The Band appeared on the final day of Woodstock 1969 at 10 o'clock in the evening, and played several cuts from their first album made the year before, Music From Big Pink.
I didn’t attend Woodstock, so I didn’t hear them. But if I had been there, I wonder what I would have thought of them. Several years later, when I listened to one of their albums, titled simply The Band, I became intrigued by their unassuming name and their unique sound. I became a devoted fan.
I first heard of The Band when I learned they had played backup for Bob Dylan on his U.S. tour in 1965, and on his world tour the following year. (Prior to this, The Band had been known as The Hawks when they played in Ronnie Hawkins’ band.) I must admit, I only stumbled upon this tidbit about The Band’s connection to Dylan somewhere in the late ‘70s (I was studying classical voice at the time and not really tuned into the pop music scene), but I knew the Dylan connection carried a lot of weight. I still remember thinking, “Any band that Dylan would have as backup must be pretty darn good.”
In an era of clever, in some cases socially-conscious, names for musical groups (such as The Who, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Mothers of Invention, and The Grateful Dead, to name a few), The Band's unassuming name, almost generic in quality, intrigued me. I wondered if it had been a humble choice, an act of hubris perhaps, announcing to an already knowledgeable group of fans: Here we are, the band that played with Dylan . . . THE Band that played with Dylan!
The Band is actually the group’s third album. They first recorded a bunch of songs in 1967 that would later become known as The Basement Tapes (released officially in 1975 by Columbia Records, but bootlegged, in parts, in the late ‘60s). Many of the same songs would be released in 1968 on The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink.
Getting back to The Band album, the cover, like the group’s name, was also unassuming. It presented upper-body shots of the group’s five members — Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson — on a grainy black-and-white photo pasted on a brown background, which gave it a close-to-the-earth look that matched the authentic, homespun-type songs inside. I convinced myself that the members of The Band had to be a bunch of good ol’ boys from the Deep South in order to create such a backwater sound, until I learned that they were all Canadians, except for Helm who was from Arkansas. A mental misdirection on my part, but if you have heard any of the songs, especially Up on Cripple Creek, Jawbone, Across the Great Divide, and my favorite, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, then you may have reached the same conclusion.
Danko (bass guitar, vocals and fiddle), Hudson (keyboards, accordion and saxophone), Manuel (keyboards, drums and vocals), Helms (drums, vocals, mandolin and guitar), and Robertson (guitar and vocals), produced a new sound, one with an "invented authenticity," a surprising replication of something approximating elemental Delta blues, fused together with southern-drawl vocals twanging their way through sophisticated urban-rock harmonies.
Aside from The Band’s name and their unique sound, the title of their first album, Music From Big Pink, intrigued me most. (I had already heard about the bootleg-nature of The Basement Tapes, but more about that later.) What the heck was music from something called Big Pink, and what did the name mean?
Strangely enough, I learned the significance of this only recently, in the meandering way I generally have of learning about the world, when I listened to an archived tape of Alec Baldwin interviewing Robbie Robertson on Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s the Thing. The interview revealed many surprises, including the origin of that album’s title.
Many people might already know that Big Pink was the name of the place where The Band recorded The Basement Tapes. They might also know that Big Pink was, in fact, a big old pink house in West Saugerties, N.Y., and they might know that Dylan was present at Big Pink during some of the recordings. But I wonder how many people know what took place behind-the-scenes leading up to and during the recordings?
In the late ‘60s, The Band was having trouble, Robertson says in the interview, finding a place where they could “mess around” with music and not disturb their neighbors. Renting a traditional studio was out of the question because they couldn’t afford it. Robertson had this dream of having a workshop, a clubhouse, where they could go and have a wonderful time together, creating “some kind of musical noise that we could send out around the world.”
Danko, according to Robertson, actually found the place, “this horribly ugly pink house” in the middle of 100 acres, where their creative jam sessions would not disturb anyone. Most importantly, the house had a basement that Robertson felt had potential as a jamming/recording studio. When he first saw it, he thought, “That’s it. That’s what I’ve been looking for. We can bring equipment and microphones down here, and we can be way off the grid with what’s going on in the world.”
The fact that the space, with its windows and concrete walls, would be an acoustic and recording nightmare, according to one sound engineer consulted, didn’t bother Robertson because he said he was looking for a place where The Band could “break some rules.”
One day, Robertson decided to bring Dylan, a neighbor as it turned out, to see the basement studio. Robertson worried that Dylan, who recorded in professional studios, might think Robertson was crazy, nevertheless he took Dylan out to the place. Driving for what seemed endless miles on backroads, Dylan finally said in his trademark raspy voice, “Where the hell is this place?”
When they finally arrived at the pink house, Robertson took Dylan down to the basement. Dylan looked around and said, “Can you record stuff down here?”
Robertson showed Dylan their instruments and the little tape recorder The Band used. Dylan must have been convinced by Robertson’s vision of a place to experiment with new musical sounds because the legendary singer/songwriter, the voice of a generation, said, “Listen, I’ve got a couple of songs that I’ve been messing around with. Maybe we could try them together here.” And that was the genesis of two of The Band’s albums: The Basement Tapes and Music From Big Pink.
Robertson says there were about 140 or so tracks that they worked on in the pink house. “Every day,” he says, “we’d go to Big Pink, have some coffee, and play some checkers.” Then Dylan would pound out the songs as fast as he could type them.
“I didn’t know people wrote that way, but Dylan did,” Robertson says. “I soon discovered that he had a memory for lyrics that no person in the world could have.” Dylan would type something, then everybody would grab whatever instrument was nearby and begin to play. “There were no rules,” says Robertson.
The material Dylan and The Band recorded at Big Pink was supposed to be just for themselves, but after they sent about 15 tracks to people to listen to, word spread that the cuts were great. The bootleggers soon popped out of the ether, pulled the songs together, and peddled them.
The rest of the 140-plus songs recorded in the basement remained under wraps for years, until in 1975 Columbia Records officially released them as The Basement Tapes.
“There was no point in sitting on anything anymore,” Robertson says.
Indeed! The Band, who had toured with Bob Dylan and had played at Woodstock 1969, had stepped into their own spotlight on the world stage.