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January 25, 2014

It Makes No Difference: A Celebration and Contemplation of The Band

It Makes No Difference
And the sun don't shine anymore
And the rains fall down on my door
Now there's no love
As true as the love that dies untold
But the clouds never hung so low before
Robbie Robertson

                Too often, if I don't catch inspiration when it happens, it quite often falls beyond my grasp.   But a catchy melody, as if it is some boulder that has fallen from up on high and wedges itself between two other, bigger boulders and just won’t budge, gets stuck in my head:  like really stuck.  So it was upon getting The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” stuck that I started to wonder if perhaps this was inspiration disguised as a catchy song and I better grab it.   First the song:  "It Makes No Difference" is an often covered tune from The Band's Northen Lights, Southern Cross, which was released in 1975.   Though penned by the guitarist, Robbie Robertson, the song is sung by the bassist, Rick Danko.  The song is clearly a blues tune and Danko's pathos laden croon works to show that he is clearly in love, almost obsessed, with the person he is singing about.  
                Now one particular verse keeps running over and over in my head, “Well, I love you so much/That it's all I can do/Just to keep myself from telling you/That I never felt so alone before,”  and in my memory I keep changing the words to give it a more sinister, darker turn.   I keep changing the 3rd line to, “Just to keep myself from killing you.” Then I immediately change it to, “Just to keep myself from calling you,” cause I know it most definitely is not killing. Looking for inspiration, I’m wondering if the way Danko sings makes me somehow transform the song into something sort of Shakespearian.   My faulty memory altered version is downright creepy but also really tragic, Othello tragic.   So does the delivery of the song transform the innocuous lyrics into something else?
                Clearly the way the song is crafted makes it something larger than the arrangement of lyrics on the page.   The delivery is instrumental in making the song work.   And that’s also the puzzle of The Band.   Even though most of their most well known tunes are penned by Robbie Robertson, The Band's particular versions are clearly the definitive versions even though many of their songs have been widely covered ( “The Weight” has at least 66 different covers).  
And the story of The Band is fascinating such that not only have I had this tune bouncing around the inside of my head, but I've been reading old reviews, listening to other songs, watching YouTube clips, and immersing myself in their story trying to understand something and be inspired by something. 
                 Initially, The Band was the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins.  They left him and after trying different configurations (Levon and the Hawks, the Squires), 4 of the band members:  Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson joined Bob Dylan on his infamous tour of England where he went “electric.”   From there they moved into a house down the road from Dylan (now recovering from the motorcycle wreck) in Woodstock.   There Levon Helm joins them again, and they simply become The Band.  As The Band they release a couple of critically acclaimed records:  Music from the Big Pink and the eponymous The Band.  Suddenly they were successful in their own right and they started touring, playing bigger gigs, releasing more albums (though the first two were critically very well received, the third studio album (Stage Fright) was their bestselling release (at the time).   Ultimately this configuration of The Band went on to release 7 studio albums before it “broke up” (sort of documented on Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz).   Though The Band did reform and release several other studio albums they no longer played with their original songwriter and guitarist, Robbie Robertson. 
                Now this is where it gets complicated and controversial.  Including a few covers, most of The Band’s well known songs:  (“The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, It Makes No Difference, The Shape I’m In,” etc.)  are credited (all or in part) to Robbie Robertson as the composer.   In copyright law, there is a distinction between Composer and Performer.   Being credited as the composer means that when somebody covers any of the above tunes Robertson gets a cut.   Yet, the other 4 members of The Band only get a cut when the songs they performed on are played (via radio, etc).   Robbie Robertson was the guitar player too so he actually gets paid again then as well.   So, upon reading about The Band, it doesn’t take long for stories about the friction in The Band to begin to surface.  
And the friction seems to be all about money, though it could also be about ego or perhaps something even larger, something I'll label as the nature and source of art itself.  For example, some research suggests that the friction was because Robertson was making more money than the rest of them and depending on who you read you hear statements like, “Robertson took credit for the songs that were actually written collaboratively” or “While the song appeared to be written collaboratively, Robertson wrote the melody and the lyrics and the rest of The Band merely aided in the arrangement so they are not the composer and thus don’t deserve composer royalties.”  And a lot of the music is covered by a lot of different people, so Robertson is clearly making lots more than the other 4.   
In thinking about this, I can't help but ponder about what happens when you become successful.   Part of what I'm thinking is metaphorically related in their name.   They are simply known as "The Band."  In understanding the history, up until getting signed they were just the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan.   One could imagine that they really didn't have a very firm grasp of the business arrangements and what it could mean.   They were the backup band and they got paid as a backup band.   Then they get signed and suddenly they were creating original tunes not just playing what Hawkins or Dylan  told them to.   Thus, I could imagine that The Band just didn't get the business side of it very well.  And I could imagine that having to talk about the business side was not something they were very comfortable with and relied upon the manager to sort of guide them in this process.   And their manager, Albert Grossman, has a sordid and sketchy history.  
                But that is only one part of the story.   When you watch The Last Waltz, one can’t help but notice a couple of things:  1) Robbie Robertson gets the lion share of screen time, and 2) Richard Manuel and Rick Danko appear messed up for most of the film.   The show is billed as the final concert of The Band and with just a little digging it becomes pretty obvious that it is Robbie Robertson’s final show with The Band.   As Steven Severn has stated in an article in Film Quarterly:
But now, it is impossible to see this as a work "about" The Band. Without question, its subject is Robbie Robertson, and it clearly seeks to elevate him above the other members of the group.  While the rest of the group does give background information, it is Robbie who provides the details and paints a picture of them splitting up” (26).

There are a lot of stories about why.   Is it the money?  Is it that Robertson got and took too much credit?  Is it life on the road?  In a 2011 interview, George Stroumboulopoulos asks Robertson point blank about his role in The Band's break-up, and he states that it was just supposed to be a break; it was just supposed to be a time where everyone went on and did their own thing and then would come back and work on some stuff together but no one came back together.   And it’s not hard to see why:   Richard Manuel was a drunk; Levon Helm was bitter; Rick Danko was interested in pursuing a solo career; and Garth Hudson seemed to be holding his cards pretty close to his chest, stoic and answering Scorcese's questions but not really volunteering much information.   As for Robbie Robertson he was developing a very fruitful relationship with Martin Scorcese and producing work for others.    In the ‘80’s The Band, without Robbie Robertson reformed and begin touring until Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986 .   Without Manuel and Robertson, The Band released Jericho in 1993.  They finally called it quits as a band in 1999.  
                Robbie Robertson’s career moved in a different direction as well:  some acting (Carny), some soundtrack work (Scorcese’s Raging Bull and The Color of Money), solo work (Storyville, Music from the Native Americans, Contact from the Underworld of Redboy), and some very high profile guest shots on Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies with Eric Clapton and Creedence Clearwater Revival for example. 
                Yet this reconstituted band and Robertson’s solo work don’t add up to the magic of The Band’s early releases.   Upon listening to Robertson’s two early solo works:  the eponymous Robbie Robertson and Storyville there are flashes of brilliance and the production is solid and versatile, but there’s always a quality missing, a hopeful wish that Danko would’ve sang “Hold Back the Dawn” or the complex interplay that three vocalists could’ve taken on “Day ofReckoning.”   As for The Band’s post Robertson work, it’s just sloppy and in my opinion could’ve used some of what Robertson would’ve brought:  production flair, songs that told stories but weren’t trying to mimic earlier Band songs.  
                Yet this recounting of the history doesn’t explain why this song, “It Makes No Difference” or why The Band (the incarnation from The Last Waltz) has fascinated me so.   I listen to The Band constantly, occasionally listen to Jericho and have fond memories of Robbie Robertson’s Storyville as my introduction to the music of The Band.  While I knew many of the songs from their heyday, I sort of relegated them to “classic rock” and not something to really explore until the ‘90s.   And why would I want to write about it?  
                Having this back story makes my latest viewing of The Last Waltz even more fascinating and really sad.   It is pretty clear that Manuel is messed up for most of the film.   His interview segments paint him as sort of out of it, and Levon and Robbie are the only ones who seem remotely interested in the filming.   On stage, they come together and sound totally together and basically greater than the sum of their parts.
Greater than the Sum of their Parts
All the tears
All the rage
All the blues in the night
If my eyes could see
You kneeling in the silver light
Robbie Robertson

                And is it that?   Am I drawn to them because they are better than they individually could be?  Gestalt…is not a new concept, but I think it’s important to understand how it works..   As I was poking around the web reading articles about The Band, I kept finding mention of how Robbie Robertson “screwed the other band members,” how the way they set up who got credit for what worked for him and left the other members out.  Yet I also read stories about how Robertson was the only one who really put in the work; he worked on his craft; he rehearsed and tried to stay professional while the rest of them partied and had a good time.   And is it possible that both can be right?   Maybe the reason they never got back together as Robertson characterized it was that they didn’t want to work that way.   Helm, Danko, Manuel, and Hudson just wanted to play, be the center of the party, and Robertson (tired of the road) wanted to retire to the studio, put out perfectly crafted tunes and work?  
                But putting on a show is part and parcel of what a rock band is.  What is music for?   Yes, we listen to it by ourselves at times, but at its root creating music and experiencing music was probably a collective experience.  The music that is celebrated, perhaps even revived by The Band, was largely not written down.  It was the music of collective experience, created by a people who didn't have access to education, learning musical notation.   And this is quite often reflected in the subject matter.   When Robertson voices the tune of the downtrodden Confederate soldier and their having to return to their lives in the war ravaged south in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," he's not only relating a history lesson, he's also voicing their experience.   And their experience is not an experience that would be celebrated or documented in music other than the music that has its roots in the folk tradition.   So Robertson's songs are dependent upon the delivery.   And sharing them, even if it has all the trappings of a rock concert, is how the songs are meant to be transmitted.  
                It's one thing to see the words on the page, hum the melody, but when you hear Levon embody, "Virgil Cain is the name and I served on the Danville train," you hear tradition, folk melodies, someone who has a personal connection to the tune.   The song sounds like a "common" person wrote it and almost anyone can sing it.   As Rolling Stone critic Ralph Gleason says, "Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does...It's a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn't some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity."
                No one does it better than Levon Helm.
                My entry into a fine appreciation of The Band (beside exposure to their tunes on FM radio) was by buying Robbie Robertson's self titled album in '87.   At the time, I was drawn to the Spoken Word track, "Somewhere down the Crazy River," as that was in rotation on KBCO.   I bought a lot of music back  then, and remember buying the CD but not being particularly impressed.   I liked the above song s and "Fallen Angel" and "Broken Arrow," but really only listened to the album a few times.  
                When Storyville came out in '91, I bought it.   And I loved it.   I listened to the album all the time.   And with this new appreciation started really listening to The Band, buying their Robertson less Band album in '93 when it came out.  Now, I have The Band's first two releases, four of Robbie Robertson's solo releases, one of The Band's (without Robbie Robertson) releases, and a solo release from Levon Helm.   I listen to them all the time.   And I've watched The Last Waltz numerous times even lamenting that I was going to miss it when our art house cinema was showing it while I was going to be out of town. 
                And I see parts of me in the members of The Band.
Artistic Archetypes
I just spent 60 days in the jailhouse
for the crime of having no dough
Now here I am back out on the street
for the crime of having nowhere to go.
Robbie Robertson

                I admit that the plaintive yell of Danko sends chills down my spine when I listen to “It Makes No Difference,” yet I also admire the great turn of phrase, “Since you've gone it's a losing battle/ Stampeding cattle, they rattle the walls” and really think that Robertson is indeed a great songwriter.   Yet, the song clearly relies on Danko to make it work.  As a poet, I get this.   I get and struggle with the realization that some poems only work because of how I deliver them.   And once you hear it delivered its hard to hear and/or perform it any other way.   This is problematic but is how music, not poetry, works.   Music is meant to heard; poetry is meant to be read. 
                Even Robertson recognized this stating,  "I'm convinced now, as I was then, that nobody in the world could sing and play the songs that I wrote with as much believability and soulfulness as they have."  Then why not include the other members as writers then?   That's a good question and I suspect that Robertson felt that he didn't get enough credit.   He didn't sing and as others have remarked, "Why should he?  He's got Danko, Manuel, and Helm at his disposable and they are better singers than him."  They made it believable and soulful, which brings up Levon Helm and Richard Manuel. 
                Levon Helm is the only band member who is not Canadian, and he comes from the South.   Many of Robertson's tunes are about the South ("The Night that they Drove Old Dixie Down").  So my guess is that people assumed that Levon wrote the tunes about the south, and there are some comments that suggest that Robertson was just crafting stories that Helm told into songs.  Yet there is no evidence that Robertson did this.   Helm never claims that the songs are his repackaged stories.   As Dana Stevens says, "Helm specialized in storytelling songs, the kind that sketch out not just situations but full-blown characters" .   But those songs were written by Robertson not Helm.  
            Not getting credit is something I get.   As a producer I get this.  I'll warily admit that I've often felt that I did the work but didn't get or had to share credit.   And you look selfish if you insist on taking it; being humble is supposed to be its own reward.  So I bet that people associated certain songs more with Helm than with Robertson.   And Robertson "knew" the songs were his.
                Isn't it a creative act to recognize when something else improves the original rather than diminishes it?   Can you fault him if he understood each members respective talents and let them use it?   But their contribution is to the one time delivery (captured on tape or videotape) but certainly not their's to sell.   So Robertson got the credit where this society says it matters:  the money.  He got the money.   And I bet no one knew what that was until they'd grown accustomed to it and it stopped flowing because The Band's version wasn't selling, but there were cover versions getting airplay but only one person saw that money:   Robbie Robertson.
                And Richard Manuel cared more about something else.  Many descriptions talk about how Manuel was the "real" singer in the band; the guy the women swooned over; the one with the most range and soulfulness.  He also, apparently, liked to party.  In Scorcese's The Last Waltz, Manuel, at times, seems messed up, almost slurring his words.   In one scene he's actually curled up on the couch in a near fetal position looking up at the camera as if he is a small child.   There are stories that Robertson's composition, "The Shape I'm In," is based on what was happening to Manuel.  He liked to party and clearly was addicted to alcohol.   If you don't believe Robertson's assertion in the movie, the road  was going to kill The Band, it was clearly (by implication) going to kill Manuel.  
                Manuel needed to get off the road, and he did in fact die on the road.                   
                Being a touring poet, I get this too.  Though I don't claim the touring experience of The Band, I know that the road would kill me too.   The road is fun, too much fun.  After every show, I'd go out with people and drink and spend money, and then pile in the car the next day and head to another show where'd I do it all over again.   Being on the road and surviving  takes discipline.   I don't have that discipline .   Performing is a drug and I want to supplement it with other drugs.  
                One time, I got a chance to go back stage and hang out with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Steve Martin.   Steve said, "Hi," and pretty much hung out in a small room with his wife, but the Steep Canyon Rangers were cordial, and we went out to the bus.  In the bus, they busted out the pot and offered drinks.   They had so many cases of beer that they pawned some off on me, and I walked home with a case of beer and had I had a car, I would've been able to take even more.   They had more booze and drugs than a reasonably healthy person (or even five guys) could consume.   And after every show it appeared.
                So how do you stay sober in a situation like this?  Perhaps, I would've learned that I needed to not booze or smoke it up, but if I was with others?   Who wants to exercise that much self control?  I realized very quickly and partly because I was much older than members of the Band were in their heyday, that life on the road would kill me too.  A few short trips every now and then, but I need structure, need to get out of my head and out of social situations to remain creative.   And being creative is not always fun, but partying, by definition, is.
                And I want to be creative more than anything else.   So the final person from The Band, Garth Hudson, represents the higher calling in art.   Garth Hudson was by most estimations the real musician in The Band.   After The Last Waltz, he became an in demand session player, and he's clearly versatile with a lot of varied instruments (from saxophone to accordion to organ).   If creativity is ultimately the goal, than who cares who gets credit, who earns the money?   Just create something new.
                And so, here I am, some 3,000 words later looking at where this process has taken me.
                Inspiration told me to write all this, and now as I look back I'm not sure if this matters at all.   This is life, and sometimes writing is thinking, and as I type this I’m still no closer to figuring out what is fueling my affection, my desire to really understand something. But maybe I’m asking too much and ultimately, maybe “it makes no difference” at all as long as I just keep punching keys and watching the words appear across the screen in the late twilight of another day.