November 19, 2016

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

                Sometimes when I let my imagination rove I picture my dad running across a Montana wheat field, dark brown dirt under his fingernails, hair tousled, and long summer days where the only rule his parents laid out was, “Be home by dark.” In summers, in Montana, darkness came closer to midnight than regular dinner time hours. I imagine as the long day wound down, my dad sitting down next to a small fire, Montana cowboys and sheepherders telling stories, smoking cigarettes, and singing songs.   And I’m sure their voices cracked and sang off tune, and maybe the songs were traditional and passed down from generation to generation and may have sounded not unlike the music I grew up with. My imagination gets carried away and has a soundtrack too.

Album:  Northern Lights, Southern Cross.

Song: “It Makes No Difference”


On the FM stations I tuned into in 1976 "It Makes No Difference" just sort of eased into my consciousness such that when I really started to appreciate The Band via The Band's The Best of the Band, I knew the song though it certainly took on greater weight as I got older. The song, though penned by the guitarist, Robbie Robertson, is sung by the bassist, Rick Danko. It's 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 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 is most definitely not killing. So why, in my mind, does it morph to some sort of Shakespearian line?  Does the delivery of the song transform the innocuous lyrics into something else?

                All songs are more 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).  

Album:  This Girl's In Love With You

Song: “The Weight”


That's Aretha Franklin's take on the popular Band tune.  

Just a little research and I'm swept away and reading clips about people's different interpretations, old reviews, listening to other songs, watching YouTube clips, and immersing myself in the story of The Band.

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. Ultimately this configuration of The Band went on to release 7 albums before it “broke up” (sort of documented on Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz).

Album:  The Last Waltz

Song: “Ophelia”

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.  

Album:  Stage Fright

Song: “Stage Fright”


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 four.  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. Who wants to talk about licensing and royalties? And what if you didn’t know that even some of the lesser known works would be covered too?

Album:  Last Kiss

Song: “Acadian Driftwood” (with Celine Dion)


That's Zachary Richard's cover of "Acadian Driftwood," and he catches the sort homespun magic, bringing the stories of drifters, immigrants, displaced families to life that provided fodder for Robertson's pen.  But that is only one part of the story.

When you watch Martin Scorcese's The Last Waltz, (a concert movie about The Band) 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 Robertson 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, some soundtrack work, solo work, 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 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 diving deeper into the music of The Band. 

                In '87, I was drawn to the track, "Fallen Angel."  

Album:  Robbie Robertson

Song:  “Fallen Angel’


I buy a lot of music, and remember buying the CD but not being particularly impressed.  I liked "Fallen Angel," but really only listened to the album a few times. When his next album, Storyville, came out in '91, I don’t why I bought it, but I loved it. I listened to the album all the time. And with this new appreciation started really listening to The Band, buying their album (without Robertson) in '93 when it came out.  Now, I have The Band's first three 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 out of town. 

                Am I drawn to them because they are better than they individually could be? Maybe the reason they never got back together as Robertson characterized it was that they didn’t want to work his 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 and put out perfectly crafted tunes.  

                But putting on a show is part and parcel of what a rock band is. 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 and 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.

Album:  The Band

Song: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”


I admit that Helm’s voice sends chills down my spine when I listen, yet I also admire that there is a story and the rhymes are surpising.  Yet, the song clearly relies on Helm to make it work.  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. 

                Levon Helm is the only band member who is not Canadian, and he comes from the South. So my guess is that people assumed that Levon wrote "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and there are some comments that suggest that Robertson was just crafting stories that Helm told into songs. There is no evidence, however, that Robertson did this. Helm never claims that the songs are his repackaged stories. Yet Dana Stevens says, "Helm specialized in storytelling songs, the kind that sketch out not just situations but full-blown characters" . But Robertson "knew" the songs were his.

                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 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 how much 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.

Yet, there’s a new wrinkle to this song in particular that I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on. Many people are troubled by the voice in the song being a Confederate soldier and lamenting about the Confederacy’s loss in the Civil War.  Should we feel sorry for him? Is this song a celebration of the loss of a way of life; a way of life that depended upon the enslavement of others?  In August of 2020, country and western singer, Early Jamesm rewrote some of the lyrics to celebrate the loss of the Confederacy not lament it. 

Of course to suggest that the song laments that loss is to tragically misunderstand it.  Jack Hamilton’s article in Slate, The Troublesome Case of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” suggests that James is misunderstanding the song.  The song released in 1969 is really about America’s eventual loss in Vietnam, and the song is really an anti-war song.  That a bunch of yahoos have latched onto it as an anthem to celebrate the “lost cause” and to change the lyrics as a result is to fall into their trap.  Yet, people do interpret the song that way.  So should artists covering the song feel justified in changing the lyrics? 

I don’t’ think so.  I’m fine if he’d given a disclaimer before performing, but it’s a cultural artifact that needs to be understood within the context of its original creation. If we were to go back through every work of art and make it fit our current proclivities we’d not really be celebrating our culture and history.  Our culture and history is ugly and while I certainly think we should point out those instances, we can still acknowledge that’s where we came from.  So leave it alone.

                And understanding the Band’s story is also about understanding what it was like to be a rock star in the early ‘70s. In the early ‘70s being a rock star meant a lot of things besides having an opportunity to make a lot of money; it also meant that quite often you were the center of everyone’s party. 

That seems to be where Richard Manuel wanted to be. Many stories and comments 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 Manuel. He liked to party and clearly was addicted to alcohol. If you don't believe Robertson's assertion in the movie that the road was going to kill The Band, it was clearly (by implication) going to kill Manuel. 

Album:  Stage Fright

Song: “The Shape I'm In”

                Manuel need to get off the road. He had a drinking problem and killed himself in 1986 on the road.            

                So how do you stay sober in a situation like this?  Who wants to exercise that much self control?  Being creative is not always fun, but partying, by definition, is.

                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.  My soundtrack got to work on my imagination and now as I look back I'm not sure if this matters at all.   This is life and as I type this I’m still no closer to figuring out what is fueling my affection for The Band. 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.  Fall is just around the corner, the twilight of the year.

Single: “Twilight”




Kenan said...

Well said. Thank you for writing that. I've been listening to "It makes no difference" on repeat for a few days. Your words help me understand the wonderfully sad and happy experience that the band was and remains.

Unknown said...

Rock music is replete with disgruntled band members who feel that they did not get the credit they deserve. Look no further than Ginger Baker, who to this day, gripes about the fact that Jack Bruce collected songwriting royalties for decades after Cream was just a memory, for White Room, I Feel Free, and Sunshine of Your Love. But them's the breaks. That's how copyright law works. There are some bands, having seen what happens when one individual is the writer, and the band implodes (two examples are The Police & Creedence Clearwater Revival), and have done something to avoid that. They make the entire band the writer of all the songs. Like U2. They split royalties evenly. Does anyone think for a minute that Bono and the Edge are not the real songwriters here. No, they don't. But as a brotherhood, they decided to credit everyone. That is why they are still here, after 40 years. Then there are bands where the other members are smart enough to realize what they have is only because of one person, the songwriter. And they don't complain or gripe about money. They carry on with the job. A perfect example of this is Depeche Mode. Only one guy has made that band what it was and is. Mertin Gore. But nobody complains, because they are intelligent enough to see the truth when it is right in front of them. The other members of the Police were and are great players. But great players and singers are a dime a dozen. Great songwriters are born that way. They have the magic something, that creates the melodies that make the songs live and breath.