A songwriter and guitarist of uncommon skill who networked well and has spent most of the last fifty years burnishing his legend when he’s not been composing/supervising movie soundtracks for Martin Scorsese, Robbie Robertson makes an easy figure to mock*. Even the title of his film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & The Band, betrays his self-importance and his penchant for self-mythologising.
But even for those of us find some of Robertson’s pronouncements self-regarding and pompous (this is a man who once promoted a solo album by proclaiming in all seriousness “I am the storyteller of the shadowlands”), the urge to prick his balloon has to be tempered by recognition of his accomplishments: his guitar playing and the three-dozen or so fantastic songs he wrote between 1968 and 1975.**
All of which is to say, I went into watching Once Were Brothers with a sense of what the film’s line would be, particularly on why The Band broke up in 1976, how The Last Waltz came to happen, and the rights and wrongs of Levon Helm’s subsequent bitterness regarding songwriting royalties and credits. While the film invited contributions from a couple of Levon’s friends and collaborators, it only brought in people who agreed with Robertson’s version of the story, so it ended up as a film with only one voice.
But that’s what I was expecting, so I found it an enjoyable watch, with those caveats. The best thing about the film is the extensive use of candid photos and home videos of Robertson and his bandmates in Woodstock, but also welcome was the testimony of Robertson’s former wife Dominique, who shared her husband’s mix of love for his colleagues, and exasperation towards the drug and alcohol abuse of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm.*** Originally a journalist, in the mid-1980s, Dominique qualified as a pyschotherapist, specialising in addiction. This combination of professional pursuits makes her better qualified to tell The Band’s story than anyone, including her former husband, and her input was among the film’s strengths.
If you don’t go into this expecting a balanced account of The Band’s story, it’s hard to be disappointed by Once Were Brothers. As I say, I’m more amused than angered by Robertson’s tendency to self-promotion and practiced humble-bragging; as Katie Erbland observed in a savage IndieWire review, “He’s the kind of guy who thought “The Band” was an “unpretentious” name for the group.” Robertson’s had basically the same shtick since at least the time Scorsese interviewed him for The Last Waltz. Nonethless, it’s a bit of a shame that a more balanced film wasn’t made while Danko and Helm, at least, were still alive to tell their sides of the story.
Incidentally, still the best way to learn about The Band is to read Barney Hoskyns’s Across the Great Divide, which taught me a long time ago that one should love the group’s music while not taking their guitar player at his own estimation.
*My friend Nick Elvin and I have made a sport out of coming up with parody Robbie Robertson song titles for his solo albums. My favourites, all Nick’s, are Fellowship of the Road, Can’t Love for Love nor Money, and No Cards Left to Play, which all capture Robertson in his Somewhere Down the Crazy River mode.
**Not all the best material on Music from Big Pink is Robertson’s, of course, as Manuel figured more as a songwriter on that record, and there are three Dylan co-writes and a cover of Long Black Veil. But The Band is mostly Robertson, Northern Lights – Southern Cross is all Robertson, and other than Manuel’s lovely Sleeping, so are Stage Fright and Cahoots, though the latter has little to recommend it for me.
***Garth Hudson is frequently mentioned as a musical driving force but only heard from directly once, in a 25-year-old interview clip. Presumably he declined to be involved).
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thompson and Beverley Martyn’s Sweet Honesty: The Beverley Martyn Story. Here are some thoughts. I’m not really going into the music in depth here. I’ve written about John Martyn elsewhere on this blog several times if you’re looking for that. I’ve not gone into specifics about John Martyn’s abuse of Beverley; nonetheless, CW.
In 2001, thanks to James McKean playing me Fine Lines in the house we shared in Lewisham, I became a John Martyn fan, and picked up his entire seventies discography over the next two or three years.
It wasn’t until I saw Johnny Too Bad on BBC4 in around 2004 that I realised Martyn was not a nice guy, that his mellow-old-soak routine could turn on a dime into hostility and physical aggression. You could still see it and sense it, but his edge had by then been blunted by his health conditions; during the course of the documentary, he has his leg amputated, and over the next few years, largely wheelchair bound, he would grow hugely overweight and progressively more frail. At that point, he was mainly a danger to himself.
In the 1970s and 1980s, though, he was a danger to anyone who looked at him in a way he didn’t like, including, more than anyone, his first wife, Beverley.
The two had met in the late 1960s, when they were both up-and-coming singer-songwriters in the London folk scene. At the time, Beverley Kutner was the bigger name of the two. She had been in a fairly successful jug band called the Levee Breakers, released some singles on Deram Records (also home at the time to the still-obscure David Bowie), been offered a contract by EMI, which her boyfriend Bert Jansch advised her to turn down out (she believes out of professional jealousy), and been in a relationship with a visiting Paul Simon, which is how she ended up performing at Monterey Pop as the guest of Simon and Garfunkel and travelling all over the States, making contacts and meeting the great and the good.
John Martyn had not been at Monterey, he had not been out with famous folk stars, whether homegrown or international, nor had he hung out with Peter Fonda and David Crosby in LA. Mentored by Scottish singer-songwriter Hamish Imlach, a Rabelasian figure whom Martyn would increasingly resemble physically as he aged, Martyn moved to London in his late teens, scoring a deal with Island. Despite label boss Chris Blackwell’s belief in Martyn and his music, his first two albums were not successful, and didn’t really deserve to be. Martyn, unlike Jansch (a rival with whom Martyn more than once came to blows) or Nick Drake (a friend who seemed to bring out Martyn’s gentler, best side), did not arrive fully formed.
But for all her early successes, neither did Kutner. When she and Martyn pitched up in Woodstock, NY, to record what would become Stormbringer! in 1969, both were – being generous – improving singer-songwriters. Originally slated by Joe Boyd, her mentor, as a Beverley Martyn (the couple were newlyweds) solo album, it became instead a duo record, with John writing six of the album’s ten songs, and his fingerprints more evident on the finished product than hers.
Boyd didn’t like John Martyn all that much, as a man or a writer. There was no outright hostility between them at this point, but their relationship was edgy. Boyd came round to Stormbringer! during the course of production, and ended up thinking it was a decent album despite John’s involvement, but he’s expressed regret many times at how Beverley’s career became intertwined with John’s, to its detriment.
Released in February 1970, Stormbringer! is a record that’s promising and intermittently great rather than consistently accomplished. The band that Paul Harris (pianist and musical director for the sessions) assembled was superb, with Harvey Brooks on bass and top-tier drumming talent in the shape of the Mothers’ Billy Mundi, The Band’s Levon Helm and session great Herbie Lovell. But only a few of the songs are worthy of the stellar backing they received.
One of them, the title track, is magisterial – John Martyn’s greatest early song, with beautifully empathetic support from Harris’s piano and Lovell’s drums. Rollicking opener Go Out and Get It works well, as does John the Baptist. Both songs suggest a pretty heavy influence from The Band. But Traffic Light Lady and Woodstock are twee and forgettable, and Would You Believe Me fails to nail the heavy, spooky mood it shoots for. Kutner’s songs are, on the whole, less successful still, with static melodies and blue notes that don’t quite work. Sweet Honesty, arranged (presumably by Martyn and Harris) in a similar style to John the Baptist and Go Out and Get It, works best by placing more emphasis on groove, reducing the importance of lyric and tune. But at eight minutes, it overstays its welcome.
Stormbringer! is, then, almost certainly a better record as John and Beverley Martyn album than it would have been as a Beverley solo release. But knowing that Martyn elbowed his way into the picture then took over his wife’s artistic project is always there in the background, making listening to the record uncomfortable, as it appears this was an early manisfestation of the controlling and abusive behaviour he would exhibit for the rest of their marriage. Indeed, Beverley Martyn writes that it was during their time in Woodstock that Martyn was first violent towards her, after a party at which they met Bob Dylan.
The Road to Ruin was recorded and released in 1970, marking a busy 12 months for the Martyns. This time, they recorded at home base for many of the artists signed to Island and/or Joe Boyd’s Witchseason production company, Sound Techniques in Chelsea, with a band once again led by Harris and featuring Fairport’s Dave Pegg, Mike Kowalski, Alan Spenner and saxophonists Ray Warleigh and Dudu Pukwana.
It’s decidedly less of a rock album than Stormbringer! The drums are mixed lower, and the vibe generally – enhanced by the presence of saxophonists on the songs – is more jazzy, but Auntie Aviator at least (co-credited to John and Beverley, but claimed by Beverley as mainly her work) recreates the Stormbringer! template of pensive piano, woodily downtuned acoustic guitar and rock rhythm section.
In the end, the album’s most crucial tracks in John Martyn’s career were the acoustic Parcels (in which he sang low in his range, with a backing of his guitar, Harris’s piano and congas) and New Day, which features on double bass Danny Thompson, who would go on to be Martyn’s great musical partner throughout the seventies. Beverley, meanwhile, contributed her finest original song – Primrose Hill, a lovely evocation of early-seventies bohemian north London, which has been sampled by Norman Cook for North West Three, a track from 2004 Fatboy Slim album Palookaville. (Auntie Aviator, meanwhile, has been sampled by Bristolian hip-hop group Aspects.)
After The Road to Ruin, the Martyns largely stopped recording and gigging together, not that they’d ever done a lot of that. A full-band launch gig for Stormbringer! with Nick Drake in support at the Queen Elizabeth Hall had gone so badly, in John’s view at least, that he called it the most humiliating moment of his career, and blamed it on the lack of interplay between himself and other musicians.
The inescapable conclusion is that he was never much interested in being in a duo with his wife as any kind of permanent arrangement. Perhaps he muscled in simply not wanting to be overshadowed by Beverley or miss out on any opportunities Joe Boyd offered her. Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to give him what he wanted, he moved on. Coincidentally or not, it was then that he found the relationship with Danny Thompson and the improvisatory style melding jazz, folk and rock that would power his albums from Bless the Weather through to Live at Leeds, after which he would record One World and largely leave folk guitar picking behind*.
As ever with John Martyn, we have to somehow reconcile the often extraordinary music he made with his terrible personal behaviour. Reading Beverley Martyn’s book, or even Graeme Thompson’s Small Hours, is often harrowing. Martyn’s physical abuse of Beverley steadily escalated until she left him in 1979. Even after that, the abuse continued in the form of bare-legal-minimum maintenance payments that left her and their children broke in a dilapidated house in Heathfield, sometimes depending on charity from friends, including a visiting Art Garfunkel. Perhaps related to her treatment by John, Beverley Martyn has been through periods where she’s struggled with her mental health.
Some will, no doubt, use that as a means to dismiss her testimony regarding Martyn’s abuses. For me, the central charges all stick – Graeme Thompson includes them in his book without questioning their veracity, with more than enough corroborating witnesses who saw their relationship at close hand.
Which brings us circling back round again to this question that keeps coming up these days – what to do, as a longtime fan of Martyn’s work, about the fact that he behaved in ways that were both criminal and appalling?
Artistic legacies are not value neutral. Who gets remembered, whose work is preserved and made available for future generations, is not merely about whose work is the best, or the most morally pure, even. It is mediated by commerce: does it make financial sense to continue to preserve this digital archive?
Clearly, it will continue to be profitable to preserve John Martyn’s music. The fact that his songs have been covered by other, bigger-name, artists (most notably, Clapton’s version of May You Never) means that there will always be a stream of people coming to Martyn’s music through that connection. Others will hear of him having first become fans of Nick Drake, or perhaps Fairport Convention.
Martyn’s music will live on. He will not, no matter what some of his more neanderthal fans say, be cancelled by woke warriors and SJWs. They – we, if you want to hang those labels on me – don’t have that power. Never have, never will.
One could, in the truest sense of the word, cancel him (that is, one could choose to exclude his work from one’s personal canon, not listen to it, and endeavour not to give him brain space either – to live as though he never existed), but his work will be preserved by the industry for others to listen to. And others will, and they will be influenced by and copy what they hear; his Solid Air-era acoustic guitar style, that percussive slap on the strings, is already part of guitarist’s lexicon, as it’s such a useful halfway house between picking and strumming.
For me, my reaction to Martyn and his music is in a state of flux. I find myself thinking again and again of the wise conclusion from Ann Powers’s essay, What it’s Like Listening to Michael Jackson Now, written shortly after Leaving Neverland aired:
As I write now, my critic’s impulse to draw neat conclusions nearly overcomes me: I want to provide closure for you, the reader, and maybe even more so for myself. But if I’m going to genuinely represent what it’s like to listen to Michael Jackson after Leaving Neverland, I have to ask you to stay with me in an uncomfortable place. In some way, this is what criticism, what engaging with culture as a thinking person, always strives to do. Yet it’s so easy to stop short. To revel in the boldly stated conclusion. To indulge in the flush of strong positive feelings. To rest in the perceived authority of the self-appointed jurist and turn away from the role that a deeper engagement with culture, in all its imperfections and even moral shortcomings, can offer: the chance to be a trustworthy witness. If culture builds itself through revelations, explorations, secrets and lies, any response that doesn’t claim the contradictions gets it wrong.
As Powers says elsewhere in her essay, the challenge is to stay present while listening, if listening is what we choose to do. And, as I argued a couple of weeks ago in re Phil Spector, not to delude yourself into thinking that the art absolves the artist in any way. It can’t and it doesn’t. We must hold on to the fact that the artist’s art and his crimes are both irreduceable, ineradicable. They don’t separate neatly, and they are equal facets of the person. You can play death-of-the-author mind tricks with yourself if you want, but the simple fact is that John Martyn’s career depended on his wife’s support and domestic labour. His art – itself often domestic in scale and subject – resists any attempt to prise it free of the circumstances of its making. Listening to it is uncomfortable, even – perhaps especially – when it’s the art that he and Beverley created together.
*Interestingly, Beverley claims she wrote the hook of one of his greatest songs, Don’t Wanna Know from Solid Air, for which she never recieved credit or royalties. My tendency when reading her book is always to trust her testimony, but I struggle with this one a little, because in both tune and sentiment it seems so typical of John’s style. But if true, it was disgraceful behaviour by him.
For some reason, I missed Homegrown when it was released in the summer. I think I felt like I’d had enough new music by singer-songwriter icons for a while after Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways came out, and figured I’d get back to it sooner or later. It took six months, but I finally sat down with it for the first time on Friday.
My reaction is, I have to admit, one of mild disappointment. It’s not fair to the music to judge it against the myth that has become attached to it, but Homegrown has built up a legend as a great lost masterpiece, something too emotionally powerful to have been released while its author was still in the thick of the events it describes. Even Young himself has talked it up as “the missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways and Harvest Moon“.
Leaving aside the fact that Old Ways doesn’t really belong in that list (I think it’s trying to do a different thing, something more country qua country, rather than country rock), I find it hard to hear Homegrown as fitting in that lineage. It seems truer to place it as a part of the run of smashed, bummer albums that included Time Fades Away (recorded on tour Feb-Apr ’73), Tonight’s the Night (recorded Aug-Sep ’73) and On the Beach (recorded Feb-Apr ’74). It’s more acoustic than On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night, less defiant and more tenderly wounded, but it doesn’t have the smoothness implied by Young’s sales pitch for the record.
What I will say for Homegrown is that it starts and ends well. Separate Ways, the opening track, is a little sketchy (Levon Helm sounds like he’s hearing the song for the first time; Tim Drummond’s timing is off for a substantial chunk of the song), but it’s a really fine piece of writing, with a couple of killer changes.
The four-song run that finished the album, meanwhile, is killer. White Line has something of the devastating simplicity of Neil masterpieces like Heart of Gold and Don’t Let it Bring You Down, and for me is only a narrow notch below both of those. Vacancy spits fire like an outtake from Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, although Karl Himmel’s drum fills are several orders of complexity above anything Ralph Molina ever attempted. The delicate, childlike Little Wing is another heart-sore ballad, in this case one that surfaced in 1980 on Hawks and Doves. Young’s chunky acoustic rhythm guitar is one of my favourite sounds in recorded music, so this one is made for me, as is Star of Bethlehem, which adds Drummond and Himmel, as well a guesting Emmylou Harris on harmonies and Ben Keith on Dobro.
It’s not all at that level, sadly. We can discount Florida, a shaggy-dog spoken word interlude in which Young talks about rescuing a baby after its parents are killed in a freak hang-gliding accident, but the first side of the record just doesn’t grab me other than Separate Ways and Kansas. I’ve never really felt that warmly towards Love is a Rose, which first appeared on Decade and was also recorded by Linda Ronstadt, while Homegrown is a lightweight goof that doesn’t have the desperation that underpins, say, Roll Another Number for the Road from Tonight’s the Night. Mexico is a sketch, albeit a pretty one. Try is just meh.
As I say, no record could live up to the expectations that big Neil Young fans had for Homegrown. Off the back of reading Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Young, I expected it to be epochal. Instead it feels to me like a 7/10 record with a couple of songs that would get full marks or something close.
Worth hearing for Separate Ways, Vacancy, White Line, Little Wing and Star of Bethlehem, but don’t expect it to be at the level of On the Beach quality wise, or stylistically of a piece with Harvest or Comes a Time.
A *triple* live gonzo, no less, and a movie. And if I refer to my 2002 four-CD box set, then its twice the length of the triple-album original. I’ve been thinking hard about what version to work from, and I’ve decided not to do a song-by-song rundown since I’m much more familiar with the expanded edition, and that’s just too long. Instead, I’ll shoot from the hip. Bang it out.
Robbie Robertson had long been comfortable with the idea that he and The Band were a big deal. When he decided that The Band should call it a day (and the jury’s out on whether he had decided they should split or simply stop touring; it does seem as though his assertions that it was the latter were just a fig leaf to cover the former), the idea of a farewell concert seemed obvious. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of booking Winterland, why not invite your all celebrity musician buddies and influences along? And why not get the world’s premier film-maker to come as well, and shoot it on 35mm for posterity? And why not let Bill Graham add a Thanksgiving dinner to the evening, and charge fans over $110 in today’s money to be there?
Don’t get me wrong. I love The Band, and Robertson’s songs, and I’m glad Scorsese was there to capture it all. But yeesh, plenty of bands of comparable stature have settled for smaller gestures when deciding not to go on tour again.
But for all the whiff of self-regard it gave off, The Last Waltz is still a legendary moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. Not because of how well The Band played, but because they were able to put together a mini Woodstock in their own honour for one night only: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Dr John and, um, Neil Diamond. The Band were always a group beloved by musicians; plenty were happy to come along and pay their respects.
The Last Waltz, as well as being a concert and a live album documenting that concert, is also a film by Martin Scorsese made in the 1970s, which makes it worth seeing by definition. It is beautifully shot, and edited (by Yeu-Bun Lee and Jan Roblee) with a real eye for the interaction between musicians. Bil Graham felt that the movie failed because it didn’t include the audience. Graham was no film critic. It’s precisely because it’s laser- focused on the musicians that it works so well. If you’re not a musician, watching it will show you a lot about how players on stage function as part of an ensemble. If you are a musician, you’ll see people who do what you do routinely, but raised to an art form.
Now for the inevitable “but”, though. At The Last Waltz, the music wasn’t always that good. “These are not musicians at the top of their art, but laborers on the last day of the job,” said Roger Ebert perceptively, reviewing the movie The Last Waltz in 2002, and he was bang on. By 1976, every member of the band looked older than his years (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Robertson were only 33 at the time of the concert; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson was 39), and there was a weariness about some of the performances, even on their final day of labouring.
I don’t want to dwell too long on the negatives, so here they are in a big glut to get them out the way:
Up On Cripple Creek, which opens the album, had to be sped up to a workable tempo for the film. The version on the album, not sped up, is sluggish and a chore
Danko’s voice on It Makes No Difference is thin and wispy, while Manuel’s falsetto on I Shall Be Released is excruciating
The guys take a full minute or more to hit the groove when playing Caldonia with Muddy Waters; before that moment, it’s a joke
Garth Hudson’s synth sounds are regrettable throughout
No one in the audience cared about Bobby Charles, or that he wrote See Ya Later Alligator
No one on the stage told Clapton that All Our Past Times is a godawful dirge he couldn’t sing in tune
Joni Mitchell’s Furry Sings the Blues is not a rollicking good tune for a celebratory concert
Tura Lura Lural?
So it’s very far from flawless. But much of it is incandescently good. So let’s talk about those bits.
The movie, in the canniest move the Scorsese made when assembling the film, begins with an abridged version of the encore, The Band’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Don’t You Do It, sung by Levon and Rick. It’s smoking.
Richard Manuel’s voice was a sadly diminished instrument by the time of The Last Waltz (that’s Robertson singing the top harmony on Cripple Creek, not Manuel; in the movie, there’s a shot of Robertson and Danko singing the chorus; Manuel is in the background, playing piano with his mouth firmly shut), but in his lower range he still possessed an exciting, powerful growl. And he seldom sounded more believably desperate singing The Shape I’m In than he did here. The studio cut on Stage Fright sounds mighty tame in comparison.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is almost unbearably poignant, particularly in the movie. Watching Levon Helm once more assuming the identity of Virgil Caine, with the addition of Allen Toussaint’s gorgeous horn arrangement, is the most moving moment of the whole concert.
WS Walcott Medicine Show and, even more so, Ophelia both absolutely cook. Levon was definitely the group’s MVP that night – unlike Danko and Manuel, his voice was strong and rich as ever, and his mixture of grace and power behind the kit on these tunes a marvel.
Halfway through Caldonia (presumably the moment the group realises it’s embarassing itself), the players raise their game and the second half of the song and all of Mannish Boy are dispatched with everyone they have. No one would listen to The Band and mistake them for a great true blues band, but they do a far better job with Mannish Boy than any all-white, 80% Canadian group has any right to.
Coyote and Shadows and Light with Joni Mitchell are both excellent, and highlight the band’s adaptability (Helm’s and Robertson’s particularly). Coyote is an incredibly demanding song compared to, say, Who Do You Love (played with old boss Ronnie Hawkins) but the ensemble play it pretty much flawlessly. Ditto Shadows and Light, which on The Hissing of Summer Lawns is arranged for multi-tracked voices and Moog synth. The Band’s ensemble arrangement, which Barney Hoskyns has said was conceived by/with John Simon, was true to their own spirit and that of Joni’s Hejira-era songs.
Van Morrison blasts his way through Caravan, and it’s glorious.
Dylan’s set, though,while obviously the most keenly anticipated moment of the night, is something of a headscratcher.
Dylan let Scorsese film only two songs, worrying that his presence in the movie would take attention away from Renaldo and Clara, his hybrid concert movie/drama filmed during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour (hmm, good call, Bob). Watching the songs in question does improve on merely listening to the man and his one-time backing group stumble though them, but still, no one’s finest moment.
My friend Yo Zushi said of The Last Waltz generally, and Dylan’s performance particularly, that “this wasn’t any kind of last waltz, not in some end-of-an-era sense. […] The stark reality is that this was actually just Robbie Robertson’s leaving do. […] Dylan’s (and Young’s) attitudes made it clear that this was an occasion to mark with a good-luck card and some drunken acts people regret the next day.”
Yo’s a little more down on the gig than I am, but I do think he’s hit on what explains Dylan’s sloppy, seemingly drunken, set – much the least together run of songs in the whole concert. Compared to everyone else, even Young (who chose a pair of sombre, Canada-themed songs to perform), Dylan sounds relaxed, goofy, out for a good time. Nothing, Dylan seemed to recognise, could match what these men did in 1965-66 (Planet Waves and Tour ’74 had proven that), so why not just have a little fun?
So that about covers the concert. But there’s the not inconsiderable matter of the Last Waltz Suite – of which two moments rank up with the very finest things The Band ever did. Scorsese filmed two performances by the group on a soundstage, inserting them into the movie in appropriate places: a lovely performance of a new song called Evangeline with Emmylou Harris and a version of The Weight with the Staples.
Assembled because Robertson felt that country and gospel were both under-represented on the set list at the Winterland and the group wanted to pay proper respect to its influences, the two songs are, as I say, masterpieces. Evangeline shows that even at this late stage in The Band’s career, Robertson could still write songs that seemed somehow timeless. At his best, he had a way of connecting with the very essence of America’s folk music forms and placing them in the context of his extraordinarily adaptable rock band (note that pianist Richard Manuel drums, bassist Rick Danko plays fiddle, drummer Levon plays mandolin and organist Garth Hudson plays accordian). Evangeline is his final success with The Band, and all the more poignant because of it.
The Weight is, if anything, even better. It replaces the down-home bar-room piano and acoustic guitar for a smoother, uptown arrangement with organ, grand piano and electric guitar (two in fact), and brings in the Staples, with Mavis taking verse two and Pops verse three. With the Staples on board, The Weight became emblematic of all that was best about The Band, and not just in musical terms. As Greil Marcus and Barney Hoskyns have noted, this performance emphasises the “community” and “plurality” of The Band’s music: “when the group took the stage with the Staple Singers, they brought together men and women, black and white, young and old, north and south”.
Whether these thoughts occured consciously to those taking part, who can say (though Robertson has always appeared to be aware of his music’s place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so I daresay the thought has crossed his mind). But the point is, while the moment may have been premeditated, the power of the effect makes that entirely irrelevant. Hearing – and even more impressively, seeing – Mavis Staples completely lose herself in the song towards its end, ad libbing, clapping and whispering “beautiful” as the echoes of last harmonised “aah” fade away, who could disagree with her?
Ultimately, The Last Waltz is better watched as a movie than listened to as an album. As a document of what became of those Woodstock-era stars, it’s invaluable, and as a way to understand the dynamics and interplay of live performance, there’s nothing that touches it. It looks and sounds great, too. But there’s no denying that The Band were on the downslope by this time, that Richard Manuel’s voice was getting haggard and that his drinking was doing visible damage to his body**, and that, simply, the world of music had moved on and The Band were yesterday’s men.
All-star singalong finale: l-r Dr John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson (organ), Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Ronnie Hudson, Ringo Starr (drums)
*Of course, I do know why Diamond was there: Robbie Robertson produced his Beautiful Noise album, and presumably Robertson, Bill Graham or both felt Diamond would be good box office. But he’s so out of place. It kills me that George Harrison (who championed The Band in the press endlessly) or the Grateful Dead (who played with them at Watkins Glen, Woodstock and the Festival Express tour, and who were back in SF having finished a tour the previous month) weren’t there, while Neil Diamond was.
**Robertson’s rationalisation for ending The Band as a touring unit was that “the road” was so demanding as a way of life that it can kill you. He talks in the film about the “great ones taken by the road” (I may be paraphrasing and that might not be an exact quote, but it’s very much the gist).
Unfortunately, that doesn’t accord with his stance a few years earlier when he had to magic the Moondog Matinee project out of thin air to stop his bandmates killing themselves through drink and drugs in their downtime. What did he think Manuel and Danko would do if no longer part of an active, touring rock group? He must have known that they’d form little pickup bands and go straight back out. Which is what they did. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Robertson, a), just didn’t want to be in The Band any more and, b), if something bad did happen with Richard or Rick, he didn’t want it to happen on his watch.
I guess if anyone has earned the right to take on Attics of My Life, it’s Larry Campbell.
Campbell is a cornerstone of a certain kind of American roots music, the kind for whom Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are themselves cornerstone records. At 61, he’s half a generation younger than the guys who inspired him, and he’s spent a lifetime learning from them, studying them and gradually becoming a trusted lieutenant for more of them than you care to name.
Let’s name some, just so you know he’s legit: Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Phil Lesh, Levon Helm, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Hot Tuna, even BB King – Campbell has played guitar for all of them. That’s his bona fides.
In 2015, Campbell and actress and singer Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife of 20-odd years) released a record together, the first time either had had their names on the front cover of any record. Their version of Attics of My Life, honed in concert over several years (they’ve performed it often with Phil Lesh, so it has the blessing of one of the masters, if that kind of thing makes a difference to you), closed the album.
Attics was the big vocal-harmony song on American Beauty, the track where the guys put everything they’d been learning about harmony singing (some of it absorbed from hanging out and jamming with David Crosby and Stephen Stills) down on record. In the Classic Albums documentary made on Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Lesh took in their achievement on that song was clear. Jerry Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and Robert Hunter’s lyric deserved no less. Still, there are rough edges, and that’s part of the recording’s power. There’s a palpable sense of self-discovery in Attics of My Life; you’re hearing the guys push themselves to a place they’ve never been before, growing and evolving even within the song’s 5-minute running time.
Attics of My Life is so perfect that a cover of it has to mean something different to be worthwhile. I think Campbell and Williams’s version of the song gets its power from a few sources. Firstly, Campbell’s adaptation of the music for one guitar is clever and flawlessly executed. Second, Campbell and Williams are substantially older than the guys in the Dead were when they cut Attics; Campbell is 61, Williams, I guess, in her fifties. Campbell’s oaky voice sounds its age. That adds another dimension to a lyric that is about the difference made over the course of a life by the grace and affirmation bestowed by another. Thirdly, whoever Hunter had in mind when he wrote those words (whether a lover, or some kind of spiritual or universal grace), when Campbell and Williams sing it, it’s impossible not to be conscious of their relationship and put out of your head the idea that they’re singing to each other.
Campbell, Williams and a guesting Amy Helm (daughter of The Band’s late Levon Helm, who recorded Tennessee Jed on his final album) sing the song beautifully, slowing the tempo, caressing each note and breathing as one. It’s cover version as holy writ. It gives me chills.
It would be hard to think of another bassist who contributed more to popular music but who is less copied than Rick Danko.
The bass player’s job is to provide low end, supporting and reinforcing the harmony. At its simplest, this means playing the root note of each chord the other band members play, usually in time with some element of the rhythm the drummer is playing (usually the bass drum pattern).
How was Rick Danko different, then? Danko’s bass provided low end, sure, and it supported and reinforced the harmony, but what was unique about Danko in the context of rock ‘n’ roll and roots music is that he played around Levon Helm’s drums rather than locking in with him. The bassists to whom he is most comparable are reggae players, not rock players.
Danko’s lines often took the form of syncopated little melodies or riffs that sometimes, but not always (and definitely not as a rule), connected with Levon’s kick drum. This technique was already in place when The Band signed to Capitol, and is nowhere to be heard in the group’s work as Bob Dylan’s backing band. In effect, Danko cooked it up in Big Pink after the end of the tour with Dyan in 1966 and had it ready to go when the group cut its first album, Music from Big Pink.*
To Kingdom Come, the second track on Big Pink, is a song I’ve written about before. Then I was talking about Robbie Robertson’s wonderful guitar solo. But the song is also notable for Danko’s idiosyncratic bassline.
Those of you who can’t read music or tablature will need to listen to the recording to hear what Danko is doing here. He’s playing a game of hide and seek with the kick drum, playing little off-beat runs, beginning his grace-note slides on the strong beat and hitting the root note on the off. It’s brilliant, and utterly unlike anything any of his peers were doing in 1969.
He’s on similarly great form on Across the Great Divide, the opening track of The Band’s self-titled second album.
The song is a Fats Domino-style rock ‘n’ roll tune with a triplet feel carried by Richard Manuel’s piano (Levon Helm doesn’t really spell out the triplets on the drums, instead merely suggesting them). Underneath that, Rick Danko plays this:
There are so many Danko-isms in this line that it practically constitutes one big Danko-ism in itself, but let’s actually itemise them: the rests straight after the initial root G and A notes; the rest in the middle of the third bar where you might expect a third C note; the descending triplet run in the fourth bar; and the triplet run from G up to B in the first bar of the verse sequence. This in six bars of music.
As I said up top, Danko’s style was so his own – it came out of who he was and was so much a response to what his band mates did musically – that no one within rock music has ever really picked up from where he left off. You can listen to elements of what he did and hear relations in reggae, in funk, in jazz and in country music, but ultimately Rick Danko was a one-off, and one half of what is possibly the finest rhythm section in popular music.
*I’m not actually a huge Basement Tapes buff, but it would be fascinating to listen to them with an ear to whether Danko was debuting ideas and techniques that would become part of his style when playing Band material.
This Christmas I’ve been reading Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock, the latest book by Barney Hoskyns.
Hoskyns wrote about The Band (and Dylan) at length in Across the Great Divide: The Band & America in 1993, so Small Town Talk does retread some familiar ground. But while Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Danko and Hudson are major figures in Small Town Talk (after all, they stayed in Woodstock long after Dylan headed back to New York, and all but Robertson found their way back later for a second stint in the town), the book is more than anything about Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, The Band and Joplin (not to mention Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield and Peter, Paul and Mary). And Grossman is a fascinating, if frequently appalling, figure.
Swimming in money from his early successes, Grossman built himself an empire – an Albertopolis, if you will (though for more than one of Hoskyns’s interviewees it was more like Charle Foster Kane’s Xanadu) – in Bearsville, just to the west of Woodstock: a recording studio, a record label, a restaurant, a bar and eventually a theatre. It was through Grossman that Dylan ended up in Woodstock, and most of the artists Grossman managed followed him there. But even those who benefited directly from his patronage loved and hated Albert Grossman in just about equal measure.* He was a bully, he was ruthless, and frequently cold and distant. Even artists he seemed to on some level care about as people were in the end merely a means for Grossman to make money; knowing full well her addiction problems, Grossman took out a life-insurance policy on Janis Joplin. When she died, he received $200,000.
For Hoskyns, the rise and fall of Grossman’s empire mirrors the rise and fall of Woodstock as a major centre of popular music. To compare Woodstock with its West Coast equivalent, Laurel Canyon (which Hoskyns wrote about in Waiting for the Sun and Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons), encapsulates the problem. The roll call of major artists in Laurel Canyon took both megastars and lesser known but huge talents like Tim Buckley, Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs. It had a stronger bench than Woodstock. The names of Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison are on the front cover of Small Town Talk, but they appear in it fairly briefly, and their stays in Woodstock were over quickly; to really enjoy the book , you need to be interested in learning more about people like Happy Traum, John Holbrook and Cyndi Cashdollar, as Hendrix and Morrison are out of the story by the time it’s halfway told.
Like most of the books Barney Hoskyns has written, Small Town Talk is full of tales of wasted potential and drug- and alcohol-fuelled self-destruction. But even compared to, say, Hotel California (which relates tales as tragic as Judee Sill’s and as hair-curling as David Crosby’s), Small Town Talk is a heavy read, as it paints a Woodstock as a cultural centre in terminal, irreversible decline. Woodstock, it seems, will never matter again in musical terms: its last truly great artist, Levon Helm, died of cancer in 2012 and there are no musicians left in town to compare at all with those on the front cover of the book (for all that Hoskyns looks favourably on Simone Felice and Jonathan Donahue, I’m sure he’d agree).
If Grossman had wanted to build something lasting and self-sustaining in Woodstock, he failed. But you have to wonder whether that was his intention at all.
*Todd Rundgren, whose many uncommercial experiments were bankrolled by Grossman, said of him when he died: “He got what he deserved. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” About the warmest tribute Grossman received came from Mary Travers: “He wasn’t a very nice man, but I loved him dearly.”
A repost of a piece I wrote three years ago, about a record I think is very special indeed. I listened to it today on my way home from work with my hood pulled up and the rain beating down on me, and it really did take me somewhere else.
In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).
Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, and put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words “Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?” to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, more of a “name” than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.
Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to John and Beverley Martyn.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – “When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him”, he recalled in his 2006 memoir, White Bicycles. But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.
When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, the sessions’ musical director.
Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.
But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.
What is it that makes for a good vocal harmony blend?
When you think of the some of the most famous vocal harmony groups, it’s quickly apparent that while there were many that had a certain similarity of vocal tone (sometimes genetically assisted*), many more wonderful harmony groups have resulted from bringing together vastly different voices and finding that somehow or other they worked with each other. Heard solo, there’s no mistaking Graham Nash’s voice for Stephen Stills’s, or Stills’s for David Crosby’s. Levon Helm is an instantly recognisable vocal presence on even the tightest harmonies sung by the Band.
When I first heard Fred Neil (thanks to James McKean, who played me The Many Sides of Fred Neil when we shared a house in our second year at university), it seemed improbable to me that Neil had ever been part of a harmony-singing group. How could that instantly recognisable, deep-as-an-ocean baritone blend effectively with any other singing voice? Surely it would swallow up any other singing voice that tried to harmonise with it, or worse, become an indistinct rumble, obscured by whoever was singing tenor?
After bagging my own copy of The Many Sides, I found Neil’s other two complete studio albums (his is a slim canon) on one CD and snapped it up. Bleecker and MacDougal was Neil’s first solo effort, on which he was backed up by Felix Pappalardi on guittarón, John Sebastian on harmonica and Pete Childs on guitar. Like Fred Neil and Sessions, it contains no harmony vocals at all. Tear Down the Walls, on the other hand, is a vocal-harmony record, the sole album made by Neil and his one-time singing partner Vince Martin.
The pair began singing together in 1961, and even then were not newbies. Martin had sung lead on the Tarriers’ 1956 hit Cindy, Oh Cindy; Neil had been working out of the Brill Building for a few years, writing smallish hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and cutting half a dozen singles under his own name, to little notice. They had been refining their duo act for a few years before Elektra producer Paul Rothchild saw them at the Gaslight and asked them to make a record.
Tear Down the Walls is a treat for anyone who wants to pick apart two-part harmonies. Neil’s voice is mixed hard right with Martin hard left, so you can listen to the record on one headphone only and just follow one voice or the other. If you want to hear result rather than process, keep both headphones on and hear how they took two voices with such different timbres and made them work together. Neil’s baritone was low, rich and warm, but kept its form when he found himself in more of a tenor range. Martin’s tenor was itself a pleasingly rich instrument, with a slight light-opera feel to its precise, correct enunciation, but he could be hoarse when pushing hard, as he does on I Know You Rider; sometimes you could almost imagine him a rock ‘n’ roller.
Whenever one of the singers takes a solo verse, which happens pretty regularly, you’ll be reminded once again how crazily different their two voices were, but when they sang together, through some kind of alchemy, it just works.
“It’s hard to sing with someone who won’t sing with you,” sang the Jayhawks’ Mark Olsen on the timeless Blue (and there’s another band whose two singers had pretty dissimilar voices) – perhaps that’s the only secret to great harmony singing. It’s less about whether the voices have a similar timbre and more about whether their owners are working towards the same emotional goal.
Vince Martin & Fred Neil at The Flick (Neil nearest to camera)
*(The Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Jacksons and the Everly Brothers in the rock era, the Andrews sisters, the Staples and the Carter Family from the pre-rock, to take a few examples from different points of the musical spectrum)
In 1972 the Grateful Dead embarked on their (at the time) biggest-ever tour of Europe. It was their last major tour with founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (he died in 1973) and their first with pianist Keith Godchaux and his wife Donna (whose first-ever studio session had been as a backing singer on Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman in Muscle Shoals). It was the only tour with Pigpen and Godchaux there in tandem.
The triple album that was compiled from the tour starts with a tremendous version of Cumberland Blues and doesn’t let up from there. It’s the Dead at the very top of their considerable game, Garcia audibly fired up by having a new player to spar with in Godchaux. The vocal harmonies that they’d begun to feature under the influence of CSNY*, so tentative on some of the Workingman’s Dead tracks, are now practised, even slick**. The group is expansive while always sounding at ease with what they’re doing. The aching version of He’s Gone (written about Mickey Hart’s father Lenny, who took off with most of the band’s money) is one of my very favourites. The reading of China Cat Sunflower is likewise tremendous.
But the finest moment on the triple-album set is the version of Tennessee Jed that appears on side four of the triple album. Recorded in Paris, this is the definitive version of one of the era’s defining Grateful Dead songs. The group get so close to the spirit of The Band that may as well be The Band; it was no surprise when half a lifetime later Levon Helm covered it on his Electric Dirt album, the last record he ever made. It’s not merely a sonic impersonation either; the lyric mines the same surrealistic old-timey South that Robbie Robertson’s Band songs inhabited (I’m thinking of tracks like Caledonia Mission). Tennessee Jed was a character from an old radio show in the 1940s, sponsored by Tip-Top Bread (hence “When you get back you better butter my bread”).
With Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in their ranks, the Dead were a two-drummer band. But Hart didn’t travel to Europe in 1972, taking a break from the band after the business with his father. Kreutzmann, dare one say it, revelled in the freedom being the only drummer gave him. He only had his own feel to worry about; he could place the backbeat where he wanted it to go. He’s got a serious case of the funk on Tennessee Jed. Garcia, meanhile, has himself a tonne of fun with the chicken’-pickin’ groove, and fires off a great solo. Godchaux just sparkles.
The early 1970s (starting with Workingman’s Dead) is my favourite era of the Grateful Dead. All of my favourite Dead songs were written in this era, and I love how they reconciled the expansive, psychedelic side of the band with the, essentially, folk and country songs that filled up Workingman’s and American Beauty. The Europe ’72 live set is an indispensable document of this era, and Tennessee Jed is its most irresistible moment.
Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir
*Mickey Hart: “Stills lived with me for three months around the time of CSN’s first record and he and David Crosby really turned Jerry and Bobby onto the voice as the holy instrument. You know, ‘Hey, is this what a voice can do?’ That turned us away from pure improvisation and more toward songs.”
** Like many live albums, some of the vocals were re-recorded in the studio when the band got off the road. Jerry’s lead vocal on Tennessee Jed among them. You can hear traces of his live vocal at times in the background. However, I’ve heard enough of the original audio that it seems fair to me to say that their live harmonies were pretty tight most of the time during that tour.