Mojo (UK) - - Contents - In­ter­views by MICHAEL SIM­MONS Por­trait by EL­LIOTT LANDY

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.”


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.


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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.