“Once Were Brothers” traces the mythical saga of The Band, through Robbie Robertson’s lens

“We few, we proud, we band of brothers.” — Shakespeare, Henry V

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, a documentary film by Daniel Roher, plays at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, at the Oriental Theater, 2230 N. Farwell Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202 (414) 276-5140

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This story needed to be told again, on Robbie Robertson’s terms, even as it needs telling from all five. Three are gone, so Robbie the wordsmith stands best to speak here, anew and anon. And The Band started with him; it’s roots arose when he converged with Levon Helm and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. But this needed to be told because the Band lasted too short a time for the America it embraced and re-imagined, the nation that needed a band like this, to remind us who and what America was, and is, and might be.

For perhaps no other American vernacular band compressed more talent into one entity, like pages of a tattered book filled with dried and pressed leaves, shadows and light, and music of American spheres. It was a great North American band, comprising four Canadians and one Arkansan, who embodied “Canadian driftwood, gypsy tailwind,” as they regaled us on one of their late, great saga-songs.

We need this story because, well, as the venerable roots purveyor Taj Mahal asserts here, they are the closest we have to the American Beatles. Daniel Roher’s film provides classic and never-published photos and film footage of their life in Woodstock. N.Y. and at the house called Big Pink, on the road, and reflections from most band members, but mainly Robertson’s and those of his wife Dominique, their road manager and some celebrated others.

But Mahal’s claim begs examination, because the band’s peak years lasted less than the Beatles. Both bands emerged from, and remained rooted in, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly, blues, and country. Like their counterparts, the North Americans drew from British Isle folk sources as well. Stylistically where they diverged was when the Beatles embraced psychedelia. The Band arrived right about that time, but driven by older forces, and enamored of the rustic weirdness, oily charm, verve, wit and tragedy that would come to be called Americana, a genre they forged as much as anyone. As Robertson points out, “The rock generation revolted against their parents but we loved our parents.” They had a sprawling family portrait taken during the Basement Tapes sessions.

And yet their extraordinary quintet synergy also made for some of the bitterness that would ultimately arise, perhaps justified (more on that later).

“It was such a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful that it went up in flames,” Robertson reflects.

More on the Beatles comparison. Both had magnificent and glorious songwriting, though the Beatles were more diverse with three gifted writers, which may be their greatest claim, aside from the phenomenal impact they had on our culture. The Band had primarily Robertson writing songs, but they had that three-part harmony, probably the most fulsome and profoundly textured of any popular group, because these were also “three of the greatest white rhythm-and-blues singers in the world at the time,” as Eric Clapton comments.

“They have voices that you’d never heard before, and yet they sound like they’ve always been there,” rhapsodizes Bruce Springsteen.

Here, The Band has a leg up on the more famous British band, whose third and fourth singers were only serviceable, though George and Ringo had their moments.

The Band was also instrumentally superior, again, to almost almost any rock ’n’ roll band, especially in ensemble, given their kaleidoscopic versatility. Bassist-singer Rick Danko was capable with several horns and string instruments. Classically-trained Garth Hudson played organ, synthesizer, accordion, saxophones, brass, and piccolo. Drummer-singer Hudson also played mandolin.

Guitarist Robertson developed a style that startled and even intimidated many guitarists, even if he wasn’t the typical virtuoso pealing off chorus after dazzling chorus. Few pickers had a sharper rhythmic flair, or could make a guitar bite, sear, and jump for joy, almost at once. Richard Manuel played piano, clavinet and drums, and sang with the most soul-haunting voice of any of them. I’m probably forgetting a few axes. Clapton was so moved — “they changed my life” — that he forsook his two fellows of the psychedelic-blues-rock trio Cream at its peak, in hopes he could join The Band. “Maybe they’d need a rhythm guitar,” he says.

The band performs in the concert film “The Last Waltz.” (Left to right) Richard Manuel, piano and vocals; Garth Hudson, accordion, keyboards and saxes; Rick Danko, bass and vocals; Robbie Robertson, guitar; Levon Helm, drums; Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, vocals.

As for style, their playing and singing blended looseness and precision, defiant resolve and abandon, high humor and pooling sadness. They fully inhabited the characters dwelling in Robertson’s songs of American archetypes — dirt farmers, varmints, vagabonds, drunkards, Dixie fighters. “Virgil Cain is my name and I worked on the Danville train,” Helm sings on the forlorn, feisty epic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “They reminded me of 19th century American literature, of Melville’s stories of searchers,” film director Martin Scorsese ponders.

Barney Hoskyns, biographer of The Band, has a similar reflection, by way of quoting the great American critic Greil Marcus: “…their music gave us a sure sense that the country was richer than we had guessed.’” Hoskyns adds: “If there was any band that could get to the heart of the mystery that pervaded rural life in America, then The Band was it. Nathaniel Hawthorne may have been right when he wrote of Americans that ‘we have so much country that we have really no country at all’,’ but The Band managed to create a sense of its adopted land that was at once precise and mythical.” 1

Courtesy Nebraska Furniture Mart

The Band’s first two albums, Music from Big Pink and The Band, and Northern Lights-Southern Cross compare well to any Beatles album, as does, in its rough, eccentric ways The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan. Stage Fright and Cahoots are right in the ballpark. Rock of Ages is a masterful live recording achievement, and Scorsese’s The Last Waltz remains arguably the finest concert documentary ever made, studded with stars, and The Band’s last-ever live performance at Winterland in San Francisco, in its original incarnation, here sweaty and transcendent.

I saw them once, at Summerfest, on their last 1974 tour, and the power and glory remained, though the poisons that killed it all festered beneath the surface.

Robertson recounts his prodigious rise when, at 15, he wrote two songs recorded by Canadian rock ‘n’ roll star Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. “That band was my own personal Big Bang,” Robertson says. He soon joined the Hawks, and they reformed as Levon Helm and the Hawks.

Aside from his musical and literary genius, Bob Dylan is an astute aficionado and observer of American musical talent. When he heard The Band he knew they had to be his. He approached them and they invited to their basement studios in their communal Woodstock home “Big Pink.” Dylan was dubious at first of recording there, as they only had a small reel-to-reel, but once they got down to it, things began flowing. Dylan clacked away song lyrics on his typewriter and they rehearsed.

The Basement Tapes is among the most mythical informal recordings in pop music history, largely Dylan songs, nut immensely enhanced by The Band. Before long they were touring, yet this was early in Dylan’s plugged-in phase. His still-faithful-to-folk-roots fans consistently booed the electric music, for all its quality. This rejection eventually wore on Helm, who was beginning to sink into drugs and alcohol, as were several others, especially Manuel, a sensitive soul, who struggled with depression. In time, disillusioned Helm quit the group to become an oil rigger in the Gulf of Mexico.

Robertson soldiered on with the group though somewhat devastated by the loss of his soul brother and best friend. He addresses the nature of creativity, saying it’s often a matter of “trying to surprise yourself. For example, if you look inside the sounding hole of a Martin guitar you see imprinted” made in Nazareth, PA.” One day I saw that and thought, ‘I pulled into Nazareth, was a feeling about half-past dead.’ Then I heard these voices, ‘Take a load off Fanny,’” and “The Weight” was born.

The Band performs “The Weight” with The Staple Singers, in “The Last Waltz.” YouTube

The Band’s Robbie Robertson (right) is interviewed about the new film “Once Were Brothers.” Courtesy The Toronto Star. 

Enter producer entrepreneur extraordinaire David Geffen. He convinced Robertson to move to Malibu, CA, and a oceanfront property, and before long he’d lured the band members out there which replenished them. The result was the 1976 album Northern Lights-Southern Cross considered by many their best album since their second. It included three classic new songs “Acadian Driftwood,” “It Makes No Difference,” and “Ophelia” and no clunkers.

Robertson treads too lightly on the feud that developed between him and Helm. “Bitterness was setting in with Levon.” he muses. It had to do with the band members beginning to indulge in heroin. Robertson fortunately did not have an addictive makeup and was not chemically affected. But he does gloss Helms point of view which deeply resented all the royalties that Robertson received for their original music. Although Robertson wrote the majority of the songs, few bands could better fit the adage: The sum is greater than their parts. So there was a strong argument for all members sharing in some royalties.

Nor does Robertson address Richard Manuel’s devastating suicide. So, it’s worth referring to Barney Hoskyns book Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, to give the subject some due. “The band had played capacity crowds for two shows which went well, despite the fact that Rick had complained to Richard about his drink. ‘We played a good show for good intelligent people,’ Rick said. ‘Talk was of the next show. That’s what we were all living for.’

 

After leaving the club, Richard headed back to the nearby Quality Inn and stopped by Levon’s room en route to his own. To Levon, he did not seem especially depressed. ‘I don’t know what got crosswise in his mind between leaving the foot of my bed and going into his bathroom.’ Once in the room Richard finished off a bottle of Grand Marnier and his last scrapings of coke. Sometime between 3 and 3:30 AM on Tuesday 4, March, he went into the bathroom…

Richard Manuel. Courtesy Live for Live Music

Rick Danko was in shock, and denial. “I cannot believe in a million years that wasn’t a goddamn silly accident,’ he said

“It seems much more likely that loneliness and a profound sense of failure combined to convince him of the futility of life,” Hoskyns writes.

The opening words of his prologue also address the fated artist. “Richard Manuel’s is the first voice you hear in the the first Band album Music from Big Pink (1968)…His aching baritone launches into the first reproachful line of “Tears of Rage.” As it arches over ‘arms,’ you can’t help thinking of Ray Charles, the singer who more than any other shaped this unlikely white soul voice from Stratford, Ontario… A month shy of his 43rd birthday, he could see nothing ahead but these depressing one-nighters, rehashing ‘the old magic’ in a continuing, fruitless struggle to moderate his intake of alcohol and cocaine.”

On that Tuesday morning in 1986, “he tied one end of a plain black belt around her neck, the other end around the shower curtain and hanged himself. The distance between ‘Tears of Rage’ and Richard Manuel’s lonely death at the Winter Park Quality Inn was the journey The Band traveled in their rise and fall as one of the greatest rock bands in America.” 2

Levon Helm drums and sings, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in “The Last Waltz.”

Once Were Brothers — an engrossing, touching and well-crafted film — understandably climaxes with two generous clips from The Last Waltz. The Band’s radiant final hurrah was on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, and includes Dylan, Clapton, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dr. John, The Staple Singers, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins, and a brass ensemble.

“Time is the most mysterious word of all,” Norman Mailer once wrote. The Band somehow traversed and encapsulated the mysteries of our time, as an “Unfaithful Servant” and as “Life is a Carnival.”

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1 Barney Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, Hyperion, 1993 Quote of Greil Marcus from his book Mystery Train, 3-4 .

2 Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide, 384-85

 

Two plays: “Ishmael” running with the whales and “Two Trains Running”

“His story being ended with his pipe’s last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine, and blowing out the lights, we rolled over from one another, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.” – End of Chapter 10, “A Bosom Friend,” from Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville*

Call Me Ishmael: A Hallucination on Moby-Dick, Off-the-Wall Theatre, Milwaukee, closing Sunday, March 29, www.offthewall.com

Two Trains Running, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee, running through May 12 www.MilwaukeeRep.com

These two plays seem to dwell in far different worlds: one across the immense, perilous wilds of the world’s great oceans in the mid-1800s, and the other in a time-worn diner in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 1969.

It’s reasonable to doubt that the great African-American playwright August Wilson was thinking about Moby-Dick in this play, situated smack dab in the middle of his grand Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays each set in the 10 decades of the 20th century, to demarcate and explore the African-American experience.

Call me Idiot. Go ahead. But hear me out. For starters, the ambition of Wilson’s play cycle surely rivals Melville’s mighty saga of “mariners, renegades and castaways.” 

A week ago Friday night, I saw Off the Wall Theatre’s eccentrically capacious production of company director/playwright Dale Gutzman’s Call Me Ishmael , which he subtitles “a hallucination on Moby-Dick,” but very clearly and specifically adapted from Melville’s text.

Less than 48-hours later, I saw The Milwaukee Rep’s sterling production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Given my creative and scholarly involvement in Melville, and strong interest in Wilson, I’m hardly shocked that the two plays have commingled in my mind over the last week. The swift affinity between ostensibly foreign identities is perhaps akin to the extraordinary brotherhood that develops between Melville’s novice sailor/narrator Ishmael and the great harpoonist man of color, Queequeg. He’s described in Gutzman’s program notes as “the Prince of Kokovoko” (as Melville identifies him, from a fictional island in the South Pacific. “It is not down in any map; true places never are,” as Ishmael, the expansively philosophical young explorer, famously asserts.).

Part of Melville’s ever-echoing greatness, running through The Great American Novel and his oeuvre, are the character archetypes he forged, starting with the colorful crew members of the whale ship Pequod, a sort of floating, rag-tag democracy. Yet a tyrannical, obsessive captain dominates that diverse aggregation, which surely foretells America’s current political situation. 

However, both plays, as presented here, gravitate, through thick hurly-burly, to the power of love, as a magnetic and redeeming force in human affairs.

Queequeg is more central to Ishmael‘s radically compressed social and dramatic dynamic than in Melville’s almost impossibly vast literary canvas. I recently encountered a striking symbol of that in the beautiful painting (pictured at top) at the recent Melville exhibit at Chicago’s Newberry Library, celebrating the author’s 2019 Bicenntenial. And, of course, this primitive but oddly regal “other” is displaced by thousands of miles from his Polynesian home, not unlike the players in Wilson’s story, displaced from the South by The Great Migration north, a key subtext of his Pittsburgh Cycle. And, like virtually all of the black male characters in Wilson’s play, Queequeg endures a kind of double-consciousness (a la DuBois), living in New England’s New Bedford while ashore, with his conspicuously-tattooed Polynesian body.

Here Ishmael (Jake Russell, foreground) and tattooed harpooner Queequeg (Nathan Danzer appear joined at the hip, but in this moment the crew of the Pequod is transfixed by the astonishing destructive power of the whale Moby Dick, in Off-the-Wall Theatre’s “Call Me Ishmael.” Courtesy Off-the-Wall.

In the late 1960s, playwright Wilson strongly called for for a “separatist black aesthetic” at a time when asserting black identity felt crucial. Indeed, the key political event of Two Trains is an impending Hill district neighborhood rally for famous black radical leader Malcolm X. And enough anger runs through Wilson’s whole play cycle, as much as I’ve seen of it, but just as much anguish at the injustices of American society that befall African-Americans.

Diner owner Memphis (Raymond Anthony Thomas, center) rails over being forced to sell his property to the city for far less than he thinks is it’s worth, in the Milwaukee Rep’s production of “Two Trains Running.” Play photos courtesy milwaukeerep.com

In a 2006 essay Philip Beidler convincingly traces Wilson’s defiance of the proverbial black man’s burden, through Ralph Ellison, to Melville’s remarkable novella Benito Cereno, based on a true story, about a Trojan Horse of a slave ship, being run by mutinous slaves while deviously maintaining appearances to delude white power conventions and perceptions.

Another Melville novel Two Trains seems to reference is The Confidence-Man or, His Maquerade, as two of the play’s characters are con men, similarly working over a small group of people.  One is aptly named Wolf, a lottery numbers runner (bet money-trafficker) who seems to bilk the idealistic romantic Sterling, himself a recently-freed petty thief, out of half of his lottery winnings by blaming it on the boss man.
But the real vulture is neighborhood undertaker, named West, masquerading in professional three-piece suit and top hat. He constantly hovers in the diner asking for coffee sugar from waitress Risa, but never using it. He’s trying to set up diner owner Memphis, who hopes to sell the restaurant to the city’s eminent domain project for $25,000 (ten grand more than the city offers), and to move back to his rural settlement in Tennessee. West, who’s rich from many a literal death of dreams, offers Memphis $20,000 for the place, and says he’ll invest the other $5,000 well enough to double his return and complete the payment.

Memphis flirts ardently with the offer – just the sort of thing one of the shysters in Melville’s con-man parade might float. The Confidence-Man brilliantly satirized American Gilded-Age hustle and greed. Wilson posits that black folk have learned to hustle, but more often to merely survive or strive for modest dreams.
The heart of the play is Sterling, the heart-of-gold ne’er-do-well who improbably tries to woo Risa, in step after bumbling step.

A beauty, she’s sadly had so many men hustle her that she has mutilated both of her legs so as to deface her allure. The playwright knows well how to deal out a complexity of human emotions and allow elements of pathos to arise. This centers to varying degrees on the two wouldn’t-be lovers, on Memphis, and especially in the character of mentally challenged Hambone, who repeatedly marches into the diner demanding “I want my ham!” He may have lost his mind waiting for twenty years for a local butcher who’ll only offer him a chicken, when he feels a big ham is his due. 

Mentally challenged Hambone (Frank Britton, right foreground) repeatedly demands that he receive the ham that a local butcher has refused to give him for two decades, in “Two Trains Running.”

But strength and fortitude always sustain the souls of these black folk. rising to the surface past all rage or anguish. And ultimately Two Trains is a romance as is Moby Dick –  interpersonally, though Melville’s is daringly unconventional, between men – but both also in sense of genre, as tales striving through reality for something larger, bigger, and more beautiful (see, too, the whale embedded in the stunning quilt in the painting at top).

Off the Wall’s Ishmael bravely ventures perhaps where no other black-box theater has, in staging Melville’s monstrously promenading sperm whale of a story. Playwright Gutzman blends Melville’s vivid and eloquent prose with nifty plot compressions, and the evocative effects of the great adventure arise with winning ingenuity, daring, imagination, and comedy, as Melville did to the max, in 135 comparatively short chapters. And by strongly playing up the book’s homoerotic undercurrent of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship, Gutzman has pushed the story directly into today’s liberated acceptance of same-sex love.

The homoerotic aspects of the close relationship between Ishmael (Jake Russell, left) and Queequeg (Nathan Danzer) were emphasized in Off the Wall Theater’s adaption of “Call Me Ishmael,” an adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” Courtesy Off the Wall

Psychologically-burdened waitress Risa (Malkia Stampley) is a pivotal character among all the males in “Two Trains Running.”

In Two Trains, Sterling is a sort of voluble and naïve Ishmael and, with her scarred legs, Risa is a kind of Queequeg, an exotic “other” for being the only woman in the cast.  She possesses latent powers and allure yet, unlike the Polynesian, her potential for love is fraught and baggaged. Risa may be a sort of tortured angel. Is she judged by the content of her character? Are her flesh wounds also akin to Christ’s? This was a natural analog – as is her name, Risa – given that we saw the play on Easter Sunday. Do her body marks tell a story, as  Queequeg claims his do? Perhaps the embodiment of the state of “original sin.” Is that too Christian? Melville, the skeptic of man-made “Christianity,” might think so. Yet a dying neighborhood prophet named Samuel also haunts this play. Could the woman’s marks signify a universal suffering, that of  humanity?

And the seemingly witless Hambone reveals a deeper presence, recalling Moby-Dick‘s Pip, the black cabin boy who compulsively rattles his tambourine – and falls overboard unnoticed and nearly drowns. The trauma destroys his sanity but he emerges “touched” by God. Even bedeviled Capt. Ahab then senses this possible spiritual lifeline and takes Pip under his wing, while continuing his diabolical quest to kill the White Whale. 

These and other mystical strains in Moby-Dick have resonated down through cultural history and Wilson’s play has an off-stage character, recurrent in his work, Aunt Esther, a spiritual figure who is a “washer of souls” and reportedly 322 years old, which aligns her birth with the arrival of the first African slaves to America. She seems to provide the keys to the dreams of these slave descendants. Aunt Esther always asks them to pay her by throwing $20 in the river. So the monetary symbol of meager and grandiose dreams becomes an offering to the watery forces of nature and a float-on-a-wave faith, a most Melvillian of themes.

Further, Wilson’s title derives from a Muddy Waters blues, “Two Trains Running.” But “there’s not one going my way.” The singer bemoans his star-crossed destiny in humble watery terms. “I wish I was a catfish swimming in the deep blue sea/ I’d have all you pretty women fishing after me.” Poor Sterling, who desperately wants Risa as his bride, also brings to mind another cast-your-fate-to-the-water blues classic, Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”: “People tell me worrying blues ain’t bad/ But it’s the worst old feeling I ever had. Fish run to the ocean, ocean run to the sea. if I don’t find my baby, who child gonna marry me?” 2

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  • That exact Melville quote, without any attribution – except an enigmatic “B” – is the last liner-note acknowledgement of “thanks” in the noted American singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault’s 2001 debut album Miles from the Lightning.
  • 1 Philip Beidler, “King August,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 2006 http://https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0045.401;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1http://
  • 2 Pittsburgh’s Hill district hosted many jazz and blues musicians traveling from New York to Chicago through much of the early 1900s, when Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle begins. Both songs were originally “race records,” marketed only to black audiences, but this lyric version of “Two Trains Running,” and the “Walking Blues” lyric, are both on the 1966 album East-West by The Butterfield Blues Band, one of the first-ever integrated electric blues bands. Bob Dylan also later performed “Two Trains” not infrequently.