The great divide

Levon Helm, the heart and soul of The Band, looks back in anger

But in 1965, Levon and The Hawks recorded a single for Atco, and while the A-side "He Don't Love You" wasn't anything special, the B-side foreshadowed what was to come. "The Stone I Throw," guided so forcefully by Hudson's organ playing, was the first song on which all the members of The Hawks sang together, and it wasn't exactly a rock song or a blues song, but something bigger--almost gospel, like some newly discovered hymn being performed by five white boys during happy hour at the neighborhood dive.

In September of that year, the boys were contacted by Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, about backing Dylan on a series of dates--his first electric tour. At first, only Robertson was taken along, then Helm was hired when Robbie voiced his dislike for Dylan's drummer; eventually, all five members of The Hawks were brought in. But Levon couldn't stand the barrage of catcalls with which Dylan was greeted when he plugged in and turned up; the purists considered him a Judas (a cry made famous on the Royal Albert Hall bootleg recorded in 1966 that became an official release only last year), and Helm couldn't take the outrage heaped upon him every night. He would eventually claim he "wasn't made for booing" and quit The Hawks, being replaced by Mickey Jones, a Dallas boy who had played with Trini Lopez. While Dylan and The Hawks were ushering in a revolution, Helm was in New Orleans, washing dishes.

"I had a little short career there--about a day and a half--in the restaurant business," he says now. "I signed on there at The Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans and got caught eating one of the entrees and had to leave."

Soon enough, after the boys had moved into a pink house in Woodstock--so serene a setting, surrounded by 100 empty acres and a pond--Helm returned to the fold, but not before Dylan, Robertson, Hudson, Danko, and Manuel had recorded dozens and dozens of songs down in the basement of that big pink house in Woodstock. Helm showed up in 1968 as Dylan and The Hawks were finishing their collection of basement tapes; he appears only on the later tracks, playing drums and harmonica. But he was there long enough to catch up on what the boys were doing, playing old songs that became new songs that merely sounded vintage. Even now, it's hard to differentiate the old folk tunes from the songs they made up on the spot.

Robbie Robertson would tell rock critic-author Greil Marcus that The Basement Tapes--only a fraction of which have ever been released, the rest left to bootleggers and fanatics to pore over as though it were the Holy Grail of rock and roll--were simply a "goof," the sound of musicians playing "with absolute freedom." But Marcus, whose 1997 book Invisible Republic tells the hidden story of the tapes, didn't buy it, insisting they revealed "the undiscovered country"--in other words, America.

Marcus, speaking from his home in Berkeley, California, says there was nothing accidental about the Big Pink tapes. Marcus says that after Invisible Republic was published, he received a call from folklorist John Cohen, who told Marcus that in 1967, Dylan invited him to a party at his Woodstock home. Then, a few days later, Dylan phoned Cohen again and asked him to bring his banjo; Cohen agreed. Dylan then phoned once more and asked Cohen if he also had a dulcimer he might be able to bring to the party.

"It turned out Dylan wanted John to bring all his traditional instruments, because he wanted him to play stuff in a casual manner so Robbie and Richard would get interested," Marcus says, referring to it as Dylan's "surreptitious" history lesson. For The Hawks, Marcus says, "it was like falling into another world. Exactly how they understood it changed from day to day, but the thing about the Basement Tapes is that it was a secret intervention. They were acting out another music, and they did not intend for anyone to hear this stuff."

That secret intervention would lead to two of the most beguiling albums ever made: Music from Big Pink, released in July 1968, and The Band, which followed in September 1969. Both albums sounded like nothing being released at the end of the decade; indeed, they were meant to stand in direct opposition to the electric, psychedelic, purple-haze, this-is-the-end rock and roll being made by the likes of Hendrix and Morrison and the rest of those groovy San Fran boogie bands. Reborn as The Band--the perfect name for an outfit in which everyone played everything, sang everything, and contributed solely for the cause--four Canucks and their Arkansas compatriot set down roots and played them like guitar strings. They dressed like refu-gees from a Sam Peckinpah western, sang about brothers lost to the Yankees in the Civil War and farms lost to the government, and made spooky, delirious, merry-go-round good-time music using organs and mandolins while the rest of rock and roll was tuning out and turning up.

In a documentary about the making of the second record, Robertson and Helm --speaking separately, never shown together--talk about how they wanted to recapture the sound of an America that had long since disappeared along with the railroad. They talked about how the harmonies on their records were accidental, the sound of men singing as high as they could, but also of how they imagined their music as the soundtrack to a place that no longer existed. They were storytellers, caretakers--historians with guitars, finding so much promise and danger across the great divide. And as Helm and Robertson and producer John Simon talk about The Band in this documentary, they do so with tremendous looks of delight and satisfaction smeared across their faces; they surely knew they had taken history and made history.

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