[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.