Now, this. This is more like it.
The Band’s live double LP Rock of Ages was recorded in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1971, and it captures one of the greatest bands in rock history at the height of their creative and live powers. The Band had to have been aware of their own legacy at this point–brilliance of the performance captured here notwithstanding, has there ever been a more pretentious album title?–and they play the entire set with a swagger that only appears intermittently on The Last Waltz.
When my friends first started forming bands in middle and high school, I’d go to their practices and sit on the couch, listening in. They would do covers, really rudimentary stuff like “War Pigs” or “Paranoid,” and I’d be so overcome by the fact of these songs being recreated live, and by hearing real songs come from real instruments, that I would collapse into giggling fits. Music had always been such a mystery to me, something contained within a cassette or a CD that you could take out of its case and access in the same way you would the toy stuffed into a cereal box. I knew people made music, obviously, but I’d never interacted with it this personally before. Years later, in college, the same thing happened when friends would get together in a dingy living room off campus in Baton Rouge to bang out Broken Social Scene covers. Having been stuck with my own sorry guitar-playing for all of my life, I was still overwhelmed by the music coming out of the amps, and by the fact that it actually sounded good. I’ve been going to concerts for my entire life–my first memory is of Willie Nelson winking at me from the stage at the Cajundome in Lafayette–but almost every show I’ve ever seen, whether it was Springsteen in Giants Stadium or Terror of the Sea (as my friends eventually christened themselves) at North Gate Tavern, still felt inaccessible. Beautiful, transcendent even, but inaccessible. The music was kept on the stage, I had to walk through a door and into a room to get to it, and I left it the same way.
But, for some reason that just barely escapes my grasp, listening to Rock of Ages made me giddy. So did The Band’s originals in The Last Waltz. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that these songs, whose recorded versions I’ve played through dozens or hundreds of times, ever existed in anything other than a studio setting. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is timeless in the truest sense, in that it seems to have had its entire existence outside of time. Maybe it says something about the U.S.’s young history and my very American solipsism that I can’t imagine sounds that predate the foundation of my country, but even “Dixie,” which (obviously) concerns the Civil War, feels like it must have been one of the first things they found after docking the Mayflower.
That much I understand, because I feel that way about any number of songs by a thousand other artists. And it’s not like I’ve never seen or heard any of these songs performed live: There’s a fantastic video floating around of Mavis Staples, Nick Lowe, and Wilco covering “The Weight” backstage before a show, and everybody from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James to The Dukes of Hazzard’sTom Wopat has covered “Up on Cripple Creek.” I even got to see Levon himself do “The Weight” at the Newport Folk Festival in 2008, and with help from Gillian Welch and Jim James, too. All of it great. None of it sent me into conniptions.
When we hear someone play “Up on Cripple Creek,” or “Ophelia,” or “Rag Mama Rag,” we’re not only hearing the original song, or the performing artist’s take on it. When we hear someone cover The Band, we’re hearing forty long years, and all of the extramusical connotations that those songs have gathered as they’ve rolled through history. And we’re also hearing the hundred-and-fifty-or-so years of history that had to be all rolled up together in order for these songs to exist in the first place. “Born to Run” and “Ruby Tuesday” are still alive and in the hands of their creators, and even if they don’t have that same esprit that they had in the seventies, the charm of seeing them performed by the people who wrote them is still there; those artists have been fortunate enough to be able to keep those songs alive and in their own hands. In some ways, that’s robbed those songs of something, and it would be the same even if the Stones had hung it up in the eighties: The fifteen or twenty years they spent playing them have changed them.
Which is what makes it so strange and so special to hear The Band play these songs, and to play them with such ferocity. On the one hand, they’re just a set of songs being played by the group who wrote them. But they feel so free, mostly unfreighted by their own history and importance. To hear The Band playing them, and to hear the crowd cheering along as Levon declares himself to be Virgil Caine, to get right into their raw power–it’s almost overwhelming. And unlike the Beatles’ catalogue, which (Let It Be aside) never took a breath outside of Abbey Road Studios, these songs used to walk around, completely unburdened. It’s no wonder Levon was so upset that Robbie Robertson wanted to turn the group into a studio-only project.
I know this all seems a little ridiculous, maybe vaguely mystic. That’s not my intention: Rock of Ages is just the product of a group of people playing music, and you’re bound to either love it or like it or fall somewhere on the usual continuum. But it’s hard to analyze and explain something that’s just blown your mind without resorting to this kind of language. It’s something larger than the music. Something like the combination of the music and the moment. Maybe it’s nothing more than a nostalgia for an idealized time, but I’m not so sure about that; I long ago absorbed my punk forefathers’ rejection of classic-rock idealism. Maybe Rock of Ages, like those cover songs my friends churned out, is something like what I’ve always wanted to be able to do, which is to capture something great and make it my own, or to make something great and call it my own.
The music itself, though. I’ll talk about it some. There can’t be enough said about Allen Toussaint’s work here. Songs like “Rag Mama Rag” and “Dixie” seem like they were written with his eventual parts in mind. The big honking notes in the chorus of “Chest Fever” that on record are played by Garth Hudson’s organ open up beautifully under this horn section. They move a fraction of a step behind the beat in “Dixie,” dragging the song backwards and neatly mirroring the song’s ideological concerns. His addition makes Rock of Ages almost embarrassing in its sheer accumulation of talent–which I know could and maybe should also be said of The Last Waltz, but there’s a focus to Rock of Ages that’s (understandably) missing from the later live record. Hudson and Richard Manuel are particularly strong here, too, turning in a five-minute organ duel that morphs into a crowd-pleasing “Auld Lang Syne<“ which then gives way to “Chest Fever”’s deafening intro.
The tag affixed to the back cover of my copy says that I paid $29 for this album, but there’s no way that can be true. I can’t imagine a time in my life when I was smart enough to know that the music contained here is worth that much of my money. That I never bothered to take it off of my shelf until today proves that to be true.