The Band essays - introduction
Across the Great Divide
Just grab your hat, and take that ride
Get yourself a bride
And bring your children down to the river side
—Across the Great Divide
I do some of my deepest thinking when I'm cutting the grass.
I flip on my old-school cans, fire up a podcast or some music, and try not to get so distracted to where I run over rocks or dog shit. I have an old riding mower that wheezes a lot, but it looks like she's gonna get me through another season without conking out. She's a good ride, and she's got cup holder to boot. Any chore you can do while seated and sipping a cold drink is good business.
If I was President and had to make a crucial decision, I'd hop on a riding mower and start working on the White House lawn. With a beverage.
It dawned on me last week while mowing that The Band's self-titled second record is the greatest North American rock-era record ever made. I had a podcast in my ears at the time, and it was discussing “the brown album”, as it’s become known, song by song. I decided then and there that I needed to write about this record. These songs. What they said and what I thought they said and how the men creating this music have managed to burrow into my brain. How four world-weary Canadians sat at the feet of the single American in the group, a deep southerner, and managed to make music so distinctly American that the initial idea was simply to call the record "America".
If you were going to record such an album at the tail end of the 1960s, where would you go? I think the answer is obvious. You would go to Sammy Davis Jr's pool house too. What’s more American than that? The ghosts must have danced like hell.
I've listened to this record on LP, on cassette tape (I remember bringing it into an office I worked at, and playing it on a boom box on the floor next to my chair), on CD, on Itunes, and finally now on the streaming services. For over 30 years I've reached for it when it was needed, and after all that time it's easy to take something for granted. It's almost like these songs always existed. The thought that somebody actually sat down at the edge of the bed with a guitar, or tinkled quietly on a piano while a baby slept nearby, and created these songs? And did so during my own lifetime? We're gonna need a deeper dive into this.
My musical tastes were shaped by my older brother, and I probably came into the Band through the Dylan screen door. Maybe the Basement Tapes, which I remember my brother sending me on various mix-tapes. Getting one of these in the mail was like Christmas morning. I'm sure I heard songs like "Katie's Been Gone" and "Bessie Smith" and "Yazoo Street Scandal" before I heard the brown album. I loved Dylan at the time and still do, but he's frequently full of shit so I never hovered long enough to get completely obsessed. I left it to others to go through his garbage. To me the Band songs were the best songs on the original Basement Tape release. I mean, I love the goofiness and artless simplicity of "Apple Suckling Tree" and "Tiny Montgomery" as much as anyone, but neither of these ever kept me awake at night. You know what I mean?
I don't know if the Band got more from Dylan than Dylan got from the Band. Library shelves have been filled pondering questions less weighty. But the relationship surely raised the Band's profile, and certified them cool sooner than a group with no front-man might have been. What started as a wild, somewhat simplistic bar band backing the wild and somewhat simplistic Ronnie Hawkins....turned in on itself in the Catskill mountains and created the Americana genre, which nobody knew what to call at the time. It was the kind of music that required as much listening as it did playing, so the amps were turned down and the circle became smaller and tighter and the voices shared lines like they were a bottle of moonshine.
Dylan is the one who stuck the push-pin into Woodstock NY on the map, but The Band are still the mystique that everybody is looking for who goes up there. All these years later people still want to share in the magic of that ugly pink house, which is currently rentable as an AirBnB (minimum of a 3 night stay, basement not included). If that type of 21st century commerce doesn't signify the end of something, I'm not sure what does. But 50+ years on the Band remains as synonymous with the town as the festival that stole its name.
So here's what's next. I'm gonna write a column about each song on the album, in order. They may read a little disjointed, because writing about music can feel like asking your sick dog what’s wrong and getting upset that he doesn’t answer. But so be it. I’m doing this because that’s what the voice in my head told me to do while I was riding the tractor. Just so I can have the words and maybe share them with my grandkids someday if they ever get an inking to dissect me.
I hope you decide to take the ride down to the riverside with me.
In a bit...
So this is a free column. I thought it should be, simply to announce what I’m doing. If you think you’ll enjoy what’s coming, please become a subscriber to read an essay on each song as I write ‘em in the coming weeks. And all the rest. I’d really appreciate it….
Track 1 Side 1 - Across the Great Divide is here.
Track 2 Side 1 - Rag Mama Rag is here.
Track 3 Side 1 - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is here.
Track 4 Side 1 - When You Awake is here.
Track 5 Side 1 - Up On Cripple Creek is here.
Track 6 Side 1 - Whispering Pines is here.