the song 40 or so times in the studio, only to come back to his very first pass at it. His first take is the one that ended up on the record. Levon mentions that the lead vocal on Band songs would be decided almost telepathically. They might all take a crack at it, and ultimately there was never any doubt as to who the choice was. It just seemed obvious to all of them at the same time. There is something that aches in Rick’s voice. His heart is always on the verge of breaking.

Once again I feel it’s worth mentioning that this was NOT the sort of song that 1969 reveled in. The Band were flat-out musical weirdos, and with its delicate descending chord progression Unfaithful Servant is more jazz than rock and roll, more gothic Civil War era dirge than Haight-Ashbury time capsule. Robbie would have always been more comfortable hanging out with Tennessee Williams than Allen Ginsberg. Thankfully.

The only other pop artist writing songs like this at the time was Randy Newman, but Randy could never pull of Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’ like the Band could.

Solos in a Band song were rare. TWO solos were unheard of. But Robbie plays a guitar solo here, trilling on his acoustic Martin like he’s playing a mandolin, that must have sounded to 1969 ears like Eddie Van Halen sounded to ours a decade later. It’s a solo that Band biographer Barney Hoskyns says “must count among the ten greatest ever recorded”. Not sure about that, but you get the point. (Hoskyns also mentions that the solo is played on a Telecaster, but that’s not what I’m hearing.)

And then Garth and producer John Simon chime in with what Levon called “blowsy horns”. When asked how they got that sound, Simon shrugged and said “it was the only sound we could make.” The horns make a mournful moan, and the song ends on a note of uncertainty.

It’s almost like the solos were the only way the song itself could keep up with Rick Danko.

Everybody remarked on how sweet a guy Rick was. How approachable. If you could catch him that is. He seemed always on the move…..unable to resist the lure of one more show….one more drink….one more sing-a-long in a bar filled with nostalgic hippies and aging groupies braying for yet another version of “The Weight”. Tragedy tracked him. He and Levon had to cut their best friend down from his hangman’s noose in that Florida motel. And years later he lost his own 18 year old college freshman son, who choked to death on his own vomit after a frat party. Rick, rock-star whip-thin his whole life, suddenly gained weight massively, like Elvis. Also, like Elvis, he never lost his voice. Not sure if, for each, that was a blessing or a curse.

Interview footage of Danko in the last years of his life show an obviously unwell man. Sweating profusely. His face so puffy that his eyes resembled slits. Even when he tried to sit still he couldn’t, legs bouncing up and down, arms forever looking for a place to land. He was obviously on something. And it was sad. In his prime he had a fighting chance to outrun whatever demons were chasing him. He was almost impossibly handsome, had the experience of a sage, and the voice of a wounded angel. He was a wanted man. Now, there was no more running. He was exhausted.

A few weeks before Christmas in 1999, home from yet another run of non-descript shows in shitty bars, surely to pay some upcoming holiday bills, he went to sleep and never woke up. His heart had nothing left to give. He was buried next to his son, in Woodstock NY.

He was the age I am now.

There’s a release called “Live at O’Toole’s Tavern”. It’s the “late show” from the downtown Scranton bar. Rick and Richard were barnstorming the east coast in the winter of 85 and made a stop here….and the local soundman, presumably one of the few sober people on the premises, saved the results. It was eventually bootlegged and became much sought after by Band fans, and is now an official release, found on Spotify and other streaming platforms. I’m sure neither Rick nor Richard ever saw a dime from it.

There’s not much to recommend here. The piano is painfully out of tune, and Richard and Rick are even more lubricated than the lunk-bros screaming out requests. Rick was so clearly of out shits to give that Lionel Ritchie’s sickly “My Love” was part of the set. But so was Unfaithful Servant, and for a few minutes he crawls inside it, and the jive that had been front and center all show vanishes. The bar stays reverently hushed. Everybody is suddenly reminded who it is up there.

In a bit..

–tf

The Band essays – Track 6 Side 2 – King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

Come Fall, that’s when life begins. It is not the Springtime
where we kinda think it begins. It is the Fall,
because that’s when the harvests come in...

–Robbie Robertson

The best for last. King Harvest is the Band’s greatest song. Its epic sweep is almost uncontainable. Woody Guthrie once condensed John Ford’s film version of “The Grapes of Wrath” down to 18 verses. King Harvest does the same to John Steinbeck’s oeuvre in 4 minutes.

It’s credited solely to Robbie, although Levon in his autobiography claimed it was a group effort, and its rhythmic changes and odd chord progression strongly suggest Richard Manuel’s involvement.

King Harvest seems the kind of song that required a village. It needed lifetimes of experiences from men still in their 20s. Much like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, it would not exist without Levon whispering in Robbie’s ear, at the very least. It’s one of the most American songs ever written, created in a room of 80% Canadians. There is something almost claustrophobic about our own history. We tend to get tangled in it, and the revisionism starts to creep in. (It’s interesting to note that the one time Robbie was accused of this himself was in Acadian Driftwood, a sweeping epic that dealt with Canadian history.) When Robbie wrote of America, he focused his gaze on the minutiae. Virgil Caine chopping wood. The unnamed farmer here speaking of the day his horse Jethro went mad. The carnival setting up stakes outside of town. He never painted in broad strokes. He never intrudes on the narrative. And he had the 3 voices to add to the palette. King Harvest is his masterpiece.

Levon recalled that the song “was an expression of feeling that came from five people…it took in everything we could muster about life at that moment in timeIt was like, there, that’s The Band.”

There’s a terror in Richard Manuel’s voice here. Poverty is the hellhound on his trail. He has lost everything. His barn. His horse. “I can’t ever remember things being that bad…” he cries. And even when he pledges loyalty to the union, he does so with his head bowed, “just don’t judge me by my shoes…”

Levon Helm was from Arkansas, another state ravaged by the Dust Bowl. He undoubtedly knew men like this. Men struggling to hang on to whatever didn’t get blown away in those storms. The Harvest was a time of hope…and fear…

Dry summer
Then comes fall
Which I depend on most of all
Hey, rainmaker, can’t you hear the call?
Please let these crops grow tall

It’s like making a living throwing dice. You can’t strike against Mother Nature. She’s the one he depends on most of all.

Rick’s bass here is like a heart monitor. Levon’s drums, which he constantly worked to deaden, is the heart beating through the chest. And Garth is the sound of the “carnival on the edge of town” referenced in the lyrics. The Band has never been tighter. If you could only play the uninitiated one song, this would be the one. And if it wasn’t enough, I wouldn’t know how to carry on further conversation with you.

It’s an absolutely perfect arrangement. As Robbie said, “There’s no other way to play this song. There’s no other way to cover this song. What would they do?”

And speaking of Robbie. For the second track in a row he gets a solo. This time as the song fades….and it crackles like a campfire. He’s always mentioned Curtis Mayfield as an inspiration. That slinky, economical intro to “The Weight” was all Mayfield. The notes are almost choked off before they can go anywhere. The intro to King Harvest is similar, but the ending solo might be Robbie’s greatest recorded moment as a guitar player. “It was like you have to hold your breath while you’re playing these solos. You can’t breathe or you’ll throw yourself off“, he said and that’s about the most eloquent explanation of making great music that I can find anywhere.

I’m aware that, as Martin Mull supposedly said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. It’s a gut thing. Sometimes we hear things and simply cannot process them. I would never doubt the greatness of Jazz, but I’m honest enough to say that I don’t listen to it, because its greatness eludes me. In the same vein you could hang a $10 million dollar painting in room 394 of the Red Roof Inn and to me it’s gonna look like whatever is hanging in room 393 of the Red Roof Inn. My eyes and ears recognize some greatness, but not all. I’m just thankful this song, and this record, are included in my realm.

Here’s hoping they are in yours too.

In a bit…

—tf

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The Band essays – Track 6 Side 2 – King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

October 20, 2022 Leave a comment

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The Band essays – Track 5 Side 2 – Unfaithful Servant

October 17, 2022 Leave a comment

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The Band essays – Track 4 Side 2 – Jawbone

October 14, 2022 Leave a comment

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The Band essays – Track 3 Side 2 – Look Out Cleveland

October 12, 2022 Leave a comment

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