See the man with the stage fright
Just standing up there to give it all his might
And he got caught in the spotlight
But when you get to the end, you want to start all over again
– “Stage Fright,” The Band
Toronto — The crowd whooped in approval. After all, Dylan had just finished his sixth number, “The Ballad of a Thin Man,” had offered a quick bow, had moved down the stage steps and into his modest backstage quarters, leaving the Band on its own. Now Rick Danko marched up to the mike, past the booming guitar intro:
Now deep in the heart of the lonely kid
Who suffered so much for what he did
They gave this ploughboy his fortune and fame
Since that day he ain’t been the same
“It’s accidental,” said Robbie Robertson, the Band’s lead guitarist, spokesman, and composer of “Stage Fright.”
“I mean, it was not put there because (he whistled a brain-stormed, what-a-clever-idea whistle) ‘If we do this here! . . .’ at all. The key that ‘Stage Fright’ is in, coming after the song before it — it’s a nice lift. It’s picked musically and for its tempo. It’s not necessarily picked because it’s relevant to this or that.”
“Stage Fright” is, in fact, “about ourselves,” said Robertson. “We’re those kind of people — not outgoing, basically shy. We’ve never been very comfortable showing off. We play music, write songs and like to play them, but we have never and will never really have it in the palm of our hand. And we don’t want to. We enjoy that rush of being scared. A lot of people I’ve gone to see, it just seems to roll off their tongue. They don’t seem to sweat. You see no pain in them whatsoever. It’s just a wonderful evening of entertainment. It’s not for us. It’s turmoil. It’s pulled out like a tooth.”
But the music is at least as painstaking as it is painful. Doing ten songs of their own each concert and backing up Dylan on another 13 each show, the Band is winning over each audience it faces. And that is not an easy achievement, given the complete absorption by each audience into the anticipated presence, the overriding mystique of Dylan.
One critic of the Band complained about their “blase professionalism.” Others hear it as a precise execution of some of the best, most thoughtful and picturesque American rock & roll compositions ever produced, mostly written by Jaime “Robbie” Robertson. And the Band (Robertson on lead guitar, Levon Helm on drums and vocals. Rick Danko on bass and vocals, Richard Manuel on keyboards and vocals, and Garth Hudson on organ) is not and cannot be a machine, as it has to roll with Dylan’s musical changes of mind almost every show.
We are at the Inn on the Park in Toronto. On the way here to this hotel in Don Valley, we passed through a part of town, hidden by snow in the night, that got Robbie smiling: “This is Cabbagetown,” he said. “You know, on the cover of Moondog Matinee? I described the feeling of the place to the artist, and he got it just perfect.” Robertson and all of the Band, except Levon, are from Canada, and he’s quite at ease, talking with a low voice, at a slow gait.
The touring history of the Band, since their emergence in 1968 from the big pink house in Woodstock, is a simple one: They’ve done as little as possible, taking a year and a half off between the recorded concert in New York, December 31st, 1971, to a Watkins Glen appearance in July, 1973. Then nothing until the Dylan tour. The Band prefer to stay home with families — all are now in Malibu, along with the Bob Dylan family — and work on albums.
And, as Robertson repeated several times, in various contexts, the Band are not “very in-touch people,” and they don’t relate to much of the current rock scene. There is more than a touch of elitism when Robertson states: “We don’t have fancy outfits or sparklers on our eyes, and we don’t cut off our heads.”
But even the albums come hard. After Rock Of Ages, the live set from New Year’s Eve at the Academy of Music, Robertson considered a few soundtrack offers, then decided to do another album of original songs. He’d written a few tunes, he said, and the Band began the album; then he shifted into another gear. He had been listening to the avant-garde classical music of Krzysztof Penderecki:
“I bought one of his albums a few years ago because I liked the album cover: It was a guy holding a candle. Very spooky looking cover. One day I put it on and I thought, ‘My God. That’s terrific.’ I think he is the contemporary classical writer of this age.
“He doesn’t just use strings or orchestras. He uses very unorthodox techniques. He uses guitars and 30 men singing at half an octave below their range. It’s incredible, what he reaches for, and I like very much the lyrics that he writes and I find his music haunting. Other people’s music I can shake off very easily. His music I cannot sluff off like that.”
Robertson’s own writing, however, is not outwardly changed by his admiration for Penderecki. “Just like you could be influenced by Leadbelly; it doesn’t mean that you’ll write Leadbelly tunes. It just means you like him, but you don’t necessarily do anything similar to what he does at all. But Penderecki is who I’ve listened to to get where I am now, musically.”
So Robertson and the Band began putting together a new, more ambitious album. “More of a works than just some songs,” he said. “But after getting into it for a while I realized that it was much more involved and advanced, that it took a whole other kind of writing and attention. You couldn’t knock them off the way you could other things. So after about half way into it we said we got to do something. I mean we got to do something to just say hello to everybody again. We were fooling around one day and we played a couple of tunes that we used to play years ago, and it was really fun, and we said, ‘Gee, why don’t we do our old nightclub act?’
“It seemed like people wouldn’t object to that at this point because a lot of people feel nostalgic, because what’s happening now is kind of watery and they’re picking the past apart again, so it seemed to make sense.
“It wasn’t as easy as I thought. A lot of the tunes were hard to get into seriously. I mean, to do ‘Bony Maronie’ — you listen to it and you say, ‘Whew!’ It was fine, but we don’t mean it. We can’t mean ‘Bony Maronie.’ So the ones we picked are the ones we believed the most.”
The result was Moondog Matinee (named after Alan Freed’s Cleveland radio show of 1951. The Moon Dog Show on WJW), featuring tunes like “The Great Pretender,” “I’m Ready,” “Mystery Train,” “Holy Cow,” and “Share Your Love.”
Next would be the album with Dylan, cut in three days in November at Village Recorders studio in Los Angeles. Robertson, who supervised the sound on the album and mixed it, with Village chief engineer Ron Frabroni, was enthusiastic: “Oh, man, what a record! And it just gets better and better and better. The more you live with it. It happened so quick and it’s great. It’s just right on the dot.”
Why did it happen so quick?
“We were not going to play around,” said Robertson. “Drive it into the ground.”
Frabroni, 23, previously worked with Dylan in 1971 — at the Record Plant in New York on the Dylan/Allen Ginsberg album that was never released (“It wasn’t on the commercial side,” he said). Robbie had heard about the studio, which included a new room and monitoring system put together by Frabroni. “He heard it was tight,” the engineer said. “And it’s out of town (in West L.A., near Westwood). When the Stones were there it was comfortable for them; they had security.” (Dylan and the Band were booked under the names “Judge Magney,” a name picked by studio general manager Dick La Palm and, coincidentally, a rest stop on Highway 61 along the Minnesota border). The only visitors to the sessions were Cher Bono (friend of Elektra-Asylum head David Geffen), Geffen himself and Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss, who sang backup on one track. “It was good,” Frabroni said, “but it had a different feel and wasn’t left in.”
Only three songs required overdubs, Frabroni recalled: “Going Going Gone,” “Never Say Goodbye,” and “On a Night Like This.”
Two of the songs, Frabroni said, were written in the studio: “Dirge” and “Wedding Song.”
“One Saturday afternoon, after the cutting with the Band was finished, we were putting together a master reel. Dylan was writing ‘Wedding Song.’ He told me he wanted to record. So I set up some mikes and we let it roll, and that was the take. You’ll hear some noises on the track; those are from buttons on his sleeve hitting the guitar.”
Next for the Band, according to Robertson, will be either a live album from Watkins Glen, the “works” album, or another record with Dylan.
Finally, the Band is yet to decide its business future. David Geffen, the man who brought Dylan into the Elektra-Asylum, had told me he’s also signed the Band. Robertson denied it. What about after their commitment to Capitol, consisting of two more albums?
“Ummm . . . I’m not sure,” he said. “I think we have our hands full with other things. I’m not thinking about that too much, really. It’s not very interesting to think about. And it will just kind of take care of itself in the next few months.”