The Band is my favorite musical group of all time. (NRBQ is probably second.) My favorite sports team of all time would be the Boston Celtics teams of the 60s and 80s. To me, the Band is to team music what the Celtics are to team ball. If you’re not into sports… I recall a music critic who maintained something along the lines of: They’re the only band where the rhythm section is actually the lead. Maybe that says the same thing.
Only diehard fans can name all five members. Many casual fans might not know any of the names. While Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm would likely be considered the leaders, the ensemble made a clear break from the conventional lead singer/guitar axis exemplified in such duos as Jagger/Richards (Stones), Daltry/Townsend (Who), Plant/Page (Zeppelin), Tyler/Perry (Aerosmith) and so on. Four of the five sang and the vocally silent odd man out, the classically trained Garth Hudson, was probably the most accomplished and versatile musician of the bunch.
They began in the late 50s as road warriors — Robbie was only 16 — with Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks. They earned their chops in the wayward bars and clubs of Canada and the U.S. Although often lumped in with the roots/Americana music category, only one – Arkansan Levon Helm – grew up in the U.S. The others were born and raised in Canada. Their first taste of big success came when they secured their place in rock history as the musicians backing Bob Dylan when he (in)famously “went electric.” Their landmark debut, Music from Big Pink (#34 on Rolling Stones Top 500 Albums list), was released in 1968. Islands, their last studio album came out less than a decade later. In order to understand and appreciate what went on in between, treat yourself to a viewing of The Last Waltz, the 1978 film (Fun fact: Martin Scorsese, director) about their last concert. The guest list of performers says it all.
Robertson’s fascinating book doesn’t even get to the Band years until past its halfway point. Born to a mother of Mohawk/Iroquois roots and a Jewish father, he took to music immediately and came to personify my working definition of a musician: Any individual who can’t not play music. His childhood drive toward mastery is striking and his stories of the people he bumped into on the way up are beyond fascinating. In addition to Dylan, a short list would include: Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Brian Jones, Van Morrison, Tiny Tim, Todd Rundgren, Allen Ginsburg, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, all 4 Beatles, Jimmy James (AKA Jimi Hendrix), Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and on and on.
Like many high powered musical groups, there was conflict. Drug problems on the part of some members undoubtedly had the dual effect of shortening their time together and detracting from their later recording and performing outputs. The brotherly relationship between Helm and Robertson ended so acrimoniously that the two barely spoke over the 3+ post-Last Waltz decades. (Robertson reportedly paid Helm a visit on the latter’s death bed.)
Three of the five are deceased. Only Robertson and Hudson survive. The tortured Richard Manuel hanged himself in a Florida hotel room during an attempted minus-Robertson mid-80s comeback. (To hear and appreciate Manuel’s vocals, give a listen to “She Knows,” one of the most achingly beautiful songs ever recorded. Then, if you like that, check out his take on “Georgia On My Mind.”) Helm and Rick Danko succumbed to illnesses. (Check out: Helms on (my favorite band song) “Ophelia” and Danko on “It Makes No Difference.”)
Robertson steers clear of any effort to try to analyze the antagonistic interpersonal dynamics at work near the end. He could rightfully feel that these matters are well covered in two 1993 books: Levon Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire; Barry Hoskyn’s Across the Great Divide. In any case, he ends his book at The Last Waltz concert, arguably the group’s crowning glory. If you give the film a look, you’ll probably see (and hear!) why.