I have always hated that desert island question where you’re asked what 10 records you’d bring to your island, mostly because I would need at least 100, and probably more. This is my pat answer when asked to proceed with this asinine task, however I also invariably include the caveat that while I would never be able to effectively narrow it down to ten records, I do know that two of them would be the first two records by The Band. Those two records – Music from Big Pink and the self-titled The Band–are in my estimation among the finest and most timeless releases of the last 50 years. When they were released, I was just a small kid, but they lived on my mom’s turntable and became part of my consciousness at a molecular level. They still are. Unfortunately subsequent records by The Band were never up to the same caliber as those first two releases, though Stage Fright did still have some good moments.
Fast-forward to La Conner, WA. I am twelve years old, profoundly unhappy in life, flirting with inappropriate behavior involving shoplifting and general rebellion against the unfairness of the world. My father is at the peak of his (then) alcoholism and I am watching his relationship with girlfriend-partner Ivory spin vitriolically out of control. This was the backdrop to the official beginning of my record collection. One of the women in our semi-communal household – Marion— had the room next to mine and she had a record player and would play records, my only emotional solace during these chaotic times. And The Band was the record that got the majority of play, some sort of touchstone to a younger time (like four or five years previous) that I believed were happier days. Illusions are great things. At some point, she gave me her copy of the record. I was elated. Even though I had nothing to play it on, I kept the record with me until I finally did. I no longer have a working turntable, but I am still in posession of that particular piece of vinyl.
When my son was born at home on March 20, 1989, I had the first record picked out to play upon his entry into the world. He had heard loads of music in-utero (extra loud to ensure that the sound made it through all that tissue and amniotic fluid), but I considered that first record to be a critical decision. I chose Music from Big Pink.
I never got to see The Band live. By the time I was old enough to start seeing concerts on my own, they were well passed the days that I consider their prime, but more than any other band that began in the late ’60s, The Band was always the band that wished I could go back in time and see “back in the day.” In 1986, when I heard the tragic news of Richard Manuel‘s suicide in Florida after a gig, I was completely distraught. His voice, more than any other in the band, was the most bone-chilling and sorrowful. His plaintiff wails on “I Shall be Released,” “Tears of Rage,” “Lonesome Susie,” and “In a Station” can still give me shivers.
Several years ago, I picked up a copy of “This Wheel’s on Fire,” the Band autobiography written by Levon. A fantastic read, the book gives an unabashed account of many years on and off the road, and even for those who do not consider themselves fans, it’s an essential rock and roll autobiography. Levon Helm’s rural southern charm and easy manner permeate the pages. As much as it is a history of the band, it could –to varying degrees –be the history of any band who had spend over two decades on the road together.
A couple of years back Levon Helm announced a date at the Greek here in L.A. I jumped on those tickets as I knew this was likely the closest I’d ever come to seeing The Band and likely the last opportunity I’d ever have to see him for that matter. I had tried to contact his management to secure an interview for RocknRollDating, but his cancer had already been diagnosed, and he was doing very few interviews with sites that offered limited exposure. The show was great. Levon was incredibly vibrant and full of life. Knowing that he was battling cancer and could still put so much out made me think that it was perhaps the music that kept him going for as long as he did.
Thanks for leaving me with such meaningful musical memories. The lives you and The Band touched are innumerable. You are missed, but the music will be here forever.