The bass player in the Flying Burrito Brothers has passed. While everyone thinks of the Burrito Brothers as Gram Parsons’ band, Ethridge co-wrote several of their most well-known songs, including “Hot Burrito #1,” “Hot Burrito #2,” and “She.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Levon Helm and The Band over the past week. A few final thoughts.
I’ve been really impressed with the outpouring of grief for the passing of Levon Helm. While his passage may not have had the pop culture impact of Whitney Houston, for “music people,” broadly defined, Helm’s passing was a very big deal. I’m certainly too young to have been aware when Richard Manuel died, but I was already a big fan of The Band when Rick Danko passed. I remember that being a noteworthy event, but hardly a matter of massive remembrances and sorrow. Maybe that’s because internet culture was not fully developed in 1999 and maybe because Danko did himself in through his drug use.
What’s interesting to me is to think about why Helm’s death has had such a greater impact than Manuel or Danko’s. While all three shared the vocals for The Band, Helm sang of most of their most remembered songs and there’s no doubt that people’s knowledge of “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” makes a difference. At the same time, none of The Band’s members exactly had a stellar post-breakup career. Manuel was a total mess. Danko put out at least one album in the 80s that people I respect talk fairly positively about, but I’ve never heard it and it’s hardly an important album (taking a look at Danko’s Wikipedia page, it seems that someone has been releasing live recordings of Danko solo shows from the 80s. Why? Am I missing something here?). It’s not like Levon did all that much more. His acting, since he had real skill at it, did keep him in the spotlight. But he didn’t release any solo albums of note. His “Midnight Rambles” definitely made people brought him back into the public eye on a small level, but it’s not as if that many people ever saw them (I looked into going to one last year and it was like $80 and I had trouble justifying that expense). Of course, Garth Hudson became the session keyboard whiz he always was after 1977. Robbie Robertson was supposed to be the one with the big solo career, but that fizzled fast.
So in creating a public historical memory of The Band, which members grab the attention. Somewhat to my surprise if you had asked me this 10 years ago, it’s clearly Levon.
I know that some people talk positively of The Band as a live outfit, but I’ve always found their live recordings pretty disappointing. I picked up the Live from Watkins Glen album several years ago and, while it’s OK, I hardly ever listen to it. I’ve felt this way watching footage on You Tube as well. They are tremendously skilled and do a functional job with their material, but there’s a huge difference between The Band playing their own shows and backing up Dylan. With Dylan, they feel so incredibly loose and awesome in a way that they never did by themselves. See these two clips:
Feel free to disagree with me, but to me, they sure sound better backing up Dylan on a Woody Guthrie cover than doing their own songs.
I’ve wondered if sudden fame for a career backing band didn’t freak them out a little bit and make them tight. None of those guys had the charisma of Dylan, even if Robertson tried. Despite their 2 transcendent albums and couple of pretty good albums, I still think The Band would have been better as primarily a backing band that occasionally did their own material, something like the members of The Meters and Booker T & the MGs. Today, I think of Calexico this way. Calexico does great work as a backing band, such as on Tom Russell’s Blood and Candle Smoke or that EP they did with Iron & Wine 6 or 7 years ago, but their solo work has always left me profoundly indifferent.
I’ve also been thinking about Helm’s noted bitterness over The Last Waltz and toward Robbie Robertson for hogging all the songwriting rights and thus the money. Of course, Scorsese and Robertson were good friends by the mid 70s, snorting coke together and such (I believe they lived together for awhile around 1980) so it’s hardly surprising that the film would focus on Robertson. And let’s face it, after 1970, he basically wrote all the songs. Now, one might argue that with a band like this, did the lyrics really encapsulate the songwriting? But the other guys did totally drop the ball on even trying to write lyrics for the most part. Even after Robertson broke up the band, the later Band albums were almost all covers. We might think of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” as Levon’s songs, but those were Robbie’s words and that does matter.
Still, Robertson’s slickness has always rubbed me the wrong way. His own solo albums are not good. Moreover, I have no problem that he’s embraced his Native American heritage late in life, even if it hasn’t helped his music. But I do have a major issue with him rewriting the history of The Band to include some sort of Native American influences. I saw an interview with him 7 or 8 years ago where he claimed that the indigenous music he grew up with as a small child was as big an influence on his music with The Band as rock, country, blues, gospel, and everything else that went into it. There’s zero evidence of this whatsoever. It’s not like the 1970s didn’t see hippies embracing Native American culture; had Robertson really felt this way, he could have talked about it sometime before the 1990s. This is a small thing, but annoying and somehow indicative of the slight prevarication I’ve always felt from him when reading or listening to interviews.
So I wonder whether Robertson will be remembered as fondly upon his passing as Helm. He seems less relevant today, maybe because he never sang much and maybe because his solo career is almost totally unremarkable and unremembered. I might be wrong about this of course.
Finally, given the age of the 60s generation rockers and the lack of concern with which most treated their bodies, I suspect we’ll be having several conversations like this in the next few years.
In my mind, The Band has the greatest two album stretch of any band in rock and roll history. Those first two albums are both perfect, not to mention their work backing Dylan. They combined fine lyricism with a combination of voices and amazing music. The first two of those voices, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, destroyed themselves through substance abuse. Levon Helm tried to do this as well but he survived.
Levon Helm is in the final stages of a fight with cancer. I am hearing various reports on whether he has passed, but it will be soon. And it is very sad.
This translates as “The path of talent on Capitalist shores / The path of talent on Socialist shores”
And let’s face it, it’s not like this is all that inaccurate given how hard it is for a violinist to make a living in the United States.
This also reminds about how odd I’ve always found the marketing of female classical musicians, trying to dress them up in as classy/sexy way as possible in order to appeal to older upper-class men. Or I guess that’s the point of it. Weird though.
Happy birthday/April Fool’s to LGM co-founder R.M.F.
Speaking of the embedded band, djw and the author happened to be at a conference in Portland for a DBT gig at the Crystal Ballroom last week, the first one I’ve seen since Shonna Tucker’s departure. Despite two slightly suppar albums which probably should have been one really good longer one (with material that, as is often the case, improved live), I’ve never seen them better. Appropriately for the political and economic context they ripped off a “Sinkhole” fiercer than any I’ve seen them do before, and the momentum rarely dissipated. Designated bassist Matt Patton was fine. One way the Truckers’ (to oversimplify) Skynyrd/Stones hybrid doesn’t resemble the latter is that the rhythm section tends to be subordinate, but where the basslines drive the song Patton did the job, nicely replicating the ominous base Tucker laid under the Go-Go Boots highlight “Used to Be A Cop.” And John Neff is a most welcome addition, his lyrical solos/slide/steel playing Mick Taylor to Cooley’s Richards, so to speak. And after an already two-hour show, the killer “Marry Me”/”Let There Be Rock” /”Shut Up and Get on the Plane”/”Angels and Fuselage” encore left me wishing they were doing a multi-night stand. See ‘em if you can if you’re into that sort of thing.
Just because George Jones is awesome. This is not stated often enough.
Who knew anything good could come from Cincinnati?
Will Wilkinson writes about country music and, as is typical when anyone tries to connect it with politics, it’s pure projection. Bathing it in the kind of pseudo-scientific data points that prove virtually nothing except for wonky writers’ desire to be taken seriously, Wilkinson neither understands country music nor the people who listen to it. His conclusion is basically that country music provides simple upbeat messages for people who want simplicity in their lives. Wilkinson is sure to separate himself from such desires by pointing out, totally gratuitously, that he listens to country music in the car when he drives to the store to buy bok choy. Charles Murray wouldn’t approve of the food choices, but he would approve of the connections between bok choy and not real white people who country music isn’t made for.
Wilkinson goes on:
My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.
And what is this country music of which he speaks? For Wilkinson at least, it’s clearly country radio. That’s fine I guess if you want to define it that narrowly.
One problem here is the connections in the minds of a lot of people between country music and rural people. And certainly the roots of country music were in rural America. But that’s long ago. During the recent period of country music history, which could probably be dated from Garth Brooks’ first album in 1989, the genre has marketed itself as suburban music for suburban people. Although the imagery of rural America is in country music videos, the prime market for modern country music is suburban women. The music itself is essentially recycled 70s butt rock with a little fiddle and a twangy voice.
This suburban country music is also reflected in the lyrics. The idea that people see country music as “upbeat” is funny to me. Has there ever been a genre of American music that so reveled in depression and sadness? I’m thinking for instance of Hank Snow’s 1964 album Songs of Tragedy or the many songs about dead soldiers released during and after World War II, most famously “Soldier’s Last Letter,” made famous by Ernest Tubb. Of course, that’s long gone. Rather, today’s country radio provides messages that fit in very well with the modern Republican voter: reinforcing what they see as traditional values based in an idealized rural setting that they see as threatened by B. Hussein Obama and his Weatherman-loving, Derrick Bell-hugging ways with his health care and such.
The conservative movement has been cannibalizing conservative art for years now, to the point where I’d say country music is far from a victory of conservative cultural or artistic success and is instead a mirror image of what conservative politics have become: easy and unthinking. No depth, all surface. Superficial and insular. Maybe I’m wrong, but building an entire genre on the back of the idea that regurgitating the same sound on top of the same basic premise over and over again hardly strikes me as a triumph of cultural conservatism.
Steph at Gang of 12 makes similar observations, noting after posting Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City”:
Basically, it’s a contrast between real experience and made up ones. The Bare song is definitely about missing home and a contrast between an idyllic (even if it wasn’t) remembered past and place that has been lost or left vs. a cold (literally) urban or changing world. In many ways it’s not so different in theme from something like the terrible Luke Bryan or Justin Moore songs that Will cites. But the Bare song reflects reality in a quite different way. It’s not some pretend idea of what the old days were or the country was like in a triumphalist “we are more American than you” kind of culture war. Nor is it pretty much entirely made by people who never experienced the kind of world they are writing about or enjoyed by people who live in suburbs but like to identify with this imagined past or real America. It’s more about the real changes and the underlying reasons why change is seen as scary or destructive to many.
This is also why references to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are effectively irrelevant in any discussion of modern country music. It’s not the same genre of music. Hauling out Cash or Willie to say that country music is not necessarily conservative obfuscates the point. Those guys are dead or old and came out of an entirely different culture and musical forms. Moreover, not only would Cash not fit into the country music business in 2012, but he didn’t fit in during the 70s either, when he was pushed aside (not that the music he was making at that time was deserving by and large) for the Barbara Mandrells of the world who were laying the groundwork for Shania Twain, et al.
While I don’t look to my musicians for political leadership (see the constantly wandering and incoherent political leanings of people like Neil Young and Merle Haggard for a couple of good reasons), there’s no question that country music, however we define it, has always more or less bent conservative, with a freak leftist like Kristofferson being the exception that proves the rule. I’m certainly not claiming otherwise. But I have a huge problem when writers who don’t even understand the musical form attempt to draw big conclusions about the culture war or American political life from a corporatized, test-marketed form of music that hasn’t had an original or interesting voice make a commercial splash in two decades.
It is with great sadness that I have to write this obituary for the great Alaskan songwriter Buddy Tabor. It was only with my link to his song “3 Strikes You’re Out,” pointing out the hypocrisy of Rush Limbaugh that commenters notifying me that Tabor died last month of lung cancer at the age of 63.
A man who I believe was one of the 5 greatest living American songwriters in the early 21st century and nearly completely unknown outside of Alaska, I only knew of him because a good friend of mine moved to Skagway and sent me a tape of his amazing album “Abandoned Cars and Broken Hearts.” There are certain times in every music fanatic’s life when you hear something and are instantly arrested by it. This might happen to me every 2 or 3 years. Less than 10 times in my life. This was one of those times. I remember, I popped it on with another friend of mine over and he had the same reaction. I spread his music the best I could to various Albuquerque people, probably not more than a few, but I’m glad I was able to do so. I would have told people to buy his albums, but that wasn’t really possible. He wasn’t online and I never found a way to buy his albums. My friend in Skagway channeled them to me until he left; Buddy may have released another album after that but I have no way of knowing.
I started writing about him when I started blogging at Alterdestiny. Somehow he found out about it and gave me a call out of the blue one night. Occasionally, really cool things happen through blogging. Not very often, but it happens. At that time, I was a complete nobody in the blogging world so it was really great that he called and thanked me for the nice words. It was a short conversation but one that was memorable–Buddy Tabor was a hilariously cranky man. He started talking about how terrible most singer-songwriters were (this is true) and how the music industry was not worth making a living in because the clubs and bars where you were forced to play in front of drunk people was so dispiriting that he wanted to quit (hard to blame him). He wanted me to come up to see him play one of his rare shows in the lower 48, in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I was living in Santa Fe at that time, but my life was literally falling apart around me and I just couldn’t make it up there. This was the fall of 2005, probably the worst time in my life. I’ll always regret not seeing that show.
Buddy wrote a lot of amazing songs. Unfortunately, the very rare nature of his performances and very low record sales means that I can’t link to many of them. Here’s a couple though.
“Black Crow Night” is off his wonderful album “Earth and the Sky,” of which I wish I could link to the title song. I do want to at least quote some lines from the lyrics from that title song.
“We embrace the unexpected
Of life’s great mystery
Standing in acceptance
Is when we are set free.
Free to love you through our pain
Free to love you through our tears
Free to love you through the passing of our years.
Earth and the Sky, Earth and the Sky
Earth and the Sky, Earth and the Sky
Nothing lasts forever but the Earth and the Sky.”
“Black Crow Night” is one of Buddy’s many quality songs about indigenous people. He was a white guy from Virginia but his wife was Navajo. This was his one attempt I think to make a video of some kind. Say what you will about it, the song is pretty great.
Buddy could also write a mean political song, particularly later in his career as he, like many of us, became more angry at where the nation was heading. “Corporate Domination” is as good a song for Occupy as anything I’ve heard. A classic of the political genre if you ask me.
If I can think of one song for Buddy to leave to, I would choose the song he wrote for his friend Townes Van Zandt after that great songwriter’s death, “New Fallen Snow.” This is a live version that someone recorded and recorded a homemade video for. Those who know me well know that although I have zero musical talent of my own, songs are a very important part of my life. I chose the songs very carefully for my wedding reception and dinner. And I’ve thought, and I realize this is a bit morbid, that if I am ever to suffer a long-term illness where I can truly prepare to leave this world, I would choose a series of songs to play at my funeral. This is one of them.
“Raise your glasses high/with a prayer on your lips
I won’t be back again my friends/no I never shall return here again.”
Buddy Tabor, RIP.
This seems a good time to post this song by the great and utterly unknown songwriter Buddy Tabor, who paints houses in Juneau and writes amazing songs. This is not really one of my favorites, but it does remind that Rush is a horrible person and a shameless hypocrite about drug use as well as women.
It’s not like we don’t already know that the legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter is amazing. But he’s also super cool for playing a big role in the American Federation of Musicians attempt to get jazz club owners to pay into a retirement fund for aging jazz musicians. Of course the club owners are outraged–they actually claim jazz musicians want to take care of their own retirement!!! Um, right. Anyway, a clip of unionist and bass deity Ron Carter to end the evening.