Craig Harris,
The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)

The Band, one of rock's truly legendary groups, had a long and colorful career. Originally from Canada -- only Levon Helm was American, from Arkansas -- they were put together by American emigrant rockabilly singer, Ronnie Hawkins, and served, under the name the Hawks, as his backing band. After serving their apprenticeship with Hawkins, they went out on their own as Levon and the Hawks, and after meeting Bob Dylan, became his backing band when he went electric. In 1968, they left Dylan and recorded one of the seminal albums of that or any other day, Music From Big Pink. With their album set for release, they realized they needed a name. Since when they were backing Dylan, they were always known as the Band, they adopted that name and went on to become legendary, until the usual things -- drugs, money, interband politics and jealousies -- broke them up.

Those are the bare facts, the ones everybody knows. In this book, veteran music writer Craig Harris goes way beyond the basic facts, telling almost everything that happened each step off the way. Although Harris is a fan, this is not a fan book; he tells the truth about the band, the good and the bad. It's a fascinating read, if you love the work of The Band, as I do, and it's maybe the best introduction to the group you'll find if you're aren't already familiar with them and their work.

The members of the band were all complex personalities, huge bundles of contradictions whose mercurial egos and personal quirks make it a wonder that they lasted as long as they did. Theirs was one of those situations where the group was stronger than the individuals who comprised it. John Steinbeck, back in the 1940s, offered a theory that he developed studying men in groups and fish in schools. The group, he said, made up a single organism and the individuals inside it were like cells in that organism; they each had their individual lives but their lives as members of the group were more central to the survival of the group. That's the way it was with The Band during their glory years, until suddenly it wasn't like that anymore, when the needs of the individuals became larger than those of the group.

Harris details it all. He writes from research, with fresh interviews from the surviving band members and archival research on those who have passed. He details each tour, each recording, discussing how the songs were written and how the records were made. And he covers the feud between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson that caused so much bad feeling and kept the band from ever returning in its original form after the breakup, a disbanding Helm said only Robertson wanted.

One of the major strengths, as well as one of the weaknesses, of Harris's book is his objectivity. He reports without judging or taking sides. Readers are left free to draw their own conclusions, which is good, but in the case of Levon Helm's accusations that Robbie Robertson stole material from the others and copyrighted it as his own, listing himself as sole writer of songs they all worked on -- a situation that left Helm so bitter that he would not attend The Band's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame -- I felt the book would be strengthened if Harris had dropped some of is objectivity and searched a little deeper for the truth of the situation. On the whole, though, his objectivity makes for a better and more trustworthy book.

There's a lot of material out there on The Band. Craig Harris's book doesn't just join the parade, it leads it.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 June 2014

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