When the Band Struggled Through the Dark and Unfocused ‘Cahoots’
The introduction of a new studio to experiment with in the early '70s might have felt like a happy challenge for the Band in another time. Instead, as Robbie Robertson once said, Albert Grossman’s just-opened Bearsville facility left them cold.
To be honest, much of the music from the album they made there, Cahoots, did too — with some notable exceptions, including the raucous opener "Life Is a Carnival" and an oaken, deeply emotional reading of their old boss Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece." The latter song's theme actually couldn’t have been more appropriate, both for Cahoots – which was released on Sept. 15, 1971 – and for the Band.
Dylan, who had first recorded “When I Paint My Masterpiece” in mid-March 1971 with Leon Russell, seems to be admitting — and not even tacitly — that his muse had left him during the period surrounding New Morning. A lyric intent on reconstructing Rome, after it had been left to dilapidation and despair, seems indicative of someone still pushing back against this creative ennui. And yet, as we hear on Levon Helm’s mournful vocal on the Band's version of the song, even a change of scenery to Brussels is shadowed with thoughts of what came before.
Typically opaque, and very darkly poignant, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” sounds like something the Band would have done with Dylan during the earlier Basement Tapes sessions, an era that must have seemed like a very long time ago at this point for both. The worry, as evidenced both in the Dylan narrative and on an eerie Cahoots cover image that finds the Band standing in front of what looks like a mausoleum, was that Rome might never be rebuilt — that their best days, memorable though they may be, were behind them.
It certainly seemed that way for the Band, years after their first two LPs created a new Americana standard. Once-fawning rock critics began to question their every musical move as the Band ceased as a music-making brotherhood. They’d become famous on the power of that imagery, but rarely worked as a functioning unit anymore.
“I think we shipped a million copies of that second album,” the late Rick Danko told The News-Star in 1993. “And that changed a lot of people’s lives — in particular, the Band’s. After that, we were only getting together once a year, for a couple of months, to record. It was like we were too decadent to play.”
Listen to the Band Perform 'Thinkin' Out Loud'
A surface reading of the flawed project would have you believe that Robertson – who'd by then emerged as the Band's sole credited songwriter – was talking about a disappearing America. He certainly piles on these devastating images of decay, of finality and goodbyes – in particular on tracks like "Thinkin' Out Loud." Listen more closely to the song, and Danko seems to give voice instead to the larger worries that dominated Cahoots: This has always felt like a breakup album. Elsewhere, outwardly nostalgic titles like “Last of the Blacksmiths,” “Where Do We Go From Here?” and “Smoke Signal” could be seen as metaphors for the fracturing of the Band as much as a probing inquiry into the loss of tradition.
“It was hard for me to pull the whole thing together,” Robertson told Biography in 2001. “It was hard for me during Cahoots, and it started before that, even. But during Cahoots, if everybody would show up, it was still like not everybody was there. There was a whole feeling of pulling teeth. Everything was hard, and it was painful trying to do things, and there’d be just no sense of it going anywhere. So it was hard for me to write, under those circumstances. It was hard for us to get together and make music.”
They loosened up a bit when an outsider like Van Morrison joined the proceedings. “4% Pantomime,” a sloshy, gospel-gone-wrong collaboration, represented the kind of unforced camaraderie that once happened so naturally for the Band, but by this point was becoming an ever-more-rare occasion. They recorded it on a whim, when Morrison stopped by the Bearsville Studios as they agonized through the sessions for this fourth album. An impromptu, booze-lit session followed, and that ultimately completed a song fragment from Robertson.
Elsewhere, Helm offered one of his loveliest, most fervent vocals on “The River Hymn,” which brought the Band’s largely ruminative Cahoots to a churchy close. Maybe the album couldn’t quite grasp everything it was reaching for, but “The River Hymn” still shows what a performance, stripped of artifice and centered on a generations-old sense of place, can do to bridge that gap.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Band wouldn't release another album of original material for more than four years, an eternity back then. Following the unfocused disappointments of Cahoots, a comeback like 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross couldn't have been a bigger surprise. After that final flourish, however, everything finally blew apart for the group's founding lineup.
“The drugs, the decadence, the alcohol,” Danko mused in 1993, before trailing off. Ever the optimist, he wasn't one to focus on the sometimes withering criticism that surrounded the Band during this period. “I remember when people started comparing Johnny Cash to Johnny Cash,” Danko said. “You just kind of do what you do. It’s as desperate as that, or not as desperate.” He stopped short then, chuckling, “Like Janis Joplin used to tell me: It’s hard to sing the blues when you’re a millionaire.”