five guys in a big pink house.This Essay Should Be Read Out Loud!
The Band didn't have a leader. They didn't even have a lead singer. They had three voices who could carry a band all by themselves, and everyone took a turn at the mic. Five guys, and everyone took a turn being the one who made The Band The Band. Robbie made the songs, and Garth made the sound. Richard had a contradiction of a voice, and Levon had the vision. Rick made the harmonies that held it all together.
This was the 1960s, the decade of the singer-songwriter. Robbie Robertson was the songwriter, but he wasn't a singer. He played with Ronnie Hawkins; he backed-up Dylan. Everyone knew Robbie's guitar, but no one guessed there was an American myth inside that Canadian heart. He had the stories and the songs, but Robbie didn't find his voice until he found The Band. Only the voice he found wasn't his own. It was Levon Helm's. It was Rick Danko's. It was Richard Manuel's.
Everything hard about Richard's life come out when he sang, but he made it sound beautiful. He opened his mouth and an impossible falsetto came out. Whether their name was cheeky or lazy or wonderfully sly, The Band could never be just a band, just a rock band, not with Richard singing behind his piano.
Garth Hudson didn't know he was in a rock band. That's what made his rock band great. He played gospel organ and country accordion and R&B saxophone. He played whatever he picked up, and though he barely said a word, Garth defined The Band's sound.
You can cover a song by The Band and get the lyrics right. But without the organ, without the harmonies, without the deep Southern rasp and the high falsetto, it doesn't sound like The Band. Even if you get all that right, you still don't have Rick Danko.
Rick was the centre, the bassline that all the extremes of The Band could hang on to. He kept them together long enough to make a few albums and play a few shows. Before it was even over, he already had the best post-Band song. Sip the Wine is the song he plays off tape in The Last Waltz when Scorsese asks, what’s next? Rick almost seems sheepish, unsure, because he didn’t have the vision or the songs or the sound or the voice, but he was the first of the five to say, fuck it, and put out an album all his own. A solo album that also includes guest appearances from every other member of The Band. Because, even when The Band is no longer The Band, Rick Danko finds a way to keep them together.
If The Band did have a leader, it was Levon Helm. He couldn’t be the frontman, not from behind the drums, and he was happy to let Richard and Rick sing, too. He didn’t write the songs, but every song Robbie wrote was for Levon. The two of them fought, a lot, and I think they really hated each other for a long time in the middle, but maybe Levon never realised how much those songs were Robbie’s love letters to the place Levon called home.
The Band was 4/5ths Canadian, but their music is pure Americana. Levon is the reason why. He pushed them to break away from Ronnie Hawkins and make it on their own. He pushed again to get them out from under Dylan. He hated The Last Waltz because it looked like Scorsese’s vision of the band, not their own. When you look at how he spent the last years of his life, playing the Midnight Rambles in his barn with his friends, Levon was probably happiest when The Band was those five guys in a big pink house in New York.
If you're looking for an appropriate memorial, watch this performance of Don’t Do It, recorded at their 1971 New Year’s Eve show that became a live album, Rock of Ages. Better yet, get together with some friends and make some music of your own. That's how Levon would want to be remembered.
The best part of this video is the end, when the audience is hooting and hollering for more. Levon gets up from the drums, but instead of taking a bow, he points to the horn section and makes sure they get the applause they deserve. He claps for them, too. That was Levon. That was The Band.
They had been the back-up band before. Even at their farewell concert--Thanksgiving this time--at the Winterland Ballroom in 1976, they chose to invite all their friends and make them sing instead. The Band played The Band's songs, and then they sang Joni Mitchell's songs and Neil Diamond's and Van Morrison's. They started their career as the guys who played for big singers with bigger voices, and they ended it that way, too, playing back-up once again to Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan.
That final bow in 1976 wasn't the final bow for The Band, but they never found the same sound. They couldn't, not with all five of them, and all five of them never played together again. But I won't be sad. Because they found each other once, and because they made music.
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