Which is nothing new, as living in the Catskills they are a regular part of my “soundtrack” while driving around the mountains.
I have an ENORMOUS “playlist” of songs written in the Catskills.
Which of course contains a few dozen “Band songs”.
In the summer of 1968 I was 16, living in Shreveport Louisiana, and deeply in love with all things “psychedelic” since the release of the Beatle’s Sgt. Peppers album only twelve months prior.
In the months following “Pepper”… I bought albums by Cream, Steppenwolf, The Vanilla Fudge, and my all time favorite… Jefferson Airplane. My life was like one big paisley print!
One day I was visiting my friend George Franklin, and he pulled out an album, which he said was by “Dylan’s backing band” that he assumed, was called “Big Pink”.
There was no title or band name on the cover of “Big Pink’s” album jacket, as there was only an odd “folk art” painting of the group with the small initials “B.D.” next to a copyright mark.
So Bob himself had done the cover!
AND he had also written one of the songs and co-written two others.
NOW… I HAD to hear it.
My “psychedelic” muse had already been severely disrupted (though pleasantly) by The Beatles release the previous April of their Lady Madonna “45” in a complete return to Fats Domino basics after the previous December’s Magical Mystery Tour only four months prior.
What an amazing time for music.
Prior to my submersion into “psychedelia” I was a fan of folk music through Joan Baez and Peter Paul & Mary records during the all too brief “folk boom” of the early 60s (which also of course brought Bob Dylan to my attention).
But the sound on Music From Big Pink was like nothing I had ever heard before with the natural blending of electric and acoustic instruments into an organic fabric with voices sounding as if they came from another time. The performances were so open, honest, and soulful… And they connected in a far more immediate way than what I was hearing in the other “pop” music of the time. There was also a texture and depth to the music born out of years of touring and playing together prior to being “discovered” by Bob Dylan.
The Band was using the same electronic “stomp boxes” on electric guitars and pianos like the other groups… But while others were using “Wah-wah” pedals for egotistical flights to the upper guitar stratospheres… The Band’s amplifiers sounded as if they were possibly STEAM powered. And there were essentially NO solos!
If there had been rock-n-roll in the 19th century…
It would SURELY have sounded like THIS!
Music From Big Pink only went to #30 on the pop charts and the single of The Weight to #63. Sad but true, the album was only a small pop cultural “blip” on society’s radar, but the album’s overall impact would be far greater with many musicians of the time.
Eric Clapton claims that he made his decision to leave Cream after hearing an early “test pressing” of the album and you can see George Harrison “singing praises” to the album and the group in the Beatle’s film Let It Be. Harrison later would talk about the contrast between the intense Beatle sessions of the time and the music he was hearing coming out of The Band.
The band was also an enormous influence on both Elton John and Bernie Taupin in their Tumbleweed Connection album two years later which today sounds like a complete “rip” of the second Band album. And the two went on to name a song and character after Levon on their third studio album.
Even ten years later I can remember hearing Elvis Costello’s Blame It On Cain and being chastised at the time in the “ultra hip” record store in which I worked for DARING to say that the song sounded like The Band! (Years later Costello would admit to the influence).
After the completion of Big Pink, a car accident involving bassist Rick Danko prevented the group from touring to support the album.
Having no public appearances would have normally been considered a bad thing for the promotion of an album but the very fact that they were NOT appearing in public enhanced the mystery with Big Pink and the group living up in the Catskills with Bob Dylan “making music in a cabin”.
Keep in mind that this was just after the infamous Dylan “motorcycle accident” and he himself was something of a recluse living in Woodstock recovering, making music with The Band at Big Pink, and being pursued by “hippies and acid casualties” daily.
Bob Dylan was the “Howard Hughes” of music at the time.
And the mystery carried over to The Band.
If Big Pink was the “game changer” of 1968, The Band’s follow-up album (simply titled “The Band”) released in 1969 was their true masterpiece. One of the most classically balanced and nearly perfect albums of all time with every song being a “gem” and the “Big Pink ambience” carrying over perfectly with both albums having the same purity of spirit and performance.
I’ve often felt that not enough credit was given to producer John Simon’s direction and guidance on the first two albums.
As I would sit in my room in Louisiana listening to these LPs over and over again, Simon’s production would transport me to that imaginary small pink house far off in the magical Catskills.
When in fact… Big Pink was recorded in major studios in New York while “The Band” was recorded in Sammy Davis Jr.’s “pool house” in West Hollywood. It was all part of the “magic”!
By the second album, Robbie Robertson was writing or co-writing all of the songs, and subsequent albums were almost all written by him.
This led to eventual monetary conflicts when The Night The Drove Old Dixie Down became a hit for Joan Baez… The Weight for Aretha Franklin… And Chest Fever for Three Dog Night.
ALL written by Robertson.
Keep in mind that The Band never sold a lot of albums… EVER.
The second album did get to #9 with the help of their best selling single Up On Cripple Creek reaching #25.
But that is the highest that they ever charted.
So except for Robertson (who suddenly was becoming wealthy off of what Levon and the others called his “mail box money” from writers royalties) the group depended on touring for income.
Few musical groups act as a “democracy” when it comes to song writing, with The Doors being the only ones I know of who shared all of their writing royalties from the start. And while you can certainly argue that Robertson technically wrote the songs… These same songs simply would not have existed without Levon Helm and the others to not only sing them… but also inspire them.
This was especially true of Levon as it was his soul that delivered and connected so perfectly through The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rag Mama Rag, and The Weight. Levon was “the real thing” when it came to singing about America. While the other four in the group were Canadians… In what is perhaps the quintessential “Americana” group of all time… Levon was actually FROM America. And not just FROM America…
Levon was from Arkansas… “just across the river from Memphis”.
Which of course was the direct CENTER of the American musical universe, where Irish, Anglican, and Scottish music, drifted down the Ohio River to meet the African rhythms and island influences flowing up from New Orleans. The “birth place” of EVERYTHING!
And this was also the place that contributed so many of the southern images and experiences of Levon’s that were later “served up” to the world so perfectly through the songs of Robbie Robertson.
Born in 1940, Levon was a “first generation” direct link to the original music of America’s delta region having joined Ronnie Hawkins’ band as a drummer while he was still in High School.
His “grooves” and timing were amazing, and he was a terrific mandolin player as well. And of course there was his singing.
The New York Times recently described him as having “a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time”.
Which I think is just about perfect.
After the first two classic albums, The Band went on to make five more studio albums with the original members before breaking up with the final concert being documented by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.
While all of the albums are good, I highly recommend Northern Lights / Southern Cross and Stage Fright. But after the first two albums everyone should also own the “live” Rock Of Ages. It is far better than the star-studded and overblown “Last Waltz” soundtrack and it captures the group at the top of their performing “game” with great horn charts by New Orleans’ own Allen Toussaint!
Levon remained in the Catskills for the rest of his life and became true Woodstock “royalty” with his regular “Midnight Ramble” concerts at his barn-studio about six miles from me.
And it was terrific to see him win TWO Grammy awards late in his life as a nice crowning achievement of a true musical giant.
Although the “B&B” side of my business gets a lot of traffic from his events I never actually met Levon and only went to my first “Ramble” recently. It was a wonderful night that I’ll never forget.
There is nothing like the smile on Levon’s face when he is sitting behind the drums laying down that classic swaggering “groove”.
Even after all these years… That night he still got my vote as the “funkiest drummer on the planet”! His timing was amazing.
It’s an image I will have in my mind forever.
He will certainly be missed.