September 13, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | September 13, 2007 |


Like a lot of folks whose taste in music really began to crystallize in 3rd grade with Van Halen’s 1984, I don’t have a lot of knowledge of music history before Wham! broke up. I like the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan well enough to own quite a bit of their music (well, the Stones and Dylan, anyway), but an intimate knowledge of rock history has largely eluded me, though I tend to find it fascinating when I compel myself to explore it. Last year, for instance, I got on a Sam Cooke kick, and wound up reading Peter Garalnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, which taught me a lot, not only about the man (Jesus, how crazy was his death?), but about the music industry in the ’60s and the influences on the music I listen to today.

The Band, on the other hand, is a phenomenon I unknowingly married into. Don’t get me wrong: I like The Band; a lot of their music is downright amazing, and Levon Helm is famously from my home state. But there are two topics of conversation that can always captivate my in-laws: the Red Sox and The Band. And while I can carry my weight when it comes to the Sox, after several years of feeling dumb and/or faking my way through conversations about the supposed greatest Rock n’ Roll group of all time, I finally decided to educate myself so that I’d know — when someone mentioned Watkins Glen — what they hell they were talking about rather than be forced to nod my head obliviously before awkwardly changing the topic to more familiar ground, like torture porn (you wanna see your father-in-law’s eyes glaze over? Mention internal-organ smoothies).

Barney Hoskyns’ recently reissued Across the Great Divide: The Band and America fancies itself the definitive book on The Band, though for a definitive book, it borrows an awful lot from Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train (which Nick Hornby calls “the best piece of rock criticism I have ever read” in this month’s Believer), so I can’t say for sure how authoritative the book is. I can say, however, that it’s poorly written, mostly tedious, and lacking much firsthand detail about the group (in fact, the only decent interview Hoskyn’s seems to have gotten for the book was from Elvis Costello, who saw The Band in concert a few times). Indeed, Across the Great Divide is basically a 10-page Wikipedia entry puffed up into 400 with an incredible amount of extraneous, banal filler material (not unlike The Band’s last few albums, I suppose). For every revelation that Hoskyn’s makes about The Band, he has 40 pages describing a particular performance or minutely parsing the structure and sound of a song (thanks, Barney — I think I’ll just listen to the goddamn album, if that’s all right). He never really delves into why The Band is so historically important, he simply assumes that they are, and then moves on to wax poetic about cover art (no shit — there’s half a chapter devoted to the photographs taken for the Music From Big Pink album).

Granted, part of the problem here is with the genre itself. For those of us accustomed to learning all we need to know about a band from albums supplemented a few years later by VH1’s “Behind the Music,” boilerplate music biographies — which are generally short on the gossip, drama, and debauchery we’re so fond of — can seem unbelievably rigid and clinical. Most of these books seem to be written by people who are already obsessed with their subjects and perhaps in order to try to create an objective voice, they overshoot the mark, ending up with a bizarrely hybridized style — something like detached sycophancy. Moreover, in order to show off their knowledge and research, fawning writers tend not only to get too detailed, but to ramble (see, e.g., my Evil Dead piece, which I edited down considerably three hours after publication, once I realized that I’d done the same thing).

It’s a shame, too, because The Band should be a fascinating subject — the Wilco of their day, adored by critics and fellow musicians, but largely ignored by mass audiences, except when they toured with Dylan. Of course, they were also alt-country pioneers, pretty much creating a genre all their own; they recorded the most famous album of ‘b-sides’ ever, and they were the subject of a uniformly lauded rockumentary by, of all people, a young Martin Scorsese. If you sketch it out, the history of the band’s trajectory from obscurity to fame to excess and failure should be a great trip through North America in the middle part of the last century. In fact, I’ll save you the heartache of sifting through a litany of named studio musicians on every track — here’s my quick-and-dirty version: In 1959, Levon Helm, a teenage drop-out from Arkansas, joined up with fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins (thanks, in part, to a hook-up from another Arkansan, Conway Twitty) and moved up to Canada, where American music was enjoying the sort of profile that Hasselhoff has in Germany. In Canada, Levon met the four other members of The Band (all Canadian), and they ended up forming Hawkins’ backup band. After parting ways with Hawkins (somewhat amicably), they formed their own bar band, Levon and the Hawks. A then-secretary of Dylan’s insisted that he use them as his touring band, and they eventually toured with Dylan on the now infamous, influential, and riot-heavy Blonde on Blonde tour, which represented Dylan’s break from folk music (at this point Levon briefly quit The Band, because like many fans, he didn’t care for Dylan once he “went electric”). Then, of course, came Dylan’s motorcycle accident, after which he moved to Woodstock and went into semi-retirement, where The Band joined him and recorded The Basement Tapes.

In Woodstock, Levon rejoined them and they also recorded Music From Big Pink (featuring “The Weight,” popularized on the soundtrack for Easy Rider). After the Woodstock concert, they recorded a brown album,The Band, which basically established the country rock genre that later bands, like CCR, the Eagles, and Eric Clapton would popularize commercially (it also featured The Band’s best song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). Following that album (and the Festival Express Tour, documented on a film released in 2003, which also featured Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead, among others), they recorded two more critical successes, Stage Fright and Cahoots, though neither were particularly popular in terms of record sales. After that, they continued to make albums for a few years (mostly covers and live albums), until they unofficially broke up after The Last Waltz show, which formed the basis for what was probably the best rock documentary of the time (despite the fact that Martin Scorsese wound up in the hospital several months after the film wrapped, due to round-the-clock drugging with his roommate at the time, Robbie Robertson).

After The Band, Robbie increasingly took control of The Band, and his megalomania eventually lead to their break-up and a lifetime of acrimony between him and Levon. In the 80s and 90s, The Band reformed without Robbie, though they didn’t make any “significant” new music without him. Richard Manuel, a first-rate alcoholic, hung himself in a hotel bathroom after a show in 1986. After trying to smuggle heroin into Japan in 1997, Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999. Levon still lives in Woodstock, where he continues to perform. Robbie Robertson recorded one moderately successful solo album, three shitty ones, wrote the score for Raging Bull and supervised the music on a lot of Scorsese films (including, most recently, The Departed).

And that’s The Band, in 460 words. You can get the same information, more or less, from Hoskyn’s book, though — assuming you can stay awake — it’ll take much longer to read. But at least, for me, I’ll be able to engage in intelligent conversation with the in-laws (or, as intelligent as I’m capable).

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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Rag Momma Rag

Across the Great Divide: The Band and America by Barney Hoskyns / Dustin Rowles

Books | September 13, 2007 | Comments ()



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