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I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling 'bout half-past dead
WHEN I read the news, my mind went back to the late 1960s, when so many rock groups seemed to have bizarre names as the psychedelic era held sway and, whether they called themselves Curved Air or Tangerine Dream or Plastic Tomcat, they wore clothes to evoke the Technicolor kaleidoscope of the those fused sounds.
Then came the simple guitar intro, the sound of a single drumbeat and the line “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half past dead”. It was a sound that seemed original yet traditional, plugging into a wealth of Americana and roots music, as this new group launched into “The Weight”. The name of the band was simply, The Band, but not chosen, as suggested by an uninformed Daily Mail article this week, because they were conceited. It was simply because they had been referred to as “The Band” or “my Band” over two confusing years when they played back-up to Bob Dylan and were booed from start to finish at every concert they played.
Dylan had “gone electric”, which had folk purists foaming at the mouth. Dylan kept touring in the eye of the storm, having assembled The Hawks, who had backed Ronnie Hawkins for years, to go on the tour, and he referred to them simply as “the band”.
Ironically, in my book and in respect of such luminaries as Elton John and Bernie Taupin, George Harrison and Eric Clapton, they were “the band”: the former Beatle describing them as “the finest group of all time” and Clapton spending years attempting to join them.
Yet like Cream, which Clapton dissolved in the hopes of joining The Band, they were not mainstream pop. Yes, they had a Top 40 hit with Rag Mama Rag and perhaps their best-known chart success was “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, a hit for Joan Baez but it was written by The Band’s lead guitarist Robbie Robertson who was later to catch the eye of pop enthusiasts with “Somewhere Down that Crazy River”.
But they, like Dylan, were not about singles’ sales, and held a more influential position in the pantheon of rock. They were the first group in history to make the cover of Time Magazine. You would have thought the Beatles, Stones or Beach Boys would have that accolade.
When Dylan holed up at Woodstock, The Band joined him and they recorded impromptu songs every day in a garage-basement of a house called Big Pink, which spawned such as The Might Quinn and This Wheels On Fire, smuggled out among the famed “Basement Tapes” bootlegs.
By the time the Woodstock generation held a massive concert near Dylan’s retreat, in the hope he might come out of retirement, The Band had released Music From Big Pink, their debut album. The likes of Martin Scorsese, who was involved in producing the Woodstock concert film, enthused over The Band and the magazine Rolling Stone never stopped singing the group’s praises.
I can remember the first picture of The Band: a black and white study of five guys, wearing suits, ties, casual jackets, causing music lovers at the time to ask: “Who are these crazily- dressed people?” because they did not wear tied dyed shirts and rainbow-coloured trousers.
Eight years later Scorsese shot what is regarded as the finest-ever concert film, The Last Waltz, as The Band played their farewell gig, helped by some of the industry’s top recording talents.
I have lost count of how many times I have watched that concert on dvd and I have all The Band’s releases and many bootlegs. A Michael Jackson type indulgence in showmanship and choreography it is not, but it features five musicians who could not only play their instruments, but each other’s and more besides.
In subsequent years, one member committed suicide, another died of a heart-attack relating to his drug addiction and three were left.
Last week, it became just two for Levon Helm, the voice and drummer of The Band, succumbed to cancer. The man raised in the admirably named Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, had a feast of anecdotes about country Americana, which his colleague, Robbie Robertson used to write such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “W S Walcott Medicine Show”.
The Desolation Row information service for Dylan fans, paid a long tribute to Levon who, ironically, was the only American in the group – the other four were Canadians. I enjoyed one fan who named The Weight as one of his all-time favourite songs and he recalled how he had flipped back in 1968 and relished the moment ever since, when he heard the perceived sexual inducement in the lyrics in the line: “take a load of fanny”.
The following bulletin contained a correction, explaining the fan had got it wrong all those years ago, and had been savouring an error ever since, for it was not “take a load of fanny” but “take a load off Annie”.
Levon still lived in Woodstock and, when we were there last year, we saw a poster announcing the guests who were to appear at his almost weekly Midnight Ramble concerts. Regrettably we could not make the date.
As a former colleague emailed me: “We are going to see more and more of our music favourites moving on.”
But we are more fortunate nowadays for although Levon was only 71, his music and the videos/dvds live on: “I pulled into Nazareth...”
I think I’ll play it again.
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