Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Rock & Roll Saturday – The Band

The BandIn the early sixties a group of musicians came together to back an up and coming Canadian rockabilly artist named  Ronnie Hawkins. They were  Rick Danko (bass guitar, double bass, fiddle, trombone, vocals), Garth Hudson (keyboard instruments, saxophones, trumpet), Richard Manuel (piano, drums, baritone saxophone, vocals), Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals), and Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, guitar, vocals).

This core group of musicians honed their craft behind Hawkins and began touring as The Hawks. The group ultimately outgrew the Canadian and went their own way citing creative differences. The truth is the band was destined for other things and grew tired of playing the same stuff every night. They wanted to create.

There is a view that jazz is ‘evil’ because it comes from evil people, but actually the greatest priests on 52nd Street, and on the streets of New York City were the musicians. They were doing the greatest healing work. And they knew how to punch through music which would cure and make people feel good.
– Garth Hudson The last Waltz

Over the next few years a collaboration with Bob Dylan would set the stage for the coming of The Band. After hearing The Hawks play one evening in a Toronto night club, Dylan invited Helms and Robertson to join him on tour. The duo announced their loyalty to bandmates and told Dylan they would only go as a group. The Hawks ended up touring with Dylan from September of ’65 to May of ’66. This tour is generally regarded as the period that Dylan shifted from folk to rock. The collaboration with The Hawks played a big part in that transition.

Bob Dylan & Robbie RobertsonWhile touring the group of musicians became disjointed around Dylan’s obsessive amphetamine usage. Many of the group joined the star in his drug use; others expressed their concern. Levon Helm grew increasingly upset over matters and within three months of beginning the tour, Helms departed and spent several months working on an oil rig in the Golf of Mexico.

During that period The Hawks and Dylan had little to show for their efforts in the recording studio.  By the time Dylan’s next album Blonde on Blonde had moved production from New York to Nashville, Robbie Robertson replaced Mike Bloomfield as primary guitarist. Robertson joined Dylan in Nashville. The rest of The Hawks were not invited. Blonde on Blonde released on May 16th of ’66.

The Basement TapesThe Hawks, including Robertson, continued to play honky tonks and roadhouses while Dylan took a break from music. During his vacation, Bob Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in upstate New York. He went into seclusion at his home in Woodstock to recover. As he began to heal, Dylan becoming more anxious and increasingly restless, invited The Hawks up to visit. While there they put together in Dylan’s basement and other locations around Woodstock what has become the much bootlegged Basement Tapes.

Although not a part of The Basement sessions, Levon Helm returned to New York shortly after Dylan returned to the studio in Nashville and rejoined his old band-mates. They rented a big pink house in  in West Saugerties (near Woodstock) and in that house the music that would define The Band was born. (The photo at the top is of the band outside “Big Pink”)

If you give it good concentration,
good energy, good heart and good
performance, the song will play you.
– Levon Helm

As the story goes settling on a name for their group was not an easy task. Everything they suggested was turned down by their label. Helm suggested since they were always referred to as “The Band” when touring with Dylan that maybe they should just use that. The name stuck.

Music from Big PinkIn July of 1968 they released their first album, Music from Big Pink. One track, “The Weight,” went on to be used on the Dennis Hopper/Peter Fonda film, Easy Rider. The Weight peaked at #63 on the Billboard charts.

The cover illustration for the album is artwork by Bob Dylan who wrote three of the tracks on Big Pink.

The big pink house in West Saugerties today is a private residence. The owners keep the music tradition alive by having regular jam sessions in the basement with musicians from all around the Woodstock area.

Over the next few years The Band would release several other albums considered some of the best compilations of the generation. Their self-titled album The Band included the mega hits, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek.

The period marked some of the most creative expression by the group. Robertson began exerting more control of the band. Helm was in near constant friction with the self-proclaimed leader. By 1976, Robertson was tired of touring and ready for a break. He proposed one big show to end their touring career. That became the genesis for The Last Waltz.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujjzc8L8xxg]

The Waltz show played at the legendary Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976. With supporting footage director  Martin Scorsese released the concert documentary in 1978.  During the show The Band was accompanied on stage by musical friends,  Paul ButterfieldEric ClaptonNeil DiamondBob Dylan,Emmylou HarrisRonnie HawkinsDr. JohnJoni Mitchell,Van MorrisonRingo StarrMuddy WatersRonnie Wood,Bobby Charles and Neil Young.

The Band went their separate way shortly after. In 1983 they reformed without Robbie Robertson and began touring again. Shortly after Richard Manuel committed suicide in a Florida Hotel. Helm would later write about the extent of Manuel’s alcoholism dating back to well before The Last Waltz. 

The set’s release puts an end to the Band … for now.
I keep saying, ‘Now I’m done with the Band,’ .
I’m just not keen to be going back up into the attic and
going into the trunks. I’m more interested in tomorrow.
– Robbie Robertson

Over the years The Band would tour in different incarnations with others sitting in to play, Eric Clapton and John Hiatt to name a couple. The Band appeared with Roger Waters at the The Wall Live in Berlin concert in 1990, and in Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert celebration in New York City in October 1992. The group was the opening band for the final Grateful Dead shows at Soldier Field, in ChicagoIllinois in July 1995.

On December 10, 1999, Rick Danko died in his sleep at age 55. The Band never played together again.

In 2002 Robbie Robertson purchased all other former members’ financial interests in the group, with the exception of Helm. That gave him major control of the group’s material, including latter-day compilations.

Garth Hudson continues to make music on the local scene in New York.

Levon Helm rode out some hard times in the late nineties. He battled back from surgery in 1998 to remove throat cancer and endured several months of radiation treatment. His renovated barn/recording studio at his New York farm was reduced to ashes in a devastating fire. The death of his long time friend and band-mate Rick Danko was exceptionally hard on Helms. But he moved on and through a series of late night session which became known as the Midnight Ramble, he retuned his voice and continues to perform today.

Helm’s forged a career outside music by acting in several Hollywood films most notably as Narrator, Jack Ridley, in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Most recently he played Confederate General John Hood in the 2009 film In the Electric Mist with Tommy Lee Jones and John Goodman.

To the best of my knowledge, Levon Helms and Robbie Robertson never put aside their differences.

The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Rock & Roll Saturday – Bob Dylan at 70

There are few people in pop culture who achieve the status of national treasure. Bob Dylan is one of them. In the history of Rock and Roll, Bob Dylan is likely its most prolific voice with a seemingly never ending basket of song.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, MN., he spent his youthful years in Hibbing, nearly 100 miles northwest of his birthplace. His grandparents immigrated from Russia and Lithuania, in the early 1900s.

In 1955 Zimmerman was a freshman at Hibbing High School. He spent most of his spare time listening to radio stations out of the south that played delta blues and early rock & roll. Popular songs of the year included Chuck Berry’s Maybellene, Fats Domino’s Ain’t That a Shame, Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, and Earth Angel by The Penguins.

Gunsmoke, The Honeymooners, and Captain Kangaroo, all premiered on CBS television that same year. The World Series is broadcast in color for the first time changing the way we would view TV forever.

By that time Zimmerman already knew what he wanted to do in life. During high school he formed several bands including the Golden Chords who did covers of popular songs. At their high school talent school, the principal deemed their performance of “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” too loud and immediately turned off the microphone.

Bob Dylan circa 1959

As a senior, he listed in the Hemming HS yearbook as his ambition, “To follow Little Richard.”

Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis and enrolled in the University of Minnesota in 1959. It was there his love of Rock & Roll evolved into a deeper embrace of folk music. Some years later he would talk of this time saying, “The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough … There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms … but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.” (Liner notes of his Biograph 1985 compilation set)

Zimmerman began playing at the 10 O’clock Scholar, a coffee house a few blocks from campus, and became actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit. It was around this time when he began performing as Bob Dylan. In his autobiography, Dylan acknowledged he had been influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

Explaining his change of name in a 2004 interview, Dylan remarked: “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

Dylan dropped out of college in his freshman year and moved to New York City where he hoped to perform and meet his idol, Woody Guthrie, who had recently taken ill and hospitalized with Huntington’s Disease.

He did meet Guthrie and came away from that face-to-face with a refreshed attitude about the direction of his music. Over the next few months, playing coffee shops and bars in Greenwich Village, Dylan made a name for himself as a voice of civil rights and protest. He signed with Columbia Records in October of ’61. His first album titled simply, Bob Dylan, had little commercial success, selling only 5,000 copies, just enough to break even. There were factions at Columbia that believed Dylan had little future in the business and encouraged producer John Hammond, to release him from his contract. Boy, were they wrong.

Dylan’s second LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May of 1963. On the strength of his “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the album rapidly climbed the Billboard charts topping out at #22 (and eventually going Platinum) on the U.S. list and #1 on the U.K. list. Blowin’ in the Wind eventually became an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary.

On a personal note, my first real introduction to Bob Dylan came through his 1965 hit single, “Like a Rolling Stone.” In reflection this six minute song changed me in ways I could not fathom. The lyrics touched every fabric of rebellion boiling within me. At the time I didn’t understand the depth of the song. I believe few of us really did.

But Dylan understood. Like a Rolling Stone changed him at his foundation. In an interview with CBC radio, Dylan related the, “breakthrough”, he experienced because of this song. He was at a crossroads in his career and on the precipice of quitting the business. He said he found himself writing “this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that was what I should do … After writing that I wasn’t interested in writing a novel, or a play. I just had too much, I want to write songs.”

In the years since Bob Dylan has compiled a catalog of music unrivaled in the short span of popular music history. No other artist has been covered as much by so many. He has been elevated well above the place most musicians aspire to. He has been called, the voice of a generation, a master poet, a social critic, and a guiding spirit. In a field of millions he has modestly separated himself as a giant among his peers. At 70 years old Dylan is still touring. His music will endure for generations to come, long after you and I are blowing in the wind.

On a sad side note, The Greenwich Village Coffee Bar, the Fat Black Pussycat, where Dylan penned, Blowing in the Wind, lost its iconic sign to a can of red paint a few days ago. Local historians were outraged. The times… they are a changin’…