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Colour them Big Pink

Pioneers? In a way. They’re the band from Big Pink, and they have launched the new “Canadian sound” in rock.


 

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SOONER OR LATER, the reaction had to set in. Rock’n’roll, a musical medium that has made a fetish of sincerity, was beginning to abound with phoniness. Even the music’s least-critical followers were becoming slightly exasperated with all the gimmickry that had invaded the field. Jimi Hendrix was growing rich peddling fake acid sounds. The Beatles, of all people, were getting pompous and repetitive.

Even the stock conventions of the rock scene were becoming tiresome: every group had to invent a freakier name than the one before, wear freakier clothes and devise freakier orchestrations — with sitars, bagpipes, oboes, anything, just so long as it was new. This same obsession with novelty, along with the tone of moral earnestness that you always get when too many scholars and purists get interested in popular culture, is precisely what killed jazz a decade or so ago. By last summer, it was beginning to look as though rock’n’roll was displaying the same morbidity symptoms.

And thus came the Reformation. It started with such people as Peter Townshend of The Who praising the fine, wholesome raunchiness of Bill Hailey, Elvis Presley and Fats Domino, rock’s early prophets in the 1950s. The trend expanded last summer when Bob Dylan, after a year of withdrawal into the wilds of upstate New York following a motorcycle accident, issued John Wesley Harding, an album whose wistful, countrified sound contrasted strongly with the acid-crazed excesses of urban rock.

Finally, last summer, the trend back to rock’s country-and-western roots was confirmed with the release of an album by the five musicians pictured on the facing page. It was called Music From Big Pink and — through that uncanny underground consensus that determines what is moving in rock’n’roll and what is not — the album was instantly recognized as the rock record of 1968. The music was so gentle, so original, so honest, so unfrenzied, there was no questioning its importance.

Big Pink was the beginning of a trend that could rescue rock music from its own wretched excesses — the fusion of rock’n’roll with what used to be called cowboy music. If you need a label (and none has so far emerged into general use) call it Country Rock. Its spiritual capital is Nashville, home of The Grand Ole Opry. Its tenets are modesty, simplicity and an aversion to gimmickry. Its influence, seven months after the album’s release, now dominates the rock scene, and its practitioners, to a quite amazing extent, are Canadians.

This may be related to the fact that a lot of jaded people in New York have got the idea that Canada is a land of innocence. Hundreds of young Americans, not all draft-dodgers by any means, are pouring across the border in search of a simpler, cleaner alternative to The American Way.

The word is out that a country that can produce a poet as great as Leonard Cohen and a politician as groovy as Pierre Trudeau must know something that Americans don’t.

Whatever you think of this noble-savage concept, the fact is that Country Rock is very heavy in the Canadian-content department. Four of the five musicians in the band from Big Pink are from central Ontario. Leonard Cohen, whose first LP sold more than 100,000 copies, cut his second album in Nashville, using musicians with impeccable country-and-western credentials. Ian and Sylvia, who have always been country, but never rock, unveiled a new band at New York’s Café A Go-Go last November whose sound is yet another fusion of the two.

Anyhow, about the band from Big Pink: their names are Robbie Robertson, Dick Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. All but Levon are from Ontario towns such as London and Stratford, and all of them served a grueling musical apprenticeship with Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas-born rockabilly musician based in Toronto since the 1950s.

“I put those boys together when they were just babies,” says Ronnie between sets at Toronto’s Le Coq D’or, where he presides, at the age of 34, as Canada’s king of raunchy rock, “and we played in every honky-tonk between here and Mexico and back.”

As a musical education, those years of small-town touring must have been as rigorous, in their way, as the upbringing of Indian temple dancers, who are schooled with monastic severity from the age of four. “We used to play in places so tough,” says Hawkins, “that you had to show your gun and puke twice before they’d let you in the door.” (Hawkins is famous for Arkansas-isms like that.) The group would play roadhouses, low-life taverns and redneck dancehalls and college dances on the weekends. It is slightly miraculous that they survived with all their organs intact. Says Robbie Robertson, “We played places where the people didn’t come to hear you, they came to mess with you. They’d flick cigarette butts at you, throw coins at you, steal your things, and if you got past that, then they would sit down and listen to you.”

At a gig in a gangster club in Fort Worth, the boys carried guns and took turns staying up all night guarding their equipment. In West Helena, Arkansas, they witnessed an incredible brawl between three rednecks and a well-dressed young man, who, upon being provoked, took after his attackers with a whirring McCulloch chain saw. According to Ronnie Hawkins, the young man sliced up the bar, several chairs and a good portion of the rednecks’ car before police arrived.

Hawkins is a fanatic about rehearsing. And so, by the time his protégés struck out on their own as Levon And The Hawks, they were fantastically disciplined musicians. Bob Dylan heard about them in 1965, and invited them to become his sidemen.

When Dylan broke his neck in the summer of 1966 and holed up in Woodstock, New York, to recover, Levon And The Hawks settled down with him, inhabiting an ugly pink bungalow in nearby West Saugerties. There, with a purity of purpose that was enhanced by their bucolic surroundings, they shut themselves off from the world — they didn’t even listen to the top-40 on the radio — and spent a year evolving something that can only be achieved through artistic discipline; they made the very difficult sound very easy.

They refused to invent a name for what they’d created. They’re simply “the band” (the lower-case is deliberate) because that’s how the neighbors refer to them. The group’s entire lifestyle is a sort of updated analogue of their Upper Canadian grandfathers’. When they pose for photographs (which is seldom — so are interviews) they manage, without affectation, to look like the sort of ancestral tintype you’d find in a farmhouse attic.

For straight people (like me) who dig Dylan and The Beatles, but who simply haven’t time to keep up with the endless convolutions of rock’n’roll, listening to Music From Big Pink can be a rewarding experience. It’s the kind of record that doesn’t grab you immediately — the band doesn’t traffick in catchy tunes. But once you’ve played it, say, four or five times, you’re hooked. It reminds you of the cowboy music of nearly every Canadian’s youth (even Don Messer partakes of that honorable tradition). It soothes. It flows. It grows on you.

These are serious musicians, but not relentlessly so. “We take our music just seriously enough to satisfy us,” says Robbie Robertson, “enough so that we can smile at one another when we’re through playing.” □

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