Wash your hands in lye water; you've got a date with the Band's 1969 self-titled masterpiece. Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn are giving it a listen -- look out Cleveland!
Klinger: Of all the things that make this album so completely awesome -- and there are so many I doubt we'll get to all of them -- I am most struck by the fact that this most rustic of albums was in fact recorded in Sammy Davis Jr.'s pool house. So much of the Band's mystique is built on the Big Pink mythos of five guys making organic, down home sounds in the rural isolation of upstate New York. I like to imagine that this sepia-toned album of Americana, this yearning attempt to reconcile a nation's fabled history with the generational turbulence of its own time, was lovingly assembled piece by piece as Joey Bishop's wet trunks hung in the corner.
Mendelsohn: That defies logic, Klinger. If the robots ever take over and you need some sort of logic puzzle to throw their cognitive process into a loop so you can escape, tell them about where the Band recorded this album. Seriously, that's messing with my head. Why would you tell me something like that? Now I'm stuck wondering what the rest of the Rat Pack was doing while the Band was laying this record down. Were they out splashing in the pool? Do you think they told those freaky, bearded Canucks and one guy named Levon to stay out of sight when girls were over? Or would they have invited them out for a co-ed game of naked Marco Polo?
Klinger: I wouldn't rule any of that out, but I'm afraid the truth is far more mundane. They were really only renting the pool house from Sammy; there's no indication that any Rat Packers were near the place at the time. But the whole story does underscore a big part of the Band's allure circa 1969. These guys really were such a self-contained unit that they were able to establish their clubhouse-like atmosphere anywhere they went. And I think that's why heavy-hitters like George Harrison and Eric Clapton became so totally infatuated with them -- at a time when rock was growing up, the Band seemed like what musicians thought they were originally getting into bands for. They must have seemed like some rustic tribe living in the backwoods busily working away at making music around the clock year-round. And the music that they made seemed real -- organic sounds with none of the paisley-covered artifice that had become so stale. And their mystique comes into full fruition right here as they step out from Bob Dylan's shadow once and for all.
There's a moment in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" that for me tells the whole story. At about the 2:20 mark, Levon Helm starts singing about his (Virgil Caine's) brother, the one who took a rebel's stand. As he sings the line about how a Yankee laid his brother in his grave, Helm hits the snare an extra beat, ratcheting up the intensity. And then, just as quickly, he pulls back, relaying the resignation that's already built into the song. This is a group whose connection to the music was instinctive, and the album is full of tiny moments where the players weave their way around one another and through the songs. It's breathtaking.
Mendelsohn: I love how much you love this album. And you're right, there is so much of it to love—the yodeling in "Up on Cripple Creek", the opening piano riff and bass accompaniment on "Look Out Cleveland". Those are the things I love the most, but every time I listen to this record, I hear something new, something I hadn't heard yet and it makes me appreciate it that much more. Normally, at this point, I'd be tossing off some half-baked snarky comment in an effort to take the wind out of your sails, but I've got nothing. That leaves me feeling a little empty inside.
Klinger: Really? Nothing at all? Nothing about me treating this Country Bear Jamboree like it's the freakin' Zapruder film? Nothing about how if you wanted to hear a tuba (ably played by producer John Simon, who interestingly had never played before, by the way), you'd go see a marching band? You disappoint me, Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn: Sorry, pal. I've got nothing. I was working up a way to blame the Band for all the jam bands in the world, and I'm using that term pejoratively, but after some consideration, I realized that would be unfair. That would be like blaming Jesus for Michele Bachmann or the Beatles for Oasis. Sure, without the Beatles we wouldn't have had to suffer through that unintelligible nonsense in the mid-'90s, but the Beatles didn't make Oasis behave like wankers or write crappy, derivative music.
I also like the fact that the Band acted as their own horn section, even though most of them technically didn't know what they were doing. I like the country-bear-jamboree-like undertones but only because they are genuine about the music they are making. Hell, I even like it when they slow things down. I want so bad to hate songs like "Whispering Pines" and "Unfaithful Servant" but I can't. There's a heartfelt earnestness that you can't fake on this record—it's over powered my unrelenting cynicism.
Klinger: Well, Garth Hudson knew his way around a horn; in fact, Hudson was a musical mastermind, stealthily lurking in the background conjuring strange new sounds—that crazy wah-wah clavinet that everyone thinks is a Jew's harp, for instance. Of course most of them would switch instruments as needed, leading to Richard Manuel's deliriously goofy drum fills on "Rag Mama Rag". (Guitarist Robbie Robertson stuck with his axe. He's also the only guitarist for whom I'm willing to use the term "axe", because his approach to rhythm playing makes it somehow apropos.)
On top of all that, you add in the three vocalists—Helm, Manuel, and Rick Danko—who sing in harmony without ever really blending their voices, and the whole album comes across as the sort of loose, informal picking session that bands all wish that they could just fall into. But you have to be pretty tight to play that loose, and the Band had been living and breathing music for years on the road. Again, that must have been a huge inspiration for jaded rockers who had become a little too concerned about getting hookah-water stains out of crushed velvet.
Mendelsohn: OK, so here comes the inevitable question. If the Band were a band's band, why isn't this album ranked in the top 25? Don't get me wrong, top 50 is way above board but it seems like this record, beloved by all as it is, should be a little higher on the Great List. Am I missing something?
Klinger: Hmm . . . that is a puzzler. The Band is one of those albums that I can't recall ever hearing anyone say a negative thing about, so you might well ask why it hasn't maintained its hold on the critical imagination. I think I can muster up a few theories.
A. The Band's down-hominess can come across as easy and comfortable as a pair of old shoes. And because of this, we might not have always fully appreciated just how much craftsmanship goes into making a pair of shoes that wear that well. It may be a simple case of people taking the Band (and The Band) for granted. I know that over the years I've had periods where I just never got this album out. In fact, when we started this edition of Counterbalance, it had been years since I'd really sat down with their music. Mea culpa.
B. The Band's story is really kind of a sad one. Post-The Band albums are not without their merits, but they do suffer from some degree of diminishing returns, which I'm sure was exacerbated by their own rock-starry excesses. After their breakup, there was a considerable amount of backbiting and infighting over songwriting royalties and the usual rock 'n roll jive. The loss of Richard Manuel in 1986 and Rick Danko in 1999, coupled with the lingering bitterness between Levon and Robbie, have made it impossible to burnish the legacy of the Band in the public consciousness. And without an understanding of that legacy—and an ability to recognize the places where the Band's sound can still be heard—their contributions may have slipped between the cracks.
C. Greil Marcus just doesn't write as many reviews as he used to.
Mendelsohn: Fair enough. I suppose you are right, the Band doesn't seem to have the name recognition that most of the other artists on this list command. But they remain just as influential today, especially with a new spate of bands plumbing the depths of Americana for inspiration. Dr. Dog, the Avett Brothers, even those British guys Mumford & Sons—they are all following the tracks laid down by the Band.
Klinger: Yep. And I think it goes to show that there will likely always be an audience for this more organic style of music. There's nothing wrong with parading about in plastic platforms, but eventually you're going to want to go stepping out in your old brown shoes.