“On Meeting The Band”: A Play in One Act
John Simon: singer-songwriter, producer, the man behind Music from Big Pink, The Band, The Last Waltz and Jericho
Howard Alk: Chicago-based filmmaker and Bob Dylan cohort
Ron Carter: A bass player
Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan
Barry Feinstein: Album cover photographer
Stephen Foster: The father of American songwriting. Ask Bob Dylan.
Albert Grossman: The Bear
Levon Helm: Sir!
Edward Kleban: Musical theater composer and lyricist
Charles Lloyd: The saxophone
Robbie Robertson: Guitarist, enigma and chief songwriter of The Band. Deal with it.
Gabor Szabo: Hungarian jazz guitarist you should really look into. No, really.
Mary Travers: A singer
Tony Williams: A drummer
Peter Yarrow: Um
And, by default, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel: hats and beards of The Band
The scene: Van’s Vietnamese Restaurant, Albany, NY, June 26, 2018
John Simon: When I was at Columbia Records, I had a friend who was also a producer, named Ed Kleban. Ed had gone to high school with Peter Yarrow, so when Peter was looking for someone to help him with the music to this documentary that he and Barry Feinstein — Mary Travers’ former husband — had shot of Hells Angels, Ed recommended me.
I was already a producer. I had already done a bunch of stuff. While they were shooting this movie, the subject changed, because it was the summer of the love. So all of a sudden, it was no longer Hells Angels, but hippies and that whole thing. What they had were cans and cans and cans of film, pre-digital, real film.
They knew that Howard Alk, who had been a member of the Second City Troupe in Chicago and a friend of Albert Grossman’s, and later a friend of Bob Dylan’s, had editing experience. Or they trusted he might have editing experience. So Peter and Barry set Howard and me up in this house in Woodstock to make a movie out of these
disjointed piles of footage.
We each had a Moviola, so we could look at stuff. Howard was cutting it all, and I was just looking.
One night — it was Howard’s birthday, I believe — we heard this awful bleating coming from outside, of people who could play music a little bit, but certainly not on the instruments they were playing. It turned out to be four-fifths of the guys in The Band, who were serenading Howard for his birthday. There I was in Woodstock for the first time, hearing what would become The Band.
Even though this was my first real visit to Woodstock, I had done stuff for Albert’s stable before. The Band was now under Albert’s direction following Dylan’s association with them. And they’d been holed up in this pink house ever since Dylan’s accident, just fooling around, half writing songs, working on Dylan’s stuff; working on some of their own stuff. They realized they were itching to do an album, and they were looking for help producing.
I had met Robbie Robertson years before, just in passing, because I was producing Charles Lloyd, the jazz sax player. Charles and Robbie shared the same pot connection, so Charles invited Robbie in to play on a song on his album called Of Course, Of Course, with Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Gabor Szabo.
So, later, Robbie invited me back up to Woodstock to hear these songs from The Basement Tapes. Incidentally, the day before I arrived, Levon Helm arrived from Arkansas. He had never heard The Basement Tapes, either. He was not a part of The Basement Tapes, as people think.
I listened to this stuff and it was just wonderful. It was so different from anything I’d ever heard — adventurous, very eclectic. They drew from the history of American music — from earlier rock & roll, rhythm & blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, jazz and all the way back to Stephen Foster. They really respected this stuff, and they had the feeling that whatever music they put out, they wanted it to be worthy of assuming a place in this continuum.
So we started working together, and Music from Big Pink was the first result.
John Simon will speak about his experiences producing The Band at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre at 7:30pm on Friday (July 6) as part of “Music of The Band — Music from Big Pink — and More with Professor Louie & The Crowmatix and special guest John Simon.” The concert is a fundraiser for radio station WEXT-FM, and tickets are $25.