“Life is a Carnival”*

The Bard Graduate Center on West 86th Street is a gem of a small New York museum. On my birthday last Saturday, Kyle asked me what I wanted to do for fun. I suggested we go view Bard’s current exhibit, “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010.”

I’ve loved the circus for years, and have even collected artwork on it, like the print below of high-wire artists on a bike, by Dame Laura Knight. I bought it  in 1987 from my late art dealer friend Robert Henry Adams when I was editing and publishing the splendid circus novel, Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, by Ellen Hunnicutt, who won the Dru Heinz Literature Prize that same year for her short fiction collection, In the Music Library. Ellen’s novel centers around a young female protagonist who’s a runaway from a bizarre custody battle in her family. Holed up in the safe harbor of the Florida winter quarters of a circus troupe, throughout the novel she’s using their calliope to compose a musical work in memory of her late mother. The novel’s theme is how we may turn our mourning and loss to the service of art and creativity. For the record, Ellen passed away in 2005. I hope some day to republish her novel.

Much as I’ve read about circus lore, I had not understood a key aspect of the historical record as documented by the exhibit: the central role that NYC played in the growth and development of the circus throughout North America. Many of the biggest promoters were headquartered in Manhattan, the continent’s entertainment capitol. Once the circus began moving from town to town via train cars, Gotham’s status as a rail hub, as well as its large, diverse population, made it the essential city for promoters and performers alike.

The 20th century was covered on the third floor of the exhibit, with great photographs by Weegee, best known for his lurid crime scene photography, here depicting circus audiences enthralled by performances. There was also a video monitor showing a film of female stunt artist Tiny Kline performing the “Slide for Life,” in which she clamped down on a kind of leather bit she’d placed in her mouth, then slid on a cable for a 1,000 feet hanging above Times Square.

Along with the exhibit, which comprises more than 200 works displayed on three floors of the museum, there will be nine public talks given beginning October 11 and stretching into 2013, ending on January 31, discussing female equestrians; performance photography; the design and typography of circus posters; P.T. Barnum and Ralph Waldo Emerson; Alexander Calder; clowning; and the circus of the future. I hope to be there for one or more of these presentations. Meantime, here is a gallery of images from the exhibit. Please click through to view art and images from the exhibit.

*Thanks to The Band, for use of the title of their song, “Life is a Carnival, written by Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and J.R.R. Robertson, from their 1971 album, “Cahoots.”

The NY Times Leaves out Levon, Twice

It often takes me a few days to catch up to the weekend papers, so today, on glancing at the New York Times of Saturday, April 21, I was glad to see they’d featured Bob Dylan’s eulogy for Levon Helm that I also cited on this blog in Reflecting on The Band’s Break-up and Levon’s Death. Oddly, with the benefit of time passing, I often discover mistakes in the paper days after publication, as happened some months ago with Times coverage of the Romneys’ horses.  Sure enough, as I began to read last Saturday’s story I was surprised to see that the photograph of Dylan and The Band they used with their item didn’t actually include Levon in it. Clearly, others had noticed the error before me, because on the Times website I’ve found this correction accompanying the article where the erroneous photo has been removed.

Because of an editing error, a report in the “Arts, Briefly” column on Saturday about Bob Dylan’s recollections of collaborating with Levon Helm, the drummer and singer who died last week at 71, erroneously included Mr. Helm among the musicians pictured at a 1974 performance. Another drummer, who was not identified, was shown with the group; Mr. Helm was not pictured.

As corrections too often do, this one piles error on top of error, with the reference to “another drummer” an additional mistake. First, the bearded person seated in a hat, who the Times wanted readers at first to incorrectly assume was Levon, is not some anonymous walk-on, but actually Richard Manuel, member of The Band going back to their earliest days when they were called The Hawks. Manuel ordinarily played piano (the instrument he is actually seated at in the Times photo), but would slide over to drums when Levon played mandolin or guitar. Unfortunately, as can be seen in my photos of the item, it had no caption at all, and the Times didn’t ID any of the musicians, apparently content to let readers infer that Levon Helm was in the shot. Had the brief carried a caption this error-riddled series of cascading confusions might’ve never been set in motion, or maybe it would have anyway, since it’s obvious that whoever was editing this section of the paper knew little about The Band. To sum it up, the person vaguely implied in the Times brief to be Levon was not him, and the person described in the correction was not at the drums in the photo, but at the piano. Presumably, Levon was on stage, seated at his drum kit, out of the frame of Times photographer Larry Morris’s lens, or was cropped out of the image at some point.

As journalist and author Craig Silverman points out in his fine book, Regret the Error, which I edited and published with him in 2008, media errors are often quite avoidable, and the Times‘ multiple failures here surely fall into that category. As shown in the extensive coverage of Levon’s terminal illness and death, it is clear that there are scores of photos of Bob Dylan and The Band that include him, such as the one shown below from the Los Angeles Times. It’s a pity they couldn’t have found one like it that included Levon, either in the print edition, or at worst, even later, online where no photo now appears. An error in an obituary or a eulogy is one of the most serious mistakes a media outfit can make, and the Times royally messed up here. They owe their readers better, both in print, and online.
// click through to see all photos and captions . . .

Reflecting on The Band’s Break-up and Levon’s Death

Among the pieces of journalism and commentary I’ve read about Levon Helm since word of his terminal condition was released by his family last week, and then since his death on Thursday, this one by Mark Guarino is the best yet. I recommend you read it, for it captures the injustice that accompanied The Band’s dissolution, and how Robbie Robertson and the businesspeople around him really did treat his four bandmates inequitably. According to Levon, in his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire, Robbie claimed all the publishing royalties on most of their songs, compositions that had famously been workshopped by all five of them, beginning at the Big Pink house, and in later sessions. For the sake of argument, even if Robbie believed he was genuinely responsible for most of the songwriting, why not assert a claim on a larger share of the royalties and then split the remaining percentage four ways? Instead, he just walked away with it all on most of their repertoire and by the time Levon received his cancer diagnosis in 1998, he had to declare personal bankruptcy and nearly lost his house. I know Robbie came to his bedside this week, and if Levon really reconciled with him that’s great, but it’s hard not to see Robbie’s visit as some self-serving absolution. It certainly adds to the sadness of Levon’s passing to say this, but I believe it’s true.

Now, as many articles have pointed out, Levon did mount a great second act with the Midnight Ramble, the Grammy-winning albums, and playing and singing with his daughter Amy. But that happiness stands in sharp contrast to the fact that nothing like that happened for Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, and this is where Guarino’s Christian Science Monitor, “Levon Helm and The Band: a rock parable of fame, betrayal, and redemption” is most valuable.

Manuel’s post-breakup troubles ended with his 1986 suicide, during a revival tour of The Band sans Robbie. Guarino tells us that Levon is the one who found him after he’d hanged himself. As for Danko, he died at fifty-one from complications of heart disease. Guarino, quoting from the memoir, reminds us of Levon’s words: “If Rick’s money wasn’t in their pockets, I don’t think Rick would have died because Rick worked himself to death.… He wasn’t that old and he wasn’t that sick. He just worked himself to death. And the reason Rick had to work all the time was because he’d been [expletive] out of his money.” To be fair, it should be admitted too that a hard-partying lifestyle would have contributed to Manuel’s and Danko’s early demise (see Danko’s stoned moments with Janis Joplin in the rolling concert film “Festival Express,” if you have any doubt how much Rick loved getting high), but it doesn’t change the fact that playing half-empty dives to keep making a living, for a musician who once played to 600,000 at Watkins Glen with the Allmans and The Dead in ’73 (which I personally attended*), had to have depressed him and Manuel to a point where continued substance abuse was, if not inevitable, unsurprising.

All this sadness acknowledged, it is comforting to see how sadness brings us all together, bridging intervening years. After posting on Facebook and Twitter over the past week, I’ve heard from high school friends, such as Seth Foldy of Friends School and hometown Cleveland pals, like Eric Broder. Eric referred me to the Drive-by-Truckers’ Danko-Manuel song, with its haunted lyrics, “Got to sinking in the place where I once stood/Now I ain’t living like I should . . . Richard Manuel is dead”.

It was fitting to me that the family’s first message about Levon’s illness, while originating with his wife and Amy (who I had the privilege of hearing sing a few months ago with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings**, a performance I wrote about here), was immediately passed along on social media by “Bob Dylan and The Band.” And then, after Levon died, this appeared on “He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I’m going to miss him, as I’m sure a whole lot of others will too.”

In honor of The Band and Bob Dylan, and yesterday’s Record Store Day, I’ve taken photos of all my LPs and CDs coming from their great musical enterprise, even Robbie’s first solo album. (click on thumbnails for full panorama of album images

* From that great weekend, I recall that a heavy thunderstorm with distant bolts of lightning let loose on the Saturday night, and The Band, then playing, had to flee the stage out of safety concerns. When the downpour had ebbed, Garth Hudson came out first and sat at his organ beneath a protective little canopy, launching into an unforgettable rendition of the solo that opens “Chest Fever, a song on “Music From Big Pink,” “Chest Fever.” These moments are forever captured on one of the CDs photographed below, “The Band- Live at Watkins Glen.”

**From Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Colin Linden, who knew and had played music with Levon, was interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on the CBC Radio program ‘Q’ the day after his friend’s death, as was Garth Hudson, conversations that can be heard via this link.  // see more . . . for footnotes and photos. . .

Friday Night Fun

Enjoy this really sweet cover of The Band’s The Weight” performed backstage after a recent Wilco-Nick Lowe concert in Chicago. Magnificent Mavis Staples takes the lead vocal, and superbly plays the role of bandleader. What sweet sounds! Video provided courtesy of Yep Roc Records, Nick Lowe’s label.

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings at The Living Room

I got to hear a great Canadian indie music show this week. On Wednesday night fabled country band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings played The Living Room on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Blackies, or BARK, have hung together for sixteen years, even while each member of the basic trio pursues side projects in music […]