Friday, April 20, 2012

The Band and Me

This is not going to be another obituary for Levon Helm. If you want to read such, the absolute gold standard for obituaries, chock full of stories about Levon Helm, was in the New York Times. Read it here.

This triggered my own memories of The Band, Bob Dylan, and a time in New York when I was young. No, I wasn't a folk groupie, or a Woodstock alumna, or even a starry-eyed kid waiting for Bob Dylan's next record. I was in my late 20s, an actress working at temp secretary jobs in New York. I was married to an actor, Jim Vann, and we were both Dylan fans and idealistic folk music fans. We were just a little older than Dylan's demographic, but we loved hippies and thought of them as an exotic new species on the horizon. We thought they were the hope of the world. We were almost the only people we knew who didn't smoke pot or experiment in the drug scene.

I had a temporary assignment as secretary to an executive in a little music company. This was a mainstream company, classy offices, upscale address. All I did was a little steno and typing, and it was only for a couple of weeks. It was on Madison Avenue, I believe, maybe up in the 50s. I wouldn't know the man I was working for if he walked in the door today, but I can remember this: He was related to the Gershwins, and he was trying to persuade one of the daughters to give him the rights to record some of the brothers' recently discovered music. This would have been a huge get for him as the very young head of a small New York company. He was enthusiastic to the point of obsession about the prospect of making it big in the business. When he learned a bit about my musical tastes, he told me about this great new sound, the band who used to be Bob Dylan's backup, who had rehearsed in a pink house in a remote town near Woodstock. He waved the album "Music from the Big Pink" at me, played some of it on his fabulous sound system, and after work I went out and bought the album.

The music was like nothing we'd heard before--and we had heard a lot of Bob Dylan, so we had heard some strange stuff. It was hard to think of these guys as a backup band for anybody, their sound was so unique. I'll never forget it booming at me on those huge speakers in that office. Years later my brother, who had been at the University of Alabama at the time, told me that The Band had been booked to play at one of the fraternity dances the night before the big game with Auburn. He said they blew the audience away by focusing on their job, playing their kind of music, and at the end the leader--my brother said it was "the one with the big head"--simply said,"Good night. Hope y'all win your ball game." This was a departure at the University of Alabama, where the bands know all the dances are partly football pep rallies (indeed, it might be argued that most of university life is a big football rally). It is expected that, if not playing "Stars Fell on Alabama," at least most of the night will be devoted to local chauvinism. The Band had a different agenda.

I still have one vinyl and one CD of The Band. The music doesn't sound a bit strange or revolutionary to me anymore. It was part of an era, a shred of hope against all odds, combining sounds of the past and an uncertain present with the defiant throb of the future. The era has ended. We have all moved on in spite of ourselves. The music pulls us back and slings us against the walls once more, but more gently now, as if the walls were nothing but a distant memory.

I'm at a point in my life where I'm forced to let go of old friends. It's not easy to do, and sometimes, as in a particularly well-written obituary, I'm drawn back to a place and time I had almost forgotten, and I have to do it again. Let it go; let it be. Rest in peace, Big Pink.


fred said...

beautiful memoir Mary Lois - thanks for an insight to a part of your life I hadn't known. In some weird way I feel closer to you after having read this blog posting

Cheryl A. said...

Exactly what Fred said. Exactly.

jacques mullet said...

ya shoulda gone to Woodstock close ..... AND
into new wave thinking of the time, I suppose.
I's stay as far from that as possible...always have

Mary Lois said...

Mullet Man, I guess you never read my Woodstock post of a few years back.

jacques mullet said...

ML's claim to be adventurous, makes the surprise that ML did not go. Being part of the crowd must not ever be an ML thing.
Might have read entry then,but my 'cat-type' memory is tricky. New diversions always get more attention.

jaques mullet said...

I re-read the Woodstock posting. I believe you did not go for same reason I did not. I also
did not go to the Kent State
protest, though I was certainly near enough, being at at OU.

I also read a birthday post. Will there be a new one? I've
decided to do mine backwards
inimeg. Regardless, there is always something between the i's .

Howard Coward said...

Beautiful piece ML. Nice to hear you were hip even if you weren't exactly sure what hip was.

Mary Lois said...

I was hip before it was hip to be hip.