I recently watched the documentary “Once Were Brothers” about the Band. I actually watched it twice, as anyone who knows me knows how much I love the Band. To me, they’re one of the most original and groundbreaking artists to come together in the history of our world. I know those are strong words, but you’ll have to work hard to challenge me with someone that melted more genres into one. “Don’t Do it,” “It Makes No Difference,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “Look Out Cleveland” are just a few of the songs that still rock me to this day.
As Bruce Springsteen notes in this movie, they had three lead singers that would’ve easily been the lead singer in any band on their own. Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel could carry the full weight of being the “man,” if called upon.
While I always enjoy anything with the Band‘s music in it, this would’ve been more aptly titled the “Robbie Robertson Story,” as it really focused on Robbie. Being fair, he and Garth Hudson are the only two members of the Band that are left, so I suppose Robbie gets the right to write the story. But, something just seems missing to not hear the other side, particularly, Levon Helm’s side. Levon’s book “This Wheel’s On Fire” details much of his thoughts on the dissolution of the group and of his/their relationship(s) with Robbie.
Anyone that’s ever been involved in the breakup of a band (of which I have) knows the pain, the anger, the denial, and all the usual suspects involved. Once you’ve had enough time to be away from the band and the breakup, though, you also have to readily admit that there are typically three sides to the story: your’s, the other member’s, and the truth – which lies somewhere in between. Sure, there’s usually a villain, but there’s also usually two ways to look at it. Robbie chooses to focus on the other members’, and in particular Levon’s, drug use, along with Richard’s alcoholism.
It’s clear in interviews, books, and even The Last Waltz, which documented their last concert as the full lineup, that other members were not as keen on breaking up as Robbie was. He was tired of the road – it really is an impossible way of life in music or other industries, had a family, and was ready to settle down and work on things like film scores. That’s cool, but I can’t help but think of what was missed by ending the collective so soon.
I don’t want this to seem like a total anti-Robbie blog. It’s not meant to be that way. He shepherded the songwriting and was the lead guitar player that this group needed, not to mention one of the greatest guitar slingers of all time. I don’t claim to know the ins and outs of their songwriting arrangement. Different groups have different ideas about who gets the publishing rights and who gets included. That’s not for me to litigate here.
The remaining four played together in other iterations and eventually reformed another version of the Band sans Robbie. He was missed. It wasn’t the same. Sometimes the hell we go through or the battles we are in where we are, cloud our judgment in evaluating how good or bad our current situation is. That’s a shame, and it happens every day. I could list out an endless number of groups that split up over idiotic reasons or sometimes they were serious reasons, but they didn’t realize they were at their zenith.
I still recommend you check out “Once Were Brothers.” It’s on a lot of the streaming services now at no charge, and definitely worth the watch. For nothing else than to get to hear the world’s greatest band play and learn some of their history. Richard, Rick, and Levon are sadly all gone and sorely missed today.
The song Robbie used to title this was an outtake he found, and it’s a pretty poignant refrain:
“Once were brothers, brothers no more….”