Fifty years since Music From Big Pink broke out of Woodstock to change music, its surviving players relive its creation.
1968, West Saugerties, near Woodstock. In a house called Big Pink, five multi-instrumentalists have gone from backing rockabilly cat Ronnie Hawkins as The Hawks, to being booed backing Bob Dylan. Now, they’re woodshedding their own music – and are on the precipice of changing the course of rock with a rustic sound. Fifty years on, ROBBIE ROBERTSON and friends recall the painting of their masterpiece.
Elliott Landy: “The Band weren’t just different from other musicians, they were different from other people I knew. They were more experienced and wizened by the experience. When you travel around the road for six or seven years as they’d been doing [as The Hawks], you meet all types. When you’re smart and aware – as they all were – you have the opportunity to observe all different kinds of people and you learn who you are and you grow.”
Robbie Robertson: “Because of all this stuff The Hawks had been through, [we had] a maturity in our musical taste, in our approach. We didn’t feel a part of what was happening at that time out in the world. We weren’t very good at being trendy. It wasn’t that we tried not to do anything, it was just we were evolving to a place and a ➢
musicality that had subtleties. Music was just getting louder and more abrasive. “I understood the attitude and the anger and the excitement of everything that was happening, but we’d already done that. I started with Ronnie Hawkins and screaming on my guitar. (Laughs) And now to be able to really play and think: we didn’t use these phrases at the time, but it’s what you leave out – and less is more. There was something about things that just slipped in and what that did to your heartbeat and how it made you feel. It was sexy and it was beautiful and sad and a celebration all at the same time. I thought, that’s where we’ve grown to and that’s where we’re going with this.”
John Simon: “The guys in The Band were different from the other groups I’d worked with. They were into it for the music – the other groups would watch the charts and listen to the radio and hope to be on the cutting edge of the new thing. But The Band was looking back to music they respected: early rock’n’roll, rockabilly, early jazz, country, blues. Even music from the century before: Stephen Foster. They had this unspoken commitment to be part of this pantheon of music greats that they respected. We hoped it would stand out from the crowd.”
Robbie Robertson: “When you’re listening to a Bo Diddley record, there’s a wonderful distortion and excitement and it sounds like Bo Diddley is ripping the roof off the place. Then when you hear Bo Diddley play, it’s not like that at all, it’s groovy and funky – and quiet and just right. It isn’t screaming in your face. It was kind of an irony back then, I thought that British musicians’ ear-busting interpretation of the blues was funny ’cos that’s what it sounded like on the records. But these [original American] blues guys had little guitar or harmonica amps, so it had this beautiful distortion. When they started bringing, say, Sonny Boy Williamson over to England and they played, it was like, Wait a minute – too late – the train had left the station. By then the amps were as big as the people were and the idea was that louder was more powerful.”
Sally Grossman: “Robbie [Robertson] is – and always was – a great storyteller. The famous Beatles PR guy from Apple Records, Derek Taylor, came over from London [to Woodstock]. He wanted to see what was going on in the scene. He walked through the woods to visit Robbie. Now this is a guy who’s a writer, right? And he comes back and he’s in awe. He was so impressed with Robbie’s work ethic and his care – [Robbie’s] the best self-educated person I know. Derek says ‘When I get back to London, I’m gonna send a box full of Oxford Dictionaries. Take a couple for yourself and give the rest to Robbie.’ There’s thesauruses of every size and shape – maybe 12, 14 books. Derek was so impressed by Robbie.”
Robbie Robertson: “The atmosphere of being up in the mountains, being in this isolated house out in the middle of 100 acres and finally having the workshop clubhouse. I couldn’t write properly in my past experiences, which was on the road. I needed to feel a place of creativity, not a passing hotel room. Outside of Les Paul, there was no such thing as doing it at home – as people do now – in your kitchen or living room.” (laughs)
John Simon: “The staff engineer Donny Hahn [at A&R Studios in New York] set the studio up the way he’d ordinarily do, which is to put baffles between the instruments so if one of them made a mistake, it wouldn’t leak into the other microphones and that person could go back and fix their part. Two things came into play. The Band were so well rehearsed they could play without making mistakes. And they were used to being able to hear each other in the room as opposed to through earphones. So we took the baffles down and set it up like the [Big Pink] basement.”
“WE WEREN’T VERY GOOD AT BEING TRENDY.” Robbie Robertson
Robbie Robertson: “There was a certain attitude of knowledge from the engineers: ‘Here’s how you make a great sounding record – you do it our way, ’cos we’ve tried everything and we know what works and what doesn’t work.’ We went along with the whole thing and we got to the place where we were going to record a song. We got halfway into it and none of us knew what to do and where to go next. We didn’t memorise music that way. We absorbed music through one another. “So I stopped and I said, ‘Guys – wait – this isn’t gonna work. We have to communicate musically. I can’t see anybody. I know we’re all here somewhere but I can’t see anybody.’ If I can’t see [keyboards/saxophone player] Garth [Hudson]’s eyes or where [keyboards/drummer] Richard [Manuel] is phrasing in the moment, I don’t know what to play. We communicate by nods of the head, a look in the eye, the way I move my guitar neck – it signals a break coming up. If we can’t see the signals, we’re wandering in space. We have to set up in a circle where we can see one another and communicate. “The engineers were like, ‘It’s gonna sound awful – there’s gonna be so much leakage it’s gonna sound like crap.’ So the brilliant John Simon said let’s use microphones on everything that only pick up what’s right in front of it. He asked if they had RE15 Electro-Voice microphones and put those on everything. “Then we started to play Tears Of Rage. John says over the talkback, ‘I think we’re getting somewhere, guys.’ So we played it down and the engineer said, ‘You should come in and hear this – there’s something really happening.’ We go in the control room and they play back our first take of Tears Of Rage. That was the first time we heard the sound of The Band coming out of those speakers. We looked at one another and, in that moment, we knew we had the confidence, we had our own rules, our own way of making music.”
John Simon: “Garth is a consummate musician – he’s got so much musical knowledge, so many different kinds of music in his mind, memory and experience that he can draw upon all that. Plus he’s a technical whiz at the keyboard and a very competent reed player. He’d always add interesting colours and modes to things. Richard called himself a ‘rhythm piano player’ and he was also a fabulous drummer, a galumphy drummer, elbows a-blur and sticks flying. He could sing like Ray Charles and he could sing this gorgeous high falsetto, a very sensitive man and so a very sensitive singer. “Rick [Danko] was a very melodic bass player that far exceeded the usual bass parts. He had a very clear voice – vibrato-less at times. [Drummer] Levon [Helm] was authentic country – the real deal from a Delta downhome setting where the lines between black and white people are blurred. He was adventurous and a hard worker. And Robbie was the responsible grown-up. He was an arranger, very interested in guitar patterns, rhythm patterns. He admired records for the rhythmic groove, how the component parts fit together. A great songwriter who learned a lot from Dylan. But whereas Dylan’s tonal palette was limited, Robbie was much more experimental and took the music to lots of different places. And his lyrical imagery was just beautiful.”
Robbie Robertson: “John had a personal understanding of who we were and became part of The Band musically. He [also] played piano and horn with Garth.”
John Simon: “It was Garth’s idea to add horns – me as a brass player, him as a reed player, we had a good horn section. We had a particular character that most horn [sections] didn’t replicate. Most are clean and precise, ours were rough as a cob.”
Robbie Robertson: “John became part of the signals we were passing to one another. He’d help Levon with the dynamics and perfect places to put the fills and helped us get a take quickly. He became part of the brotherhood and that was very important musically.”
John Simon: “My favourite is Tears Of Rage – everything about it: the guitar intro which ➢
was like a kind of fanfare, the funereal drums and tambourine in the chorus, the horns entering after the first chorus, Dylan’s lyrics, and Richard singing just great.”
Robbie Robertson: “The layering of vocals was all done live. We knew how to be tight, but then find a place where we could loosen it up. So Richard would come in singing and I’d say to Levon, ‘Ya know you don’t have to be right on top of it, you can come in just slightly later.’ It feels good, it sounds good and that’s what The Staple Singers would do (laughs). The Weight is the prime example of that, when the voices go ‘and…and…and.’ They weren’t all glistening together – that was somebody else’s job – it was too mechanical. That was for people in choirs or Crosby, Stills & Nash.”
John Simon: “The Weight is a simple song for people to learn and that [helps] make something a hit when [others] can play it themselves. The Weight is essentially a three-chord song, and it has a catchy hook at the end where the last line is staggered and repeated. It has the authentic voice of Levon Helm singing in his accent, not any kind of a put-on accent. And it’s a wonderful story of our poor hero trying to make sense of where he was and, by extension, trying to make sense out of life.” Sally Grossman: “Dominique [Bourgeois, Robbie’s future wife] and I were at the sessions. [It helped encourage them] by us stopping by and thinking it was so great – they didn’t know if anyone was gonna relate to what they were doing. We had a visceral reaction: the music was so innovative – you had to fall in love with the arrangements, the voices, the songs.”
Elliott Landy: “They were down-to-earth people and by chance I’d gotten a book of photographs by Mathew Brady from the Civil War. I felt that the right style of photograph that would reflect who they were would imitate the style from the 1860s and the Mathew Brady school of photography. I showed them the book and they agreed. I said in order to get this look, we need to pay attention to the photographer and honour him when he comes and not stand around casually. If you look at these old photographs, everybody is standing straight, they have their best clothes on, they’re paying attention to the camera, ’cos it was unusual to be photographed back then.”
Robbie Robertson: “The record company didn’t know what we were doing and when they heard the record, they said, ‘Are you sure you wanna make a long slow song the first track on your record?’ We’re like – what’s wrong with that? Sometimes we thought we were speaking a foreign language. When the record came out, it was embraced by a lot of musicians. Eric [Clapton] and George [Harrison] came to Woodstock, but we got messages from so many music people. It’s a good feeling when other musicians understand what you’re doing that nobody else is doing.”
Al Kooper: “The main thing was The Band not only didn’t sound like anybody else – their whole thing was original. Everything was different. The songwriting was different, the singing was different – they weren’t scared of doing anything. And they actually started a style, so you could say ‘that sounds like The Band.’ There were people that imitated it – I was one of ’em. Like [Kooper’s song] Anna Lee, that had my favourite opening line I ever wrote: ‘You left me when the crops was failin’ and the chickens died.’” (Laughs)
John Simon: “The Band started a whole genre – there was no Americana genre until The Band. Lots of bands emulated The Band and tried to be rootsy and truthful, honest and authentic in a serious way. That came natural to these guys.”
Robbie Robertson: “I was such a movie guy and was so fascinated with films that I used to read scripts. I probably would’ve been a film-maker if I hadn’t gotten so deep in music that I couldn’t undo it. So I wanted to create music that you could see. [The world conjured by] Big Pink is a fictitious place, but to me it’s very real.”
Music From Big Pink – 50th Anniversary Edition is out now. John Simon’s autobiography Truth, Lies And Hearsay: A Memoir Of A Musical Life In And Out Of Rock And Roll (Amazon White Glove) will be published on October 8.
“THERE WAS NO AMERICANA GENRE UNTIL THE BAND.” John Simon
Off rock’s beaten track: Danko, Helm, Robertson, Manuel and Hudson in the wild, 1968; (right, from top) Music From Big Pink’s back sleeve imitates Mathew Brady’s Civil War photography; relaxed Robertson.
Before Dylan came Ronnie Hawkins: The Band’s first taskmaster.
“We had our own rules, our own way of making music”: rehearsing in Big Pink, (from left) Danko (back to camera) Hudson, Robertson, Helm and Manuel.
Cabin fever: The Band in their Sunday best; (right) field work with (from left) Helm, Robertson, Manuel (back to camera), Danko, Hudson; (below) Levon shines on; (inset below) photographer Mathew Brady’s works.