Rhythms of Life


When I was 20 years old in January of 1969 and a senior at Princeton, I went to work for The Band as their first tour manager. At the time most of the American music that was being played on the FM stations came out of San Francisco and Los Angeles–Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds. The whole aesthetic of The Band was from a parallel universe, located somewhere between the fiction of Faulkner and Willa Cather, the blues of Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, the photography of Walker Evans and Robert Frank and the harmonies of the Carter Family.

It was an aesthetic that endured and I spent last weekend immersed in it at the end of Grammy week. On Friday I went to the Musicares tribute to Bruce Springsteen. The highlights of the night were provided by the young bands that are directly in the genetic line of The Band–The Alabama Shakes, Mumford and Sons and The Zac Brown Band (with Mavis Staples sitting in).

It was this same music that dominated the Grammy show on Sunday night. Mumford and Sons won Album of the Year, The Lumineer’s, Black Keys, Zac Brown and Jack White all played brilliantly. Every bit of the music was real and the world of Auto-tune was banished from the stage. For me the final tribute to Levon Helm of The Band brought the rhythms of life full circle. Zac, Mavis, and the Mumfords did a wonderful version of “The Weight”, which was a fitting end to a great night of Americana.

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29 Responses to Rhythms of Life

  1. Pingback: Hidden Track » The Feud That Just Won’t End: Did Levon Helm’s Wife Keep Robbie Robertson From Participating In Grammys Tribute?

  2. Jon Taplin says:

    Let’s see if we can just talk about the music.

  3. len says:

    It is fitting to see veterans wash new talent in the sounds of a gritty country blues.

    It is never perfect. And that is as it should be.

  4. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Jesuslawd Jon when you tell these stories you write like a hip angel. Such a blessing that someone as talented as you was a motive part of that mix and would go on to share and document, multiform, that scene to this day. It’s beautiful to see now how each of you in his own way endeavors, just as Len says, to “wash new talent in the sounds of a gritty country blues”. Man, that gets it.

    My joy in just the televised excerpts of the Grammy Awards ceremonies, plus some earlier AP Wire reporting recognitions and celebrations that weren’t destined for TV broadcast, was the kind rebalancing of what I’ll have to call, lamely, the somnambulence of the Ever-Newness of and old New interrupted by the freshness of youthful rediscovery of older and more authentic roots. Not to cut hack dichotomies–a fun show of talents and mixed mysteries all round–but the Grammy’s did strike me at this end as possibly a kind of Reykjavik preceding a SALT protocol.

    The way the TV producers chose camera placements and edits, increasingly as the show went on, as the more racinated young acts would perform the heavy-production/heavy-promotion glitter end of the industry would be caught grudgingly just kind of looking at each other going, it seemed to me, variously “wtf…bfd…we’re on for our money…”. Seriously, you can see the sarcastic derision and Prom Queen’s sense of insult, and the grudging respect in the mute byplays of so many of the audience shots.

    It felt as though two-thirds of the freshest cohort was finding out from the other third that, as it were, George Washington was not one of the Most Important CEOs of the 20th Century.

  5. Hugo St. Victor says:

    P.S. when I said “televised excerpts” it was just a recognition that the TV show that we watch whole in Atlanta or Whichita is itself, necessarily, a collection of excerpts of performances in the hall, even of separate events in other venues. But the televised Show itself is the “text” in question, of course is my referent.

  6. Hugo St. Victor says:

    It’s hard to explain without inadvertently drawing the sort of battle lines I truly feel are invalid, but it’s like the Crack Team of the Past 20 Years taken on by the Rookie Team of the Past 200 Years. That’s what I found so cool about it.

  7. Alex Bowles says:

    When you, TBB, and Henry Jenkins spoke at MIT a few months back, one of the remarks that really stood out was the comparison between pockets of American musical culture and the vineyards of France, each of which produces a wine that encapsulates the geography of the region, providing an actual flavor to accompany the cultural history shaped by the same terrain. Losing the vines means losing access to something essential and irreplaceable.

    Perhaps this is an intrinsic part of American life—one that looks for fresh expression with each generation. It’s musicality as stewardship, but with an inventive power that seems to have escaped the classical tradition. I suppose that comes from direct attunemet to the aesthetic wellsprings of the work, and not just the work that’s come before.

    In any case, it’s an American treasure that reaches worldwide. I was thinking about this the other day when I stopped in a Starbucks—an enterprise built around an Arabian discovery—and saw Mumford discs for sale. The legacy of an ancient commercial empire that grew by transmitting cultural developments from Andalucia to Indonesia was still providing a vector for the traditions it encountered. Camel trains are no longer involved, but looking outside I saw plenty of Hondas.

  8. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Oh, bloody well said, Alex. Not only the performance of music, and not only the celebration of Music and the commendation of musicians, but also of epimethean Musicology as a promethean propellant, interanimating and vififying the music we make and enjoy. An asynchronous and transpatial conversation.

    What do we mean when we call a musician’s art derivative? Why is that word sometimes complementary but usually pejorative? After you run through the usual harsh categorizations, e.g. theft, imitation, nostalgia, “originality”, it seems to come down in part to the development of Taste, taste from the picking of someone’s guitar to the pricking of my ear. A two-way street. Communio.

    What are the forms or modes of Linguistics? Orality, literacy, music and mathematics? How then can the (socio-psychological) term “private language” be, if Language by definition is a living cultural project? And how can the acquisition of literacy or the learning of music be equated to the cracking of a “code” when an code, being definitively exclusionary, is all but the antithesis of a language? Why should a musician aspire to “break into the Industry”?

    Grammy Night is among other things a fascinating encapsulation of the heisters, sheisters and dubbers (“You just have to know which one wants a woman, which wants whiskey and which a ham sandwich”) in counterpoint of those who, however fitfully, remember that their bag is to make music. The other night seemed almost like a tent revival in that a bunch of celebs and execs went in and, by the time the tribute to Levon had wrapped, a good many more musicians left.

    The network didn’t televise the altar call but still I expect some really good, redicated sounds from 2013. As Len might say, Alelujah!

  9. len says:

    I suppose the role of the curator is to pick the roots of the elite cultivar and then select from the wild those genetics best suited by inclination, strength and cultivatibility to breed the next generation of the same thing but better adapted to the current environment.

    Slow hand evolution by an established collective is not progress; it is market maintenance.

    Roots music to me is a cantus firmus. The blues are much too sophisticated and much too modern to express unconditional desperation.

  10. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Yet how in music can there be actual stasis, as distinguished from stagnation? I mean, in philology if you want to study Old Norse you go to Iceland, or for 16th Century German to Anabaptist Pennsylvania, but the languages never really froze in those places. It’s just that due to dislocation the languages were valued and conserved more there than in any other places. Exceptions proving the rule that fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. That languages, especially music, the most dynamic one, gotta live?

    Your poetic definition of the blues feels right, but not many would dig even the possibility of a poetic description, much less why you employ poetry in discussion of poesis–in this case, more heartfelt music making worthy of the word “honest”. The blues ain’t sophisticated except morally, and, specifically, affectively. The blues been molested and raped, even of late gang-banged, to no great besmirching indignity, because the blues is, as you say, “much too” deep and wide for that really to matter. And as you know there’s still more going on now, curatorily, than blues.

    As for the market-driven Balkanization of American song, dey rekkid sto’ subcategorizations of American music that Johnny Cash and Ray Charles despised, a wise musician friend once told me that at far as he was concerned “it’s all country music”, which insight makes curation both more difficult and far more interesting. An Islander friend once pulled me out of a Border’s store on the mainland to explain that he wanted never again to see such a store. They’d placed the Hawai’ian music in their “International” section of CDs. Now they’ve got Grammy’s just for Hawai’ian artists, while Border’s ist kaput. Steps toward.

  11. Hugo St. Victor says:

    The Band meant everything to me when I was a kid, the “accidentally” far youngest of a jazzman in a household growing up with various musical rebellions led by vicarious Dylan, at the Male end, and vicarious girl-singer Motown at the other, and when The Band came along it was, just, that’s Me. The eldest sibling, a still domineering Pro-Dylanist snob, characteristically remembered how moved I’d been upon first hearing The Band, so for next Christmas that was my gift from him. I’m younger than most of you guys, but Jon you asked that we speak to the music, and that album was I believe the third or fourth one in my life. I’d had a stack of 45s but Lp’s meant maturity to me, and to my friends, then. My Lp’s at that point consisted of one disc each of Dylan, Donovan, Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford, plus the Broadway soundtrack of “The Music Man” and a really shitty Art Pepper album. Seriously, the good stuff they fobbed off, they fobbed only were it worn out, or else redundant like me. But I had The Band in fresh vinyl, you see.

  12. len says:

    Think full authority digital engine control: feedback systems that control the power with a limited set of sensors, sampling rates and signal/sign biases. It is the politics of the market, Hugo, the tendancy for the tastes of the few to limit the access of the many and the tendancy of the many to submit to that control in hope of inclusion and fear of exclusion.

    Compare say The Band’s best to Peter Gabriel’s So. Each fits in a time and impacts what is selected to promote. It is when we do a nostalgia period, a run back to old styles that we see the curators at their height of control, acting as a FADEC for market. That’s fine as far as the market profitability goes but what happens when the environment changes or the FADEC begins to fail? Gabriel is innovative in a large sense. Americana is limiting in a large sense. It isn’t likely that the Alabama Shakes will best The Band OR Peter Gabriel. The best they can do is get a hit or so, establish a great touring career, and so on, but change the sound, change the music in a noticeable and permanent way? It won’t happen. The very FADEC that makes them chains them.

    No disrespect; they are neighbors. This is about how markets and curation impact the evolution of art. Jon talked about the impact of The Band on the music and market of their time. I’m talking about the impact of curators who recreate the sound and how that affects the market and innovation.

  13. Rick Turner says:

    The Band had one of the advantages denied to most young bands today…a gig where they played night in and night out many sets every evening working with Ronnie Hawkins as “the Hawks”. Same kind of thing the Beatles got in Germany and Liverpool…hundreds and hundreds of hours sweating it out on stage with instant feedback on whether they rocked the joint or sucked. They didn’t suck…

  14. len says:

    I started out with a six hour a night six day a week gig. Damm near killed me but at the end, I was playing well for an eighteen year old. Nothing beats live.

    But it doesn’t necessarily make one innovate. It makes one limber and fast to respond to the audience. To actually improve my music, I had to go to school. And after that, to collaborate. How did being the Hawks shape the sound of the Band? And then how did that get focused into the brilliance of those early albums? Did the Band have a curator? Did they need one?

  15. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Rick, that answers the questions about imitation, mimicry and so on–because those questions do arise of course in the case of, ultimately, movingly original British artists who began with barely competent Blues or Rockabilly covers. Again it leads to the notion of “the development of taste”.

    Hence, Len, there’s no naïveté here. Dewey’s wildly New World aesthetic held that “taste” was the birthright of every freeborn girl and boy and could not possibly be a function of inherited status or station. His aesthetic further insists that Taste is a lifelong project belonging as much to the art-appreciator as to the art-maker, the two democratically interreliant. (For him it went deeper, in that he felt that everything that lastingly shaped you, patterned your brain and emotion, first etched you in a hybrid he called the Mind). Parts of a populist whole, obviously. As far as I know Dewey’s was the last sustainable Aesthetic propounded. In Europe they still grudgingly call it “The American Aestethic”. Fancy potsherds all round, but still it’s annoyingly solid especially to them. You guys evince The American School, better than I do.

  16. len says:

    Are the delta blues the American Grecian Urn that made Athens famous and wealthy? Painted pots precede cunning curators.

    I’m a syncretist, Hugo. The colors suit the mood because they don’t buy my paints. The further I go down my own path, the fewer followers I have.

    So yes, curation is market maintenance. Competition made the Athenian pot makers, The Beatles and The Band great. They were imitative but they had to best their imitators every time they made a new pot or a new album. And when they could no longer do that, they disbanded. For all the critics born of the late coming regurgitation, integrity is finding the exit and letting the pot speak to the empty space it holds once the oil is gone and the curators sell tickets to see the paintings on it’s cracked clay.

  17. len says:

    Are the delta blues the American Grecian Urn that made Athens famous and wealthy? Painted pots precede cunning curators.

    I’m a syncretist, Hugo. The colors suit the mood because they don’t buy my paints. The further I go down my own path, the fewer followers I have.

    So yes, curation is market maintenance. Competition made the Athenian pot makers, The Beatles and The Band great. They were imitative but they had to best their own imitators every time they made a new pot or a new album. And when they could no longer do that, they disbanded. For all the critics born of the late coming regurgitation, integrity is finding the exit and letting the pot speak to the empty space it holds once the oil is gone and the curators sell tickets to see the paintings on it’s cracked clay.

  18. len says:

    Sorry Jon. Double clicked the send. Oopsie.

  19. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Probably it’s weird for you guys to get that my older siblings were scattered in such a way that we had recourse to fat sets of raw blues and hillbilly–some of this ordered and some really over-borred from UCLA and traded with Trojans ipso smoketo on the old L.A. Spice Trade, and then somehow I wound up with the boxed volumes of sound-effect Lp’s in boxed sets. My favorite was the richochet effect from “Magnificent Seven”. I traded that two-and-a-half-foot of schmo to Moe in Berkeley for a good three-foot shelf over the years, usually without his advice. He was good for it. In Logos too until Santa Cruz got quaked.

    I happened to grow up with

  20. Hugo St. Victor says:

    It guts me crisscross to have this cruelly incised excerpt of mine interrupt before I can answer you almost immediately, Len. It’s a free-for-all and if you’ll look, that’s just the bullshit I warned against half a day ago, so don’t pin in on me, Pinhead.

  21. Rick Turner says:

    Note well that one does not have to be based in black American music to rock out… Just listen to Richard Thompson…certainly a man with as stunning a career as any in the Band, and a man whose current output remains incredibly strong. And speaking of treasures, I just saw David Lindley a couple of nights ago in a 230 seat club, and he, too, is at peak form. One does not have to have a precipitous decline in a creative musical and songwriting career. Of course being careful with the drug thing really helps. The only time I got to hang around the Band (at Shangri-La in Malibu) the drug intake shocked even me, and that was after my time with the Grateful Dead. Brian Wilson seems to be one of those folks who should never have indulged, either.

  22. len says:

    Note well that one does not have to be based in black American music to rock out…

    So the Rolling Stones were wrong about that? Or Peter Gabriel was right. :)

    But yeah, don’t give up the mystery tour for the party because the mysteries make for good songs, and the party only beats on 2 and 4 so never plays a bossa nova, the dance of love.

  23. Hugo St. Victor says:

    David Lindley? What a treat! I’m glad he’s well. Richard Thompson, for his part, was a kind of chrystaline prism that opened me two ways: first, to the Celtic and Northern English groundings of American music colliding with the African flux; second, to how to try to capture those collisions in expert guitarwork. Hearing him close up, twice (the first time with Linda), changed my ear. For example, in reception of Mark Knopfler. So sure, but West Africa isn’t the only root, as even those guys, so African and Afro-American influenced, once illustrated.

    Whatever “curation” means in this context I just hope it means the opposite of what’s happened in civic history: the near-perfect ignorance and utter apathy of the young.

  24. Alex Bowles says:

    You know who I recently discovered? Roy Harper. I’ve had his album Stormcock in regular rotation for some time. It’s roots are very English, and the influences are myriad, but the result defies any easy categorization. There are a few string arrangements, but mostly it’s just him and Jimmy Page playing acoustic. Such a gem.


  25. len says:

    Not to forget the influence of the spanish, tex-mex and south american influences. Rock is not black music or white music or brown music. It is world music as seen through the lens of whatever ethnic, cultural and local influence the players and writers have. Just as country became pop, rock ‘n roll becomes simply pop. That is syncretism.

    The role of the curator is to apply selective access based on experiential taste. That this has a market management effect is notable in the creation of market trends and the alledged emergence of market tastes. Innovation is a different force. Innovators seek to disrupt the influence of curators long enough to become established at which point they cannot escape their decision making power except by abdicating a place in the market.

    The current public rift of Kelly Clarkson and Clive Davis is notable.

    So did the Band have a curator or a producer?

  26. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Well, I was weaned on salsa, so there you’re bringing in my fello Angeleno Ry Cooder, who also flourishes a fine Swap Funk. My hodgepodge inheritance–you could see in in The Band–meant, How Is this too Rock ‘n’ Roll”? And pretty soon, if you’re curious, the muddy blues and Bix Beiderbecke and Bluegrass music would show up, and pretty soon we’d hear rumors of the invention, in Los Angeles and Nashville and Bakersfield of electric guitaring…like a rumor or urband legend, at that time, for curious kids like me and my friends. The older boys would go, Do you know so-and-so…No?…well how about XYZ…and pretty soon you’d go Yeah! Chuck Berry! Or, Johnny Cash! And then they’d lay out matrices to Blind Lemon or The Big Bopper or wherever the hell, right or wrong. It was a faddish phenom lasting a couple or three years, probably a weed thing because its impulse was more Kindliness than Ego. My point is that from The Band you can break anywhere, if you’re friendly to this country and you like music enough to wonder how it happens.

    I get your jibe about Curator imitated as shit-disturbing pseudo-curating producer in disguise. That’s so…So. But we shouldn’t tour the masks of anti-music, man. Takes too long and it wastes artistic output. Honestly. Good for Journalism but bad for art.

    Which brings us back to Jon’s characteristically Let’s Go proposal: What’ll it take?

  27. Hugo St. Victor says:

    (by the way I’ve got old acts so to commend…so what of that?)

  28. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Alex, Salaams for commemorating Roy Harper, man. That really touches me. Thanks for being so on the ball. Most curatorial of you.

  29. len says:

    we shouldn’t tour the masks of anti-music, man

    Imagine the loss if Picasso had painted as Rembrandt did.

    Music is a medium. The art is in the ear as paint is a chemical and the art is in the eye. It all matters because it is all source for the soul that shapes. Don’t be blinded by the light.

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