When I was 17, my dad introduced me to his new girlfriend, a woman called Anne. She was in her 40s and was in the habit of punctuating everything she said with one of those smoker’s laughs that sound like a cough. When my dad went into another room to take a phone call, she asked if it was true that I liked music. I said it was. She told me that ‘Gordy’ Lightfoot had written a song about her. Really, I said, which one? Sundown, she told me. Isn’t that about a prostitute? I asked. When my dad returned, Anne said, ‘I think your son just called me a hooker.’ It was awkward.
Sundown is a heavy song. It was always on the radio when I was growing up in Canada in the 1970s but I never took much notice of it. When I began to listen to Lightfoot more seriously as an adult, I was struck by its darkness. The singer pictures this woman in various outfits and is filled by jealously and self loathing. In the end, alcohol is his only refuge. There is something oddly vulnerable about it. The singer seems powerless and doomed. Even his veiled threats – you better take care – sound hollow.
And it turns out that the song was not an ode to my dad’s girlfriend. In Nicholas Jenning’s new biography, Lightfoot, we learn that the song is almost certainly about Cathy Evelyn Smith. Sound familiar? Yes, the same woman who went to jail for her involvement in John Belushi’s death at the Chateau Marmont. If you have read Robbie Robertson’s memoir, you may remember her in connection to Levon Helm but that really is another story.
Where I come from, Gordon Lightfoot is bigger than…well, just about anyone. Put it this way, a lot of Canadians who wouldn’t know a Neil Young song if one backed over them could probably easily name 10 Lightfoot songs. I remember my grandfather throwing Gord’s Gold into the 8 track player and letting it play over and over all day. I can also remember the Canadian bands I loved in the 1980s name checking him in interviews and playing his songs in encores. He played Massey Hall every year to audiences that included Bay Street lawyers, Scarborough tow truck drivers, hippies, punks, Social Studies teachers, and glad handing politicians. He could have run for Parliament, he could have been crowned king.
However, the living legend status is something of a consolation prize for a singer whose viability as a recording artist came to crashing halt in about 1980. He kept making records but people stopped buying them. I own everything he released up to and including Endless Wire, which appeared in 1978. I had never even heard of the follow up, Dream Street Rose or any of the subsequent records before reading this book. I suppose there are superfans that would snort at my amateurishness here but the sales figures tell the same story. Thanks for all the great songs, Gord. Here’s your gold watch. The man was 42!
Lightfoot is a solid, chronological account of Gord’s life and work. It is a respectful and workmanlike book – rather Canadian, really! There are no startling revelations or particularly original insights. Instead, Jennings strives to build the character of the man through a number of significant episodes. Lightfoot is a very private fellow with a certain reputation for difficult behaviour. He has been married many times and has had troubles with alcohol. Jennings draws a picture of a hard working and shy man who couldn’t have been less temperamentally suited to stardom. He grew up in Orillia Ontario, a town probably not so different to Hibbing Minnesota. Unlike Hibbing’s favourite son however, Gord was never headed for Malibu via New York. I was interested to learn that throughout his long career he has always lived in Toronto. He spent years living on Alexander St, behind Maple Leaf Gardens, before moving to Rosedale. These days, he lives on Bridle Path, a glamorous address by Toronto standards but hardly Malibu.
Jennings explores Lightfoot’s relationship with Bob Dylan in some detail. Dylan is a fan, no question. There is a small group of songwriters that Dylan admires. He is generous but fickle on this topic in interviews. Sometimes he mentions John Prine, sometimes it’s Jimmy Buffett (no, really, he said that once) but the name that consistently comes up is Gordon Lightfoot.
Lightfoot has taken a different path from Bob in many respects. He was never the voice of a generation or a rock god. He never partied at the Factory or fell to pieces in the back of a Rolls with John Lennon. Gordon Lightfoot’s career has been comparatively low key. In the flashy dramatic world of popular music, there has always been something subtle about him. His albums, particularly the early ones, are quiet affairs. A small band, some strings here and there, and minimal overdubbing. I used to wish that Bob Johnston had produced at least one record for Lightfoot in the sixties. Are we rolling, Gord? But, maybe I’m happy that he didn’t. His 1970 Sit Down Stranger album, quickly renamed If I Could Read Your Mind after its most famous song, is a case in point. To me, this album is what Self Portrait should have been and is perhaps a glimpse of what Dylan had in mind. It was recorded in LA but there is a distinctly Nashville sensibility to it. It’s easy to see why Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash were such fans. The songs are beautifully written and unobtrusively performed. From MOR to Outlaw Country to the Laurel Canyon songsmiths, this was a masterclass in showcasing your work.
But back to Dylan. Bob doesn’t always work well with others and his relationship with Gord had always been cordial, if guarded. When the Rolling Thunder Tour pulled into Toronto in early December of 1975, Gord was asked to play the second last set in the program. He played The Watchman’s Gone and Sundown. Try to imagine following that on a Toronto stage. Bob Dylan might have been the only person on earth in those days with a chance but I’m willing to bet that his set was something of anti climax. Anyone who was there is welcome to correct me!
After the show, everybody, and I mean everybody, went back to Gord’s place in Rosedale. The party was legendary. Mick Ronson was there, trading stories with Ronnie Hawkins. Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez were avoiding each other while all eyes were on Scarlet Rivera. Then that lovable scamp Bobby Neuwirth threw his leather jacket into the fireplace and filled the whole house with black smoke. What a fun guy. See if he’s available for your next soiree.
Meanwhile, Bob and Gord had retreated to the parlor to jam. The wildest rock and roll party in Toronto history was unfolding downstairs but Dylan and Lightfoot were quietly exchanging songs. Oh, to have a decent recording. Alas, there is only a fragment of Lightfoot singing Ballad in Plain D, of all songs. Lightfoot is a remarkable man but the fact that he knew the words to Ballad in Plain D might just make him some kind of superhero. In any case, as Jennings points out, neither man was there to party. This was a summit meeting. Everyone has seen Bob’s exchange with Donovan in Don’t Look Back. This was not like that.
I suppose Jennings uses this episode to highlight the depth of Gordon Lightfoot’s commitment to songwriting. Sometimes, while reading, I had the sense of a man who might have preferred playing to a crowd of receptive regulars at his neighborhood pub to touring the world as a superstar. In one telling episode that took place in the 1970s, Gord signed on with a famous agent who managed a number of mainstream stars at the time. He wanted to take the singer to the next level where he would be on television, headlining regularly in Vegas, and selling zillions of records on the back of duets with divas, etc. After a few days, Lightfoot got cold feet and asked him to tear up the contract. He didn’t want to be Kenny Rogers or Tom Jones. Instead, he started taking the Toronto subway to the gym because he felt bad about the environment.
Nicholas Jennings had some access to the occasionally prickly singer while he was writing the book. It’s hard to imagine that such a modest and private man will ever write a memoir so this might be as close as we get. If you are a fan, don’t forget to read Dave Bidini’s utterly brilliant Writing Gordon Lightfoot too. There you go, you can ask for both for Christmas and spend Boxing Day on the couch reading while everyone else watches college football.
Meanwhile, Gordon Lightfoot will no doubt be playing his annual gig at Massey Hall and releasing a new album this year. Last week he was in Peterborough donating his canoe to the Canoe Museum there. A Canadian legend? You bet.
Teasers: The whole story behind If I Could Read Your Mind; his early days as a singing sensation in Orillia, Ontario.
Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Period – What Really Happened by Clinton Heylin, 2017
Baby Boomers will find this excruciatingly funny but the first Bob Dylan song I ever heard on the radio was When You Gonna Wake Up. It was the fall of 1979 and I had just started Grade 8. Despite what appears, in retrospect, to be an enormously creative run of three wonderful records – Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and the wildly underrated Street Legal – Bob Dylan wasn’t someone much discussed among junior high students at the time. I spent most of my days at school talking about music but the topics were rock vs disco, whether or not punk was cool, and what to make of the keyboard sounds on In Through The Out Door.
But I liked When You Gonna Wake Up. I heard it on my clock radio in the morning and the chorus was in my head all day. I had no idea what the song was about but it stuck with me. Yeah, when are you going to wake up?
The point in a musician’s history when a fan first discovers their work is crucial. I picked up on Neil Young when he released Rust Never Sleeps. Great album. I discovered The Rolling Stones about the time that Some Girls appeared. Pretty good record. But when Bob Dylan appeared on my teenage horizon line, he had just converted to a particularly strident form of evangelical Christianity. When I saw him a couple years later in 1981, the rumour was that he wasn’t playing any of his old songs. He did, as it turned out, but they were all but unrecognisable. I remember a big hippie dude passing me a joint and shaking his head. ‘This is just shit,’ he said, as Bob mauled one of his classic songs on the stage of Maple Leaf Gardens.
It was thus with great interest that I read Clinton Heylin’s new book, Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Period – What Really Happened. Yes, it’s the most garbled title of the year – but within its covers is a detailed chronology of the most surprising transformation in all of those in Dylan’s long career. He had been an earnest folksinger, a speedy folk rocker, a sort of Thoreau style woodland bard, a Countrypolitan gent, a complete mess, a stadium rocker, a raggle taggle gypsy and whatever the hell that was on Live at Budokan. Somehow the end of his second decade in the music business led him to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, an evangelical organisation that still has centres all over the world. The story is that someone threw a silver cross on stage during the 78 tour and he pocketed it. A few days later he took it out and had a profound spiritual experience.
I’ll start with a mild criticism of Heylin’s book before I get to its many virtues. Heylin is not a Christian and does not seem to have much knowledge of the faith and its history. He is out of his depth. Unfortunately, I am too. I would have liked far more detail on Bob’s conversion and the particular brand of born again Christianity he embraced. I gathered it was vaguely in the ‘end is near’ category but I found myself doing some heavy googling for further clarification. I would have also been interested in how it all ended. Did he break with the Vineyard people? Heylin barely mentions the Infidels album. The title alone was surely worth some discussion, not to mention the sudden disappearance of overt Christianity in his lyrics. If you are in search of a book that probes the spiritual content of his conversion, this isn’t it.
Heylin, however, makes up for his lack of theology with a real passion for this music. The book is by far the most measured and thoughtful consideration of the material Dylan recorded and performed in his Christian period. The political implications of evangelical Christianity in the US and Dylan’s centrality in the counter culture have perhaps skewed the critical reaction to the three albums he released between 1979 and 1981. Heylin tells their stories and listens to them with fresh ears.
The first, Slow Train Coming, is surely one of Bob Dylan’s finest moments. After a dry spell in the early 70s, Bob began to write from a more personal place. His ability with imagery remained but he left behind the Beat babble for lyrics that seemed to come from a deeper source. The older I get, the more difficult I find it to listen to the raw pain on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Street Legal (1978) is, for me, on par with Neil Young’s Time Fades Away. It sounds like a ragged cry of bewilderment. Slow Train thus sounds like an answer, of sorts. The songs are beautifully constructed and feature little of the obfuscation that Dylan was so well known for at the time.
It took me years to finally sit down and listen to the second album in the series, Saved. The original cover art was confronting and the stridency of the Christian messages stung critics who felt as though they’d allowed him a free pass on one religious record already. The negative reviews in retrospect seem to be all about discomfort with the lyrics and the context of the album, rather than the music. I wonder how many people, like me, went running home to listen to it after hearing John Doe’s version of Pressing On in Todd Haynes’ film, I’m Not There. I suspect many found a far better album than they expected. I sure did!
Shot of Love, the final record in the triptych, remains a classic example of Dylan’s occasional, or not so occasional, self sabotage. There is a long list of great songs that Dylan has left off albums. Imagine not finding a place for Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind in the mid sixties! The original vinyl release of Shot of Love did not include Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar though it has been restored on subsequent releases. Caribbean Wind didn’t appear on any record until the first bootleg series albums were released in the 90s. Luckily, he did manage to include Every Grain of Sand but, as has been the case before and since, there was a much better album available that he chose not to release. It’s maddening but that’s Dylan, I guess. Daniel Lanois smashed a dobro on the floor of the studio while they were recording Oh Mercy together. I wonder if that happened when Dylan told him that he didn’t want to include Series of Dreams.
Clinton Heylin is something of a rock star himself in the field of music journalism. His exhaustive two volume Songs of Bob Dylan belongs on your shelf next to Revolution in the Head. He has written books on Van Morrison, The Velvet Underground, mental illness in rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen, punk, and one of the definitive biographies of Bob, Behind The Shades. His first book was an edited collection of Dylan’s sermons on the Slow Train tour. He is clearly fascinated by Bob and, in particular, the Christian period.
It’s fair to say that this is a book for hardcore Dylan fans. It’s a little hard to imagine the general reader finding Heylin’s concert by concert, studio session by studio session account terribly engaging. I am a reasonably big fan and I found myself drifting at times as he detailed the subtle differences in the performances of particular songs from night to night. That said, at least he avoids the sort of lazy generalisations writers usually throw at Dylan’s conversion and the music that resulted. Heylin simply lays out the evidence and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Here are some of mine:
Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel and perhaps some kind of military award for courage. It was one thing to go electric in 1965. The folk boom was over and he was hanging out with Alan Price. Folk rock was cool and Dylan was cool when earnest folk singers were starting to look a bit square. But in 1979, becoming a born again Christian was not cool. The Jesus freaks, the folk mass, and the Quaker pacifist street cred of the sixties and early 70s had given way, in popular culture, to conservative TV evangelists like Oral Roberts and the cretinous Anita Bryant. Musically, 1979 was the year of the Talking Heads, The Police, Elvis Costello, Throbbing Gristle, and many others who represented a changing of the guard, as Bob might say. His near contemporaries Pink Floyd released The Wall that year and seemed to capture something of the zeitgeist of the coming of Thatcher and Reagan. It was morning in America all right, just not a very nice one. If Bob Dylan was Jackson Browne or Bruce Cockburn, he might have found new purpose in protesting against nuclear power or Reagan’s criminal behavior in Central America but, of course, Bob Dylan is predictably unpredictable. While his contemporaries came to terms with their pasts and presents with varying degrees of success, Bob launched a tour where he played no old songs whatsoever and interspersed the new material with lengthy sermons about the coming apocalypse.
The audiences were not particularly receptive. ‘Jesus loves your old songs too’ was a common banner seen at the shows but that was a jovial sort of response. Generally audiences booed, interrupted the singer with cries of ‘Lay Lady Lay, Bob!’ before walking out. Concerts were canceled due to poor ticket sales and he was lashed by the critics who resented what they saw as a complete betrayal of their own salad days in the sixties.
This was a shame because, as Heylin points out, Bob was performing perhaps the best shows of his career. His commitment to the material was 110%. The band was tight and there was none of the sloppiness or indifference so characteristic of the mercurial singer in his live performances. There are clips galore on YouTube and the latest edition of the Bootleg Series is a remarkable document of a performer who was clearly emptying the tank every night.
My admiration for Bob grew as I followed him through this period in Heylin’s book. He is fearless and his integrity is beyond question. I seriously doubt that any other rock and roll musician, particularly of his generation, would have had the balls to do what he did in the early 80s. Bob’s output since then has been, to say the least, uneven. I think that, like the 1966 tour, the gospel shows burned him out. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he never really recovered. There have been many highlights since then and albums like Time Out of Mind and Tempest are among his best. But Slow Train Coming, Saved, and to a lesser extent Shot of Love, may represent some of his final unguarded moments. He is famous for his masks but they were all down on these records. He had experienced something profound and was mocked and reviled for sharing it with his fans. Who would blame him if he shut up shop? If you are one of the many Dylan fans who have always found the Christian period off putting, this book will almost certainly change your mind. But beware, like Bob, you might get some very mixed reactions when you put on Saved at your next dinner party!
Teasers: John Lennon’s answer song to Gotta Serve Somebody. The ex Beatle was astounded that Bob Dylan had become a Christian and detailed his objections to religion in a song called Serve Yourself that almost ended up on Double Fantasy. What he doesn’t mention in the song is that he and Yoko, at the time, were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on astrological charts, of all things. Yep, that Christianity stuff sure is irrational…
The Traveling Wilburys: The Biography by Nick Thomas, Guardian Express Media (E-Book) 2017
The story of the Traveling Wilburys began twenty-five years before the 1988 release of their first album, Volume One. In the spring of 1963, an American superstar arrived in England for a two month tour, supported by local bands. One of these bands had become almost unimaginably successful in the period between when the tour was booked and the first shows began to take place. It was decided that they would share top billing with the American superstar. He was very gracious about it but every night the English band watched his set from the wings wondering how on earth they could manage to follow someone with so much talent. The Beatles’ guitarist, George Harrison, probably never imagined he would one day play in a band with the superstar, Roy Orbison.
About 8 months later, a 13 year old boy called Tom Petty in Gainesville Florida was watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, completely unaware that he would one day form a band with the shy fellow playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman. Four or five months after that, in the summer of 1964, George and his band mates were supposedly introduced to marijuana (Rock and Roll myth #540: They didn’t come across weed in Hamburg? Yeah right!) by a chatty fellow from Minnesota named Bob Dylan. As they puffed away in the Delmonico Hotel, Bob probably didn’t foresee the day when he would accept an invitation to join George Harrison’s band.
Four years on, a young musician named Jeff Lynne, from a band called The Idle Race, couldn’t sleep. He had spent the day watching The Beatles record Glass Onion at Abbey Road. It would be days before he’d recover from the experience. Years later he would produce two new tracks for The Beatles and play in a band with one of them. Who knew?
Nick Thomas’s book, The Traveling Wilburys: The Biography, is very good on the long backstory to this unusual moment in rock and roll history. ‘Super groups’ were nothing new, nor were collaborations between musicians. The ‘with heavy friends’ phenomenon goes back at least as far as Louis Armstrong turning up on a Jimmy Rogers record. Look at the names on Miles Davis’ Blue album. Super groups didn’t start with Cream though they might have ended with Asia. Thomas demonstrates that the Wilburys grew out of a number of collaborations but shows that this was no ordinary meeting of minds. This wasn’t a super group. This was Yalta!
After those first encounters, each of the Wilburys had played and/or recorded with at least one of the other members before 1988. Bob and George had jammed in a much-bootlegged 1970 session featuring Charlie Daniels (yup, the same one) on bass. Bob had used Tom Petty’s keyboard man, Benmont Tench, on his Shot of Love album and written with Petty himself before touring with Tom and the Heartbreakers extensively in the mid eighties. Jeff Lynne produced George Harrison’s Cloud Nine album and was working on Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl record when George phoned him, hoping he would produce a new track as a b-side to a proposed single.
There followed a relatively straightforward sequence of events. Tom borrowed George’s guitar. George picked up it up at Tom’s house and invited him to join him and Jeff at Bob Dylan’s home studio in Malibu. Roy Orbison was playing a gig nearby so they all went, ending up at Denny’s on Hollywood Boulevard after the show. The next day, they reconvened in Bob’s garage where there happened to be a box was labeled ‘Handle With Care.’ George turned to the future Nobel Laureate and said, ‘You’re supposed to be good with words, aren’t you?’ The song was written and recorded in a matter of hours.
When George played the track for the record company folks, it’s fair to say that the executives all probably had to change their trousers soon after the meeting. Make an album! Now! The name came from a joke between Jeff Lynne and George. When someone made a mistake on a song, they’d say, ‘We’ll bury it in the mix.’ We’ll bury – get it? Somehow this became Trembling Wilburys that was then prudently altered to The Traveling Wilburys.
The album was a massive success and the various singles were a pleasant break from the usual cocaine nonsense that constituted popular music in the 1980s. Sadly, Roy Orbison died within weeks of its release. There was no tour and everyone went back to whatever they were doing before the Wilburys. They did manage to reconvene for a slightly disappointing second album in 1990. It’s called Volume 3. ‘Let’s confuse the buggers,’ said George. By 2000, both were out of print and more or less forgotten. Rhino released a nifty box set in 2007 and updates have followed. Handle With Care was covered by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins at some point.
Thomas’s book makes no special claims for the songs on the album. They were written quickly by a group of very experienced songwriters throwing out lines to each other. Lyrically speaking, nothing on either record is a patch on any of the members’ own work, your feelings about ELO notwithstanding. But this record is all about atmosphere and sound. George Harrison’s lovely guitar work; Roy’s otherworldly voice; Dylan’s strangeness; and Petty’s punk rock sneer all combine here for something very special. Jeff Lynne adds his acoustic wall of sound and old school rockabilly sensibility for the icing on an estimable cake.
I was listening to the first album while writing the review and I will admit to a tear or two when End of the Line came on. Thomas’s book appeared a day or two after the sad news of Petty’s death. Reading about George’s last days with Jeff Lynne at his side while coming to terms with the idea that Tom Petty was gone too was a lot to take in. Tom formed close friendships with all of the other members, particularly George. He was a remarkably generous musician who also collaborated with people like Roger McGuinn and Del Shannon – both discussed as replacements for Roy apparently – in a spirit of respect and gratitude. His own work with The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist represents one of the great bodies of work in rock and roll. If his death has left you feeling like you need to dive back into his music and life, you could do worse than this short but thoroughly researched book on his most famous collaboration.
For Tom Petty, October 20, 1950 – October 2, 2017
Teasers: Handle With Care has a very similar opening to an ELO song. Do you know which one?
An early Wilbury moment:
Testimony by Robbie Robertson, Deckle Edge 2016
For any other five musicians, the name might have seemed pretentious.
They almost called themselves The Honkies.
So, yeah, The Band.
They didn’t make that many records – six actual studio albums, if you exclude Islands, an outtake-laden contract filler. Five if you take away the ‘oldies’ album, Moondog Matinee, not that I would. Their reputation would seem to rest then on about fifty original songs. But of course it doesn’t. There are live albums and several famous collaborations with Bob Dylan. Collectively and individually, their western Ontario (and Arkansas) faery dust can be found on all kinds of great records. It’s there on Jesse Winchester’s first album, Muddy Waters’ brilliant Woodstock Album, a wonderful Ringo Star track called Sunshine Life For Me, and Bobby Charles’ almost unbearably beautiful self titled 1972 record. Rick Danko and Levon Helm recorded with Lenny Breau in 1961. Garth Hudson and Levon are there on Mercury Rev’s Deserter Songs 35 years later. There are plenty more and they are all worth hearing if you are a fan. Except the Robertson – produced Neil Diamond record, maybe. Up to you.
Guitarist and principal songwriter, Robbie Robertson, has added to a big pile of pre Christmas rock and roll memoirs with Testimony. Anyone who has seen the film, The Last Waltz, knows that Robbie can tell a story. He was never a powerful singer but he has a terrific speaking voice and great timing. Listen to his spoken word work on Hal Wilner’s Meditations on Mingus. Get his voice in your head before you start to read. You won’t be sorry!
Robbie has taken on something of a challenge here. The Band has already been well served in print. Across The Great Divide by Barney Hoskyns is perhaps the best book ever written about a single group. Likewise, Greil Marcus’ essay about The Band in his collection Mystery Train is just about as good as rock and roll writing gets. Robertson also has to contend with band mate Levon Helm’s 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire. And this is where things get really tricky for him.
There is a perception among fans and critics alike that Robbie is somehow the villain of the piece. Helm claimed, in interviews and in his book, that the songs were far more collaborative than the publishing deal would suggest. Robertson has since been painted as tight fisted, overly ambitious, and ruthless by critics who have taken Helm’s line. Testimony is not a response to the charges but it does suggest that the truth is probably a lot more complicated than the simple Paul vs John, Mick vs Keith rock critic shorthand would suggest.
Robbie begins with his own vivid memories of postwar Toronto. The ‘I was born’ section of a musical memoir can be deadly but Robertson handles it like a novelist. He is blessed, if that’s the right word, with an unusual childhood. The son of a Mohawk mother, the young Jaime Robertson discovered that the man he called dad was not his father at all. Instead, it turned out, he was the son of a Jewish wideboy called Alexander Klegerman who had perished years earlier in a car accident. Robbie sought out Klegerman’s brothers and was soon enmeshed in a family whose, ahem, business interests somehow made them associates of the Volpe family. If you’re from Toronto, nuff said!
Robertson is particularly good on his early days with Ronnie Hawkins and the evolution of The Hawks. His growing friendship with Levon is at the heart of these sections but he also brings Hawkins, the sort of Dumbledore figure in The Band’s story, to life in all his manic glory. Slowly, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and the arch eccentric, Garth Hudson of London Ontario, make their way into the Hawks. The band conquers Yonge St and all its young women. They play dives at Wasaga Beach, they play dives on the Mississippi. Robertson was 16 when he joined up. When The Band’s first album appeared in 1968, they had been on the road since the late 50s. The Beatles’ Hamburg period is, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell, an important factor in everything that followed. There is a special ingredient in The Band’s music that is sometimes hard to identify. Robbie’s wonderful evocation of the band’s early years provides an important clue, I believe. The threads of rockabilly, rhythm and blues, pop, blues, and a country ballad or two are all part of the fabric of The Band’s sound.
And the sound was there early. The received wisdom has always been that it all came together in the months they spent making tapes in the basement with Bob Dylan in 1967 . That seems likely until you hear a recording called The Stones that I Throw by Levon and the Hawks from 1965. There is no doubt that Dylan looms large in The Band’s story but the magic predates their association with him by several years.
Speaking of the Nobel Laureate, Robbie is very good on the 1966 tour. There has been so much written about it that I wondered if he would bother spending too much time there. He does and manages to provide a unique perspective. Dylan is one of a long series of ‘father figures’ in Robertson’s life. He never actually says this but Ronnie Hawkins gives way to Levon who gives way to Dylan who gives way to Albert Grossman who gives way to David Geffen who gives way to Martin Scorcese. Dylan’s intelligence and absolute cool headedness in every situation impresses the young guitarist as he ducks flying objects night after night on the ‘Judas’ tour.
The Basement Tapes period is then outlined in some detail along with Levon’s return to the fold. This period too has been the subject of a virtual library that includes Sid Griffin’s Billion Dollar Bash, Barney Hoskyn’s recent Small Town Talk, and Greil Marcus’ loopy Invisible Republic. Robbie doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story but instead provides a few personal memories. He goes into more detail about the sessions for Music From The Big Pink and even attempts, unsuccessfully, to explain the lyrics of The Weight. Twice.
Following the section on the first album, the tone of Testimony shifts in a subtle way. Rick Danko manages to break his neck in a car accident before their first tour and Richard Manuel’s drinking starts to make an impact. Then Levon Helm discovers heroin. Robbie Robertson is a gentleman. He doesn’t scold or preach but the sense of a lost opportunity is discernible in the folds of his prose. I doubt that anyone will ever top this band’s first two albums but I think Robbie feels as though the records that followed could have been a lot better. He doesn’t think much of Cahoots, for instance. While it isn’t perhaps on par with its three predecessors, an album with Life is a Carnival, When I Paint My Masterpiece, and The River Hymn still must rank as one of the ten best albums of the 1970s.
He’s an upbeat guy and the final section of the book is filled with witty stories about life as an A list rock and roll star in the 1970s. He and David Geffen – in what must be surely the most sympathetic depiction of this guy ever – take Robbie’s wife, Dominique, and Joni Mitchell to France for the weekend. The holiday is later immortalized in Joni’s song, Free Man in Paris. It was Robbie who convinced Bob Dylan to jump ship at Columbia for Geffen’s Asylum Records. It didn’t last but Planet Waves, the only full studio album collaboration between The Band and Bob, was certainly worth the journey.
But there isn’t that much detail about The Band in this period. The tours come and go, the Northern Lights album is released, and then it’s time for The Last Waltz, where the story ends. The Hawks’ sections of the story are so richly imagined – and lengthy. But the chapters that follow The Band’s initial success in 1968 are almost like a coda. It seems to me that Robbie’s memories of The Band in its heyday aren’t all that sunny. Fans looking for a detailed chronology will find a much clearer one in Hoskyns’ Across The Great Divide.
This is something different, an unusual rock and roll memoir where the paucity of information functions as a kind of subtext. Robbie hasn’t come to terms with The Band and has perhaps been stung by his ‘Yoko-isation’ by fans and critics. I enjoyed Testimony enormously but this is perhaps a more melancholy book than the author intended.
Teasers: Robbie’s solution to being stranded in Perth, Australia. Hint – it involves twins! The Band’s set at Woodstock – they were supposed to close the whole thing until Hendrix’s manager stepped in! Some interesting stuff for techies on his guitar sound, recording techniques and so on.
And a rare Robbie Robertson lead vocal on one of my favourite songs by The Band, Out of the Blue:
Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns, Da Capo Press 2016
Woodstock didn’t happen in Woodstock. It happened somewhere else but it is true to say that Woodstock did happen to Woodstock. The small town in upstate New York remains one of those curious tourist stops that is more about a time than a place. Contemporary Haight Ashbury is another that comes to mind. There are places in the world where we visit other decades and many of them are good examples of hyper reality, as defined by Umberto Eco and others. They are idealized simulacrums of the past, not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA.
Which doesn’t make them bad places to visit at all, just odd if you start thinking too much. Best to enjoy them as the portals to better days, better music, and the simple pleasures of a well rolled joint on a summer evening.
Enter Barney Hoskyns. If you have read any or all of his books, you know that disappointment is unlikely. His study of Tom Waits is probably only matched by Jimmy McDonagh’s Shakey in the music biography stakes. The powdery pleasure of his Hotel California, the sandy sweep of Waiting For the Sun, and the masterful Across The Divide, the best book ever on The Band, all put him in the running for greatest living something. He says interesting things about bands you love and makes you consider again the ones you don’t. He tells a good story, knows his stuff, and, book by book, changes the way you think about rock and roll.
Small Town Talk, like Hotel California, is about a place where music happened. The place is Woodstock, New York, and some of the little nearby hamlets. Naturally, Dylan is front and center here. It was here that he cut his hair, fell off his motorcycle, played with the kids, recorded the Basement Tapes, and hung around looking extraordinarily cool in the late 60s. There is a cartoon reproduced in the book that sadly I can’t find online. It depicts Dylan coming off his bike and thinking, ‘country rock!’ Yes, I know he probably didn’t invent the genre but he invented something in Woodstock and a lot of bands used it. From The Beatles to Fairport Convention to every other band that got it together in the country, Dylan and The Band created an atmosphere that remains one of the more influential and desirable in rock and roll.
The stories have been told so many times that I did wonder what Hoskyns could possibly say about Woodstock in this period that would surprise me. Sid Griffin covered the recording of the Basement Tapes in detail in Million Dollar Bash and Greil Marcus gave us the metaphysical implications of those recordings in The Old Weird America. Hoskyns himself bested both of these accounts in Across The Great Divide.
His angle is a clever one. It’s the story of Woodstock based around the life of a major figure of the time who happens not to be a musician but Dylan’s dear old landlord, Albert Grossman. I know what you’re thinking. That bastard! The cranky American from Don’t Look Back with the hot wife who appears on the cover of Bringing it all Back Home? Yes, that guy, and there is a lot more to him than you might expect. He’s not Allan Klein or the Colonel. There was a genuine love of music and a real connection with his various clients. His relationship with Janis is examined in some detail here. Hoskyns doesn’t say it but it seems clear that Grossman never fully recovered from her death.
He thought that she was something truly special. And he was right! Anyone else noticed that Janis seems to be out of fashion at the moment? What’s that about?
Jimi turns up in Woodstock too, on the run from his own thuggish manager and the experience of fame, literally and figuratively. Van Morrison shows up, records two or three classic albums, decides he hates the place and moves to San Francisco. Dylan gets tired of finding hippies in his bed and moves back to NYC. The various members of The Band take self destruction up to unheard of levels and Paul Butterfield pops in for drink. John Martyn finds Beverly talking to Dylan and behaves very badly.
The challenge for Hoskyns is an obvious one. How to maintain the story after everyone of any interest has left. A book about Woodstock from say, 1960 – 1975, would have been okay but would have consigned the whole thing to the ‘sixties’, which we already know is just a simulacrum. So he brings it up to the present in the guise of Simone Felice who carries the flame around there these days. But he still has to keep things going in the mid to late 70s and the 80s. So we get a sad coda for Richard Manuel and a lot of Todd Rundgren. Todd is not my cup of tea but there is much of interest here about his connection with Grossman and his time in the town.
Which brings us to Bobby Charles whose song provides the title and whose eponymous 1972 album is the greatest thing you may not have heard, although a lot more folks know it these days. It is an album that features members of The Band and in a funny way feels like the delivery of the promise of the Basement Tapes and the whole damn period in Woodstock. Hoskyns recognizes its significance and pays proper respect to this chaotic man and his brilliant record.
I’m not a reviewer and this isn’t a book review. If you feel like revisiting all of this and are prepared to dig out Stage Fright, His Band and the Street Choir, and possibly a few Mercury Rev records, you know what you have to do.