While never rock gods on the order of their contemporaries, The Band stood—in some pure, yet often entirely cryptic way—for the least modish, most enduring values of the ’60s. What’s more, their last concert was the subject of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, widely regarded as the finest rock doc ever made. And, for what it’s worth, a singularly dismal acknowledgement that everything The Band stood for was over, or at least had been pushed aside by self-interest, cynicism, and incredulity.
With the exception of Helm, all of its members hailed from Canada. That makes it either really easy or profoundly difficult to call The Band “outsiders,” since they so rooted themselves in America’s past, or at least a highly abstracted, symbolic version of it that was as much about internal geography as real highways and byways. Their mentor Dylan had begun his career emulating Woody Guthrie’s angry train-hopping, had thrown his id out into the world with abandon in his electric phase, and then reinvented his relationship with the tradition after a 1966 motorcycle crash.
The Band, almost more than Dylan himself, understood how the past could be rendered timeless, at once light and mighty. They themselves were an idea about how music could exist, not kids with a dream; their songs were as specific, and without direction, as the listener needed them to be. This was a finely curated innerspace of America, stretching back generations, at a time when LSD had reduced introspection to a pitched, lawless battle against the rules and norms of Kantian mom and dad.