Let’s talk about music. The way I remember it Bob Johnston had married a gal from Detroit, and that’s why we met. Johnston came to Michigan by way of Nashville where he was a record producer working on a number of important albums including Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, not to mention Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash. I was an agent in a, you might say, boutique concert promotion company in Ann Arbor known as Prism Productions. Run by great guys, I loved that job though I had not entered recovery yet, if you get my meaning. And we were bringing The Band to town, in the early 80’s. Don Tapert, a musician and old friend of my brother’s, had asked me if I could find Johnston some work, maybe solo piano club work. On the day of the Band gig, Don and Bob showed up and Bob asked if I could take him backstage (actually downstairs) to speak with the venerable Band singer and drummer Levon Helm. Now I knew enough about Johnston and all to figure they were acquainted but I felt compelled to ask Levon first. You never know if the two might have some kind of resentment, let’s say over an ill- fated relationship with one fellow’s kin, for example. And I found myself genuinely nervous, a rare event for me. The Band were so iconic to me that I was pert ‘near tongue-tied. I will outline some of the reasons The Band could be called America’s most important group of the rock era, but first, back to Levon. I’m standing there asking him if I could bring Bob J down and I say to Levon, “He says he’s your friend” and in fact I am rambling a bit due to my star-struckedness and Levon looks at me, and says (imagine his singular Arkansas drawl now), “Jimmy, I need all the friends I can get so bring him on down”. A flush of relief and man Levon was just too cool for school.
That tour they were paired with The Cate Bros, a superb band, Levon’s friends from Arkansas who had a hit, Union Man. And at the end of the night they were all on stage, 11 musicians and there were three mandolins going at once and it’s truly magical and you realize this has been an original creative journey through American music of the last half century. Everybody stands on the shoulders of what went before. All artists “borrow” from the past. The Band created what was so evocative and yet new it felt like a trip through some joyous school. You came out the other side better informed whilst having fun. Groups like The Eagles hold the top spot on sales lists and were more prolific, The Band recording career being fairly short, but frankly The Eagles can barely carry The Band’s shoe bag if you ask me. The Band reached into the heart of American music with rock’s seminal recordings. The Weight might be the definitive creative statement of the 60’s, at least for rock, which essentially means white American popular music. Once we peruse the vast catalogues of what we categorize as original blues, rhythm and blues and soul, all attempts to list and prioritize who is best go out the window because THAT, what the African-American culture gave us, is the finest era of contemporary American music and I believe Levon’d have no problem with that statement.
A student of the music biz, all of us students of whatever we happen to be doing in our life, I have witnessed tectonic plate shifts which create doom and gloom attitudes with the field and one reason I thought of this story was that the Americana category is actually coming on with lots of great original music today. The Band certainly get some credit for creating that. For a time, in this country, the cultural engine of innovation and change, the creative spark, was led by musicians but that’s shifted to the IT/start-up world. Records have basically stopped selling, and for a while the way we got our music was to essentially steal it through downloads. I didn’t, due to my understanding of copyright royalties and intellectual property concepts from my brother. Now we all stream, YouTube being the single most popular way people, which is mostly young people, listen to music today. Terrestrial radio’s dying, cds barely sell and streaming is now beginning to pay royalties to the songwriters. But, on the dark side, hits are more corporately created product than ever, and in all this shift Chicken Little has been screaming, “The sky is falling”. The one antidote to all that is the current spate of superb singer-songwriters, often the grandsons/daughters of what The Band gave us. Americana is a broad umbrella covering numerous sub-groups. Just a few of the current list of superb singer/songwriters would include; Jason Isbell, Mumford and Sons, The Civil Wars, Michelle Shocked, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, Bela Fleck, NC’s own Delta Rae, The Avett Brothers, Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt, James McMurtry, Steve Earle, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams, T-Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris, Ray LaMontagne and many many others.
I want to close with more on The Band’s journey, but first we can conclude that, as the pundit Bob Lefsetz likes to debate; the music biz is ok, there’s lots of creative force out there, with more freedom offered the artist through the internet. If you develop a fan base you can actually reach them directly, by-passing the usual list of corporate suspects. And making more money in the process.
As to The Band, it is notable that they broke up rancorously due to disagreements over royalties. Levon claimed that Robbie Robertson wanted to end it and in the process got all the songwriting credits unbeknownst to others and that is where the money is. The others went on to various projects and eventually did re-form and tour semi-regularly. And just to bring it back to recovery or lack thereof, it should be noted that The Band is one group (of many) who were riven by addiction. Richard Manuel, deeply alcoholic, hung himself in a hotel bathroom after a gig, Levon being the one to discover him. Rick Danko was one of the few American artists on Earth to spend time in a Japanese prison due to having received a package of heroin mailed to him there. (Another artist to do Japanese time was Paul McCartney due to smuggled marijuana). Rick’s death was due to heart failure. Levon came down with throat cancer. He recovered for a while, re-built his career and made a documentary chronicling the end time of his life, where it was clear his resentments and now medically-supported drug use hung with him until the end.