I first saw The Band when they were still called The Hawks. They were backing Bob Dylan for the electric half of the concerts on his 1966 UK tour, and they were loud… very, very loud.
The Hawks were without their usual drummer, Levon Helm, for the tour. He had become tired of the barrage of booing to which they’d been regularly subjected in the US in reaction to Dylan’s new electric style, and had opted for a less stressful life working as a deckhand on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He was replaced by a no-nonsense Texan called Mickey Jones who recalls that he was hired because he’d demonstrated that he had a heavy right foot. ‘Dylan liked that,’ he says. It showed.
Rewinding to that night… following the interval – after a first half of just Dylan and his acoustic guitar – the curtains open to reveal an array of musicians with drums, electric guitars and keyboards. On this tour they start each electric half with Tell Me, Momma. After some tuning up, Dylan begins a quiet, rhythmic strum on his black and white Telecaster. After five or six bars someone stomps and counts the song in… one, two, three, four… and then it feels like a train is thundering through the auditorium.
Jones’ right foot is more than fulfilling its contractual obligations and his arms are flailing at everything within range, The Hawks are charging at full tilt and at the centre of it all Dylan is shouting the lyrics through the musical gale: ‘Cold black glass don’t make no mirror…’
I think I’d only been to one live gig before this and I’d never heard anything as loud or exciting. The tour recordings do little to convey the experience of that powerful explosion of sound.
Roll on a couple of years. Helm is reunited with The Hawks who are living close to Dylan in rural Woodstock, New York, and are now called The Band. They are making their own new music and release their first LP, Music from Big Pink. When I first heard it I found it difficult to believe that it was the same raucous bunch I’d seen a couple of years earlier.
The Band were blessed with three of the great distinctive voices in rock music: the emotional ache of Richard Manuel, the soul of Rick Danko and the gritty Arkansas drawl of Levon Helm, the only non-Canadian member. Add the guitar and songwriting skills of Robbie Robertson plus the keyboard, horns and technical wizardry of Garth Hudson, and they made a formidable musical unit.
Rockin’ Chair, from their second LP simply called The Band, is a poignant, affecting song and, given its theme of ageing, remarkable for the fact that it was written by Robertson in his mid-twenties after having lived a somewhat full-on rock and roll lifestyle since his mid-teens.
The song concerns two life-long seafarers with an unnamed protagonist attempting to persuade his friend Willie that it’s time to give up their maritime wanderings.
Hang around, Willie boy,
Don’t you raise the sails any more
It’s for sure, I’ve spent my whole life at sea
And I’m pushin’ age seventy-three
Now there’s only one place that was meant for me
The song’s refrain tells of his yearnings…
Oh, to be home again
Down in old Virginny
With my very best friend
They call him Ragtime Willie
We’re gonna soothe away the rest of our years
We’re gonna put away all of our tears…
I can't wait to sniff that air
Dip'n snuff, I won't have no care…
Woulda been nice just to see the folks
Listen once again to the stale jokes…
And once he’s finally settled back at home…
That big rockin’ chair won't go nowhere
But time is pressing for a working man in his seventies…
Slow down, Willie boy,
Your heart’s gonna give right out on you…
It’s my belief, we’ve used up all our time,
This hill’s too steep to climb…
Turn the stern and point to shore
The seven seas won’t carry us no more…
Hear the sound, Willie boy,
The Flyin’ Dutchman’s on the reef
Even the legendary ghost ship – doomed to sail the oceans forever – has now come to rest.
The intricate accompaniment has a suitably old-time feel – guitar, bass, mandolin trills and wheezing accordion – which perfectly complements the flow of the lyric. The tempo is slowed for the wistful verses and quickens for the more upbeat choruses.
There is a fine, empathetic lead vocal from Manuel who, like Robertson, was a man in his mid-twenties inhabiting the mind and emotions of a 73- year-old, and he is joined by Helm and Danko for some beautiful close harmony on the choruses. Those three voices really sounded good together (listen to Helm talking about the vocals here).
So did the old matelots finally drop anchor for the last time and make it home? Who knows. The song ends enigmatically. The final section begins with Manuel singing, ‘I can hear somethin’ callin’ on me’, and then, curiously, for the only time in the song, Helm takes the lead vocal to sing: ‘And you know where I want to be.’ Is that Willie’s voice we’re hearing?
Then, as Helm and Danko together sing snatches of the refrain, Manuel continues:
Oh Willie, don’t you hear that sound
I just want to get my feet back on the ground
I’d love to see my very best friend
I believe old rockin' chair’s got me
After this final line, the accompaniment stops and leaves the song suspended without resolving to the key’s tonic. A short rising guitar/mandolin phrase follows which again is left hanging unresolved. Whether it was deliberate or not I don’t know, but it sounds very much like a musical question mark leaving listeners to decide for themselves what happened to the two old-timers.
This original format of The Band broke up in the late 1970s. Those three great voices are now harmonising somewhere in the ether and only Robertson and Hudson survive. The split happened amid some acrimony, much of it between Helm and Robertson, over control, writing credits and royalties. A not unfamiliar story when groups fall apart. But, whatever the truth, The Band left a legacy of great songs and music – and I loved ’em.