Saturday, April 18, 2020

We Were Brothers - Robbie Robertson and The Band

Were Brothers – New Documentary on The Band

I was looking forward to seeing this film in a real movie theater, but fate intervened. So I put out $7 to rent it for 48 hours and listened to it on my phone and then watched it on my laptop via Youtube, and needed the diversion and distraction from the current reality.

It’s a very good film for those who are familiar with The Band and their story, but it was kind of sad for me because of my personal association with them, that is all of them except Robbie Robertson, the only original member of this Band of Brothers who I have not met.

This is basically Robbie Robertson’s side of the story, a sort of prequel to Martin Scorese’s The Last Waltz, some say the best concert movie ever produced.

The first article I had published in the now defunct Atlantic City Sun newspaper was about how Levon and the Hawks, before they were The Band, played Tony Marts nightclub in Somers Point, NJ for six weeks in the summer of ’65. It was at the time they hooked up with Bob Dylan, then went on his first “electric tour,” were soundly booed at every venue, and then retreated to the artists colony of Woodstock, New York, before it was famous.

I first saw The Band in downtown Cleveland in 1969, then at the Spectrum in Philly a few times, and then more than once when they backed Dylan. I also caught them at a small club off the Black Horse Pike in Berlin and at a Bowling alley in Pennsauken when Blondie Chaplin and a blues harpist Paul Butterfield joined them.

Then after the Last Waltz, I booked them myself (for $7,000) in the mid-1980s to play a Tony Marts Reunion concert at Egos nightclub, the site of the former Tony Marts.

Attorney and former Camden prosecutor Harris Berman and his brother apparently sold a Florida hotel and had a few million they had to burn, so they purchased the old, dilapidated Bay Shores, tore it down and built the Waterfront. Then went across the street and purchased Tony Marts, tore it down and built Egos, a classy disco.

Jody Kish owned Mark’s News on the corner of 8th and Central Ave. in Ocean City, a central community junction for decades. In 1985 Jody and I decided to bring The Band back to Somers Point, and asked Berman if we could use Egos, as the former site of Tony Marts. He wanted to see The Band for himself, so a bunch of us piled into his limo and drove to New York City where we caught The Band at The Lone Star Cafe, a Country-Western bar in the East Village.

Renoun jazz bassist Jaco Pastoris was there, and I got a good picture of him with his guitar covering one eye, but he was too drunk and high to jam with The Band that night. But Berman liked the music, and agreed to let us four wall it, and we got Levon and the boys to agree to play for us a few months later for $7,000. And I got to know Rick Danko better as we sat and had a few beers together and talked.

A few weeks later I caught Rick and Richard Manual do a duo show at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philly, and helped them carry their equipment out to the curb. Richard said he was really looking forward to returning to Somers Point, as he had some good times there, and seeing Tony again. Rick then imitated Tony Marotta’s deep husky Tom Waits type voice, “You boys stay away from the dance girls now….”

Then we all laughed.

But as Robbie Robertson says in Once Were Brothers, - “It was a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful it went up in flames.”

Between the Chestnut Cabaret show and the Tony Marts reunion, Richard hanged himself in a Florida motel shower, The Band’s manager Albert Grossman, who took Dylan and them to Woodstock, and Tony Marotta, Sr. himself died.

But the show went on. Garth needed a Hammond B3 organ that we rented, and drove down in a rented car from Woodstock. The rest of The Band showed up, and despite Harris Berman’s agreement to put them up in one of his boardwalk motels, I had to put their rooms on my mother’s credit card. Rick stayed at my house, and when I was driving him over the Ocean City-Somers Point causeway he asked me to write the true history of The Band.

And while I thought seriously about it, the story is too sad for me to put into words. And Robbie’s film Once Were Brothers reaffirms that opinion.

As Robbie Robertson put it, “I was an only child, and this brotherhood thing was so powerful.”

His mother, Dolly, was an Indian from the Six Nations and his father Alexander Klegerman, who died before he was born, was Jewish, and he was raised by an abusive step father. When he went to visit his mother’s family on a reservation, he says, “When the sun went down the instruments came out.”

Robbie got a little guitar with a cowboy on it and learned to play, then rock and roll exploded – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis – “For me it was a life altering moment. A revolutionary moment.That’s it. I don’t know what you people are going to do, but I know what I’m going to do. Within a week I was in a band. It was like having your own bowling alley.”

Opening for Rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Robertson was totally impressed, especially with drummer Levon Helm. After the show Robbie says, “I just hung around to let them rub off on me.”

After overhearing Hawkins say, “I got to do a record and need some new songs,” Robertson ran home and locked himself in a room until he had written two songs that he gave to Hawkins.

When a guitar slot opened in the Hawks, Robertson sold his prized ’56 Stratocaster and took a train to Arkansas in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the fountainhead of rock and roll and home to Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, Levon Helm – “so many great musicians came out of there, down and dirty and heavy, just like the air.”

And he got the job, telling Hawkins that “you will never have to tell me to work harder.”

As for money, Hawkins said, “Don’t worry about money, you will get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”
The fifteen year old Robertson bonded most closely with drummer Levon Helm, and they became like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.  Robbie wrote many of the songs, while Levon arranged them. They were soon joined by other Canadians – Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel on keys and Garth Hudson on organ. Garth was the best musician of the bunch, and Danko, Manual and Helm all sang.

When they finally got jammnig, Hawkins said, “They hit me like a bolt of lightning.”

They went on the road, mainly playing the Southern “Chitlin’ Circuit,” and continued on the road for years. Finally, in 1965, Hawkins got married and went home to settle down as the group continued on the road as Levon and the Hawks.

Eventually they told their Canadian manager, Colonel Kutlets, that they wanted to settle down too, and needed a steady gig, and he arranged for them to be the house band for the summer at Tony Marts in Somers Point. Just across the bay from dry Ocean City, N.J., Somers Point had over a dozen bars and most of them featured live music. The two biggest bars were Bay Shores on the waterfront and across Bay Avenue was Tony Marts Café – A photo of place is in the movie Once Were Brothers – around 26 minutes into the film, and there’s also a photo of them sitting on stools by the bar, dressed in black suits and ties.

They played three sets a night, six days a week, and had Mondays off, when most of the bartenders and musicians from the Bay Avenue juke joints played a game of softball with the local policemen – the Hangover League they called it. And when Conway Twitty was the headliner while the Hawks were there, he was a ringer as a former professional ballplayer.

Rather than play ball, Robbie Robertson went to New York City where he went to Tin Pan Alley, the home of songwriters, and hooked up with John Hammond, Jr., a white blues player who took Robertson to the Columbia recording studio where his father, John Hammond, Sr. worked as a talent scout. Having “discovered,” Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Hammond, Sr. had four aces in his hand.

At the studio, Robertson heard Dylan play a recording of his new song, “Like A Rolling Stone,”  and a few weeks later Dylan decided he wanted to go on the road with a real rock and roll band as that song requires. Sitting in his manger Albert Grossman’s office, Dylan asked about putting a band together, comlete with drums, electric guitars and keyboards. Grossman’s secretary, who happened to be from Toronto, recommended the Hawks, and John Hammond, Jr. reminded Bob that he had met Robbie Robertson from the Hawks.

Dylan called Tony Marts and talked to Levon, who was not familiar with folk music or Dylan, though he had heard the Byrd’s version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and liked it. Before “Murder So Foul,” the Byrd’s version of Dylan’s song was the only number one hit Dylan had.

Robertson returned to New York and jammed with Dylan, and when Dylan asked him to go on tour with him, Robertson explained that he was in a band, and they had to stick together.

So Robertson returned to Somers Point and explained to Tony that they had a big opportunity in New York and wanted to get out of the last week of their contract – Labor Day week, the biggest week of the summer. Tony said that they were the best band he’s ever had, and later said, “they were the last of the gentlemen.”

Tony called Colonel Kutlets and asked for another good band for the Labor Day week and Kutlets sent him Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, who had a hit on the charts at the time – “Devil with the Blue Dress.”
Dylan was roundly booed at the Newport Folk Festival when he brought out his electric guitar, Levon and the Hawks  - Levon and Robbie backed Dylan in New York, where they played outdoors at a tennis stadium, and were booed again.

As Robertson put it, “We would go in and set up and play and they would boo. Everywhere we went.I thought it was a strange way to make a buck.”

Levon got tired of it, quit playing and went down to Louisiana to work on an off shore oil rig, being replaced by Micky Jones of The Monkeys fame.

They did a tour of Europe, and were booed again, mainly by the folk music crowd, but the general public bought “Like a Rolling Stone” and it shot up the charts to Number Two, cut off from the top spot by the Beatles.

Then when they returned to the States, Dylan went to Woodstock to stay at Grossman’s house, and had a motorcycle accident, so he stuck around there to recuperate. Meanwhile, Dylan and Grossman had put Robertson, Manuel and Danko on permanent retainer, so they didn’t have to work, and Danko rented a large pink house in West Saugerties, just outside of Woodstock they called “Big Pink.”

Robertson had met a fellow Canadian in Paris, the vivacious Dominique, and they lived in Woodstock together, and they all began to meet at Big Pink where they would write songs on a type writer they put out, and Garth set up a recording studio in the garage-basement where they would jam and record new songs, and eventually Levon returned to fill out The Band, the name that the local townsfolk called them.

Big Pink 

As Bruce Springsteen says, “There is no band greater than the some of the parts than The Band. Just the name says it all.”

They went out on the road together, introduced as, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” The Band to promote their first two albums that included “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” et al., and then backed Bob Dylan on a number of tours that really rocked.

They played the first Woodstock festival in 1969 without Dylan, but Grossman their manager wouldn’t let them be included in the film. The song “The Weight” became a big hit after it was included in the film “Easy Rider,” but once again, it was a cover version as Grossman didn’t want them in the popular record of that cult movie.

Eventually, at some point, as Robertson puts it, “Then it was broken, fractured, like glass, and it was hard to put back together.

Alochol, drugs, cocaine and heroin did them in, except for Garth, the musical mainstay of The Band, and with Robertson, the last survivor.

Garth’s classic song “Chest Fever” includes the lines “Going down to the Dunes with the Goons,” that I think is a reference to the old all night rock joint The Dunes, where the bouncers were known to be brutal.

Robertson wanted out, and wanted to go out with a bang, so he arranged for Martin Scorsese to film a concert at Winterland in San Francisco, where Bill Graham had arranged for them to play their first show as The Band, and  they called it “The Last Waltz.”

For Robertson it was, but for the rest of The Band, they eventually kept going. I saw them with and without Robertson, dozens of times over the years, besides booking them myself for the Tony Marts Reunion.

In 1990 I saw them practice and then play in Roger Walter’s The Wall at the Berlin Wall when they were dismantling it. I got a picture of Rick and me, and me and Ronnie Hawkins – the original Hawk, but they are color slides and I don’t know how to convert them to digital, yet.

It was quite sad though, because Rick had a babysitter that wouldn’t let him have a drink with us, or even socialize with anyone. A few years later Rick brought his own band to Somers Point to play the Good Old Days Picnic on the Saturday after Labor Day and my brother stopped by on his bicycle as he was riding in the Maloney’s bike a thon. We stood next to the stage, and Rick played and sang well, as a video of the show indicates, but Rick looked terrible, overweight and puffy, and I felt sorry for him, though we hugged each other like old friends.

Rick’s teenage son had died of an overdose, Richard hung himself, Rick drank himself to death.

Levon continued on however, and played Somers Point’s Bubba Mack Shack often, bringing along his daughter. After a bout of cancer when he couldn’t sing, he came out on the road again like the good old days, playing and singing, and even got a headliner gig at an Atlantic City casino, opening for the Black Crows that I caught.

I took this photo of Levon with a Tony Marts T-shirt I gave him at Bubba Mack Shack 
That's Howlin' Wolf's guitarist Hubert Sumlin sitting behind him 

Levon also wrote a book, “This Wheels on Fire,” in which he berated Robbie Robertson for copyrighting most of the songs, when he arranged them and the whole band played and sang and deserved some of the royalties that only Robbie was getting.

That’s the way the music copyright law works – whoever writes the song gets the dough. When organist Gary Booker – who makes Procol Harum’s “A White Shade of Pale” a classic song sued to get some of the royalities, a judge agreed his original instrumental organ is a defining part of the song, and gave it to him.

When Kris Kristopherson wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” while he was working as a janitor at the Columbia studios in Nashville, he overheard one of the session musicians Fred Foster mention Bobby McGee, wrote the song, and then gave Foster co-author credit and half the royalties just for saying “Bobby McGee.”

While Levon may have been right in that songs were a group effort, Robbie penned most of the words, and he gets the credits and royalties. 

And now with Levon dead, Robbie gets to put out his side of this story, which is beautiful, yet sad.

When I get out of isolation and my Honda Odyssey is back on the road, and I have a few bucks to play with, I'm going to take a ride up Highway 9 to New York State and visit Woodstock, the artists colony that's thirty miles from the site of the original Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in Bethel. I hope to visit Big Pink, Garth and Levon's daughter Amy, and get their side of the story. 

Seeing this film stimulated me to go back and revive a Roman a Cleff novela I wrote in 2015, fifty years after the events occurred – Waiting On the Angels – the Long Cool Summer of ’65 Revisited, which includes the story of Levon and the Hawks at Tony Marts and how they hooked up with Bob Dylan, all based on real people and true events. Coming soon, so stay tuned.

Bill Kelly -
Video of Robbie singing his new song We Were Brothers 

We Were Brothers - Song Lyrics 

When the light goes out
And you can't go on
You miss your brothers
But now they're gone

When the light goes out
We go our own way
Nothing here but darkness
No reason to stay

Oh, once we're brothers
Brothers no more
We lost a connection
After the war

There'll be no revival
There'll be no one cold
Once were brothers
Brothers no more

When that curtain comes down
We'll let go of the past
Tomorrow's another day
Some things weren't meant to last

When that curtain comes down
On the final act
And you know, you know deep inside
There's no goin' back

Waiting On the Angels - Part 1


Unknown said...

I have a slide converter. I think you meant to say a Hammond B3 not B5.

William Kelly said...

Yes, thanks for the B3 correction, done.