Divide and conquer

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The audiences were children scared of the thunder, and bootlegs from that period document the angry crowds desperately trying to turn the tide, clapping and shouting at inappropriate moments. On one such illicit disc--the double-disc Guitars Kissing and The Contemporary Fix (recorded during a show in Manchester, England, and also known as the infamous Royal Albert Hall boot)--you can actually hear someone yell "Judas!" before Dylan and the Hawks rip all hell out of "Like a Rolling Stone," and the subsequent cheers of agreement are deafening and snide; it's as though they were daring him to a fight, bare knuckles and all. You can hear the defiant sneer in Dylan's voice when he snarls back: "I don't believe you." He fumbles with his strings for a moment, then spits out, "You're a liar." He then orders the band to play the standard "fuckin' loud," and the music they make is a thrilling train-wreck of anger and beauty. Never before or since has the song sounded so alive. (Columbia was supposed to release the album in 1995, but flinched.)

Time magazine referred to the Dylan-Hawks pairing as "the most decisive moment in rock history," which might have been the most appropriate bit of hyperbole ever offered in rock criticism. Playing with the Hawks liberated Dylan from his man-with-the-acoustic-guitar routine, and he'd never recover from the thrill; and playing with Dylan, whose idea of structure was having none, similarly freed the Hawks, who had spent years playing oldies-but-goodies with the anonymous journeyman Hawkins. As Levon Helm, who rejoined his old mates in 1967, told Barney Hoskyns, author of Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, "Bob's influence certainly helped us and encouraged us to play with a more personal style. By the time we came to do our own stuff, there were no longer any rules."

When Dylan wrecked his motorcycle in the summer of 1966, he reconvened the Hawks in upstate New York, where Dylan was working on a documentary titled Eat the Document; yet what came out of that partnership was far bigger than any movie--it was an ancient sound made brand-new, the stuff of rock and roll revolutions, music that has become so legendary, three decades later it's hard to hear it without the myth getting in the way. Dylan and The Band, as they would call themselves (these five men were inextricable from each other, a solid, solitary unit), turned their throw-away basement tapes into the Holy Text for all rock that followed in the 1960s and beyond.

The Band's own Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, and the following year's masterpiece, The Band, seem even now these exotic, mysterious gems. The songs contained on those two discs--and subsequent Basement Tapes, officially released years later--were funky, beautiful, time-warp grab-bag concoctions that sounded as though they were recorded by modern men during bygone times. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek," "To Kingdom Come," "Rag Mama Rag," "Daniel and the Sacred Harp," and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" were traditional American tales recast through Robertson's Canadian eyes; his was the most extreme brand of outsider rock, American country-blues made by a kid who learned about such sounds from the other side of the border.

Everyone sang everything, everyone played everything (from mandolin to organ to electric guitar), and everyone seemed so much a part of the complete picture; Robertson sang but three songs during his tenure with The Band, but he provided most every single word for Hudson, Manuel, Danko, or the mighty Helm to sing. Robertson created Helm's Virgin Kane of "Dixie" and the struggling farmer of "King Harvest" and all the other characters that populated The Band's first two albums; he linked the Civil War to the Depression (on the farewell Islands) to today and beyond.

"The songs were made to bring life to the fragments of experience, legend, and artifact every American has inherited as the legacy of a mythical past," Marcus wrote in his 1975 book Mystery Train, his attempt to connect The Band and Elvis and Randy Newman and Sly Stone to the whole history of past-and-future American music. "There is no feeling of being dragged into the past for a history lesson; if anything, the past catches up with us. Robbie put his stories on the surface, but they hit home because they draw the traces of that legacy out of each of us, bringing them down to the surface of our own lives."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky