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what i watched last week

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2011). On the way to see Drew Goddard’s first directorial effort, I mentioned Cloverfield to my wife. Goddard wrote the screenplay for that one, and I gave it 8/10. She liked the movie well enough, but she thought it was pretty silly to give such a high rating to that movie. Well, here I go again. There is a LOT going on in The Cabin in the Woods, and while I’m pretty good about not giving spoilers, it takes all of my energy to keep quiet here, because one of the delights of the movie is that is regularly sets up situations you think you have figured out, and then it takes a turn you hadn’t expected. Which isn’t to say it’s incoherent … by the end of the movie, it all makes sense, in a B-movie kind of way. It’s clever, it’s meta, it’s a lot of things that are normally pretty boring, but In Joss We Trust, so it’s good clever, it’s good meta. The final 20 minutes or so are eye-poppingly gory (my mouth was open the entire time, although one friend in our group said it was a boring example of too much CGI and red-colored corn syrup). There are so many references to other movies and TV shows that you lose track (the IMBD lists 15 “movie connections”, including the Evil Dead movies, 30s horror classics, and the video game Left 4 Dead, and that seems like too small a number … just to note two obvious ones from TV, there’s Scooby-Doo and Dollhouse). I’m trying to talk about this movie without giving anything away about this movie, which explains my rather vague comments. I can only say that it worked for me. 8/10.

music friday: bruce springsteen, “backstreets”

Earlier in the week, I listed my three favorite Bruce Springsteen songs: “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, “Born to Run”, and “Backstreets”.

I love “Rosie” because it is so much fun. In the 70s, it was filled with youthful abandon, and you can still hear that on the original recording with Vini Lopez on the drums. Now, it recalls our youth, and yes, it straddles the line between celebration and nostalgia. I love this song in concert because I’ve always interpreted the lyrics to be Bruce singing to us. We are Rosie, the ones he is coming to liberate and confiscate, and confiscation never felt so sweet.

I don’t suppose I need to explain why I, like all Bruce fans, love “Born to Run.” But the particular lyric that has always struck me comes at the end: “Someday girl, I don't know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go and we'll walk in the sun. But till then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” It was odd when New Jersey wanted to make “Born to Run” the state song … it’s about getting out of Jersey, not getting in. It may seem silly to see a bunch of aging boomers in their 60s shouting that we were born to run, when many of us can barely walk. But “Born to Run” isn’t just about running, it’s about preparing to run: we gotta get out while we’re young, we gotta find out how it feels. And while Bruce convinces me, as no one else does, about the possibility of something good on the horizon (see “Across the Border”, where he sings without irony, “what are we, without hope in our hearts, that someday we’ll drink from God’s blessed waters”), he hits closest to home when he reminds us that the journey is always ahead of us, and never truly fulfilled. Sisyphus on the rock and roll highway. So the key to “Born to Run” is that someday, who knows when, we’ll get to that place where we really wanna go. When you hear this in 1975, and you’re 22 years old, married for a couple of years, your first kid a few months old, working in a factory, “Born to Run” is a promise about the future. When you hear this in 2012, and you’re 58 years old, married for almost 39 years, your first grandkid on the way, you know more than ever that you’re never gonna get to that place you really wanna go. Yet the music in the song is so celebratory that the recognition that we are all Sisyphus is liberating (there’s that word again). Of course we’re born to run, of course someday we’ll get there, of course we aren’t there yet and never will be there … but we’re here now, surrounded by fellow Bruce fans, all of us singing at the top of our lungs.

Which brings us to “Backstreets”. Born to Run came at a crucial moment in Bruce’s career. He was not yet a superstar; there was no guarantee that he ever would be a superstar. And all over that album are expressions not just of hope, but of “what if”. He invites his girl to join him in the front seat in “Thunder Road”, pulling out to win. He turns his beginnings into legend in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. He writes the ultimate road anthem in “Born to Run”. But “Backstreets” is a harbinger of some of the songs on Darkness like “Racing in the Street” or “Factory”, in that it’s about the people who haven’t yet escaped. (In line with the overall sound of Born to Run, “Backstreets” has a much more majestic production than the Darkness songs, which makes it epic.)

There is very little hope or glory in “Backstreets”, no “climb in back, heaven’s waitin’” or “strap your hands across my engines.” It is more like film noir: sleeping in abandoned houses, running for their lives, slow dancing in the dark, huddled in their cars … “at night sometimes it seemed you could hear that whole damn city crying”. And always, endlessly, hiding on the backstreets. And then comes the lines that affect me perhaps more than others Bruce Springsteen has ever written:

After all this time to find we’re just like all the rest
Stranded in the park, and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets

When you are young, you think that no one else suffers like you do, that no one else has your particular set of problems. And then you hear Bruce Springsteen, confessing that we ALL hide on the backstreets. We, and he, are just like all the rest.

It’s bothersome for a moment … what do you mean, you suffer as much as I do? But then you realize that Bruce is telling you that we are not alone, that the act of being alone is something we share, and with that sharing, we break free of alone-ness. Being like all the rest in this regard is oddly uplifting.

“Backstreets” still affects me this way, and I am always teary-eyed with deep happiness when he plays it for me. Bruce Springsteen would seem to have everything. He is rich beyond belief, he has spent his life doing the thing that is most important to him, he shares that love with others … his life is nothing like mine. Yet, even now, he is still that person hiding on the backstreets. Some would say Bruce is “authentic” because he retains his Jersey roots. I say he’s authentic because he still knows what’s happening on the backstreets.

I’ve seen him sing “Backstreets” a dozen or so times. It was a set list regular in the early days, and the 1978 versions, with what is known as the “Sad Eyes” interlude, are ranked very high on most Bruce fans’ list of his great performances. Nowadays, he brings it out once in awhile, so I can’t really expect it, but then he surprises me. When I saw him for three shows on the Reunion tour, it had been more than a decade since I saw him play it, but then, on the third of those nights, there it was (and the opening piano notes are unmistakable, giving me time to go “oh shit” and start crying before the song itself begins). In two shows in 2007, he played it once, skipped it once. Same in 2008. It was a no-show in 2009, meaning I hadn’t heard it in four years. And I don’t think it was on the set list this time around … he audibled, far as I could tell. The piano began, I lost it, and once again, we were all hiding on the backstreets.

Here’s a video of the 2012 San Jose performance of “Backstreets” (thanks to JerseyDeb!):

bruce #34

The new songs from Wrecking Ball worked well in concert. He was able to open with two of those songs without anyone wondering where “Badlands” was (it came third). “Jack of All Trades”, which I assumed would be a pee break for people who don’t like the slow, quieter songs, was quite powerful, and, in our section at least, grabbed the audience. “We Are Alive” seemed oddly placed near the end of the main set, as it, too, is not exactly a rousing, audience participation tune, but it was fine and, ultimately, exactly where it belonged.

We got plenty of intriguing selections in the set list, many of them audibles: “Thundercrack” (which won the crowd over), “Johnny 99” (excellent reworking), “My Love Will Not Let You Down”, “American Skin (41 Shots)” (timely), and “Rosalita”.

Much is made of how a 62-year-old man could have such an inexhaustible supply of energy, but I think the physical stuff is window-dressing. It’s fun, no question (best was probably when he body surfed his way from the back of the pit to the stage). But I imagine there are plenty of 62-year-olds out there with energy to spare.

The thing I find most impressive is that Bruce still commits emotionally to his work. He has sung many of these songs a thousand times, and you have to believe at some point, he tires of them. But he rarely gives that impression. When a song gets old, he retires it for awhile. He sang “Rosalita” at the first ten Bruce shows I attended, and only four times in the next 32 years.

It helps that he has a good new album with songs that fit the show, which hasn’t really been true since The Rising a decade ago. So he does seven songs from the new album, an new-to-him oldies medley that is a big hit, and then has a huge back catalog to choose from … a catalog, I’d add, that itself includes plenty of relative rarities.

This time around, he must also deal with the loss of two band members who have been with him since the early 70s. He didn’t take the most obvious route of simply replacing them. Well, Danny Federici has been effectively replaced by Charlie Giordano, but Clarence? It’s taken a five-piece horn section to fill his spot, musically speaking. That one of the horn players is Clarence’s nephew, Jake (who takes several of his uncle’s solos), makes a family tie to the past that is touching and important, and Jake can play, so the transition (again, musically) is much smoother than you might think.

But Bruce has clearly taken this unfortunate opportunity to rethink his concert sound. Some of the changes have been there for awhile, most notably Soozie’s violin. He’s used a horn section at times in the past, but they feel more integrated into the sound this time around (I suspect Steve Van Zandt has a lot to do with that). Where in the recent past, his newly-added backup singers seemed superfluous, now they add a lot to the songs.

And while Bruce no longer has Clarence to play with on stage, he seemed last night to have replaced that hole with … the audience. Again, this is something he’s always done, but I think he was using the audience as a sidekick in ways that were new.

A lot of the emotional power of the concert came from the absence of the Big Man. The first tears flowed in the third song, when Jake Clemons played his uncle’s “Badlands” solo. “My City of Ruins”, which I think is the best and most lasting song from The Rising, included Clarence and Danny in the roll call of band members. And the video tribute to Clemons during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” was perfect and wrenching.

But then there were my own “special to me” moments. Yesterday I listed my three favorite Bruce songs, and he played them all. Two of them were surprises: “Backstreets” and “Rosalita”. While it’s hard to do anything bad with these songs, he has played them enough times that there is always the possibility he’ll walk through them more out of duty than love. Last night, there was a lot of love. “Backstreets” was at its most emotional and evocative, and “Rosie” was as goofy as it was in the olden days. About the only thing that could have topped them is if he’d done “Back in Your Arms”.

Plus, no matter what “Born to Run” means as an anthem for all Bruce fans, it is also “our song”, the one I always associate with my wife. When he plays it, we reflect on the past 37 years of Bruce concerts, and it never fails to break me up when he says, “Someday, girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go, and we’ll walk in the sun.”

Finally, it is not easy for me to believe that the new is as good as the old, especially when it comes to rock and roll. By that, I don’t mean that new music sucks, not at all … I had a great time at the Wild Flag concert last week, to point to one example. I mean that when it comes to long-lasting artists, I don’t always recognize when they reach a new peak late in their careers. In Bruce’s case, I think that a list of his best albums would lack anything from the last 25 years. And, also in Bruce’s case, his well-earned reputation as the great live act of rock and roll, with so many classic shows in the past, combined with his age, means that I find it highly unlikely that he’ll reach the heights of 1978. 2009 was evidence of all this, a fine show that I was glad to see, but nowhere near the best.

But in 2008, I saw a couple of his shows that were mindbogglingly great. And last night was right up there with those shows.

So when I talk about the best of the 34 Bruce shows I’ve seen, there’ll be the three from 1978, and there’ll be that endless, monumental show on the Tunnel of Love tour, and there’ll be the first batch of Reunion shows in 1999. And there will be 2008, and, perhaps even more so, 2012. Imagine how miraculous it is that someone who has put on some of the most famous and acclaimed rock and roll shows of all time, can still approach that same level while in his 60s.

quick bruce thoughts before bed

This won’t be much more than a set list, since it’s late. One reason it’s late is that we got the second-longest show of the tour thus far (3 hours and 9 minutes). It was also tied for the tour high in number of songs played (26). For people who care, he didn’t play any “tour debuts”. He played seven songs from the new album, and obviously I had never heard any of them live before, but he didn’t play anything else I hadn’t heard except for the “Apollo Medley”.

Set lists are semi-worthless, but they give a quick idea of what the show was like. Beyond the set list, the band played with great energy, the horn section was an excellent addition, Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons won the crowd over the minute he played his uncle’s solo on “Badlands”, Patti was a no-show, and Michelle Moore was there to do her rap during “Rocky Ground”. I’d say this show was on a par with the ones I saw in 2008, and a big improvement over 2009. It’s pretty unbelievable, but this show ranks amongst the top shows I’ve seen since the Tunnel of Love tour in 1988 (and I’ve seen 20 Bruce concerts in that time).

Here’s the set list, and I’m off to bed … yes, Rosie came out tonight!

1. We Take Care of Our Own
2. Wrecking Ball
3. Badlands
4. Death to My Hometown
5. My City of Ruins
6. Thundercrack
7. Jack of All Trades
8. Murder Incorporated
9. Johnny 99
10. My Love Will Not Let You Down
11. Shackled and Drawn
12. Waitin' on a Sunny Day
13. The Promised Land
14. Backstreets
15. American Skin (41 Shots)
16. The Apollo Medley
17. The Rising
18. Lonesome Day
19. We Are Alive
20. Thunder Road
21. Rocky Ground
22. Out in the Street
23. Born to Run
24. Dancing in the Dark
25. Rosalita
26. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out

what i watched last week

Slim pickings once again … over the course of the 12-day stretch ending tomorrow, I’ve attended three baseball games and two concerts. I did manage to get one movie in, though.

Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 2010). Much of what I said about Dunham’s new HBO series, Girls, applies here as well. As I noted, “while it looked like an improvisational film made by friends for friends, [Tiny Furniture] was scripted, and the photography in particular was almost always perfect.” Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes shot using a Canon EOS 7D, and I can’t say I know much about that camera, except you can buy it on Amazon for under $1400, and even on Blu-ray, the picture was stunning (and the sucker weighs just a hair over 5 pounds!). Dunham has an eye for how a frame should look, and perhaps it goes without saying now that she can write. Based on this film and Girls, it seems Dunham has a fairly narrow range to draw upon, but in this, she’s not a lot different from Woody Allen, who she clearly admires and whose “New York” pictures similarly have a narrow but illuminating focus. Dunham’s focus (white women in their 20s, just out of college, living in the big city, barely employed, feeling entitled even as the economy won’t allow it) will irritate a lot of viewers, I’m sure. But Dunham is a refreshing new talent, and for me, at least, she hasn’t worn out her welcome. 7/10, although that’s a rating that might change a few years from now, when we have a better sense of where Dunham’s career is going. [Ed. note: I wrote the above just before the big hubbub began over Girls. Turns out Dunham did irritate a lot of viewers.]

another look at wrecking ball

Several weeks ago, I wrote my thoughts about Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen’s latest album:

The album sounded good to me from the first listen. After a few weeks, some songs stand out more than others, and the rush of initial enjoyment has subsided, so that I think of it on the level of The Rising (which is no insult). I can also imagine some good concert performances of these songs, and I hope he plays them.

New Bruce albums are evaluated in at least three different ways. The first is the most general: is it any good? The second is contextual: how does it compare to his other albums? And finally, there’s the angle that is hardest to explain if you haven’t been there: how do the songs play in concert? It’s not a knock on Bruce Springsteen to say that much of his work is best heard live … it’s not that the albums are poor, it’s that he is arguably the best live performer in the music’s history, so each listen to a new album carries with it that “will it be good live” subtext. This has always been true. “Prove It All Night” was a decent track on Darkness on the Edge of Town, but in concert, it was monumental, so the Darkness version was secondary from the first time we heard it live (while those who didn’t go to the concerts had to wait until 2001 before a live version was released).

Obviously, I can’t speak specifically to the live quality of the new songs, since I won’t see him for a couple of days. But I can address the first two questions. Is it any good? Yes. How good? Well, Christgau isn’t Bruce’s biggest fan, and he gave the album an A-, only the second such grade since Tunnel of Love got an A back in 1987. (He also liked Devils and Dust.) If we trust Metacritic, his albums tend to get “generally favorable reviews”, but, tellingly, Metacritic doesn’t include the post-Rising albums Magic and Working on a Dream.

Which leads to the second question, putting Wrecking Ball in the context of Bruce’s entire career. I think I had it right when I said it was on the level of The Rising: a handful of very good songs, nothing awful or even forgettable (the biggest complaint I have about the other 21st-century albums). When I saw Bruce in 2009 on the Working on a Dream tour, only two years after the release of Magic, he played only one song from that album. And while I might have missed one or two, as far as I can tell, in 15+ shows on the current tour, he hasn’t played a single song from Working on a Dream. Since concerts are where he best expresses his art, these absences are telling. (On the other hand, it’s like pulling teeth to get anything from Tunnel of Love out of him, and that’s one of his finest albums. Hey Bruce, think of this as my “Request Sign”: “Valentine’s Day”. OK, my real request is “Back in Your Arms”.)

And I think Wrecking Ball is good enough that we’ll still be hearing it as long as Bruce can get his aging ass on the stage, just as he still performs “My City of Ruins” and “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising” and even, ferchrissake, “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”. Picks to click: “Land of Hope and Dreams”, “Jack of All Trades”, and, in concert (as long as Patti is there), “Easy Money”.

Or maybe I’m just caught up in the moment. I’ll get back to you after Tuesday night.

more bruce stuff

If I had to rank the Bruce concerts I’ve been to, the best would include the second (1976), all three in 1978, the Tunnel of Love show in 1988, any one of the 1999 Reunion shows, and either of the 2008 shows. It’s the last of those that I find remarkable. The young Bruce was building his rep, 1978 is generally thought to be his best-ever tour, the Tunnel show was one of the last high points of the first period of the E Street Band, and the Reunion shows eleven years later were, well, the Reunion shows, only they didn’t suck like most such affairs.

But by 2008, Bruce was almost 60, Danny Federici was no longer with the band (he was dead within two weeks), the E Street Band had been playing shows with Bruce for a decade after they returned for E Street 2.0. The album behind which he was touring, Magic, was decent enough, but … well, it’s only five years later and he’s only played one song from Magic on the current tour. And yet … Bruce still gives his all, and yes, part of it is “whoa, look how athletic he is for a geezer”, but what’s important is that he still gives himself emotionally, still believes that every person in the crowd should go home happy. The professionalism of the band means performances are generally tighter than ever, and they’ve got a gazillion songs to pick from (not even counting oldies) … they’ve only done 15 or so shows on the current tour so far, and have already played something like 65 different songs.

And in 2008, everything clicked. I couldn’t tell you why, and there’s no guarantee it’ll happen again … in 2009, we saw a good, solid show that would have thrilled anyone who had never seen him, but which was a lesser show in my eyes. The point is, 2009 is where expectations should lie … a bunch of sexagenarian rockers have no business being inspired, we should just be grateful they are professionals who care. But 2008 demonstrated that in this, as in so many things, Bruce Springsteen isn’t like everyone else.

Which is why I am looking forward to this week’s show even more than usual. Because the early reports of this tour approach the ecstatic, and not in the “I love to relive my youth, and boy is Bruce athletic for a geezer” way, but in the “holy shit, these are great concerts” way. If anyone can do it at age 62, it’s Bruce.

Here he is at the end of yet another three-hour show from 2008. Despite the wiggly cell-phone camera work (or perhaps because of it), you get a good feel for the goofy religious fervor of these shows. I love the way Bruce tries to get the song back from the crowd just short of the five-minute mark, only to give up when he sees they’ve made it their own. (When he says they aren’t supposed to play “Twist and Shout” because it’s a “stadium breaker”, he isn’t just indulging in hyperbole … as Wikipedia tells us about Bruce playing the song at that same Ullevi Stadium in 1985, “Springsteen – with the help of a very enthusiastic audience – almost rocked the stadium to pieces, literally. As the city rests on a layer of clay, the rhythmic movement of tens of thousands of people was close to causing a structural collapse.”)

bruce is coming

I barely have time to enjoy and reflect upon Wild Flag at the Fillmore, and here comes Bruce. I’ll be seeing him on Tuesday, my 34th time. Might as well copy the format from my Opening Day list:

  1. 10/31/75 Paramount Theatre, Oakland … I believe we paid $5.50 each
  2. 10/2/76  Paramount Theatre … had seats v.close to the stage
  3. 6/30/78 Berkeley Community Theatre … had even closer seats … touched his boot, and had a bumper sticker made that read “I Touched Bruce Springsteen"
  4. 12/15/78 Winterland, San Francisco … “Probably the most famous show Bruce will ever do.
  5. 12/16/78 Winterland … not as famous because it wasn’t broadcast live on the radio
  6. 10/25/80 Portland Coliseum … only time he ever sang “On Top of Old Smokey” (this was after Mount St. Helens)
  7. 10/27/80 Oakland Coliseum Arena … night two of our five-shows-in three-cities-in-two-states-in-seven-days trip
  8. 10/28/80 Oakland Coliseum Arena … night three, he opened with “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, then didn’t play it again for 28 years
  9. 10/30/80 Los Angeles Sports Arena … night four
  10. 10/31/80 Los Angeles Sports Arena … our second Halloween show, he came out in a coffin and opened with “Haunted House” … Flo and Eddie sang backup on “Hungry Heart” … night five
  11. 6/15/81 Old Waldorf, San Francisco … Bruce showed up at a Gary U.S. Bonds club show
  12. 9/18/85 Oakland Coliseum … our first stadium show
  13. 10/13/86 Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View … the very first Bridge Concert
  14. 5/3/88 Shoreline Amphitheatre … took our kids for first time … it was the longest show of the Tunnel of Love tour, which I’m sure delighted them no end (they were just under 13, and 10) … all-time famous show thanks to bootlegs
  15. 9/23/88 Oakland Coliseum … the Amnesty Tour, and his 39th birthday (Joan Baez sang “Happy Birthday” to him)
  16. 10/21/92 Shoreline Amphitheatre … The Other Band
  17. 10/22/92 Shoreline Amphitheatre … The Other Band, night two
  18. 10/28/95 Shoreline Amphitheatre … another Bridge Concert, and the only poor Bruce performance I ever saw (the Pretenders blew him off the stage)
  19. 11/29/95 Berkeley Community Theatre … the Tom Joad tour … actually had an opening act (John Wesley Harding)
  20. 11/30/95 Berkeley Community Theatre … night two
  21. 10/25/99 Oakland Arena … the Reunion tour, night one
  22. 10/26/99 Oakland Arena … Reunion, night two
  23. 10/28/99 Oakland Arena … night three, Southside Johnny showed up
  24. 8/27/02 Compaq Arena, San Jose … The Rising tour
  25. 4/9/03 Arco Arena, Sacramento … still Rising
  26. 8/16/03 Pac Bell Park, San Francisco … I’m not big on outdoor shows, but Bruce at the park where the Giants play? I can live with that. This was also his first performance in San Francisco proper in 25 years, since Winterland (if you don’t count him showing up at the Gary U.S. Bonds show)
  27. 5/5/05 Paramount Theatre … the Devils and Dust tour … saw Robin Williams in the bar before the show
  28. 6/6/06 Sleep Train Pavilion, Concord … the Seeger Sessions tour, still the most underrated tour of his career
  29. 10/25/07 Oracle Arena, Oakland … Magic tour, night one
  30. 10/26/07 Oracle Arena … night two
  31. 4/4/08 Arco Arena, Sacramento … more Magic
  32. 4/5/08 HP Pavilion, San Jose … and still more Magic
  33. 4/1/09 HP Pavilion … the Working on a Dream tour

music friday: the band, “the night they drove old dixie down”

With the passing of Levon Helm, only two members of the original Band are still alive, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson. There are plenty of boomer acts who are mostly meaningless to the younger fans of today, but I think those fans might be surprised at how important The Band was in their day.

Before the release of their first album, Music from Big Pink, The Band was little-known to the average music fan. Those who did know them were aware that most of them had worked as Bob Dylan’s backup band. Real cult fans might even know that the group and been holed up with Dylan working on music that was eventually released officially as The Basement Tapes. But nothing really prepared us for Big Pink, which was like what Americana might have sounded like if a bunch of Canadians got together with a Southerner in 1968 and wrote songs that fit right in with the Dylan covers. Three distinct vocalists (sometimes singing together, when they were still easily identified), everyone writing songs, Garth Hudson playing the organ in ways we hadn’t often heard in rock and roll, Robbie Robertson adding odd, jagged guitar solos that sounded like no one else … this was a true group production. It sounded brand new and a hundred years old at the same time. It was grown-up music within an artform for youngsters. (“The Weight” on Spotify)

Calling yourself “The Band” is a bit presumptuous, so, of course, their second album was self-titled, in case we didn’t get the joke. It was even better than the debut. Some of their most famous songs came from this album: “Rag Mama Rag”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, and the enormous “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Despite the album’s greatness, there was one change that hinted at the group’s future: Robbie Robertson wrote or co-wrote every song, eight of them solo. They were wonderful songs, but since part of The Band’s greatness was the way they worked “as a band”, the emphasis on one person’s writing caught the attention of some.

Which isn’t to blame Robertson for the group’s decline … like I say, many of their best songs were Robertson compositions. But when their third album, Stage Fright, was once again dominated by Robertson’s writing, the writing was on the wall, no pun intended. The multi-instrumental contributions of the players remained, but to my ears, at least, something was missing. They no longer sounded like a 19th-century band in the rock and roll world … now, they were dangerously close to singer-songwriteritis. The title song did not sound like the work of someone enjoying his fame:

See the man with the stage fright
Just standin' up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again

Perhaps it’s just that they had already been playing together for more than a decade, but their post-Stage Fright work is tired by comparison to their earlier greatness. Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was their defining effort. The Beatles and the Stones were just getting started when they released their fourth albums. The best song of Cahoots, on the other hand, was Dylan’s ironic gem, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. They followed that up with a live album, an album of covers, and an album and tour with Dylan. There were some great moments in all of these, but the greatness was often due to new versions of old songs. They managed two more studio albums, put on one of the best retirement concerts ever (The Last Waltz), and that was that.

There were solo careers to come. In the 80s, the group (minus Robertson) reformed, and there were even a few albums in the 90s. But in 1986, Richard Manuel killed himself, and in 1999, Rick Danko died in his sleep. The Band died with him.

What to make of all this? For two albums, there was no more important band than The Band. They were critically acclaimed, they had some popular success, they were influential, and the music on those two albums holds up to this day. But I would argue that the decline removed them from the popular mind, so that nowadays, my guess is people see Scorsese’s film version of The Last Waltz on TV and watch a song or two, and “The Weight” is still known. I’m not saying no one born after the mid-70s has ever heard of The Band, but I think the love boomers have for the group might seem puzzling.

The Band was a particular favorite of my wife, and we saw them twice in the mid-70s. Ironically, we didn’t go to The Last Waltz, held at Winterland, where we had been many times before, because it was too expensive. (As I recall, tickets were $25 apiece, and included Thanksgiving dinner. And Muddy Waters. And Bob Dylan. And Joni Mitchell. And Neil Young. And Van Morrison. But I digress. At least we eventually got around to seeing all of those people except Joni.)

Levon Helm died yesterday. He was from Arkansas, the only American in the group, and he was the right person, the only person, to sing arguably their greatest song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.

Here’s one last look at Levon: