In 'Divide,' a book that beats the Band

August 04, 1993|By Michael Anft | Michael Anft,Contributing Writer

Although hardly members of the '60s counterculture, it's hard to imagine the Band existing in any other era.

As backing soldiers for Bob Dylan and then as a productive unit in its own right, the Band cold-shouldered the "faster, louder" timbre of the times, opting to create unsexy, unhip, doleful and down-at-the heels soulful music derived from the juke joints of the American South.

The four-out-of-five-Canadians band (the exception being drummer/singer Levon Helm of Arkansas) were traditionalists and contrarians. They were front-porch storytellers, pastoral mythologists and quasi-hippie ruralists flying in the face of newfangled virtuosos, a self-proclaimed lizard king and arena rock overkill.

hTC They were ironists by their very existence, Canadians who extolled the virtues of America's backwoods folk heritage while Americans burned flags, reworked the national anthem and fled conscription to the Band's home country.

As such, they were the perfect musical (and in some ways, social) bridge between an audience that protested en masse and co-habitated at Woodstock, and another (actually the same audience one year later) that had given up on the world and wanted to flee to the country.

But whatever perspective (nostalgic? elegiac?) the Band lent its times didn't earn the group salvation or eternal peace. As British rock writer Barney Hoskyns observes, "It was the Band's tragedy that, despite their resolve to stand apart from the deranged and dangerous world of rock 'n roll, they were ultimately sucked into it as deep as anyone else."

After the quantum commercial and critical successes of "Music from Big Pink" and "The Band," the quintet's first two albums, the usual rock suspects took up residence. Indeed, the group's fate from 1971 on is the stock rock resume for the era: creative burnout, strung-out players, internecine ego struggles, suicide, self-parody.

In short, the brotherhood that spurred the Band to live up to its name vanished and the culture of superstardom (and its equally suspect alter ego, mediocrity) took over.

The plot would be parodic if it weren't true (something film director Rob Reiner noticed when he based his rockumentary spoof, "This Is Spinal Tap," on "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorsese's 1978 farewell to the Band.

Mr. Hoskyns, in his prosaic journalistic style, charts the climb and fall with a reporter's vigor, using some interviews but mostly secondary sources.

He seamlessly carries us from early '60s Toronto, where the boys backed up borderline rockabilly hero Ronnie Hawkins, to New York, where they did the same for by-the-number blues purist John Hammond Jr., and to Woodstock, where they helped Mr. Dylan, as the cliche goes, "electrify a generation."

Fueled by the ambition of guitarist/primary composer Robbie Robertson (of whom Mr. Hoskyns provides an often critical portrait), the Band struck out on its own and into the "open spaces" it hoped it would find in the young American psyche. While the whole world seemed locked in the battles of the present, the Band wrote antique country/gospel hits about Civil War Reconstruction ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"). Somehow, they connected.

Then they self-destructed. Mr. Hoskyns duly chronicles the beginning of the end: Robertson's aloofness from his bandmates, starting with their third album, "Stage Fright"; the "disease of fame" (Mr. Robertson's term for drug and alcohol abuse) that afflicted Mr. Helm, bassist/singer Rick Danko and especially pianist/singer Richard Manuel.

All of the usual ridiculous rock-star mistakes quickly followed. A joint move to cocaine-and-caviar heaven, Malibu. Fractious solo projects and production deals. The most meaningless of social distractions. And, of course, more alcohol.

Perhaps even more troubling was the penchant of Mr. Danko, Mr. Helm and Manuel -- and even the Band's stoic center, organist Garth Hudson -- to tour on its old glory and play list all the way up until last year. The proud traditionalists had become wan nostalgists. In March 1986, Manuel hanged himself in a Florida motel room.

Mr. Hoskyns frames his story nicely, using the Band's initial vision and Manuel's tragedy to show us the utter extremes of rock and roll life. Although he is capable of decent criticism, he prefers to be a concerned fan. He leaves the toughest barbs to venerable secondary sources such as Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh.

Mr. Marsh leveled the group following the release of "The Last Waltz," calling them "a gang of aesthetic bankrupts trying to hide from a world where there's no future for them."

As "Across The Divide" proves, Mr. Marsh was absolutely, even tragically right: Mr. Hoskyns' book, for that reason, will only appeal to those who wish to relive those days of extremes.


Title: "Across the Great Divide: The Band and America"

Author: Barney Hoskyns

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 401 pages, $22.95

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