How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Middle-Aged-Man Music: A Love Story

(I intend for this to be the first piece in a series on which, for lack of a better term, I will refer to as middle-aged-man music and my love affair with it).

NPR is streaming Robbie Robert’s first solo album in 13 years, the rather gorgeous How to Become Clairvoyant. Robertson, the former songwriter/band leader/ego-maniacal tyrant/ evil super genius of The Band, has only released four solo albums in the thirty-five years since The Band broke up. His solo musical output is as my brother put it “hit or miss as fuck”  — some of it is fantastic and some of it is, well, cheesy as shit. (And some of it manages to be both). How to Become Clairvoyant, featuring guest performances from Eric Clapton, Angela McCluskey, Tom Morello and Trent Reznor, belongs in the fantastic side of that equation.

Some background: Robbie’s Wikipedia page is skimpy on what makes him so awesome (and so diabolical) so I will give you a primer. When he was a teenager in Toronto, he started playing with Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson (all Canadian!) and Levon Helm, from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. I still don’t know how an Ozarkian drummer genius ended up in Toronto in 1958, but thank Jesus he did – the five of them together created arguably the two most influential albums of the late-sixties Music from Big Pink and The Band; changed Eric Clapton’s life; inspired the Beatles later output; backed up Bob Dylan on his infamous first electric “Judas” tour, and made the best concert film of all time in 1976. No big deal.

The band flamed out in the mid-seventies due to booze and drugs, as well as Robbie’s control-freakiness, greed (according to Levon Helm), and desire to usurp all the songwriting credits. They went out in a coke-fueled rager of a concert in San Francisco, filmed by Martin Scorcese,  that has since taken its rightful place in music history.

[Embedding is disabled on Last Waltz videos so go ahead and click the link. I’ll wait.]

This video demonstrates the following: that Levon Helm is one of the greatest drummers and vocalists in rock and roll history, and that Robbie is cocky, looks great in a scarf, plays guitar with beautiful restraint, and is a genius songwriter. Watch how Robertson and Helm play together: strange and off-kilter, the rhythms bounce off each other in crazy ways. It’s hard to believe how much these two hated each other during this concert while watching them play together like that. It also amuses me that this incredible piece of Americana was written by an Aboriginal Canadian Jew from Toronto, but there you go. Music — and hatred — work in mysterious ways.

Robertson was ranked #78 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitarists list – which is absolutely ridiculous, he should be about #11 – probably because his playing style is so subtle and restrained you barely notice how great it is until you let it simmer and start feeling it in your soul. He kicked off a wave of what I like to refer to as tasty players – Ry Cooder, Daniel Lanois, Clapton-when-he’s-good-and-not overdoing it, John Frusciante – guys who fly in the face of technical wankery with a few well-placed, and more importantly, well-felt notes. These guys (and they are, unfortunately, all guys) are all an extension of what Hendrix was doing with the instrument – they give it a soul and a wrenching beauty, a depth that few people can reach.

There is some pretty tasty playing on How to Become Clairvoyant, and only one song that crosses the boundaries into cheese – not at all surprising, it’s the Clapton tune. I thoroughly enjoyed the album, although maybe more importantly it has got me thinking about how we judge ageing musicians/songwriters, and how it feels to like someone’s music when they might very well be a huge asshole in real life.

As I said above, depending on who you ask, there is no bigger douche bag in music than Robbie Robertson. He certainly likes to pat himself on the back heartily and often. There is an online archive of every article written about The Band since 1968 — god bless music geeks with time on their hands and an internet connection — and nearly all of them post-1976 deal with Robbie’s ego /Levon’s bitterness and their thirty year feud. There are even dueling books about it: Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, and the more Robertson-friendly Across the Great Divide: The Band and America by Barney Hoskyn. Levon has accused Robertson of stealing credit for the songwriting, claiming all of the royalties, and making himself the center of The Last Waltz, a movie that Levon says he didn’t even want to make. I’m not the first one to point out that he sure hid his ambivalence well – his vocals and drumming throughout the concert are the best things in the whole movie.

Robbie maintains he wanted to leave The Band because he was tired and scared of the road, calling it a “dark and dangerous” place. Levon says the rest of them didn’t want to quit touring. He also says that Robertson’s greed has deprived them of royalty money that relegated the remaining members — Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel — to constant touring throughout the late 70s and 80s in shitty venues to make ends meet. The road did eventually claim the life of Richard Manuel, who had struggled with alcohol and drugs his whole life, at one point drinking eight bottles (!) of Grand Marnier per day on top of a sizable cocaine habit. He hung himself in a hotel room in Winter Park, Florida while on the road with The Band in March of 1986. Levon was the one who cut him down. It’s a rock and roll tragedy if ever there was one. Levon’s bitterness about it is widely documented.

My brother and I discussed Levon’s bitterness on Gchat last night:

Alix: Well, in his defense, he was the one who cut Manuel down… so… yikes…
Malcolm: But did Robbie tie the noose?

Excellent point, brother. Every other writer in music history has weighed in on the conflict, so I may as well too. I came to The Band’s music through “Up on Cripple Creek” singalongs in the backseat of my mom’s old Pontiac Parisienne as a kid. I loved the song because it was joyous and childlike and had funny kazoo sounds in it, and yodelling. In junior high, my brother and I listened to my dad’s copy of Music from Big Pink on vinyl when we entered our (lifelong) Dylan phase. We both loved the cover, featuring Dylan’s carnivalesque artwork and fought over which one of us could tape up the record insert on our bedroom wall. Aretha Franklin’s cover of “The Weight”, rip-your-face-off funky and ferocious, has been one of my favourite songs since I was eight-years-old. Through high school and university I came to love The Band as ghosts, as timeless, eerie carnival musicians crossed with Delta bluesmen and mad scientists — all in all, great music to get high to.

I give them their due reverence, because every single one of them was so talented it was scary — and each one of them was responsible for certain moments of musical devastation in my life.

In an ideal world, maybe Robbie wouldn’t be such a dick and egomaniac, and maybe Levon would get over it, but hey — if I wrote “The Weight “ I would be pretty fucking smug, too. Levon had to watch his friends and musical soulmates die before their time, which is a shitty thing that no one should have to go through. You shouldn’t be the guy who sang and beat your fucking heart out on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and be broke most of your life, either. (Fortunately, Levon has won a couple of Grammys in the last few years for a pair of great albums; he beat cancer; and he isn’t broke anymore).

So Robbie Robertson is a pretty big asshole. Try as I might, I don’t like his songs any less. His new album is really good. Although it does raise yet another question: now that these two are pushing seventy, whose new album is better? They have each taken two of four different paths available to aging rockstars: 1) return to your roots (Levon), 2) keep evolving into something you think is relevant and modern, but may in fact, not be (Robertson). The other two are 3) die and become a legend (Hendrix), and 4) stay cool and relevant (Bowie). On Friday, I’ll look at all four paths and figure out why it’s so hard to be a seventy-year-old rockstar.

Until then, enjoy this doozy of a tune, as well as those sweet, sweet mustaches.