The first time I heard The Band, late Sixties, I had known them all my life.
They were the music of Canada and the States – the guitars and basses, the drums and organ, the wails and whistles, the trains passing through, the wind in the pines.
I knew that music, even though they were just inventing it, four Canadians and a guy from Arkansas. The Band.
Now Robbie Robertson, who wrote many of the songs and played the guitar so beautifully, has lived to tell his tale, in “Testimony” -- his new book about the nuclear fusion that produced The Band.
I love shop talk from cops and miners and athletes and musicians and I learned a lot about how the Band came together – and broke apart.
For all that, I found myself profoundly saddened by the unsurprising lowest common denominators of these five people – the music and the drugs.
Richard Manuel hung himself at 40 and Rick Danko died in his sleep at 56 and Levon Helm lived to 71 when he succumbed to cancer, leaving Garth Hudson, now 79, and Robbie Robertson, now 73, in their very separate orbits.
Robertson wrote such haunting lyrics but cannot summon up one primal scream about the impending doom of his mates. (The book ends before all that comes down.) And then I wrote. And then I played. Lots of girls around. And then we broke out the white powder that fueled the rages and the withdrawals, the car wrecks and the illnesses.
I come at this, having only once held a joint and taken a few puffs, but I also inhaled enough second-hand smoke at the Fillmore and other places to know that the stuff works. I covered the Dylan-Band tour in New York in 1974; I briefly met all of them except Hudson, at other times.
Hardly naïve, I nevertheless felt saddened at Robertson’s book. Did all those drugs produce that glorious music, summon the pain and the insight and the chords? Or did those drugs, so casually discussed in his book -- a shopping list of wanton self-destruction -- keep some of them from enjoying middle age, to say nothing of old age? Depends on how you define “enjoy.”
It was the age. Robertson lists four or five geniuses he knew who died at 24. Twenty-four. People whose music still stirs me. They died for our pleasure?
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that the most thoughtful, most generous person is, get this, Bob Dylan – who was close to Robertson, often there with a mature observation, a generous gesture. Dylan was a survivor, whose backup band caught fire only to crash and burn. He has lived long enough to show his butt long distance to the Nobel Prize people.
Thanksgiving was the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz, their farewell concert (and catered dinner) in San Francisco and the classic Scorsese documentary. We took our son when he was, what, nine? Last month, three generations filtered into a family den to watch segments of it. Oh, my God, how good they were.
I didn’t know much about Robertson, who tells about learning as a teen-ager that he was really the son of a Jewish gambler who died young, with exotic relatives in Toronto including a goniff-uncle right out of some Band songs, who later did time. Robbie’s striking mom, Rose Marie, earth mother to The Band, was of Mohawk descent, from the Six Nations Reservation near Toronto.
Robertson was drawn to write songs about characters and flim-flam artists and restless souls, like the Cajun wanderers who leave Louisiana, to sail home to Acadia:
“Set my compass north/ I got winter in my blood.” (I quote it all the time about why I winter on Long Island and not in Florida.)
Having helped a few folks write their books, I had this urge to pull more reflection, out of Robertson. “Talk about your own voice; why were you not a soloist?” “Slow down and tell us more about how you wrote some of those lyrics?” “Do you think rehab might have helped some of you?”
Am I asking too much of Robertson? This is, after all, the guy who wrote and played some of the most beautiful songs I know.
Imagine trying to get Mad Vincent to slow down, put down the palette, tell us what you were feeling when you painted the orchards and the stars?
So I don’t know how Robertson came to write “Rocking Chair,” about an old sailor who decides it’s time to stay home on the front porch. But I sing it when I am giving thanks I am puttering around the house with my headset on, not at some ball park.
It's for sure, I've spent my whole life at sea/
And I'm pushin' age seventy-three;
Now there's only one place that was meant for me:
Robbie Robertson just got there. I can’t help feeling badly that some of The Band didn’t get to those shores. But listen to what they left behind….
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.