Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Across the Great Divide

When I pulled up yesterday, like “Mr. Big Rock Star” in a long black limo, I couldn’t believe what I saw. There, on the field between the house and woods, were five guys, some in black jackets, or vests, most with one kind of hat or another, all with cowboy boots. They looked liked Jesse James and his gang, a band of outlaws, bearded and mustachioed. Was I having an acid flashback? No, it was real. The one with the bushy beard kicked an American football high and far to another wearing a cowboy hat with a flat topped crown.

Ever since I had been slipped the tape of The Band’s songs, I’d been hooked. It was a drug to me; I couldn’t stop listening to it. These songs pointed out to me everything that was wrong with Cream. Jack and Ginger would go off and do their own thing, and I would hole up listening to the tape over and over again. Every track was beautiful and grown up, not like the useless and pointless music I was playing. I adored the economy of their playing. It ran rings around our virtuosity. We were ridiculous in comparison. Levon Helm’s drumming did more in four minutes than Ginger Baker could do in a ten minute solo. I realized then that their music was what I wanted to play. They had it all – country, blues, rock – great songs.

I met Robbie Robertson out in L.A. and told him how much I dug what his group was doing and he invited me out to meet the guys in Woodstock. I finally managed to get out East. After meeting them all, we went inside the house. I had heard what Dylan had been laying down and now saw where Bob did his recording. It was a garage, not a basement – that’s what people had called the new songs, “The Basement Tapes” – with cinder block walls and a concrete floor, not nearly covered by a big rug. There was a steel furnace in the corner, piano, drums and recording equipment scattered around.

Robbie asked, “Hey Eric, want to play?” The whole group turned to face me, waiting for my answer.

“No, no, I just came to watch.” I wasn’t ready to play with them, not where my head was at. I didn’t think I could play with them, though I really wanted to. In fact, I had come hoping they would ask me to be in the group. Or I would ask them, if I had the guts.

The five of them sat in a circle, playing at a low, relaxed volume, like a conversation. I loved how they looked at each other. I thought about Cream. What a con we were! Here were these guys, totally into each other as a band. When we played we were three separate planets, each in our own orbit, far from each other and staring out to the audience. We hardly ever looked at each other. Jack and Ginger loved each other, I guess, but they couldn’t stand each other’s face. I tried to keep the peace, but that gets on your wick after a while. At least it did mine.

The Band was playing a song about the civil war. Beautiful, man, just beautiful. This is what I want to hear, this is what I want to play. Musically, these are my soul mates. No more maestro bullshit, no more “Clapton is God.” Please! Rolling Stone was right when they said my playing was boring and full of clichés, pointless jamming with no musical value. That review knocked me on my heels, man, but it was true, the Emperor had no clothes, you know?

It was so nice just sitting and listening to these mountain men, playing mountain music. They didn’t jam, they worked, liked serious musicians, perfecting their craft with joy and integrity. Cream’s psychedelic insanity was already passé and stale. The Band’s music was real.

"Dog eat dog, cat eat mouse.” That’s a great line Levon just sang. Like Cream itself. We’ll eat ourselves if it doesn’t end. These songs feel as old as the hills, timeless. They finished playing and Robbie motioned to head upstairs, so we did.

It was a great night. So comfortable, laying back in the overstuffed couch, feet up on the coffee table. No drugs, much booze. Everyone had a bottle for themselves. Richard Manuel and I plowed through gallons of Johnny Walker Red, or so it seemed. Levon talked about Sonny Boy Williamson. Turns out they were from the same place in Arkansas, West Helena.

"The Yardbirds played with Sonny Boy when he came to England,” I said, a bit of pride in my voice.

“He told me about that once,” said Robbie. “We were playing and he said, ‘I just played with some white motherfuckers over in England,’ you know how he talked. ‘Yeah, these white boys like to play blues real bad, and that’s how they play it, real bad.’”

Everyone laughed. I did too, but I was hurt. I wanted to be accepted by these guys, wanted to be seen as a serious musician who could add something to what they were doing.

That was yesterday. I heard the birds chirping as I looked out the window this morning, the trees already losing their leaves. There’s a workman outside already, covered in plaster from head to foot. No, wait, it’s Rick Danko.

It’s paradise here. It must be nice not dealing with band mates who are looneys. This is where I want to be, this is what I want to play.

A knock on the door.

“Yeah, come in.”

Robbie walked in. “Hey Eric, could you come downstairs? Me and the guys wanted to ask you about something important.”

Eric Clapton was introduced to the music of The Band when L.A. entrepreneur Alan Pariser gave him tapes of what would become Music from Big Pink, the group’s first album, released in July 1968. It had a profound effect on Clapton and he realized that the music of The Band was what he wanted, the proper place for a serious musician such as himself. He told his Cream band mates, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, that he couldn’t go on anymore with what they were doing. Clapton visited The Band in the fall of 1968 in the hopes of joining them, but he didn’t have the nerve to ask. Cream would break up in November. The following year, Blind Faith would become the first supergroup, Eric hooking up with Steve Winwood, who was available after his own band, Traffic, dissolved in January 1969.

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