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Thursday, September 3, 2009

GMVW # 87: "The Strong Silent Type"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 87:  The Strong Silent Type
Song:  Bessie Smith by The Band
(Songwriter: Robbie Robertson)
September 3, 2009

What do Peter Quaife, Frank Sampedro, John Paul Jones, Robbie Krieger, John Entwistle, George Harrison, Garth Hudson, Maureen Tucker, Jaimoe Johanson, Elliot Easton, Peter Buck, Charlie Watts,
Ronnie Lane
, Mickey Hart, and Bill Wyman all have in common?

They are all members of famous bands who preferred to remain anonymous, in the shadows, as far from the spotlight as possible in some cases.  Most of them would likely have been just as content playing in small clubs instead of large concert halls and arenas.  They were/are the ‘quiet’ ones in their respective bands whose primary focus remained the music even as their bankroll and name recognition grew.  Unlike their more (seemingly) talented and famous band mates, they were rarely media savvy enough to toss out a good sound bite, but when they did speak up it was usually insightful and to the point. Most important, those more famous band mates found these reserved partners invaluable to the success of their band. 

I always loved looking into what made these musicians tick; just as much if not more so than the headliners.  Often this was a great way to uncover some rarely known element of how the band became successful.  It was also a good way to understand what motivated people who seemed less enamored by the glow of fame and fortune. 

Early on in my interest in the Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman intrigued me the most.  I’m not all that sure why, although I have always rooted for the underdog. It was at least partly because the Stones had 5 members, as opposed to my first band of fascination, the Beatles, and Wyman held up that 5 spot pretty solidly.  In other words, it was not a major drop off like other bands where the lesser knowns are virtually invisible.  Wyman made himself fit without hamming it up for the camera.  He was just a solid and loyal bass player who played a strong music role on stage and in the studio.

The other quiet member of the Stones was (is) Charlie Watts.  Charlie was also dignified and the band loved him for his musicianship.  I never forgot reading about when the Stones were reforming for their ‘Steel Wheels’ album.  The article included an interview with Keith Richards who described pulling into the Rolling Stones studios in Barbados on the first day of sessions and hearing Charlie’s familiar drum beat inside.  He sat for a while and listened. A slow smile crept across his face as he looked at himself in the rear view mirror.  Keith was back in his element, which could not have been possible without Charlie. 

One musician who took this ‘quiet’ role to the extreme was The Band’s old sage, Garth Hudson (he was a few years older than the other members).  Hudson was content parked behind his large Lowrey Organ at the rear of the stage (often well behind Richard Manuel on keyboards) where it would be hard to spot little more than the mop of hair on his head as he waved it along in rhythm to the music he so eloquently teased out of the keys.  Like all the musicians listed above, however, Hudson spoke primarily through his instrument, which in his case reflected the mood and meaning of the Band’s songs as well as whomever was singing (The Band had 3 regular lead singers: Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm and occasionally, Robbie Robertson).  He was like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain, tossing out some brains here, some heart there, and a bit of courage on top.

Of the many anecdotes that impress me about The Band (some of which were discussed for Gem # 19) one in particular was how they stuck with Dylan during his mid-60’s experimental tours when he abandoned his folk roots and went electric.  It took a while for this sound to come together and where once The Band enjoyed cheering crowds, now they were hearing jeers.  Levon Helm could not take it and up and left for a time.  The remaining four members, however, stuck it out.  Of these four the one who impressed me the most was the elder statesman, Garth Hudson.  He was polished and commanded respect in his own right, so he surely had other options.  It must have taken quite a bit of insight for him to perceive where it all was going.

Recently, for the first time in a while, I listened to the masterful Bob Dylan/Band double album ‘The Basement Tapes’.  ‘The Basement Tapes’ was an album released in 1975, a full eight years after many of the songs on it were recorded.  The original intention was never to release these songs, but because so many of them had found their way on to bootleg tapes, the decision was finally made to do something official.  The cover of the album had fun with the hidden-treasure aura that the songs had taken on over the years, showing the musicians in a basement (‘Big Pink’), playing music while surrounded by circus performers.  The songs themselves were stripped down:  A back-to-basics sound that defied the psychedelic period during which they were recorded.

Anyhow, as I listened I recalled how the songs rolled easily from one to the next: ‘Odd’s and Ends’, ‘Orange Juice Blues’, “Katie’s Been Gone’.  And then, for the first time in a while, I found myself listening to ‘Bessie Smith’, this week’s Gem.  I had forgotten how much I loved this song.  The story line is classic Robertson, but what makes the song truly great is Garth Hudson’s performance on the organ midway through.  It ties everything together: The lyrics; the mood; and the music.

The Band and Bob Dylan rarely if ever played music from this album in subsequent tours (Jeff, is this an exaggeration?... as I have no recollection when thinking back on the Dylan or Band shows I’ve witnessed).  Perhaps the songs were meant for their ears alone.  Perhaps Dylan’s intent was to emulate early Americana music….pre-recording Americana.  Regardless, the music has taken on a level of mystique, and I always feel like a fly on the wall of Big Pink when I listen.

Since there are no official videos or live performances I could find for this song, I tracked down a nice still-photo piece put together by a fan, who seems to capture the essence of the song in the photography: Backcountry roads, some scenes evoking memories of Upper State (Woodstock) New York.

Quiet folk:  Sometimes they are the ones who say the most…. without saying anything.

- Pete

Gem Video of the Week: Bessie Smith

Funny clip of Bill Wyman imitating Mick Jagger

About the Video: The Basement Tapes version of the song played to still shots

Video Rating: 2 (although there may not be anything better)

Best Feedback: Steve

Hi Pete;

Did you hear that they are re-opening the Brian Jones case.

Cheers,
Steve

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