It’s home made, Robbie Robertson says, done in the house they rented in Hollywood last winter in which they fixed up a room with baffles and a projector for flicks and the recording equipment. Robbie was engineer for about 90% of the work and they really produced the album themselves. John Simon, aside from being odd man in for the horn section, became “that outside ear and outside opinion you could trust.”
So it really is just the Band.
There are twelve tracks. Robbie wrote eight of the songs himself and collaborated on one with Levon Helm and on three with Richard Manuel. Richard Manuel sings lead on five of them, Levon sings lead on four, Rick Danko on three and there are numerous occasions when the lead voice is joined by another and sometimes two others. Robbie and Garth Hudson do not sing at all on the album, unless they are way in the background on some of the ensemble vocal bits.
The band doubles all over the place on various instruments. Richard Manuel, for instance, not only sings but plays piano, drums, baritone sax and mouth harp; Garth plays organ, clavinette (which he keeps on top of the organ), accordion, soprano, tenor and baritone sax and slide trumpet. Levon plays drums, mandolin and guitar; Rick Danko plays bass, violin and trombone and John Simon plays tuba (a fine effort, too, it is), baritone and pack horn, and Robbie plays guitar.
About the only way I can go about discussing the content of the album is to use as an illustration a view of Mt. Tamalpais on the Pacific Coast shore line above San Francisco. The western part of that mountain runs right down to the sea and the more you look at it, the more you see. Week in, week out, month by month, hour by hour even, nature conducts a change which rings through the twelve months and the four seasons, and there is the change in daylight when the sun shifts and the shadows bring out silhouettes and crevices in the rocks and accentuate the gullies and the draws and at night when there’s moonlight, it is a different mountain altogether.
The album is like that. It is full of sleepers, diamonds that begin to glow at different times. As with the Beatles and Dylan and the Stones and Crosby-Stills and Nash, the album seems to change shape as you continue to play it. The emphasis shifts from song to song and songs prominent in the early listening will retreat and be replaced in your consciousness by others, only in later hearings to move to the fore again. Little things pop up unexpectedly after numerous listenings and the whole thing serves as a definition of what Gide meant by the necessity of art having density.
Take “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a Civil War song sung by Levon (“I aimed it right at him, I wrote it for him, he gets to say it all,” Robbie says). It is the story of a Rebel soldier who served on the Danville and Richmond railroad which supplied Richmond during the war and which was cut several times by Gen. George Stoneman’s Union Cavalry. Virgil Kane is the soldier’s name and the song builds a story of the winter after Appomattox, lean and sparse like a Hemingway short story.
Nothing that I have read, from Bruce Catton to Douglas Southall Freeman, from Fletcher Pratt to Lloyd Lewis, has brought home to me the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is the Red Badge of Courage. It is a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Rick and Richard Manuel in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some oral tradition material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of ’65 to today. It has the ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity. Yet after playing the album a dozen times, I began to feel that “Dixie” was an obvious song, the superficial standout number on the album and I acquired other favorites. But I kept coming back and coming back until now I am prepared to say that, depending on one’s mood, these songs stand, each on its own, as equal sides of a twelve-faceted gem, the whole of which is geometrically greater than the sum of the parts.
Just as “Dixie” evokes history, “Up On Cripple Creek” throws images of trucks and trailers rolling down the great inland highways, putting the Danville and Richmond Railroad, as well as many others, out of business. “Up On Cripple Creek” is a modern song, its rhetoric is the rhetoric of today and even the line “When I get off of this mountain, ‘y’ know where I’m gonna go, straight down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico” (on Highway 61 from Minneapolis to New Orleans, paralleling Ole Miss?), which is, as a friend remarked, surely the oldest line in American folk history, does not date it. “Cripple Creek” is the story of a trucker and the gal he has stashed away in Lake Charles, “a drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” It is a salty, sexy, earthy (rather than funky) ballad and it is Levon who sings it with a little help from his friends Rick and Richard. (Levon’s chuckle towards the end is surely the nastiest, dirtiest, evilest sexual snort in the history of the phonograph record). And again the rhythmic tension created between the interplay of the bass and drums and the line of the voice sets up a tremendously moving pulse. It vies with “Dixie” as the song that hooks you first and like the former it fades and then returns to fade and return again.
I hear these songs as a sound track to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, to the real documentary of the American truth. They are sparse songs with never a superfluous note or an unnecessary syllable. And yet the sparseness, like a Picasso line, is so right that it implies everything needed. Lean and dusty, perhaps, like Henry Fonda walking down the road at the beginning of Grapes of Wrath, it says volumes in a phrase (“me and my mate, we were at the shack, we had Spike Jones on the box. I can’t take the way he sings, but I love to hear him talk”) and though the device is folkish the images are contemporary (“I’ll bring over my Fender and I’ll play all night for you” in “Jemima Surrender,” a racy love song).
There is, paradoxically, no paradox at all in the electrical band giving forth the simple philosophy of country living backed by the sounds of Fender bass and electric guitar (there hasn’t been really since TVA). Robbie’s wah-wah pedal makes a human sound and the snarl of his guitar string twisting through the amplifier is the triumph of the man over the machine. That they could produce this contemporary marvel in the basement, home cookin’, so to speak, is in itself a triumph of man over the increasing complexities of the electronic studio and its 60 hours of recording, twelve track machines and God knows how much overdubbing. The simple way, with only as much overdubbing as is needed to allow Garth to play organ and then dub on a horn track, turns out in the end to be more effective (and greater art) than the electronic marvels.
With their flashing images of the American continental landscape, Canadians though they are, they speak for the continent in “King Harvest Has Surely Come.” They could have called the album America, Robbie says, and after you play it a few times you know what he means. We live in these cities and we forget that there is more than 3000 miles between New York and the smog of Los Angeles and those 3000 miles are deeply rooted to another world in another time and with another set of values. “King Harvest” takes us there.
The hymn-like quality of the voicings, the use of counterpoint and contrapuntal rhythms by the singers, the weaving of the voices in and out into a pattern that grows each time you hear it, are the things that make the sound of this music so compelling. In “King Harvest,” as in other songs, individual sections with contrasting timbres, moods, rhythms and sounds are juxtaposed to make a totality that is so open it can cover whatever you feel. The sense of doom, almost Biblical in its prophetic warning, of “Look Out, Cleveland” is unique in contemporary popular song, so far removed from the obvious morbidity of some of the songs of past years as to be an adult to their child. (This music, of course, is mature, made by men who know who they are and what they want to do. Its appeal to the teenybopper Top 40 audience seems, on the evidence, to be limited.)
In a way, it seems to me that the use of the drums in this band typifies how their music in constructed. The drums are not used solely to keep time nor solely to underscore a line or emphasize a rhythm. Rather the drums are used as sound, as punctuation, as the spine for the whole skeleton of the song. Levon uses wooden drums and tunes the bass so that it gets a crunchy, not a zappy sound, as Robbie explains it, which is like a punch in the stomach. You hear the drums if you listen for them, but, like the bass, you feel them all the time. That is how the music is made, out of the flesh and blood of human beings and part of their flesh and blood and its humanity sings to you, music that you feel you know. It has the sound of familiarity in every new line because it is ringing changes on the basic truths of life, you have been there before, and like the truths of life itself, it nourishes you. As the old pitchman used to say, “it’s good for what ails you and it gives you what you haven’t got.”