A former working musician and Fulbright Scholar, Gene Santoro also covers film and jazz for the New York Daily News.
He has written about pop culture for publications including: The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, People, The New York Post, Spin, 7 Days and Down Beat.
Santoro has authored two essay collections, Dancing In Your Head (1994) and Stir It Up (1997), which were both published by Oxford University Press, and a biography of jazz great Charles Mingus, titled Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus (Oxford, 2000). He is currently completing
Made in America, essays about musical countercultures.
In addition, Santoro’s writing has been included in such anthologies as Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, Mass Culture and Everyday Life, The Oxford Jazz Companion, The Jimi Hendrix Companion and The B.B. King Companion.
While contributing articles about rock to the Encyclopedia Brittanica and The Encyclopedia of New York City, he is also on the editorial advisory board of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. He has appeared on radio and TV shows like The Edge, Eleventh Hour, All Things Considered and Fresh Air.
When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, reunited to tour behind The Rising, came to Madison Square Garden on August 12, they juxtaposed "41 Shots," Springsteen's powerful song about Amadou Diallo's shooting by NYPD officers, with "Into the Fire," the new album's uplifting gospel tribute to the emergency workers who climbed into the burning Twin Towers never to emerge. Stripped to incantatory simplicity, the newer song's chorus--a litany, really--invokes the healing circle of community that on 9/11 magically materialized--as hordes of volunteers and photo-covered memorial walls that abruptly elevated the NYPD and NYFD and EMS to hero status: "May your strength give us strength/May your faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love give us love." The crowd, mostly middle-aged in suburban summer attire, stood in rather stony silence for the Diallo tune, which drew boos and threats from the NYPD when Springsteen unveiled it at the Garden in June 2000; for the second they eased into a reverential hush. Everyone around here knows, after all, that Springsteen's music, especially "Thunder Road" and "Born in the U.S.A.," resounded through countless post-9/11 memorial services for the many blue-collar victims.
Springsteen's set lists are typically narratives; a sort of rock cabaret, they build emotional tensions and releases to tell some larger story. So at the Garden, he donned his plaid shirt as High Priest of the secular religion rooted in his audience's belief that he is somehow one of them writ magically large, as were the Local Heroes who flocked toward danger that beautiful, deadly September day, transfigured by necessity, rising to the call. Here he stood, with the E Street Band, his own symbolic community, ready to transform this site not three miles from the fallen towers into a temple of expiation, release, remembrance, hope, loss, despair, acceptance, resolve, love--and, of course, a rock-and-roll party.
Like the strain of American populists he springs from, Springsteen has always seen this country as a dichotomy, the Promised Land that waits within the dream of This Hard Land. Originally inspired by what he has called "class-conscious pop records" like The Animals' 1960s hits "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "It's My Life" ("I'd listen...and I'd say to myself: 'That's my life, that's my life!' They said something to me about my own experience of exclusion"), during the 1970s he delved into Flannery O'Connor and John Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams and John Ford, country music ("a very class-conscious music") and Guthrie, Walker Percy and Robert Frank.
"I've made records," Springsteen told Percy's nephew Will several years ago,
that I knew would find a smaller audience than others I've made. I suppose the larger question is, 'How do you get that type of work to be heard--despite the noise of modern society?'... There's a lot of different ways to reach people, help them think about what's really important in this one-and-only life we live. There's pop culture--that's the shotgun approach, where you throw it out and it gets interpreted in different ways and some people pick up on it. And then there's the more intimate approach like I tried on Tom Joad.
For The Rising he grabbed the shotgun. For the first time ever, the E Street Band blasted through endless TV talk shows and promo spots and you-name-its to launch the record and tour. When the CD was released on July 30 it was ubiquitous, and the marketing campaign looked like an avalanche. The number of editorial pundits in places like the New York Times and The Economist who've felt they had to comment on what is, after all, a pop record, struck me as remarkable. No wonder, issues of artistic quality aside, the disc debuted at Number 1 and went gold in the first week--an unprecedented hit for The Boss.
Boss or not, Springsteen hasn't exactly been burning up the charts since the breakup of the E Street Band, except--predictably--for greatest-hits packages. But he has been looking for new entrance ramps onto the artistic freeway. In 1992 he made Human Touch and Lucky Town, essentially by himself, and got complaints that he'd lost the old power, that the songs had gotten clichéd, or repetitive, or superficial--all of which had some merit. He tried touring with a mostly black, largely female band, but the new band was loud and oddly bland. With The Ghost of Tom Joad he walked in the footsteps of Steinbeck and Guthrie and Ford, but for whatever reasons--the prosperity of the times? the alien heroes? the lack of Max Weinberg's bedrock backbeats and Clemons's predictable sax?--despite a terrific acoustic tour, most of his fans bought in only because the themes and approach interested him. They really wanted the Friday-night adrenaline rush of his earlier hits, their imaginary glory days represented to them in rocked-out concert form; but still they came, in reduced but dedicated numbers, to see Bruce because...hey, he's Bruce.
One PR edge about The Rising pushed Springsteen's calling victims and families, piecing together reportage for the album. There's a queasiness about this among longtime fans, including me, although Springsteen's genius has always shone in his talent for telling other people's stories. Which may be the main reason fans like me believe in Springsteen: this pop mega-star who describes what he does as a job and bikes around the country during his downtimes. Unlike Michael Jackson, Springsteen doesn't live in Neverland. He believes in his ability--his duty, the requisite for his gift of talent--to move us to more than adoration and sales. His human touch is the ghost in the pop industry's machinery.
"I'm more a product of pop culture: films and records, films and records, films and records," Springsteen told Percy. "I had some lofty ideas about using my own music to give people something to think about--to think about the world, and what's right and wrong. I'd been affected that way by records, and I wanted my own music and writing to extend themselves in that way."
My first reactions to The Rising were mixed. I don't know what I wanted to hear, but the marketing onslaught about 9/11 had shoved me into an emotional corner. Listening however expectantly, I felt my enthusiasm drain: A lot of these songs sounded like retreads whose earlier incarnations told fuller-bodied stories. Some of them, despite the hype, were barely if at all about 9/11. Shifting critical gears, I postulated problems--the limits of realism, the boundaries of Springsteen's talents and vision, the impossibly tangled American weave of commerce and culture, Reagan's attempt to appropriate "Born in the U.S.A." as a campaign tool, all kinds of intellectual reasons I wasn't blown away. I groused about the sketchy thinness of the tales, their flatness, their itchy transcendental yearnings, their failures. It didn't, I kept repeating to friends I played it to, really work.
A month later, I still think that whole chunks of The Rising don't work. I just don't care. Why, I keep asking myself, does the album's title track choke me up every time I hear it, its call-and-response gospel chorus with Bruce listing the sky's contradictory attributes ("Sky of mercy, sky of fear/Sky of memory and shadow") and the chorus answering, "A dream of life"? The story of a rescue worker who "left the house this morning/Bells ringing filled the air/Wearin' the cross of my calling/On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here," he inches through the dark to his death: "There's spirits above and behind me/Faces gone black, eyes burnin' bright/May their precious blood bind me/Lord, as I stand before your fiery light," and the chorus erupts into the wordless jigging chorus. This mini-epic opens with drawling guitar and spare backing gradually thickened by swirling keyboards and more guitars, grinds its gears into a blues-rock basher for the race to the disaster site and the climb, dissolves into kaleidoscopic textures as the hero dies dreaming of "holy pictures of our children/Dancin' in a sky filled with light"--a dream, he says, of life. It closes with gusts of contrapuntal voices that fade into the band's final unresolved chord.
The opening of "Into the Fire" is the last time the narrator sees his comrade, who climbs into the flames because "love and duty/called you someplace higher." Its incantatory chorus rides backed by an organ figure over a taps-derived beat. The instruments growl and skate with that understated amazing grace the E Street Band at its best can dazzle with. On "Empty Sky," Patti Scialfa's ghostly, quavering vocals frame Springsteen's tight-lipped narration in a stark rock ballad with doomed minor-major modulations and a foreground-shifting mix. "The Fuse" chuffs electrotech industrial sounds while a couple gropes for comfort in sex while funeral processions wind through town--carrying on, living, as time's beats tick into forever.
These are the songs I can't stop playing.
The reunion of Springsteen and the E Streeters reaffirms The Boss's basic mythic community; musically the album integrates the surprisingly varied styles the World's Greatest Garage Band has tackled over thirty-odd years. The album's title signals reassurance. The Boss has gathered us tonight in the Church of Rock and Roll, as he used to holler in those ferocious live gospel set pieces, to...gather us, to bear witness, to go on--to live. Because that, as clichéd as it is, is what we do, with a snatching of images, pangs of emotion and a gazing at the skies.
One musician I know called The Rising "comfort food--classy, well-done comfort food." He was right, but it didn't really matter. Over the years Springsteen has become part of the soundtrack for our lives, as The Animals were for his. The album's failures are part of its package, its blandness a necessary function of the affirmation, reconciliation, healing. Think of Springsteen as the plugged-in troubadour who shapes his artistry into what his audience wants and needs, not cynically but because he wants to bring them with him, and its structure becomes clearer.
Structure and intention, however, can't save all the songs. They move effortlessly, though not always successfully, from one tempo and soundscape to another as they talk of heroism and transcendence, devils in the mailbox and dreams of the garden of a thousand sighs. There are no Big Statements; there are sketchy stories. The standard imagery of romantic love and loss is tilted into the post-9/11 world. Sometimes, as in "You're Missing," this leaves us with a catalogue of unsatisfying clichés against generic synth backgrounds. On the r&b-flavored "Countin' on a Miracle," which explodes after a gentle acoustic-guitar intro, it plays off Springsteen's longstanding hope-against-hope trope: "It's a fairytale so tragic/There's no prince to break the spell/I don't believe in magic/But for you I will." The familiar language tries to embrace the unimaginable; mostly, inevitably, it fails.
But when it doesn't it cuts deep. Among the album's speakers are the dead, the determined and fragile living, the suicidal and transfigured, and the living dead: "Nothing Man" is a breathy ballad about a working-class hero who makes his hometown paper, gets glad-handed and bought rounds, and mutters, "You want courage/I'll show you courage you can understand/The pearl and silver/Restin' on my night table/It's just me Lord, pray I'm able." The linguistic conceit gets tangled, stretched. The earnest "Worlds Apart," where star-crossed lovers meet to an Arab-music inflection and a Pakistani chorus, is camp-hilarious. "Sounds like Sting on a bad day," quipped one pal who hates Sting. Every three or four tunes is a party piece like "Skin to Skin," a throwaway emotional release.
Still, even the failures reflect Springsteen's vision of an unpredictable, hostile world where individuals overcome, evade, understand in defeat, or are simply crushed by the loaded dice of the Powers That Be, whether They are the fates, the rich, the government or the lonely crowd. He sees community as a necessary refuge: "Mary's Place," bubbling r&b, is about a survivor throwing a post-9/11 party while "from that black hole on the horizon/I hear your voice calling me." These songs don't lay out a political agenda. Who needs more of that in a world where endless voices politically spin What Happened every day? Catch the Rashomon-style perspective shifts in "Lonesome Day": "House is on fire, viper's in the grass/A little revenge and this too shall pass.../It's alright...It's alright...It's alright.../Better ask questions before you shoot/Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit/It's hard to swallow, come time to pay/That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away."
This is the ineluctable lure of Springsteen's storytelling at its best--its suggestions of life's complexity. His voice, soaked in blues and gospel, sounds incredible, and its sheer allure, its phrasing and catches, its demands and pleas, carry many of the weaker songs. The singing's rich cracks and crannies evoke empathy and redemption, separation and defeat, wrapped in religious imagery that suggests, among other things, that the ways we were on 9/11 are more complicated than anyone can capture yet--how long, after all, did it take for Vietnam to yield Going After Cacciato and Dog Soldiers and "Born in the U.S.A."?
Which brings us back to the Garden, where the band pranced through nearly three hours, delivering note-perfect renditions--the blues-rock throb of "Into the Fire," the chug-a-lug suspensions and industrial-metal thrust of "The Fuse," the stark-yet-full acoustic colors of "Empty Sky," the skirling keyboards and snarling guitars that alternate sections of "The Rising"--that often flared but never quite built into the emotional peak that is their hallmark. The crowd leapt from their seats and sang the show's carefully salted oldies like "Prove It All Night," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The Promised Land." They danced to "Mary's Place" and cheered the second half of the line from "Empty Sky" that runs, "I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye." For the rest they mostly milled and sat and drank. The encores were all classics, from "Thunder Road" to "Born in the U.S.A."
Careful, scared, wondering if the glory days are past, sifting for omens. That's how the concert felt. Maybe that's who we are now. What kind of oracle did we expect?
It's easy to rephrase Tolstoy's opening to Anna Karenina so it describes junkies, who all share an essential plot line: Who and how to hustle in order to score. But in the world of postwar jazz, Charlie Parker gave junk an unprecedented clout and artistic aura. Bebop, the convoluted, frenetic modern jazz he and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, formulated, demanded intense powers of concentration. Bird played so far out of nearly everyone else's league that his heroin habit seemed to explain his godlike prowess. So heroin became an existentialist response to racism, to artistic rejection, a self-destructive way of saying Fuck You to mainstream America's 1950s mythologies. Parker warned everyone from young Miles Davis to young Chet Baker away from smack, but few heeded him. In 1954 Davis weaned himself from a four-year addiction; in 1988 Baker died after decades of living in Europe as a junkie, found in the street below his Amsterdam hotel window. (Did he jump? Was he pushed?)
Oklahoma-born and California-bred, Baker had one amazing artistic gift: He could apparently hear nearly any piece of music once and then play it. He intuitively spun melodies on his trumpet with a tone critics compared to Bix Beiderbecke's, and spent his long and unbelievably uneven career relying on that gift and coasting on his remarkable early breaks. In 1952 Charlie Parker played with him in LA, giving him instant cachet. When Gerry Mulligan hired him for the famed pianoless quartet that is the quintessential white West Coast Cool band, it made him a jazz star. After a drug bust broke the group up, Baker began singing; his wispy balladeering and Middle American good looks gave him entree to a broader public. During his early 1950s stint with Mulligan, he unbelievably beat Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to win critics' and fans' polls; his first album as a vocalist, which featured "My Funny Valentine," got him lionized on the Today and Tonight shows and in Time. From there on, his life took on a downward bias within a junkie's relentless cycles.
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker aims to synthesize all the information about the trumpeter and try to interpret him within the broader contexts of popular culture. Author James Gavin had access to unpublished autobiographical notes and interviews with Baker's erstwhile memoir collaborator Lisa Galt Bond, and also draws extensively on books like Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music and Chet Baker in Italy; he apparently scoured archives for interviews, profiles, pictures and video and audio materials as well, stirring in dollops from Bruce Weber's overripe 1989 movie about Baker, Let's Get Lost. Gavin has tracked Baker across Europe and America, distilled the wildly divergent attitudes toward him and his work, and attempts to make a case for what endures while not flinching from calling clunkers. He confronts black jazzers' resentment of Baker's playing: Most heard him, with excellent reason, as a paler, milder Miles Davis, yet he won polls and looked like he was making big money. As Gavin points out, Baker's lilting lyricism and even his demeanor owed almost everything to Davis's, but Baker wasn't raking in sales like Dave Brubeck, though he was churning out streams of highly variable product. In fact, Gavin explains the popularity of the sappy Chet Baker With Strings album, the trumpeter's bestselling 1954 disc (which sold an uncharacteristic 35,000-40,000 copies the first year), by comparing it to popular contemporary mood music--an apt and telling linkage.
Gavin's discussion of that record strikes one of his leitmotifs, Baker's charismatic visual appeal:
William Claxton's cover photo was so dreamy that record shops all over the country put the LP on display. Claxton showed Baker at his peak of beauty, staring out wistfully at the session, cheek resting against his horn's mouthpiece.... Many of the buyers were young women with little interest in jazz, who bought the LP for its cover. They were surprised to hear music as pretty as Baker was.... It was his looks, more than his music, that the Hollywood crowd cared about.
He's shrewd about Baker's singing:
[Record producer Dick] Bock listened in alarm as [Baker] struggled to sing on key, pushing the session into overtime.... Baker's dogged persistence didn't impress the musicians, who were reduced to near-invisible accompanists, tiptoeing behind his fragile efforts.... But as people stared at the cover and listened to Baker's blank slate of a voice, they projected all kinds of fantasies onto him.... Baker became the first jazz musician to attract a strong homosexual following.
Gavin is quite good at debunking longstanding myths about Baker, many of which Baker started himself. He didn't beat out loads of trumpeters to play with Bird in LA; a studio pianist, not Parker, hired him. It's highly unlikely Bird told East Coasters like Davis and Dizzy Gillespie that "there's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up." For Gavin, this self-mythologizing is a key to Baker's recessive, almost invisible character: "Just as he discovered how to seduce the camera lens into depicting him in make-believe terms, he learned to glamorize the truth into a fairy tale of romantic intrigue."
Naturally, the biographer seeks the man behind the layered tales. Here Gavin circles a black hole, because Baker was, as one witness after another testifies, nearly completely unrevealing. He didn't read, or speak, or otherwise express: He was "cool." Longtime junkiedom only hardened this character trait into manipulative blankness. So Gavin looks at Baker's doting, pushy mother and his violent failure of a father, checks out Baker's high school beatings for being a pretty boy, intimates that Baker's brief and harsh version of heterosexual sex may have covered for repressed homosexuality, and links him to the waves of rejection, from the Beats as well as Hollywood types like Marlon Brando and James Dean, rippling the 1950s. It's suggestive, though not necessarily convincing, since unlike other jazzers--Davis and Charles Mingus, for instance--Baker had no real contact with or interest in other artistic subcultures.
Baker's critical reputation kept crashing after the Mulligan quartet disbanded in 1954, and his drug use continued to escalate after that time, when his heroin addiction began. By 1966, he had hit bottom: He was badly beaten, probably because he ripped off a San Francisco drug dealer, and his upper teeth had to be pulled. His embouchure wrecked, his career, already smoldering, looked like it was finally in ruins. He worked in a Redondo Beach gas station and applied for welfare. Against the odds, record-label head Bock bought him dentures, and for more than a year he worked--probably harder than he ever did before or after--to rebuild something of the limpid trumpet sound that once made girls shudder.
In 1959 he had relocated to Europe, where he stayed for the rest of his life (except for a couple of brief homecomings) to avoid prosecution for drug busts. Inevitably, he got busted in Europe instead. Gavin rightly notes that the Europeans, especially the Italians, adopted Baker as a damaged genius, an artist in need of understanding and patronage. It didn't help. His trajectory careened mostly down; upward bursts of musical lucidity flashed against a churn of mediocrities and an ever-more-snarled life. His talent languished: He never expanded his musical knowledge, nor did he really learn to arrange or compose or even lead a band. He relied on producers and agents to direct his musical life; he didn't bother conceptualizing his own creative frameworks. He always demanded cash payments--no contracts, no royalties--on his endless scramble to score. And as women revolved through his life or fought over him and were beaten by him, he tried a few bouts at detox but compressed even further into a junkie's two-dimensionality. By the time he died, most American jazz fans thought he was already dead.
For this last half of his book, Gavin, even buoyed by research, swims upstream against the cascading flow of a junkie's essential plot line. For decades Baker is mostly chasing drugs, screwing anyone within reach, tumbling downward creatively and personally, and alternating manipulatively between victim and abuser. Except as a voyeur it's hard to care, especially since, with exceptions I think even rarer than Gavin does, Baker's music was generally worthless. Junk didn't make him a musical superman; it simply drove him to make fast, sloppy recordings with under-rehearsed bands, playing horn that was so unpredictable in quality it could sound like an abysmal self-parody. Sympathetically balanced as he tries to be, even Gavin can only cite a handful of ex-sidemen as Baker's musical legacy of influence. Instead, he depicts Baker as a kind of cultural icon rather than a cultural force.
It is one of history's ironies that Baker was resurrected after his death by a film made shortly before it. Bruce Weber, a fashion photographer famed for his homoerotic Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren ads, has a sharp eye for the scandalous, and decided to make Let's Get Lost when he saw Baker at the trumpeter's brief fling at an American comeback in 1986. He fell for what an associate described as "beauty that looked kind of destroyed." Weber bought him a French beatnik wardrobe from a Paris designer, and paid him $12,500 for a performance that Gavin describes: "eyelids sagging, slurring his words, all but drooling.... Unless he got what he needed, [Weber's assistant] said, 'he wouldn't have sat still a minute for us.'" The documentary refired interest in Baker among boomers and Gen Xers, who responded to the bathetic junkie glamour of his apparent frailty, personal and artistic, just as their 1950s avatars had. Reissues of Baker's albums on CD have gathered mass and sales since.
Which leaves us with Baker's mysterious death, long haloed by a host of theories. Gavin rejects accident, reporting that "the window [of the hotel room] slid up only about fifteen inches, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a grown man to fall through accidentally." Dismissing speculation that Baker might have lost his room key and tried to climb the hotel's facade, Gavin says it's unlikely he could have gone unnoticed on such a busy thoroughfare. He dismisses homicide, as did Baker's remaining friends and the Dutch police, and concludes that Baker was shooting his favorite speedballs and committed a sort of passive-aggressive suicide by "opening a window and letting death come to him.... [He] had died willfully of a broken heart."
That's a pretty sentimental final fade for a hard-core character like Baker, who for all Gavin's determined nuance ultimately seems less rebel than junkie. Maybe Gavin should have pondered Naked Lunch. Then he might have ended his book with, say, Steve Allen's take, since Allen was one of the many Baker burned: "When Chet started out, he had everything. He was handsome, had a likable personality, a tremendous musical gift. He threw it all away for drugs. To me, the man started out as James Dean and ended up as Charles Manson."
When I first saw The Last Waltz in 1978, I almost walked out, although I was a fan of both director Martin Scorsese and The Band. I admit I was one of the folks whose tickets for the original 1976 show at San Francisco's Winterland were refunded by impresario Bill Graham in light of the scheduled movie shoot, when he decided to have a Thanksgiving sit-down dinner precede the concert, which translated into a then-hefty $25 price tag.
Twenty-four years and a new DVD version have changed, or at least made subtler, some of my reactions. But I still think two of Scorsese's typical dynamics are in play: seeking out America's underbellies, and monumentalizing or sacramentalizing them. And so The Last Waltz teeters between grit and awe--perhaps unintentionally but tellingly, like rock itself at the time and rock history ever since.
When it premiered, Pauline Kael famously dubbed The Last Waltz "the most beautiful rock movie ever." As a formalist she had a point. With seven cameramen, including Vilmos Zsigmond (later famous as a cinematographer) and Miklos Rozsa (who came to be known as a composer), Scorsese professionalized the deliberately nonprofessional documentary sensibility of D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles. Now that seems a fitting sign of the times: Mainstream rock had been professionalized, from the boring arena-ready music itself to the new national distribution systems, while pop sputtered with the industry's search for commercially viable trends, like disco. Almost in answer, new forms of folk art appeared. Breakdancers hit urban streets and Bruce Springsteen prowled stages toward apotheosis with shows that exploded somewhere between Elvis, an r&b revue and West Side Story. It was another return to the do-it-yourself folk aesthetic underlying evolutionary developments in American popular culture.
So now The Last Waltz gives me a kind of double vision: It's an elegy to The Band that is also, perhaps unwittingly, an elegy to an era. The sense of reverence toward the motley parade of music stars trooping across its lenses is intercut with open-eyed realism during the best of the connecting interview segments--though those too are frequently tinged with Scorsese's romanticism.
When Music From Big Pink (Capitol) came out in 1968, its album cover was a painting by Bob Dylan. Dylan had hired the quintet, then The Hawks, renamed The Band, for his revolutionary 1965-66 tour, which they spent making garage grunge of his songs while being booed by folk purists who wanted acoustic Dylan rather than the post-"Like a Rolling Stone" model. (Bob Dylan Live 1966 [Sony] is the official version of long-available bootlegs.)
After his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan had pretty much disappeared from view, and there were regular rumors of his death or disfigurement. But the smartest word was he'd been hanging out at Big Pink, a nondescript house at the foot of Woodstock's Overlook Mountain, jamming and writing songs with The Band. (These would soon surface as bootlegs; selections have been remixed and officially reissued on The Basement Tapes [Sony] intercut with material by The Band alone.) Dylan encouraged them to find their artistic vision. No surprise, then, that Music From Big Pink opened with one Dylan track, "Tears of Rage," and closed with another, "I Shall Be Released."
Dylan's near-invisibility only augmented his cultural aura, a marketing lesson his widely disliked, thuggish, Svengali-esque manager, Albert Grossman, absorbed and soon applied to his latest clients, The Band. Inside their double-sleeved first album were pictures of the members: Five guys dressed like extras in an early Hollywood western, visual kin to the road-warrior hoboes and evicted tenant farmers who peopled The Grapes of Wrath and Guthrie tunes. Their mothers and fathers and kids. Their house, Big Pink, every band's dream--a clubhouse to jam and practice and record in, surrounded by a hundred acres of mountain meadows and woods. The Band, though, like millions of post-Beatles and post-Dylan American kids picking and singing in their cellars and backyards, still had to keep the volume down for fear of riling the neighbors.
Nestled in Big Pink, playing cards and getting stoned and writing and working out new stuff, as well as tweaking old bar-band tunes and hymns and pieces of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Dylan and The Band forged a remarkable creative symbiosis. Thanks to their Dylan-paid salaries and a rent that, depending on whom you believe, was somewhere between $125 and $275 a month, The Band played musical chairs with instruments as they groped for fresh ideas. As Robbie Robertson, The Band's chief songwriter and guitarist, has shrewdly observed, "Sometimes the limitation of the instrument can provide originality."
Improvising was key to their artistic process, as their shortcomings or imaginations prodded them from instrument to instrument, lineup to lineup, to find what worked with the tune at hand. The result was contemporary folk music, new-minted yet old-sounding, with strains of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, rockabilly and soul. It wobbled foggily somewhere between jug bands and Stax-Volt, surreal wet dreams and revival meetings.
Robertson's guitar stayed mostly low profile, rearing for occasional stabbing outbursts; he rarely sang. The three vocalists were startlingly different, but found offbeat ways to blend. As Robertson has observed, "A lot of the time with The Band they were somewhere between real harmonies and, because of our lack of education in music, they would be things that just sounded interesting--or they would be the only thing the person could hit."
Levon Helm's singing was gritty and soulful and at times sardonic; he doubled on drums and mandolin. Rick Danko had a clear, yearning tenor, played bass that burbled like a McCartney-esque tuba, sawed a backwoods fiddle and strummed guitar. Richard Manuel doubled on engagingly ramshackle drums and pounded what has been described as "rhythm piano"; as for his voice, Robertson has said, "There's a certain element of pain in there that you didn't know whether it was because he was trying to reach for a note or because he was a guy with a heart that'd been hurt." Garth Hudson was classically trained, said he learned to improvise from playing at his uncle's funeral parlor and invented one after another "blackbox," the kinds of soundshapers so integral to the era's musical sensibility. Hudson didn't sing, but the sounds he made became The Band's sonic glue, as they fitted parts together that breathed, leaving spaces float, stepping into others, with the sort of interlocking discipline found in, say, the jammed-out music of Count Basie, Muddy Waters or Booker T. & the MGs. Not surprisingly, they cut their first two albums mostly live in the studio. (See The Band [Rhino] for an informative, if talking-head-heavy, video history of the making of the group's first two records.)
"Tears of Rage," written by Dylan and Manuel, kicked Music at Big Pink off-kilter from the start. Manuel's eccentric r&b cry and falsetto staggered dangerously, seductively around the confessional lyrics; Robertson's treated guitar approximated organ tones; Hudson's winding, churchy organ swelled and subsided; and a drunken Salvation Army-ish horn section (courtesy Hudson and producer John Simon) punctuated the flow over the spare, Booker T. & the MGs-style bass and drums. Simon has observed of the distinctively moaning horn blend, "That's the only sound we could make." The rest of the album was a bit uneven but ear-opening, challenging, even wonderful. "To Kingdom Come" bounced airily, blearily beneath Manuel's vocals; "The Weight" mixed Curtis Mayfield guitar licks into a surreal gospel setting; "Long Black Veil" tipped its classicist hat at Lefty Frizell; and "Chest Fever" was an instant radio hit, with its swelling, skirling, gnashing organ and nightmare-incoherent lyrics.
With Grossman behind them, The Band--or at least Robertson, who was rapidly becoming primus inter pares--learned to use reticence and image to enhance their music. Like Wynton Marsalis a decade later in jazz, they self-consciously looked back to tradition. "We were rebelling against the rebellion," Robertson has said. "It was an instinct to separate ourselves from the pack." That instinct drew the attention of the nascent rock press, which became their champions: Outlets like Rolling Stone, co-founded by jazz historian Ralph J. Gleason, fused the old fanzines and more critical and historical perspectives. These new media helped make The Band counterculture heroes.
As did the lyrics, which were increasingly written by Robertson. Enigmatic and vaguely religious and poetic, full of questions and retorts that didn't necessarily mesh, painting realistic scenes and Dadaist laments, they clearly owed a great deal to Dylan. Robertson had also been reading Cocteau, thinking in terms of movies, wanting to replicate what he's called Dylan's disruption of song forms.
The look and sound, the entire presentation of The Band, evoked a notion of authenticity that has underscored writing about them ever since, usually to contrast them with the countercultural rebellion. As Grossman, who knew show business, surely understood, this was both an iconic extension and an ironic inversion of the folk revival's would-be purity. For the counterculture, and show business, were The Band's home. They were outriders on Dylan's panoramic influence, mountainside avatars of the Jeffersonian "back to the land" ideal that recurred in the Woodstock generation's ideology. As Greil Marcus rather romantically noted of their early music, "It felt like a passport back to America for people who'd become so estranged from their country that they felt like foreigners even when they were in it."
When The Band (Capitol) followed Music From Big Pink in 1969, it cemented the group's reputation and enhanced their Dylanesque mystique of invisibility: Refusing to tour, partly because of Band members' car crashes and flipouts, they watched promoters' offers climb from $2,000 a show to $50,000.
The Band were in the midst of recording their second album far from the Catskills, in Hollywood at Sammy Davis Jr.'s pool house, which they'd converted into a studio, when they decided to resist no longer. But before they debuted onstage at Winterland in April 1969, Robertson got such a bad case of nerves (he has always claimed he had the flu) he stayed in bed for three days of rehearsal, and had to be hypnotized to go onstage.
Since they'd been musically weaned in roadhouses and spent such care on recording live, it's always been one of the odder ironies of The Band's career that they were erratic, often uncomfortable performers. Unconsciously extending the folk revival's ideology, reviewers tended to explain their unevenness as an emblem of honest authenticity, which, in the ways of do-it-yourself, folk-culture amateurism, it sometimes was, though this was somehow also the culture The Band was posited to be different from. "A lot of mysticism was built up around The Band," Robertson has said. "These guys up in the mountains...." At any rate, the quality of their concerts was as fully unpredictable as that of their putative opposite numbers, the Grateful Dead.
From Winterland they hit the Fillmore East, where I can testify they did at least one good show; then they finished recording at the Hit Factory in New York City. The Band still stands as their masterpiece. Loosely built around a harvest-is-in, carnival-is-in-town feel, it's incredibly consistent and divergent at the same time, the strength of their studies and abilities ramifying its depth and breadth. Their brand of self-consciousness of sources and sounds marked one key difference between rock and earlier roll and rock.
From "Across the Great Divide," with its bouncy rhythms, yearning Manuel vocal, bleary horns and slippery guitar fills, to "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," the surprisingly downbeat rural closer that cuts in snapshots of union struggles, it has a rare scope and power. "Up on Cripple Creek," with its bump-grind rhythms and allusion to an old folk tune, was all over FM radio, as were the hoedowns-in-your-basement "Rag Mamma Rag" and "Jemima Surrender." "The Unfaithful Servant" gave Danko's aching tenor a Dylanesque vehicle, while "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" told a moving tale of one Southern family's Civil War hardships.
After this album, the madness and musical unevenness accelerated. In early 1970, The Band made the cover of Time--a rarity then. The group's substance abuse, especially Manuel's and Danko's, deepened, particularly when they were off the road, as they were for months at a time. Robertson had become the dominant figure--embarking on self-education, dealing with Grossman, writing first most, then all the songs, disciplining the others into rehearsing and recording. The relatively equal distribution of ability at the heart of The Band's music was coming unbalanced.
Perhaps they'd just hit the natural limits of their talent. Or maybe they were trapped by the ghosts of folkie authenticity they and Grossman had conjured. Whatever the cause, most of their later albums sound more airless, stale, fussy, strained. It was as if they were confined conceptually to an inelastic, increasingly romanticized and nostalgic space and mode. (To Kingdom Come [Capitol] offers two CDs that cull much good and some indifferent material from all their recordings.)
But they didn't go straight downhill. The music they made when they rejoined Dylan onstage in 1974 was fierce, as if he once again sparked their creative fires. Their several tours with the Grateful Dead, though the pairing confused many reviewers, was a study in similarity and contrast that sometimes sparked great things. (In 1970, Danko told Jerry Garcia, "We thought you were just California freaks, but you're just like us.") And on the albums, individual songs--"The Shape I'm In," "Stage Fright," Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece"--displayed the old dexterous touches. Overall, though, creatively everyone but Robertson, whose muse was drying up anyway, seemed content to coast--after all, women, booze and money were plentiful. The ambitious songwriter, who'd begun producing other artists' records and thinking about movies, finally decided to pull the plug in high style. Hence The Last Waltz.
There are beautiful sequences in The Last Waltz, and the best are those of The Band itself. Scorsese's desire to work tight means fewer establishing shots than some (including me) might want, but the aesthetic does reflect The Band's subtle, intimate music. At its best, the film can be stunning. "Stage Fright," for example, shoots Danko from almost 360 degrees, lit only by an overhead spot, creating gorgeous interplays of shadow and light, heightening the song's lyrics. "Mystery Train," to which Paul Butterfield adds harp and vocals, has a similar self-conscious beauty, which jars with the raggedy unison singing. The Staples Singers joining on "The Weight," in a sequence filmed after the show itself, aurally demonstrates The Band's vocal debts to them. For Emmylou Harris's turn on "Evangeline," another postshow scene, Scorsese fills the soundstage with blue-lit smoke, which feels hokey but redeems it a bit visually with arresting camera angles that frame the stark, lovely geometries of Hudson's accordion, Danko's fiddle and Helm's mandolin.
A concert film is ultimately about the music, however. The Last Waltz translates The Band's broad tastes into a narrative punctuated by interviews and special guests onstage. But the frame is only as strong as its content. Eric Clapton? Ron Wood and Ringo Starr? Dr. John? Neil Diamond? Joni Mitchell? Even Muddy Waters? Broad-based roots, far-reaching sounds, all spokes in the wheel of the 1960s rock resurgence that Scorsese's narrative contextualizes and justifies via the interviews. But there's little about the performances of these artists that is special. No particular chemistry emerges to make this a moment--except that it's The Band's Last Waltz. I found myself wondering if part of The Band's artistry consisted of its ability to disappear musically. (The companion four-CD set, The Last Waltz [Rhino], has state-of-the-art sound and a bunch of added music--most of it, unless you're a completist, better left unheard.)
Certainly The Last Waltz makes clear why The Band ended. Though Scorsese tries to balance his time with the five members, Robertson's hooded eyes enthrall him. It's palpable that Robertson is surrounded by good-timey, undisciplined mates who have trouble articulating or finishing their stories, and often steps into the breach. (Helm is incisive talking about music and cultural roots; the others work in a haze of fractured sentences, bits of cynicism and mysticism, and defer to Robertson.)
Robertson had become the group's de facto manager, its public face, more and more the businessman, the guy who had the vast bulk of the publishing income and royalties from all that collaborative imaginative work that made the songs timeless. He was also the sole producer of The Last Waltz. He wanted out; if the movie is unclear what the others wanted, the fact is that the rest, minus Robertson, re-formed in various configurations over the years.
Aside from The Band's own sequences, the best moments in The Last Waltz belong, fittingly, to Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the two front men who helped catalyze their chemistry. Hawkins is wonderfully unselfconscious during his rave-up version of "Who Do You Love," cueing and teasing The Band as if a dozen years hadn't passed between them. Dylan, at the film's end, leads The Band through "Forever Young," making it their gentle envoi. Watching him goose them through his abrupt transition to the snarling reworking of the Rev. Gary Davis's "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," one of the electric tunes they'd rattled audiences with in that now-legendary 1965-66 tour, offers us a glimpse into the chemistry of their fruitful relationship, and the perfect closing bookend to The Band's career.