[August 12, 2023]
But Mike Myers was so young… That was my unspoken response to an Aug. 9 text from my friend Kim. His message read, “Who’d have thought that Garth would outlive them all.” I thought he was referring to Garth Algar, basement sidekick to Wayne Campbell, the local-access cable empresario Mike Myers realized and made famous on Saturday Night Live.
But no: Kim was referring to still-kicking multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, now the last living member of The Band, an entity that called it quits in 1976. It was an odd way to note the Aug. 8 passing of Hudson’s former colleague, Robbie Robertson (though Kim was not alone). Yet very little of The Band’s renown ever made obvious sense, including why its reputation has proved so very durable.
It doesn’t follow, for example, that the group responsible for founding the Americana movement would feature a lineup that was 80 percent Canadian. During the late Sixties and Seventies, when the rest of rock and roll grew increasingly psychedelic, star-driven and glam-styled, The Band emerged as a countrified ensemble whose oddly antiquated sound was driven by collaboration and the vocal abilities of not one but three superb lead singers. Robertson wasn’t even one of them. He played lead guitar and wrote songs about rusticated figures from the Civil War era. As he would later explain, The Band got famous by zigging when the rest of the rock world zagged.
I play in a couple bands that cover several Band standards: The Weight, Makes No Difference, Up On Cripple Creek, Rockin’ Chair… They never fail to elicit from Boomers and Gen X folk visceral, sing-along responses that often veer toward the ecstatic and weepy. In fact, folks of all ages, including country and bluegrass fans, tend to respond the same way. Their songs comes from a curiously nostalgic place, one that Bruce Springsteen has remarked upon: “It’s like you’d never heard them before and like they’d always been there.”
It was Robertson, along with pal Martin Scorsese, who organized and filmed The Last Waltz, the much-praised concert movie and easily the most effective, brand-building farewell in music history. He went on to make a bunch of movie soundtracks for the director before collaborating again on a superb documentary, When We Were Brothers, which framed The Band in a gauzy historical context of Robertson’s devising. Note the title tense. His former colleagues came to revile Robertson too, before anyone else did.
When Music from Big Pink was released in 1968, it was rightly billed as a transcendent debut from Bob Dylan’s O.G. electric backing band. Dylan contributed to the album — and The Basement Tapes, recorded around the same time, bootlegged for years, but not formally released until 1975. These two works set The Band’s collaborative reputation in stone. Yet Robertson started writing/arranging most of the songs on subsequent albums because, to hear him tell it, those three singers — pianist Richard Manuel, drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko — had all started abusing a wide variety of drugs, in vast quantities. Eventually they all took issue with Robertson’s claims to sole authorship (to say nothing of the royalty money), right up until the day they all died.
Robbie Robertson wasn’t solely responsible for this music. Yet in large part, he did prove responsible for curating, over the course of decades, these complicated counterintuitive ideas about The Band — and many longtime fans reviled him for it, right up till the day he died last Tuesday.
My Silent Generation parents loved The Band. They started out as folkies but were smitten by Dylan on their honeymoon, when Joan Baez pulled young Robert Zimmerman from an audience at the Red Lion Inn, to perform alongside her. I had assumed they got into The Band on this account. Yet when I recently tried to confirm this origin story, my mom (an early Beatles adopter, as well), offered a different explanation: After reading a 1970 TIME Magazine cover story on The Band, she went out and bought their self-titled “brown” album, the one with Rag Mama Rag, Across the Great Divide and The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down. I don’t think it hurt that this woman, who turned 30 in 1969, had also developed a massive crush on Robbie Robertson, for whom (along with Alan Bates), she may have thrown over my dad in an instant, if given half the chance.
As a 14 year old, I was taken to see The Last Waltz (filmed in 1976 and released two years later). Another band in my personal pantheon, Steely Dan, called it quits soon thereafter. This is what music groups did back in the day. They earned no artistic credit (or meaningful remuneration) for staying together into middle age. The Beatles wrote the book on so much about modern pop music: burn out before you rust; maybe punctuate your legacy with a film. By the time I went off to college, in 1982, the 40something Rolling Stones were still touring and putting out albums. In this respect they also innovated. Yet, in the post-punk moment, this behavior was not judged to be in any way laudatory or cool. We found it unorthodox and sort of pathetic frankly.
The ensuring decades have changed the way we view this dynamic (thanks, Boomers, for mainstreaming yet another tawdry, revenue-driven social convention). In the same way the Beatles get credit for breaking up before they got old, The Band’s legacy has also been burnished — even if The Last Waltz, in all its glory, masked a miasma of self-congratulation, infighting and drug use. Manual, Danko and Helm all went to their respective graves carping about royalty money out of which Robertson had cheated them. Allegedly. Helm, the pride of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, voiced these complaints comprehensively and entertainingly in his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire.
It remains fashionable today, among some fans of The Band, to toe the Helm line and deride Robertson for his self-serving deportments. Perhaps he did understand branding a bit too well.
But he was also a superb guitarist. And the songs he is credited for writing/producing, rightly or wrongly, are indeed the stuff of genius. I didn’t necessarily think so growing up; there’s a lot of music from that era I value for the nostalgia alone. Yet today, when I look out into an audience and spy some 60something singing along to The Weight, gently wiping the tears from her eyes, I think The Boss might be onto something.