The last really great song by The Band

Just a little musical interlude to calm you down on this third day in Advent.

This was the last really great song recorded by The Band, from their largely unregarded 1975 album, “Northern Lights-Southern Cross.” For whatever reason, I didn’t even buy this one, so I had to discover the song in later compilations. I’ve been listening to it a lot in recent days, from a CD of The Band’s best that I bought at Walmart for $5.

I like this assessment of the song:

“I thought about the song in terms of saying that time heals all wounds,” Robertson told interviewer Robert Palmer at the time of the song’s release. “Except in some cases, and this was one of those cases.” Yet writing the song was only half the battle with The Band. With three brilliant singers available, choosing between Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko was never an easy task, although you really couldn’t go wrong.

Danko got the call, and his emotional performance, all wavering notes and reckless abandon, is the uncanny embodiment of a man driven to the end of his tether by his love’s absence. He gets interpretive assistance from his Band-mates, who give a typically intuitive performance. Garth Hudson’s stately but sad saxophone sounds like it has accepted defeat, while Robertson’s delirious guitar isn’t ready to give up just yet.

Robertson’s metaphors and similes are simple yet effective in showing the narrator’s inner torment. In the bridge, the imagery gets direr, all empty halls and stampeding cattle. As the song closes out, Danko uncorks his final lines with desperation dripping off every word: “Well I love you so much and it’s all I can do/Just to keep myself from telling you.” At that point, he is ironically joined by his good buddies Helm and Manuel on sympathetic harmony for the coup de grace: “That I never felt so alone before.”

Nobody did melancholic grandeur better than The Band, and there’s no topic more suited to that treatment than lost love, so it would have been an upset if “It Makes No Difference” hadn’t turned out so fine. Either you’ve been there before, in which case Robertson’s eloquent anguish will seem achingly familiar, or you haven’t, in which case Danko’s fearless vocal will act as a public service announcement on the merits of holding on to a good thing for dear life.

11 thoughts on “The last really great song by The Band

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    I went on Wikipedia. I think I know a bit of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Not any others mentioned. I understand they were seminal to a lot of the sort of boomer music you like.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Just listen to the song. You don’t have to know their music.

      As to your dismissive-sounding description “I understand they were seminal to a lot of the sort of boomer music you like….” which sounds a bit like something the dowager countess would say… I don’t think it really fits The Band.

      That fits The Beatles. THEY certainly influenced a generation or two or three of pop music.

      But The Band… I can’t think of anything else quite like them. I mean, even Elvis Costello, as idiosyncratic as he was, can be placed in the Punk continuum somewhere.

      But The Band only really had a relationship with Bob Dylan. And while they played together — them backing him up — their own music was quite distinct from his. If you strain the point, you could say Creedence was SORT OF like The Band, but not really…

      Are you familiar with Randy Newman? Or Leonard Cohen? The Band was as different from other pop acts as those guys were…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        I did listen to their song. I guess I don’t “get” your kind of music. I also don’t “get” blues, gospel and hip-hop. I don’t hear what makes one better than others–I just find it all pretty annoying.
        But then you probably don’t get mine. That’s okay. There used to be, and maybe still is, a public radio bit on “what make it great”–That might help me understand better.
        Phillip alerted me to the ability to hear different performers playing classical pieces on YouTube, and I already knew about the many, many “covers” of jazz tunes. Perhaps my musical education has left me able to tell a great version from a so-so one, but I really never got into rock.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      I don’t know what category of music The Band is in. To say “the Boomer music” is too broad of a swath to really have any particular meaning to me. You can try and shoehorn them in somewhere if you really want, but they’re not bouncy-poppy, hard edge electric, or hippie. Helms’ Southern voice gives them a country-ish flavor, but they’re definitely not country.

      “Autumnal” and “plaintive” are two words that you could certainly use to describe “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. That song describes the harsh results of Civil War in such a personal sense with beautiful, sad imagery. I can see how many people hear it as an anti-war song. I hear it as a sad memory – plaintive.

      To my uneducated musical ear, I place them in the same mix with Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, Neil Young.

      1. Brad Warthen

        Of those three, Neil Young comes the closest…

        There’s a country feel, but not like commercial country. There’s also a western feeling, but not like what we normally call “country-western.” More like the soundtrack of some western no one has made yet — but I wish they would. I picture Nazareth in “The Weight” as a dusty western town circa 1881.

        The Band started out as the Hawks, backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Then they backed Bob Dylan at the outset of his electric phase. Such a combination of experiences were bound to lead them in a unique musical direction…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Wikipedia defines The Band as “roots rock,” and adds, that their music “fused many elements: primarily old country music and early rock and roll, though the rhythm section often was reminiscent of Stax or Motown-style rhythm and blues.”

    Personally, I think of it as “autumnal.” And I like things that I think of as autumnal. Look out at today’s weather. Make it a big colder, and it feels like The Band. Their eponymous album, with it’s black-and-white photography surrounded by brown, is a good representation of how they sound. Throw in a little muted orange, maybe.

    To hear this purely distilled, listen to “King Harvest.”

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    At breakfast this morning, a young man asked what was engaging my passion these days. I looked at him blankly. He asked, wasn’t I writing about anything? I said, nothing to get excited about.

    This music comes as close as anything. I’ve been listening to this song, and others by The Band, over and over the last few days. Last night, I got out my old Silvertone acoustic, looked up some chords on the iPad, and started butchering this song, as well as “Jemima Surrender,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “King Harvest” and a number of others.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, now I’ve listened to it too much, because I’m starting to be bothered by the inconsistency in the story that the lyrics tell.

    I noticed the problem early on, but chose to ignore it. Now, I’m thinking, “Hey Robbie, I think you could have used an editor on this one…”

    Probably the most beautiful parts of the song are those that suggest that this is an UNDECLARED love, perhaps a love that CANNOT be declared, like that in “Long Black Veil.” That thread gives the song a lot of its power, and the plaintiveness of Danko’s voice seems to best fit that scenario.

    I’m referring to passages such as this one:

    Now there’s no love
    As true as the love
    that dies untold

    And this one:

    Well, I love you so much and it’s all I can do
    Just to keep myself from telling you…

    But then, in other places, we get the impression that this is a relationship that WAS openly declared, but has ended:

    These old love letters well, I just can’t keep
    ‘Cause like the gambler says read them and weep


    Since you’ve gone it’s a losing battle…

    The inconsistency is starting to damage my appreciation…

  5. Mark Stewart

    He can’t tell her he still loves her. They ended, but he still loves her even as he respects that they are no more.


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