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….
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)