THERE'S a new Rolling Stones single, Angry. I’m obviously glad that Mick, Keith and Ronnie and whoever play bass and drums these days are still out there, trying, but I can’t say that I’m impressed.
I don’t like the riff, which mates Undercover of the Night with Start Me Up. But Start Me Up had a lovely groove, and this one… well, it doesn’t. In fact, to these ears it sounds rather unpleasant. The lyrics are very Jaggeresque — a tale of a relationship that has run its course. But hey, he sings, it’s not his fault, don’t get angry with him.
The sentiments expressed in Angry remind me of Till the Next Goodbye, the ballad that appeared on It’s Only Rock ’n Roll from 1974. It has Jagger singing cold-heartedly: “And I don’t need no fancy food and I don’t need no fancy wine/ And I sure don’t need the tears you cry." That song, however, has a beautiful arrangement, and the guitars of Mick Taylor and Keith Richards intertwine like parting lovers. Angry lacks all this. Here the Rolling Stones sound like INXS wanting to sound like the Rolling Stones. Maybe the album, Hackney Diamonds, which will come out next month, will be a stunner. Who knows? But don’t hold your breath.
Angry fits in well with the subject that I want to talk about: the death of Robbie Robertson last month. I’m not very familiar with his solo work but I do love The Band. Their first couple of albums and their work with Bob Dylan have everything Angry lacks: warmth, empathy, compassion, humour, and a deep, rootsy sense of history.
Robertson’s death kept bugging me. I wasn’t sure why. Sure, those early albums with The Band and his work with Dylan are terrific. But there wasn't much of a personal connection, not on the level of Neil Young or Keith Richards, whose deaths I would find devastating. So I read the obituaries, listened to podcasts, dug out old interviews and rewatched the documentary Once Were Brothers, and it finally dawned on me: pop music wouldn’t have been the same if Robbie Robertson hadn’t met Bob Dylan in 1965, a meeting that Time called “the most decisive moment in rock history".
The New York rendezvous was important for various reasons. First, it soon gave us a new genre: “rock", a decisive move away from the “pop" label that was still attached to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Subsequently it changed the direction of that same rock music, laying the foundation for “roots music", resulting in an endless list of great works by all the important bands, including The Beatles (Let It Be), Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin III), Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), Blind Faith (Blind Faith), Traffic (John Barleycorn Must Die), Grateful Dead (American Beauty), Rod Stewart (Every Picture Tells a Story) and The Kinks (Muswell Hillbillies). And finally, it gave us alt-country and Americana, delightful new voices such as Wilco, The Jayhawks, Son Volt, Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell and The Replacements.
And all this because on that fateful day in the summer of 1965 Dylan asked Robertson to be in his backing band for his first full-on electric tour. At the time, Robertson’s group the Hawks had just broken up. Working with American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, they had been a tight little unit, having performed in a million dive bars all over the country, places steeped in blood, sweat and beer. They were tough, hard-drinking, working-class okes. Four of them, Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, were Canadian, while drummer and band leader Levon Helm was a southerner from Arkansas. They hardly knew who Dylan was and couldn’t care less. Basically, they were everything the anti-war, self-righteous folk crowd, who saw acoustic The-Times-They-Are-A-Changin Dylan as the messiah, despised.
Robertson and Dylan were introduced by a young Canadian woman who worked for Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. She had heard that Dylan was looking for a backing band, and when he came into the office she said: “You gotta see these guys." They duly met, and Robertson had a little session with Bob in Grossman’s office on East 55th Street in Manhattan. In a later interview he recalled: “To be honest, that was the first time I ever really heard Bob Dylan. Sitting on a couch playing with him singing in this room. And that was the first time I said to myself, ‘There’s something to this, it kind of rambles a bit, but there is something about it.' I was playing a little loud, and I could see from his attitude that he wanted it to be rough."
And rough it would be. Violent, even. Dylan would transform from a beatnik folkie with a cap into a sharply dressed, amphetamine-fuelled rocker, playing music that had not been heard before: hard electric rock. Dylan and his backing band went on tour in 1965 and 1966 and were invariably met with disbelief, if not downright hostility. First Dylan would do his acoustic set, then he would come back with his new band to play his electric songs, often climaxing with a furious version of Like a Rolling Stone. But that’s not what the fans wanted. They shouted him down. “Play folk music!" they yelled. “Traitor!" they screamed. As Robertson said in an interview with Record Collector: “Audiences on that tour didn’t want change. They came with preconceived notions of what this experience was going to be and wanted to boo and reject it. I don’t know of anybody in history who toured the world and people booed every night. It turns out they were wrong and we were right."
Dylan couldn’t care less. He urged the band to play on, as loud as they could. He became utterly defiant. As one of the interviewees in Barney Hoskyns’s biography of The Band, Across the Great Divide (Pimlico, 2003), recalled, “he was playing as if he had a fucking army behind him".
It was a two-way thing. Dylan learnt how to rock and his five musicians learnt how to get rid of the restrictions that rockabilly and rock 'n roll had imposed on them. They opened up, experimented with sound and song structures. Robertson, in particular, was excited by the new possibilities of songwriting. Together they put the boot into “folk rock", which Dylan considered a dead end. This was pure rock, louder and snarkier than anything The Beatles or the Rolling Stones had done by that time. It was in your face, angry, fuelled by speed and booze, a hurricane of keyboards and guitars over which a drugged-up Dylan shouted the words. Robertson called it “street music". And the crowds and critics hated it. They got so much flak that drummer Helm quit halfway through the tour.
Europe reacted the same way. A well-documented incident took place in Manchester, where a member of the audience shouted “Judas" at Dylan. The singer didn’t need long to respond. “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar," he retorted. When Robertson urged him to stop talking, he turned to his drummer and ordered him to play “fucking loud". These moments of pure punk attitude can be heard on the Live 1966 album, which was officially released in 1998.
And then, around the time of the release of Dylan’s expansive double album Blonde on Blonde, on which Robertson and Danko also played, things went quiet, frighteningly so. What happened was that on July 29, 1966, Bob was riding his motorbike in upstate New York and had an accident. There are a million theories about the seriousness of this accident. Did he really break his neck? Or was it the perfect opportunity for him to stay away from the limelight and regain control of his life, which because of the massive drugs intake had taken a self-destructive turn? As he told Rolling Stone writer Jann Wenner in 1969: “I had a dreadful motorcycle accident which put me away for a while, and I still didn’t sense the importance of that accident till at least a year after that. I realised that it was a real accident. I mean I thought that I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before… but I couldn’t do it any more."
He recovered in Woodstock, a small town at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, not too far from New York, with a long tradition as an artists’ hideout. The members of his backing band had also bought houses there. One of the buildings, occupied by Danko, Hudson and Manuel, had been christened Big Pink because of its size and colour. Soon enough they started making music again, in secret, far from managers and reporters. Only this time it wasn’t street rock but a completely different thing, music that rock critic Greil Marcus labelled The Old, Weird Americana, dipping into the wealth of obscure folk songs, country tunes, blues dirges, sea shanties, gospel laments, vaudeville and ragtime — “the backwaters of myth and tradition", as Hoskyns calls it in Across the Great Divide. “Each day at one o’clock," he writes, “Dylan and the band would assemble at the basement of Big Pink, get a little wasted and make music." They had, by all accounts, a fabulous time, playing and singing, fooling around with old tunes, making up silly lyrics (“Now look here dear Sue, you best feed the cat") on the spot. Sometimes they would do up to 15 songs a day. The amps were turned down and the voices blended together in unusual three-part harmonies, shaky and beautiful.
They recorded more than 100 songs, seven of which found their way to what would become the world’s most famous bootleg, Great White Wonder (1969). Six years later, a double album called The Basement Tapes was released, containing 24 songs from the sessions. Many more surfaced in 2014 as The Basement Tapes Complete, which was the 11th instalment of Dylan’s never-ending Bootleg Series. “Some of them were done in jest and having fun and some were recorded because they turned out to be beautiful songs," said Robertson, without specifically mentioning This Wheel’s on Fire, I Shall Be Released, Tears of Rage or You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.
The mythical basement songs, which were not meant to be released, caused a stir in the world of rock, artists rushing out to cover what had been “leaked". But what had an even bigger impact were the first two records by Dylan’s backing band, who now called themselves The Band. Their debut album, Music from Big Pink, was released in August 1968 and the eponymous follow-up the year after. Both came as a shock to the system of the long hair, kaftan and beads rock fraternity who by now were deep into psychedelic music, guitar histrionics, drum solos and overwrought vocals. And WHOOSH… there came Music from Big Pink, with its strange cover (no words, just a faux naif painting of six musicians, an elephant and an apple tree, made by Dylan himself). If you opened it, you saw five bearded men in hats, waistcoats and bootlace ties against a mountain backdrop. They looked like members of a religious cult, weathered outcasts from the gold rush era. The music and words echoed these images. Most of the songs were carried by piano and organ, with Robertson providing nifty, subtle guitar phrases that owed more to Curtis Mayfield than Jimi Hendrix. The vocals were shared by three lead singers whose voices formed unusual harmonies that sounded like a rough, earthy answer to The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. This was music from a different planet, seemingly ramshackle yet perfectly executed, the opposite of the druggy, sonic overkill that defined the late sixties. “We were rebelling against the rebellion," said Robertson.
The two albums emphasised the possibilities of American music, its roots and its endless tales. They opened up new vistas, which rock bands would keep exploring. As Eric Clapton put it: “[Music from Big Pink] had a shocking effect on more people than you can actually ever realise. The sound of music changed drastically after that first album — everywhere." Robertson, who was an autodidact with a huge interest in film, literature and history, was the main songwriter, the visionary who kept it all together and gave it direction.
The Band in their original line-up played their final show on Thanksgiving Day 1976. The concert resulted in The Last Waltz, which came out as a triple album and movie in 1978. Pianist Richard Manuel, whose falsetto was so characteristic for the sound of the group, struggled with serious alcohol and drug issues and committed suicide in 1986. Bassist Rick Danko was a long-term heroin addict; his heart finally gave up in 1999. Levon Helm died from throat cancer in 2012. With Robertson now also gone, this leaves the quiet, reticent multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson as the sole surviving member.
The Band’s praises have been sung many times. But no one did it better than Jason Isbell, who wrote a heartfelt tribute to five outsiders with Danko/Manuel. It’s full of melancholy lines like “Can you hear that singing, sounds like gold? Maybe I can only hear it in my head/ 15 years ago they owned that road/ Now it’s rolling over us instead/ Richard Manuel is dead." Here’s a live version, nine minutes plus. Watch it, it’s worth it. Then play Angry again...
♦ VWB ♦
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