Feeling About Half Past Dead: Down in the Basement With What’s Left of The Band

The Band on the Ed Sullivan Show. (CBS Photo Archive)

Earlier in June, two months after the death of Levon Helm, the drummer and strongest singer in The Band, I received an email with the subject line, “The Band Reunion.” This was curious because they were a five-piece—Rick Danko, Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson—and there’s very little left of them now. Mr. Hudson and Mr. Robertson are the only surviving members and, aside from an appearance at the 1994 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the two have rarely played music together since the Band’s full line-up performed their final show in 1976. This reunion, at the Iridium Jazz Club last Friday night, would be no exception. Mr. Hudson was sitting in on a set with Jim Weider, who replaced Mr. Robertson as lead guitarist when The Band reformed in the ’80s, but that was good enough for me: there’s enough of a legend to The Band that simply being in the same room as the man who played accordion on “When I Paint My Masterpiece” feels downright significant. There’s a lot of history, too, most of which has ended in tragedy.

The Band is the template for the standard of authenticity by which we judge musicians today. They were effortlessly authentic. They once turned down a gig with Glen Campbell because he wanted them to sit on a flatbed truck and lip synch their songs. Everyone but Helm was Canadian, but people didn’t question that they sang songs about sharecroppers and going to the horse races. There’s a remarkable objectivity to their work—they were telling stories about a mythologized America, rather than trying to be a part of it.

They backed up Bob Dylan—who discovered them in a club either in New Jersey or Canada, depending on the account—on his first electric tour, which means they were booed by whole arenas filled with diehard folk fans. Famously, at a 1966 concert at London’s Free Trade Hall, one audience member shouted “Judas” at them. (Helm had, by that point, left the tour because, as he once wrote, “I wasn’t made to be booed.”) Dylan became a kind of mentor, and The Band recorded a huge repertoire of music with him that was later released under the title The Basement Tapes.

The Basement Tapes is incredible for being a collection of songs mostly about nothing. Not nothing in the “Desolation Row,” “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” esoteric but vaguely interpretable sense, but in a literal nothing sense. It was recorded at The Band’s rented home near West Saugerties, N.Y., and it’s really the first—and maybe, with the exception of “TV Party” by Black Flag—only sustained narrative in pop music about being bored at home. There’s a song about planning a vacation (“Going to Acapulco”), a song about doing the laundry (“Clothes Line Saga”), a song about daydreaming about your hypothetical future wife (“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”). Greil Marcus called this music a document of “The Old Weird America,” mining the inexplicably eerie vibe of recorded music’s formative years in the American South, and that’s true, but less because the music sounds like old-timey folk and blues and more because it takes that mood and transposes it onto suburban restlessness. Take “Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)”:

I had a hard time waking
this morning

I have a lot of things
on my mind

Like those friends of yours

They keep bringing me down

Just hanging round
all the time

That’s a very American problem—wanting everything to go your way and being devastated when it doesn’t—that is more slight than, say, the Civil War, which The Band writes about in their later masterpiece, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but it is treated with equal gravity.

They went on to play Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, released two perfect albums, one good album, and then a bunch of scatter-brained, hit-or-miss music until they broke up.

Their final show with Mr. Robertson was lovingly filmed by Martin Scorcese in The Last Waltz. Helm hated it because it made Mr. Robertson look like the group’s centerpiece (he produced the movie) and said it was “the biggest rip-off that ever happened to The Band.” Reportedly, everyone but Mr. Robertson was stiffed on royalties for the film, which—like a lot of their recorded music—is bursting with energy and also terribly tragic. I’ve seen it 20 times and still get a lump in my throat at the part when Martin Scorcese asks Rick Danko what he’s doing now that The Last Waltz is over. Danko can’t come up with an answer and finally says, “Just trying to stay busy.”

They were joined by the likes of Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Dylan at that final show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, but by the time of their reunion tour—without Mr. Robertson—in 1986, they were playing the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Suburban, Fla. The night of that gig, Manuel told his band mates something like, “I’ll be right back,” and hanged himself with his belt in the bathroom at the Quality Inn next door. He was 43; his obituary in The New York Times got his age wrong. Mr. Robertson was supposed to deliver the eulogy at his funeral, but didn’t show up. Mr. Hudson played “I Shall Be Released” on the church organ. None of the attendees could gather up the strength to sing the words: “I see my light come shining/From the west unto the east/Any day now, any day now,/I shall be released.”

In 1998, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. In 1999, Rick Danko, then 56, died in his sleep at his home in upstate New York. In 2001, Mr. Hudson filed for bankruptcy. Helm recovered from intensive radiation treatment and surgery and started holding concerts called “Midnight Rambles” at his home near Woodstock, in part to pay his medical bills. When the news was announced that Helm did not have long to live, Mr. Hudson released a statement: “I am too sad for words right now.”

THE IRIDIUM is a basement club in Times Square, tucked in between the Stardust Diner and the theater that shows Mama Mia. Jim Weider’s band is called Project Percolator and they were playing for a room of a few dozen people, who were all curiously nondescript, save for Iridium’s manager, who had dreadlocks, a friendly smile and asked me what I wanted to drink by saying, “Are you thirsty?” and the publicist seated at my table who was wearing short shorts and a shirt that said SENIORS because she would soon depart for a Dazed and Confused-themed birthday party. There was an empty swiveling computer chair in between a Yamaha keyboard and an old church organ that were arranged at a right angle.

After some time, when Garth Hudson finally appeared, there was nothing about him that seemed real. He was more of an idea, something left over from a different time. He was hunched over and had a beard that went down to the middle of his chest and a mane of white frizzy hair that emerged from beneath a black cowboy hat and rested in a clump across one shoulder. It looked like the only things keeping him propped up at the keyboard were his fingers on the keys. But when he started to play, his hands moving swiftly and casually so that it looked more like he was brushing some dust off the kitchen table, the sound came straight out of the past. He started out solo, with a slow New Orleans blues that constantly altered in tone and mood. After a nice line of notes, he fist pumped the air. He would often play a line beautifully then let his hand drop in a kind of “do I really have to do this?” gesture. He was not doing interviews.

His back-up kicked in and they played “Just Like a Woman,” which Jim Weider prefaced by saying they hadn’t played it before. When they were finished, an audience member said, “It looked like you rehearsed that,” to which Mr. Hudson responded gravely, “You were there?” Those were the only words he uttered the entire evening. The set ended with a take on The Band’s song “Rag Mama Rag.” It was all instrumental because there was no one left to sing it.

mmiller@observer.com Feeling About Half Past Dead: Down in the Basement With What’s Left of The Band