Sunday morning coming down

The Band’s Jaime Robbie Robertson died this past Wednesday at the age of 80. The Band’s Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm predeceased him. Only Garth Hudson survives, at age 85. Among the obituaries worth reading to situate Robertson and his work are those by Jim Farber for the New York Times, Chris Morris for Variety, and Benjamin Kerstein for Quillette. I want to pay my respects this morning.

In his memoir Testimony (2016), Robertson writes in a brief italicized preface: “At the age of nine I told my mother that I wanted to be a storyteller when I grew up.” I would say he was a born storyteller. The stories run through Testimony — generous, observant, funny, touching, like the great songs he wrote for The Band. The text of the memoir is 476 pages long and it ends with the dissolution of The Band in 1976 when Robertson would was 33.

Robertson’s “The Weight” is my favorite song. By my lights The Band’s self-titled second album — for which Robertson wrote or co-wrote most of the songs — is the greatest album of American pop/rock music, unless Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde On Blonde (on which Robertson played) surpasses it.

Before they were The Band they were The Hawks. They backed Bob Dylan on his 1965 and 1966 tours. I saw them when they played the old Minneapolis Auditorium on November 5, 1965 (thanks, Dad). Bob’s mom was in attendance, but we had better seats than she did. We sat in the first row with tickets Dylan released just before the show began.

Incidentally, Robertson testifies repeatedly in Testimony that Dylan was urged over and over again to jettison The Hawks. He expresses his admiration and gratitude to Dylan for standing by them.

After the tours with Dylan, The Band rented a house (“Big Pink”) and joined him in Woodstock, New York. They worked up songs and recorded demos in the basement. I infer that Robertson put his gifts for observation to use in picking up Dylan’s approach to songwriting for the stories he wanted to tell.

Robertson drew on history, myth, allegory, and arthouse cinema to write his best songs for The Band. As he puts it in Testimony, “My job in life at age twenty-two was to learn, to absorb the magic, and to have a real good time along the way. Bob brought me into his world with a generosity that made [Dylan and later Band manager] Albert Grossman and [Dylan buddy] Bobby Neuwirth accept me…”

Robertson loved Bergman, Bunuel, Truffaut, and Fellini. In Testimony he relates that he bought their screenplays in book form when he discovered the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. He mentions “an older lady named Fanny, who seemed to have a sixth sense for which pile of books” whatever he was looking for was under. Robertson does not make the connection for the reader, but I will. Miss Fanny reappears in “The Weight.”

Here is how Robertson describes his first songwriting efforts in Testimony:

In my room at Bob’s [in Woodstock] I started recording some chord changes and melodies on a tape machine. This was a new kind of experiment to see if I could find a flavor, a sound, a feel worth writing words to. I labeled this tape “Return of Luke the Drifter” after an alias of Hank Williams’s from years back. The sound on tape certainly didn’t resemble anything of Hank’s or country music, for that matter, but it did have hints of some otherworldly roots music. All the musical strands that we’d picked up along the way were starting to weave together.

Robertson doesn’t explain much about his songwriting or his own songs in the book, but does add this observation of Dylan working in Woodstock: “I never saw Bob write out lyrics longhand; he either typed them out or scratched a couple of words on a napkin or something. His ability to improvise on a basic idea was truly exceptional and a lot of fun to witness.” A few pages later he recalls: “I started writing out some abstract words on a typewriter at Big Pink.”

Let’s pluck Robertson’s contributions to Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969) for my remembrance this morning. The invaluable John Simon produced both albums and the songs must have represented collaborative efforts, but this is Robbie Robertson at his best.

“To Kingdom Come” is Robertson’s first song on Music From Big Pink. Abstraction becomes a method. Allegory appears in the person of False Witness. Whom are you going to believe?

Robertson takes true stories and transforms them by abstraction into something universal. “Caledonia Mission” is said to be about a drug bust involving the band. In Testimony Robertson only explains that he “had started writing a song called ‘Caledonia Mission.’ There was a Canadian town called Caledonia we would drive by on the way to Six Nations [where Robertson’s mother lived], and something about that place conjured up strange images and a story of estrangement and solitude in my imagination. I knew Rick’s vocal sound would be good…”

“The Weight” is a timeless classic. Reading the lyric sheet, John Simon asked Robertson what the song was about. “I’m not too good at explaining song lyrics,” Robertson told him, “but basically it was all I could think of at the time.” A little later he adds that it “was something I had been working up for years. The images, the stories I had been putting away in my imagination’s attic, had been brought out into the light.” That’s all he gives us in Testimony. It seems to me an allegory about the burden of responsibility with a few jokes along the way. The harmony that Helm, Manuel, and Danko find is transcendent. Helm sings lead with Rick Danko taking the spotlight when “Chester” enters the scene.

But for Garth Hudson’s workout on the organ, I think “Chest Fever” might have been an outtake. Robertson is perfecting his method.

The album jacket of Music From Big Pink included a photo of the band with their next of kin. In its own way The Band countered the counterculture. The countering continued in The Band the following year. “The weight” that Robertson undertook for this album was the songwriting.

“Across the Great Divide” seems to me about the war between the sexes. Let’s bridge the divide between men and women.

Robertson had recently married the beautiful Dominique Bourgeois and wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with a newborn in the house. He had to keep it quiet while he worked at the piano. He writes: “Around this time there was a chord progression and melody rumbling through my head, but I didn’t know yet what the song was about. I played it on the piano one day for Levon…I flashed back to when he first took me to meet his parents in Marvell, Arkansas, and his daddy said, ‘Don’t worry, Robin–the South is going to rise again.’ I told Levon I wanted to write lyrics about the Civil War from a southern family’s point of view. I asked him to drive me to the Woodstock library so I could do a little research on the Confederacy. They didn’t teach that stuff in Canadian schools.”

Cripple Creek was the site of the last Colorado mining boom. “Up On Cripple Creek” is a dream song — “a drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” A proud Canadian, Robertson was writing classic American songs.

Robertson wrote “Whispering Pines” with Richard Manuel. Robertson captured the mood of the melody in the lyrics. Manuel sings the lead. What a beautiful song.

Robertson wrote “Jemima Surrender” with Levon Helm. It’s a heckuva come-on song. Helm sings “I’ll bring over my Fender and I’ll play all night for you” as Robertson adds his commentary on guitar.

The narrator of “Rockin’ Chair” is “pushin’ age 73” and back home with his best friend. Everything about this album was counter the counterculture. Manuel sings the lead. Levon Helm helps out on the harmony. The instrumentation is perfect. It is a poignant song that bears repeated listening.

“Look Out Cleveland” captures the fear of an oncoming storm. The storm is a metaphor. The music gives it a bemused lilt and Robertson offers some gallows humor in the lyrics. Rick Danko has the lead vocal.

Robertson wrote “Jawbone” with Richard Manuel. In the lyrics Robertson explores the criminal mentality. Manuel gives it an appropriately crazed reading: “I’m a thief and I dig it.” Robertson captures the mood on guitar.

With “The Unfaithful Servant” we are back in the land of allegory. It’s about betrayal and disloyalty.

The album is full of great songs, but “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” rightly tops the list and concludes the album. In dire straits, the singer (that’s Richard Manuel on the vocal with Levon Helm joining him on the chorus) forces an abashed or ambivalent optimism. “Last year this time, was no joke. My whole barn went up in smoke. Our horse Jethro, well, he went mad. I can’t ever remember things being that bad.” Are you sure King Harvest has come? It sounds like a permanently relevant confession of faith.

Let’s go out with Shawn Colvin’s take on Robertson’s “Twilight” (from her 1994 Cover Girl disc). Buried on The Band’s final studio album, the song demonstrates that Robertson was still a master songwriter. “We’ve all got certain trials burnin’ up inside.” RIP.

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