Boy, Robbie Robertson sure knows how to slip the shiv in, doesn’t he? Over at Salon.com, The Man Who Broke Up The Band gets to field three questions on the occasion of the release of The Best of A Musical History, the compilation culled from the luxury box set The Band: A Musical History. And on the third question, he gets to stick it to former bandmate Levon Helm:
I don’t have any issues with Levon. I just haven’t been in touch with him. I know he’s upset about something. It just reached a certain point a long time ago where it seemed like he was always upset, so I stopped paying attention to him. I don’t have any issues. I think Levon did a great job playing and singing some songs that I wrote.
Now, fans of The Band and Bob Dylan have plenty of reasons to thank Robertson for his undeniable place as guitarist and chief songwriter for The Band and his work as Dylan’s right-hand man during the dicey mid-1960s period when His Bobness went electric.
But the regal condescension of “I think Levon did a great job playing and singing some songs that I wrote,” which reduces Helm to the status of a groundskeeper looking after Lord Robbie’s prize begonias, only reinforces my instinctive belief that Helm’s frequently withering appraisal of his old bandmate in This Wheel’s On Fire is a lot closer to the truth than the pompous self-mythologizing offered by Robertson in The Last Waltz.
Not only is Helm’s book a great read, but his readiness to concede Robertson’s central role in the Band’s songwriting makes him all the more convincing when he accuses Robertson of doing everything he can to diminish the contributions of his bandmates. Helm’s chief beef is that the one-for-all, all-for-one spirit of The Band was sucked away when Robertson began hogging sole songwriting credit for tunes that had been heavily shaped by communal workshopping. There’s no denying that the inspiration burning bright through the first two Band albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, dwindles to a faint spark on Stage Fright and Cahoots, and vanishes entirely under the stale professionalism of the subsequent works. Rock of Ages is such a splendid concert album, it’s shocking to realize the short span of time separating it from Before the Flood, which is virtually brought to a halt by the side and a half of overplayed Band standards, spiced only by one uninspired new song.
Bob Dylan fans also have plenty of reasons to distrust Robertson’s presentation of The Band’s legacy. One of the reasons I became a bootleg collector was the news that my beloved official copy of The Basement Tapes included only a fraction of the songs recorded during those legendary sessions, and the Band tracks larded into the playlist were in fact recorded during separate sessions but included by Robertson to give the incorrect impression that the Basement Tapes sessions were a gathering of equals, rather than an instance of Bob Dylan leading his on-call backup band through a bunch of new and old songs. That’s why my copy of A Tree With Roots remains in heavy rotation, while the Columbia-produced The Basement Tapes is strictly for backup on long car trips.
Fortunately, The Band’s legacy can be encompassed without shelling out money for shelf-busting box sets. You can find it in those first two Band albums and Rock of Ages; if those get your curiosity going, you can continue prospecting in Stage Fright, Cahoots and the all-covers Moondog Matinee, which boasts what may well be the single cheesiest extant version of the theme to The Third Man. The self-embalming of The Last Waltz is worth at least one viewing, though the aroma of formaldehyde and cocaine can get oppressive. (Helm’s book is particularly scathing, and often uproariously funny, on this subject.) Islands and Northern Lights, Southern Cross are strictly for completists.
And by all means, check out The Basement Tapes. His Bobness never sounded so relaxed and funny, and those bogus Band tracks are enjoyable in their own right. If you get a yen to hear the complete version, log onto eBay and place bids on a couple of Dylan recordings. You don’t have to win the bids. The bootleggers will make it their business to get in touch with you, and you’ll be on your way.
But I think you’d be wise to leave The Best of A Musical History on the shelf. Like they say, you’ll go looking for history, but what you’ll get is His Story.