That’s the name of a movie that shows the influence both had on the music of the late 1960s and early 70s. A lot of the story is probably familiar to those of us interested in the music of that time, but there are still some insights to be gained.
Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly singer who started out in the 1950s put what would become known as the Band together, beginning with drummer/guitarist Levon Helm, from Arkansas. Hawkins visited Canada looking for alternative places to play, and found them. He also found there were musically talented Canadians. The rest of the Band was recruited there.
They got to be pretty good, too, since they played a lot of gigs and rehearsed a lot. After two or three years of performing with Hawkins they decided they could do just as well on their own, and left him. They hadn’t been on their own too long (and hadn’t yet encountered fame or fortune) when Bob Dylan heard of them and hired them for the world tour he was about to undertake.
Dylan was by this time a Big Name. He had begun as a folk singer, enhanced his reputation by becoming a deft writer of protest songs, a la Woody Guthrie, an idol of his, but hadn’t stopped there. His lyrics began to expand beyond protest songs and love songs into philosophy. Not the kind of songs most fans of popular music had ever encountered. As his lyrical reach grew, he began to want to hear other sounds–amplified sounds. The folk music community had one stringent principle: electric music was not allowed.
Dylan more or less stuck his toe into electric music on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. The first five or six songs were electric; the last four acoustic. To my ear, the acoustic songs were better, both sonically and lyrically. Other fans saw the album differently.
Nor were they reassured when his next album, Highway 61 Revisited, came out. It was ALL electric, and the lyrics were even further out than before. It was after this album that he decided to perform with a backing band at all his concerts (though I believe he also did acoustic music for part of them). That’s where the Hawks (who would become the Band) came in. He had a world tour planned, and needed a reliable group behind him.
First he hired Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, guitarist and drummer. They prevailed on him to hire the rest of the group, which he did. But they were surprised to find that they were booed up and down at each concert. Helm didn’t like that, and may not have been too thrilled about their reversion to a backup band either, since he was the leader, and the usual lead singer. He decided to leave.
The rest of the group went on with the world tour, with the addition of drummer Mickey Jones. The boos followed them, and became irritating to Dylan, if not the others. It wasn’t as if the fans didn’t know he was playing electric music: He’d been playing it for the last album and a half, and a third album, Blonde on Blonde, released during the tour, continued the trend. The albums sold well, and so did the tickets, but it seemed that a sizable percentage of the audience bought tickets in order to boo.
In 1967 he and the group returned to this country, and he went to rest in Woodstock, New York. He needed to. His manager had overbooked him, and he’d been using amphetamines (at least) to keep going. It was in Woodstock that he had a motorcycle accident, broke a bone in his neck, and decided not to play the upcoming tour. The Band was living in a hotel in New York City until he invited them to come and live in Woodstock. They did, and there began to collaborate with him. The result was what became known as the Basement Tapes.
Dylan was paying the Band, which meant they didn’t have to find gigs. They could just relax and explore music they liked and were familiar with, as well as music they didn’t know. Dylan sat upstairs typing out songs, then brought them down to the basement, where the Band ran through them, and recorded them. They probably also just jammed, and maybe turned each other on to music they didn’t know. The Band didn’t know much about folk music. They may have known more about country and bluegrass. One of the narrators of the movie asks where the idea came from to record the songs. He thought the idea came from Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, who wasn’t crazy about Dylan not performing in concert. That meant less pay for him. With recorded songs he could give some to other artists (the Byrds; Peter, Paul & Mary; and Manfred Mann at least) and get paid for the publishing. It seems that Dylan was surprised, about this time, to discover that Grossman owned fifty percent of his publishing. The narrator points out that the songs emanating from Woodstock were what started the whole bootleg recording phenomenon.
In the late 1960s Dylan had enormous power in popular music. It was partly his influence that caused the explosion of American rock & roll. His next official album, John Wesley Harding, was (the narrator points out) pretty much acoustic, as if Dylan was saying, You want acoustic? Here it is.
It wasn’t what anyone had expected, and in addition to his next album, Nashville Skyline, greatly influenced a lot of bands to pay attention to country music at a time when many people thought country musicians were a bunch of redneck racists. The Byrds and Rolling Stones were two who paid attention. Then came a couple of albums by the Band.
Dylan hadn’t recorded with the Band. He’d gone to Nashville to record the two albums with studio musicians he’d worked with for Blonde on Blonde. But while they were in Woodstock the Band had found an identity when they didn’t have to worry about the next gig. They started writing and recording their own songs, as well as some by Dylan (at least one a collaboration), and more or less consciously decided to go against the psychedelic fashion, as well as their own loud and fast history. So they began their first album with Tears of Rage, a very slow and emotional song written about parents and children written from the parental point of view. That was WAY against the fashion. So was the photo of them with their families of origin, whom they obviously cared about. So was the instrumental break in Chest Fever which sounded, as their producer put it, like a Salvation Army band. No screaming guitars, but all of them playing like virtuosos.
Even more influential was their second album, The Band. Every single cut was at least good, if not great. The subject of the whole album was the world as seen from the South, which Robbie Robertson (who wrote most of the lyrics) had gotten from Levon Helm. The narrator raises the question as to whether Helm really appreciated the view that Robertson gave of his world. What Helm really DIDN’T appreciate was that Robertson gave himself the lion’s share of the songwriting credits. Helm thought the rest of the group, who had contributed to the arrangements, should get credit too.
That made things a bit tense, and the Band didn’t have that kind of success again. They still came up with some nice songs, but not as consistently. Part of it was partying too hard, which interfered with their ability to work. Approaching the mid-seventies their career was no longer in good shape. Neither was Bob Dylan’s.
Some people seemed to think that Dylan’s turn in the direction of country was because he was happier. He was married and beginning to have children with his wife. But in a memoir he contradicts that view. He was happy (we can probably assume) with his family, but wanted to protect them, and that was difficult because so many people wanted a piece of him. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, another very charismatic figure, had the same problem. Dylan had it first and, arguably, may have had it worse. He may not have said so explicitly, but strongly implies in the memoir that he deliberately did work beneath his capacity to deflect attention away from himself and his family.
That was a tricky line to walk. He didn’t want to become totally unpopular. He still wanted to have an audience to work to, but he didn’t want people to constantly be in his face either. In the memoir he says that in the mid to late eighties he realized that he hadn’t been doing very good work for quite some time, and the beginning of that may well date back to the early seventies. Once one deliberately does less than one’s best, it’s hard to find one’s best again.
One step in that direction was when Dylan asked the Band to go on the road with him again. According to the narrator of the movie, they did very well together. Dylan tried recording with the Band, but that didn’t seem to work very well. In concert, though, they were able to follow him. When he played with other bands later on he became notorious for changing keys and arrangements abruptly, which could easily throw most people off. Apparently the Band was able to follow him.
But there were to be years of struggle ahead for both. Dylan went through his Christian phase, which turned a lot of people off, including me, and, as he writes in his memoir, began finding his way back to doing what he really wanted to do in music: work consistently, explore what he wanted to explore, but not be looked on as anybody’s savior.
Robbie Robertson left the Band about a year after the tour with Dylan, making the Last Waltz movie to celebrate the occasion. The rest of them didn’t want to leave the road, so found other guitarists and regrouped. They made at least one more album, but nothing to be compared with their earlier work. Richard Manuel, their piano player, committed suicide. Rick Danko, the bass player, died in the late nineties, and Levon Helm about 2012.
It’s a shame that their career ended so ignominiously, but they, along with Dylan had a large influence on the music of the late sixties and early seventies. It wasn’t just Dylan who moved things towards the country side. The Band’s first two albums influenced the same people Dylan did, including the Grateful Dead, as psychedelic a band as there was out there. Their album, Workingman’s Dead, was completely different from their previous albums, and pretty clearly inspired by what the Band had done. The Rolling Stones started playing country-influenced songs in the early seventies too.
That era was a pretty amazing one in terms of musical talent and openness to a variety of influences. Dylan was clearly one of the leaders in that respect, and greatly influenced the Band, as well as a LOT of other people. But a lot of people influenced each other too. The Beatles were among the influences to make Dylan go electric, while he influenced them (and a lot of others) in writing lyrics, as well as what one could write ABOUT. Those musicians continue to influence later generations, though the music business doesn’t look very similar to what it was then. The elder statesmen may not be actively influencing much anymore, but their older influence is still felt.