Jonathan Taplin caught the group later in that same 1965 tour. "It was astonishing," he remembers. "They were louder than any band I'd ever heard. At that time, there was nothing like it. As it went on, into 1966, they got even more daring. I have live tapes from England with Robbie playing outrageous high-note blues guitar. Nobody was playing like that. Then, when everybody else got into that kind of style, he began to look for a new sound, a more delicate, less bluesy kind of thing. He's just a killer musician. On that record he made with John Hammond in 1964, they had Robbie playing the guitar and Mike Bloomfield on piano. I mean, it was obvious who was the better player then. But you know, they're all killer players. The funny thing is, when they became the Band, they constantly tried to play down solos, musicianship, that kind of thing, in order to be an ensemble, when in fact they were the best solo players in the music at that time. Whenever there would be a jam session, Garth was a far better organ player than anybody, and Robbie, when he'd get together with other guitar players, would amaze everybody with his rides."
Taplin was going to Princeton and acting as road manager for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, another Albert Grossman act, when he met the Band. Dylan was in seclusion following his motorcycle accident, but they all were seeing a lot of each other in Woodstock, getting together, trading songs, making the recordings that later surfaced as The Basement Tapes. "By then," says Robbie, "the give-and-take was an everyday procedure, whether we were traveling around the world or hanging out in somebody's kitchen. It was an education for all of us, and it was fun." You can hear a strong mutual fascination on The Basement Tapes. Dylan, the urban-folkie-turned-rocker, found in the Hawks a direct connection with the roots of rock — blues, country, rockabilly — and the Band found in Dylan a new understanding of what rock could become. Robbie was writing songs again. "Bob taught me a certain liberty," he says. "How to tell a story in a short form without necessarily having to go from point A to point B. I mean, he broke down a whole lot of the tradition of songwriting right before my very eyes. With all the rules broken, you could go ahead and tell the truth without having to do some kind of fancy dance. But I was never too hot for the messages and the poetry, that side of it, because I just didn't come out of that school. I never thought I was writing poetry; they were songs."
The songs Robbie ended up writing came out steeped in the South's bottom lands and shacks and cotton fields, steeped in the Baptist and Holy Roller churches where folks in the throes of religious hysteria invented the duck walk and all the other classic rock & roll moves. During the first months in Woodstock the songs had come slowly, and maybe that was because Levon, who'd tired of the road shortly before Dylan's European tour and gone back to the South, wasn't with them. They recorded a lot of the music on The Basement Tapes without him, but they found that they needed that razorback spirit and never-say-die Confederate orneriness to be a real band. When Levon rejoined them and sunk roots in Woodstock — today he is the only member who still lives there — the transformation was complete. They were no longer the Hawks, a band; they were the Band.
Taplin helped the Band move into Sammy Davis Jr.'s old house in Hollywood to record their second album in the winter of 1968. They built a makeshift recording studio in the pool house, where Levon lived for the duration of the sessions. Once the place was set up, Jonathan went back to finish at Princeton. When he returned, the Band sat him down and played him "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
"It was May," he says, "and they'd just finished it the night before. They said it'd come out fast and hard and clean. It was just the most moving experience I'd had for, God, I don't know how long. Because for me, being a Northern liberal kid who'd been involved in the civil-rights movement and had a whole attitude toward the South, well, I loved the music but I didn't understand where white Southerners were coming from. And to have it all in just three and a half minutes, the sense of dignity and place and tradition, all those things....Well, the next day, after I'd recovered, I went to Robbie and asked him. 'How did that come out of you?' And he just said that from being with Levon so long in his life and being in that place at that time.... It was so inside him that he wanted to write that song right at Levon, to let him know how much those things meant to him."
To the world at large, Music from Big Pink and The Band were the remarkable beginnings of a remarkable new group. In reality, they were the crowning fruition of a career that had spanned almost a decade. Of all the rock groups making music during those heady years, the Band was the one that was most in touch with the music's history and its heartland, the one that realized most clearly how inseparably music, past and place were linked. After they completed the second album, they went out on their first tour as the Band, a tour that has been chronicled elsewhere, most notably in Greil Marcus' book, Mystery Train, and, perhaps, in some of the lyrics on the Band's third album, the aptly titled Stage Fright. When one suggests to Robbie Robertson that the tour really was the beginning of a new ball game, he nods his head. "You're right. For us it was, anyway. The first two albums were really like the fulfillment of something."
Cut to Los Angeles, early 1978. Robbie is in his small office on the MGM movie lot, taking care of detail work, fulfilling his responsibilities as producer of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. In the office next door, Jonathan Taplin, who went on from his work with the Band to produce Scorsese's Mean Streets, is serving as the new film's executive producer. "The road didn't really change that much," Robbie says over a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a chain of cigarettes, "just different-class hotels, different-class transportation. I guess the first stage could have been more deadly just in terms of how physically dangerous it was. The second stage was dangerous too, but more on a head level. It really was kind of a mindfuck." And so is the movie. All those faces from the early days, the period with Dylan, the second stage. The energy in the music and its weathered, lived-in quality — every phrase, every note sighs from sixteen years on the road — are almost too intense. "We would watch the footage and not be able to watch it again for a day and a half," Scorsese said the night before. "We would come home drained."
The important thing is that the Band didn't go down in a plane crash or on the highway, or down in spirits and chemicals like so many of their contemporaries. They flirted with the edge, some members more hungrily than others, but in the end they set a date for their demise as a touring unit, arranged for it to take place where they played their first engagement as the Band, threw a party instead of a wake, got to do some of their favorite songs one last time with their favorite artists and friends, and captured the whole thing for their grandchildren. How many other rock & roll bands have been able to say as much?
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