Full Circle

The Story of The Band: From Big Pink to The Last Waltz

The Band in 1968: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson.


Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s book on The Band.

When you explore the annals of rock ‘n’ roll aristocracy, rarely do you think of Canadians as being perched near the top of the heap (Randy Bachman, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young notwithstanding). The gutbucket elements of rock ‘n’ roll belong to the greasier exponents of the Deep South. It’s that gritty, grimy, salt-of-the-earth aspect of American culture that produces pearls of sinful wisdom cultivated at the crossroads of secular passion and Biblical knowledge. Rock ‘n’ roll is where the juke joint and the church pew lock arms, exchange salutations, and get down to the business of contemplating and celebrating our mortality. It’s an existential expression as old as the hills and as profound as any philosophy.

But geography alone does not define who we become as artists, and nowhere in popular music is that truer than in the case of the Band: a quintet of four Canadians and an Arkansas cotton-picker who managed to cosmically tune into the spheres to produce a sound so rustic as to be the very definition of organic art. Marketing demons would later tag this aesthetic as “country rock” or “Americana.” However, the Band’s body of work sails far above the vulgarities of fashion and they deserve your respect, not to mention a significant chunk of your precious time, because at the height of their majestic powers the Band is as sensitive and soulful as a group can get.

Driving home the import of the Band’s legacy on the 50th anniversary of their debut LP Music from Big Pink, is a beautiful coffee table scrapbook of photographs and memories from Harvey & Kenneth Kubernik, titled The Story of the Band: From Big Pink to The Last Waltz. The origin of the Band actually starts long before the recording of Big Pink in the spring of ’68, and it continues well after the dust settled on their “farewell concert” at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day ’76. It’s a complex story, and the Kuberniks do a highly commendable job of capturing the essence of this dynamic band of brothers, along with some incredible photographs by Elliott Landy and John Scheele.

The Story of the Band begins with the seminal roots of rock ‘n’ roll and the R&B DJs who championed the genre, such as WJW’s Alan Freed of Cleveland, Ohio, and explains how those sounds influenced the second generation of North American rockers to follow in the footsteps of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, et al. The legendary recording artists hailing from the hollowed record labels of Sun and Stax in Memphis, Chess in Chicago, Specialty in Los Angeles, and Atlantic in New York are the place that anyone tracing the lineage of rock’s roots ought to begin. Which is exactly what the five members of the Band did as they came of age in the post-World War II culture of the 1950s.

The Band’s ascent to international recognition would certainly not have been possible if not for two essential figures in their career: Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. Hawkins and Dylan are the lynchpins upon which the Band’s entire career revolves. Without the early roadhouse training and bullwhip discipline of Hawkins in their formative years, the Band would not have had the musical muscle, stamina, or tenaciousness to survive a season in hell when Dylan “went electric,” touring with an ensemble that succeeded in offending the pious folk purists who wanted their Dylan to forever remain the work-shirted, Woody Guthrie disciple of 1963.

Ronnie Hawkins, born January 10, 1935, got his start in show business as the owner of the Rockwood Club in his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. After establishing his own rockabilly group, the Hawks, Hawkins relocated north in 1960 to Ontario, Canada, bringing along drummer Levon Helm (b. May 26, 1940). Hawkins systematically replaced the other members of the Arkansas-based Hawks with Canadians: keyboardist Garth Hudson (b. August 2, 1937), pianist Richard Manuel (b. April 3, 1943), bassist Rick Danko (b. December 29, 1943), and guitarist Robbie Robertson (b. July 5, 1943), all hailing from Southwestern Ontario. Hawkins was known as a stern taskmaster, turning the Hawks into the hottest live act in Toronto with a lengthy residency at Le Coq d’Or Tavern. After recording a few singles for Roulette Records, the six members of Hawkins’ band, along with saxophonist Jerry Penfound, left in 1964 to pursue their own musical agenda as the Levon Helm Sextet. Within the year Penfound departed, and they mutated into the Canadian Squires, recording two singles in 1965 (“Leave Me Alone” and “Uh Uh Uh”). Shortly thereafter they became Levon and the Hawks, recording a couple of sides for Atco, which included “The Stones I Throw (Will Free All Men)” and “He Don’t Love You (and He’ll Break Your Heart).” While these songs are fantastic examples of the musical direction Hawkins inspired, none of these discs made much of an impact.

When Helm, Hudson, and Robertson supplied blues singer John Hammond Jr. with musical backing for his Vanguard album So Many Roads, Hammond recommended their services to Bob Dylan when Dylan was looking for a group to accompany him on his tour of the U.S. in the fall of ’65. Dylan’s conversion from topical acoustic folk music to surreal electric rock ‘n’ roll is one of the most notorious episodes in the culture of the 20th century. In spite of achieving a #2 single on the pop charts with the transcendent “Like a Rolling Stone,” the folk purists greeted Dylan with derision at the ’65 Newport Folk Festival, and audience reactions remained mixed throughout the summer, fall, and into the winter. After recording the single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” and contributing to the Blonde on Blonde LP, drummer Levon Helm grew weary of the hostility that Dylan’s new direction was inspiring, and by the end of November left the group to work on an oilrig. The remaining Hawks continued to work with Dylan, and along with drummer Mickey Jones, they toured the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia in the spring of ’66, as captured in the films Eat the Document and No Direction Home, numerous bootlegs, and officially on Volume 4 of The Bootleg Series Bob Dylan Live 1966 The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. Based on the recorded evidence, the music that Dylan and the Hawks produced on stage was years ahead of its time, and these performances still stand as some of the ballsiest and most intelligent rock ‘n’ roll ever committed to tape.

After the ’66 world tour, Dylan owed ABC-TV a one-hour film for their series Stage 66, the Macmillan Company a book (what would eventually be published as Tarantula), and his manager Albert Grossman had scheduled a massive tour for later in the year. It was under these circumstances that on July 29, 1966, Dylan flew over the handlebars of his Triumph motorcycle, suffering a mild concussion and a cracked vertebra, leading to morbid rumors that he was either dead or in a coma with brain damage. However, after a brief convalescence, journalist Al Aronowitz reported that “Dylan was writing ten new songs a week, rehearsing them in his living room with the Hawks.” The silver lining of the accident was providing Dylan with the proper loophole to cancel all of his professional commitments and reassess where he was going with his life and career. This led to a period of cooling out near Woodstock, where he summoned four-fifths of the Hawks up to West Saugerties, New York.

Keeping the Hawks on a modest financial retainer, they began woodshedding in the basement of a house dubbed “Big Pink” (due to its pink exterior) over the summer and fall of 1967. Tapping into the ethereal spirit of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Danko, Hudson, Manuel, and Robertson began a daily routine of performing every afternoon with Dylan, performing a grab bag of traditional songs with a slew of new Dylan compositions–many of them absurd and whimsical, sounding like they were being made up on the spot. The vibe is positively cryptnotic. Captured by Hudson on a two-track reel-to-reel, these informal recordings were eventually dubbed The Basement Tapes, with 139 known performances dating between June and October of ’67. The Basement Tapes provides the crucial missing link between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding in Dylan’s evolution, and the exercise served as a catalyst for the Band to start crafting their own musical statements. And this is where you could say that proximity to genius equals genius.

Helm: “Watching Bob and helping Bob construct some songs helped everybody get a better idea of how to put a song together and learning that there wasn’t any set formula. It could happen from a groove, from an idea, from a title. We would get a song going and all sing it. Rick would sing it, then Richard, then me, and we’d start to figure out whose song it was. At the same time there were lines that Rick sounded good on, or maybe my voice would fit on, and it was more fun for us as performers [to mix it up].”

When Grossman secured an unprecedented ten-album recording contract for the Band with Capitol Records, Helm was summoned back to the fold and the group began working in earnest on their own LP. On January 20, 1968, the Band backed up Dylan on three songs at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, dubbing themselves “the Crackers,” but Capitol balked at issuing an album by that name. In August of 1968, the group released Music from Big Pink, a stunning debut that drew comparisons with the country-fried sound of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers for it’s stark hyperrealism and glorious eclecticism. Although their initial single “The Weight” fared poorly on the pop charts, peaking at a dismal #63, the song went on to became an iconic standard after Dennis Hopper used it in his 1969 underground classic Easy Rider. Still, the name “the Band” only appeared on the spine of Big Pink, and both the single and the LP listed the recording artist as “Jamie Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm.”

“Well, we were the Hawks,” says Manuel in the 1978 film The Last Waltz. “And we were sailing along, and then one day the Hawks meant something else altogether,” continues Robertson. Manuel: “And it was right in the middle of that whole psychedelia–Chocolate Subway Marshmallow Overcoat–those kind of names.” Robertson: “When we were working with Bob Dylan and moved to Woodstock, everybody referred to us as ‘the Band.’ He called us the Band, our friends called us the Band, our neighbors called us the Band.” Manuel: “And we started out with ‘the Crackers.’ We tried to call ourselves ‘the Honkies.’ Everybody kind of backed off from that. It was too…straight. So we decided to just call ourselves THE BAND.”

Music from Big Pink took off from where The Basement Tapes left off. It was a complete team effort, with two songs co-written with Bob Dylan (“Tears of Rage” with Manuel, “This Wheel’s on Fire” with Danko), four songs credited to Robertson, three credited to Manuel, and two covers: the standard “Long Black Veil” and the soon-to-be Dylan standard “I Shall Be Released.” Many artists recorded songs from The Basement Tapes, including the Byrds, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Manfred Mann. Brian Auger and Trinity laid down a walloping version of “This Wheel’s on Fire,” with Auger having this to say about the Band: “They were always putting the song first. I got into their albums straight away. No flashy moves, no empty notes, just taste and elegance. They played as a band, with discipline, and you could hear it. That was a real lesson for me early in my career, always wanting to solo, an ego thing. ‘Settle down, Brian, and play the groove,’ be it a Chicago blues or Motown, all these different feels. That’s what Dylan and the Band were all about: feel.”

If there was a sixth member of the Band in their nascent journey it was musician and producer John Simon, who contributed greatly to both Music from Big Pink and the eponymously-titled sophomore effort The Band. Simon’s vast CV as a producer includes Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, and Child Is the Father of the Man, the debut by Blood, Sweat & Tears. Al Kooper: “I put him right up there with George Martin, Jerry Ragovoy, and Phil Spector. John has an understanding of the singer-songwriter. He is an erudite musician, and that was the important thing.” Simon: “There seemed to be some magic on the first session with the Band. ‘Chest Fever,’ ‘Tears of Rage,’ ‘Lonesome Suzie,’ and ‘We Can Talk’ were all cut in one afternoon! We were very well rehearsed. Fate had brought the six of us together and we worked very closely together for about three years.

“Of course, I loved the material. The songs drew from so many different traditions. The guys had a deep respect, bordering on reverence, for the roots of American music, stretching back from the music of their generation, through rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll, to the bluegrass of Appalachia, the blues of the Mississippi Delta, and even Stephen Foster and popular music of the 19th century. And it seemed to me that they had a sort of unspoken commitment to be as good as they could in order to earn their place as part of that tradition.”

In Testimony, Robertson’s memoir from 2016, he relates how Dylan responded to their debut. “Albert put the acetate on for Bob, who was hearing it for the first time; we had all been busy and had wanted to finish the album before we shared it with him. ‘Tears of Rage’ started the record, and as it played Bob looked at me like he barely recognized me. At the end of the song he yelled out, ‘That was incredible, Richard!’ Richard acted a little shy but thrilled. After each song Bob looked at ‘his’ band with proud eyes. When ‘The Weight’ came on, he said, ‘This is fantastic.’ Who wrote that song?’ ‘Me,’ I answered. He shook his head, slapped me on the arm, and said, ‘Damn! You wrote that song.’ What a joy it was to push Bob’s button. At the end of ‘I Shall Be Released’ he stood up and said, ‘That was so good. You did it, man, you did it.’”

Although Music from Big Pink only reached #30 on the Billboard album chart, it was considered a revolutionary piece of work, and an artistic triumph by the likes of George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton. Clapton was so impressed by the back-to-basics sound of Big Pink that he wanted to join the Band as second guitarist, and it served as an inspiration during the recording of Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and the formation of Derek and the Dominos. It was in this milieu that the enthusiasm and momentum of their debut carried over to their even greater self-titled second album. Robertson: “Before Big Pink I had this dream of having a workshop. A sanctuary where we could go into the privacy of our own world and do something, and not be on somebody else’s lawn, to really be in our own environment, let alone away from studio union breaks. I said ‘We want to do this thing that started in the basement of Big Pink, and we want to record at whatever time we feel the spirit. We don’t want to be on somebody’s clock.’” Simon: “Capitol Records had agreed to set us up with our own studio in a house in L.A., complete with instruments, mixing board, eight-track recording machine, speakers, and even a clunky, old, but wonderful EMT reverb plate. We recorded The Band principally in the pool house of a Hollywood estate that had previously been owned by Sammy Davis Jr. They would send a maintenance engineer over every couple of days to make sure the equipment was in great shape. But other than that, we were our own engineers, so there was no one on the scene except for the six of us.”

Released in September of 1969, The Band is a masterpiece of narrative invention. Robertson is truly coming into his own as a lyric writer, with “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” adopting the voices of characters that sound as if they have been transported from another century–or another world. The stories, the sound, and the group mind all combine to synthesize a sonic palette that borrows and extracts from every strain of popular music, but winds up sounding like no one else. (For further insight on The Band, investigate the superb 1997 Classic Albums documentary.)

An important element in the mix is the fact that the Band is the most musically ambidextrous group that’s ever been. In addition to bass and vocal duties, Rick Danko doubles on guitar, violin, banjo, and trombone. Levon Helm is one of the finest drummers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll with a distinctive Delta drawl, but he can just as adeptly go out to center stage and play mandolin, guitar, and harmonica. Richard Manuel, generally considered the “lead singer” of the Band, is an exceptional pianist and all-round keyboardist. But when Helm plays mandolin or guitar, Manuel can get behind the kit and keep the band grooving with his own unique style of drumming. He also plays a mean lap steel guitar and saxophone. Garth Hudson can play anything: organ, keyboards, piano, accordion, saxophones, synthesizers, trumpet, horn, oboe, clarinet, flute, and piccolo. As Robertson says, “Garth was a hundred times superior musician to any of us. He could play rings around all of us put together, and his job was to play organ and horn and teach us music.” If Robertson weren’t such a fine songwriter and an exemplary guitarist he would almost seem to be a relative slacker in such rarified company. With such musical diversity, the Band is half a dozen groups rolled into one, and that’s what makes them so incredibly dynamic.

At the summit of their creativity the Band was afforded the rare distinction of appearing on the cover of the January 12, 1970 edition of Time magazine. But as with all things “establishment,” it seems that the moment you are recognized by the big machine, your underground credentials are shredded, casting the wrong kind of attention upon the subject at hand. Whatever the case, something crucial about the Band’s alchemy got lost in the flurry of accolades.

It is particularly true that by the time of the Band’s third album, 1970’s Stage Fright, the trappings of success were beginning to take their toll on the group’s unity of purpose. Drugs, particularly heroin in the case of Manuel, Helm, and Danko, were beginning to bend the group to the breaking point, even though Stage Fright features the classic title track and the sublime perfection of “The Shape I’m In,” containing some of Robertson’s greatest lyrics: “I just spent 60 days in the jailhouse, for the crime of having no dough. Now here I am back out on the street for the crime of having nowhere to go. Save your neck, or save your brother. Looks like it’s one or the other, oh you don’t know the shape I’m in.”

There are songs about Faustian pacts (“Daniel and the Sacred Harp”) and one of Manuel’s last compositions that could be interpreted about nodding out on smack (“Sleeping”). Stage Fright is a hangover after the celebratory heights of the
first two albums and it signals a downturn in the group’s collective energies.

1971’s Cahoots follows in a similar vein, lacking the focus and sense of purpose of Big Pink and The Band, although it still boasts such classic material as “Life Is a Carnival,” “4% Pantomime,” and a cover of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The Band’s floundering musical direction is best summarized by Robertson’s
composition “Where Do We Go From Here?” “Nowhere,” turns out to be the
protagonist’s reply.

So, what do you do when your vehicle starts to sputter and you owe the record company a piece of product? You record a double live album, of course. And that’s how the Band celebrated the New Year of 1972, by playing four nights at New York’s Academy of Music, as captured on the excellent Rock of Ages album. In addition to being a stopgap measure, Rock of Ages does a superb job of summarizing this phase of the Band’s career. Highlights from the first four albums were revitalized with horn arrangements by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, and a surprise performance with Bob Dylan on the last night was a standout moment. But in the aftermath of those performances, 1972 found the Band at a standstill.

Robertson worked on new material during the following year that turned out to be too much of a departure to fit into the Band’s sound, and there was talk of recording the soundtrack to Gordon Sheppard’s esoteric film Eliza Horoscope (featuring a brief cameo by Manuel) which came to naught. Danko, Helm, Manuel, and Hudson all kept busy by playing on Bobby Charles’ excellent self-titled LP. Then the idea was floated about recording an album of cover songs–which is the second thing an artist does when crafting original material becomes difficult or impossible for one reason or another. According to Helm in a 2002 interview with GRITZ magazine “That was all we could do at the time. We couldn’t get along–we all knew that fairness was a bunch of shit. We all knew we were getting screwed [financially], so we couldn’t sit down and create no more music. ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ and all that stuff was over–all that collaboration was over, and that type of song was all we could do.”

In spite of the developing acrimony, 1973’s Moondog Matinee is a fun album to listen to at a party, but as an artistic statement it is the sound of a group that is beginning to wind down creatively. Still, their performance of “Mystery Train” is definitive, and Manuel’s reading of “The Great Pretender” is the very definition of pathos, which makes his vocal stylings so gut-wrenchingly effective. Along with Danko’s take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” these are performances of sublime beauty.

Fortunately, at this point in the Band’s saga, Bob Dylan was experiencing another creative renaissance after a series of dubious releases that began with 1969’s Nashville Skyline. When Dylan decided to tour again in 1974 for the first time in eight years, he and the Band went into Village Recorder studios in L.A. and laid down the underrated Planet Waves in three days, serving as a reminder that Dylan was still capable of coming up with compelling songs. The 30 shows performed on Tour ’74 featured the Band as musical equals, as documented on the double LP Before the Flood. Critic Robert Christgau gave it an “A,” stating: “At its best, this is the craziest and strongest rock and roll ever recorded…Dylan’s voice settles in at a rich bellow, running over his old songs like a truck. I agree that a few of them will never walk again, but I treasure the sacrilege.”

1975 found Dylan cresting another wave of inspiration, and after the critical and artistic triumph of Blood on the Tracks he was willing to finally allow some of the fabled Basement Tapes to see the light of day. Completist purists would argue for decades that Robertson as producer had shortchanged the fans by selecting the wrong takes, and leaving key songs off the compilation in order to include six Band songs recorded without Dylan in order to create the illusion of parity between Dylan and the Band. Those completists would finally get their due in 2014 with the release of the six-CD box set The Basement Tapes Complete–clearly demonstrating that not everything that was recorded in the summer of ’67 was worthy of public dissemination. Still, Christgau hits the nail on the head by stating that the songs Robertson included by the Band on The Basement Tapes are “among their best…we needn’t bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967, too.”

By the end of ’75 the Band had relocated to Malibu, California, and with the assistance of engineer/producer Rob Fraboni built their own recording studio, Shangri-La, where they recorded their first album of original material since Cahoots. The result, Northern Lights–Southern Cross, is a sturdy collection of tunes featuring eight new Robertson compositions, including three classics: “Acadian Driftwood,” “Ophelia,” and the tear-jerker “It Makes No Difference.”

As Helm rightly states in his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire: “It was the best album we had done since The Band.”

However, after Manuel suffered a severe neck injury from a boating accident in 1976, which caused the Band to cancel a number of scheduled performances, Robertson had decided that he was through living out of a suitcase and stated unequivocally that he would no longer tour with the Band. By September, Robertson conceived of The Last Waltz, a “farewell concert” to be held on Thanksgiving Day at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, which included turkey dinner for the audience of 5,000 attendees. The event was filmed in 35mm and directed by Martin Scorcese, and in addition to the Band performing their greatest hits, they invited a stellar cast of guests to participate in the concert, including Paul Butterfield, Bobby Charles, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, and Neil Young.

In 1977, the Band released Islands, their final album of original material for Capitol, which is a fitting title for this lackluster collection of outtakes and half-bakes. Robertson would later refer to it as an Odds and Sods type of LP. ”We weren’t in album mode at the time.” That same year, Scorcese filmed a number of interviews with the Band at Shangri-La and two additional performances on a MGM soundstage with Emmylou Harris and the Staple Singers to round out the The Last Waltz. The resulting documentary was released through Warner Bros. in April of 1978, along with a three-LP soundtrack, and it stands quite likely as the greatest music film of all-time. Although there was talk of continuing as a studio-only group after its release, the five members of the Band drifted in separate directions by the end of the year.

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In the aftermath of The Last Waltz there are differing opinions about what the Band’s legacy is and whether all five members were treated fairly on the business side of things. This aspect of the Band is ignored completely by the Kuberniks, and The Story of the Band should be viewed as a subjective art object more than a definitive biographical portrait. It’s still beautiful to behold.

Helm’s memoir clearly displays a well of bitterness about how the songwriting credits in the Band were attributed, and he felt that many of the songs Robertson took sole credit for were a form of group collaboration. In Musician magazine, Danko agreed with him: “I think Levon’s book hits the nail on the head about where Robbie and Albert Grossman and some of those people went wrong, and when the Band stopped being the Band. When people take themselves too seriously and believe too much in their own bullshit, they usually get in trouble.”

Speaking with Forbes, Helm said “When The Band came out we were surprised by some of the songwriting credits. In those days we didn’t realize that song publishing–more than touring or selling records–was the secret source of the real money in the music business. We didn’t know enough to ask or demand song credits. Someone had pencil-whipped us. I went on to express [to Robertson] my belief in creating music with input from everyone and reminded him that all the hot ideas from basic song concepts to the mixing and sequencing of our record were not always exclusively his. I complained that he and Albert had been making important business decisions without consulting the rest of us. And far too much cash was coming down in his and Albert’s corner. Our publishing split was far from fair. I told him that he and Albert ought to try and write some music without us because they couldn’t possibly find the songs unless we were all searching together. I cautioned that most so-called business moves had fucked up a lot of great bands and killed off whatever music was left in them. I told Robbie that the Band was supposed to be partners.” One need only listen to the music made after the second album to understand there was more than a kernel of truth to Helm’s point of view.

It is certainly notable and ironic that in the very first scene of The Last Waltz Scorsese asks Danko to explain the rules to the billiard game “Cut-throat.” Danko replies by saying “The object of the game is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off.”

Like the democracy employed by the Doors wherein each member of the band shares equally in the spoils and the credits, the Band would have definitely benefited from a similar arrangement. It may have helped to stem the more self-destructive aspects of the group. Such are the politics of commerce when ego and greed contaminate the communal spirit of any artistic enterprise.

In 1983, the Band reunited and resumed touring without Robertson, to positive notices. But after a performance in Winter Park, Florida, on March 4, 1986, for unknown reasons Manuel committed suicide in his motel room, at the age of 42. Danko, Hudson, and Helm continued on without him, delivering a spirited rendition of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” on October 16, 1992, at Madison Square Garden at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration for Bob Dylan. It was the only time that yours truly was able to see the Band perform.

In 1989 the group was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and in 1994 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Danko remained active, performing gigs all the way up till December 10, 1999, where he died in his sleep at his home in Marbletown, New York. He was 55.

Helm continued to play music with his own group and also enjoyed a successful career as a film actor, appearing in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), The Right Stuff (1983), Smooth Talk (1985), and Shooter (2007). After a long bout with throat cancer, Helm died at the age of 71 on April 19, 2012. Hudson has remained low-key over the past decade, after spending much of his post-Band time collaborating with a variety of other musicians. Robertson tried his hand at acting after the breakup of the Band (in the 1980 film Carny), and composed several film scores for Scorcese (Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money). He has released several solo albums, including 1998’s sensational Contact from the Underworld of Redboy.

Even with 50 years of hindsight, the mythology of the Band and the human frailties that constitute the reality of what really went down within this group are difficult to reconcile. You don’t have to love every artist that creates lasting art. Politics are bullshit–but great art lasts forever. That’s why the Band will remain important 50 years hence. They made a significant contribution to the world during their romp through the 20th century: because in their finest moments they made a joyous sound–and that’s what the celebration of existence is
all about.

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