Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mendelssohn's Rock Bible: When The Band Backed Barry

In 1968, when they first emerged, The Band was greeted as the salvation of American popular music. While most of their contemporaries were dressing as Indians (the Bombay, New Delhi, and chicken tikka sort) and composing flatulent concept albums about what they’d learned from their gurus, The Band looked like goatherds or subsistence farmers, and sang with authentic-seeming raggedness about someone jacking his daw, and other quintessentially North American recreations. But by the middle of the following decade, the record- and ticket-buying public — blaming them, unfairly, for Joan Baez’s deeply annoying hit version of their Civil War song — had turned its backs on them. In desperation, they requested a meeting with their manager, Harvey Weinstein, who hadn’t yet begun his careers in a motion picture prodution and sexual predation. It took nearly two months for Weinstein to respond to their telegrams. Behold how cruelly their stock had been devalued! 

When Weinstein finally found time for them, he didn’t tell them what they hoped to hear — that their audience was probably just taking a breather, and was sure to re-embrace them with all its might in time for the American bicentennial. Rather, he suggested they hitch their proverbial wagon to a fast-rising star, as years before they’d hitched it to Bob Dylan. The rising star Weinstein had in mind had had a huge hit the previous year with an excruciating schmatlzfest called “Mandy”, whose opening lines — I remember all my life raining down as cold as ice — had probably made Dylan wince, as “cold as ice” has traditionally been invoked by North American English teachers as the least imaginative simile in the history of language. The Band was appalled by the idea, but became more receptive when Weinstein pointed out that they were likely to have to revert fo flying coach, as in their scufflin’ days, if they didn’t go along with his idea. 

Even before introducing them to Manilow, Weinstein urged The Band to jettison their ample facial hair. Organist Garth Hudson, normally the easy-goingest and most sober of the group, was aghast.  His chin hadn’t been exposed to direct sunlight since 1951. He envisioned a time in the second decade of the following century when tangled whiskers like his would be very fashionable among hipsters. “Do it for the team, Gary,” Weinstein, who wasn’t good with names, urged him.

Manilow turned out to be cordial enough, though hardly on The Band’s wavelength. When he told them how much he’d enjoyed Baez’s version of their most famous song, Rick Danko had to excuse himself to inject some heroin. The musicians compared notes on their respective scufflin’ days. When Richard Manuel recalled having to sleep in sewers back when The Band was called The Hawks, and backing the basketball star Connie Hawkins, and being paid 45 cents for three 90-minute sets, Manilow quipped, “Well, backing Bette Midler was no day at the beach either.” None of The Band seemed to realise he was joking, and he appeared to be very embarrassed. Nonetheless, The Band signed on to accompany him on his upcoming North American tour and provided the backing on his hits "I Write the Songs" and "Copacabana".  It later emerged that someone else had actually written "I Write the Songs".

Manilow did everything in his power to make his new accompanists feel valued, and even offered to add "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "The Weight" to his live repertoire. “Honestly, guys,” he is reported to have said, “could I be any worse than Joan Baez?” But having to wear tuxedos and ruffled shirts on stage made them feel woeful dweebs, and when the Belgian martial arts star Jean-Claude van Damme called to inform them of his intention to make the documentary film that came to be entitled The Last Waltz, they jumped at the chance. Seeing that The Band had invited Neil Diamond and Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees to perform, but not him, Manilow removed them from his Hanukkah card list, and the six haven’t spoken since, in some cases because of some of The Band having passed away. 

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