As Rick Danko gives voice to the larger worries that dominated Cahoots — the heroes were, of course, all gone — it becomes utterly clear just what writer Robbie Robertson is lamenting.
A surface reading of this flawed project would have you to believe that he’s talking about a disappearing America. Instead, listen as Robertson piles of these devastating images of decay, of finality and goodbyes. They are, in particular within Danko’s trembling emotionality, as striking and as specific on “Thinking Out Loud” as anywhere on Cahoots: The monkey on his back, the knowing that it would not last, the crashing sky, the coming fully awake only after a sudden fall to the ground — all of it puts every bad vibe associated with this period into perspective. By the early-1970s, post-Brown Album era, Robertson was losing — maybe had already lost — the Band.
And there’s nothing musically that the attendant musicians here can do, despite game turns of barrelhouse gumption by both Garth Hudson and Robertson himself, to lift the Robertson lyric’s heavy feeling of absence. That missing thing, it’s always seemed to me, was the Band itself — or, at the very least, our idea of it as a musicmaking brotherhood, as a communal voice. They’d become impossibly famous on the power of that imagery. But by the time they set about trying to make Cahoots, it seemed to be irretrieveably gone.
“I think we shipped a million copies of that second album,” Danko once told me, “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.”
Cahoots is so reflective of those sentiments that it feels, it’s always felt, like a breakup album. The Band is suddenly reaching backward, suddenly reaching for everything, and nostalgia — as their frequent collaborator Bob Dylan once said — is death.
“It was hard for me to pull the whole thing together,” Robertson says, in the attached video. “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.”
Where the blame lies for these widening fissures remains the topic of spirited, often emotional debate. What the music tells us, however, is something deeper than culpability, something sadder. The Band sounded like they were finished.
The more Danko thought about this period, in our long-ago talk, the more ruminative he became. “The drugs, the decadence, the alcohol,” he said, trailing off. Still, he wasn’t one to focus on the sometimes withering criticism that surrounded the Band in 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.”
We now know that the Band would eventually issue another album of original material — but that it would take more than four years, an eternity back then. In retrospect, the idea of them ever getting to 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross, after the unfocused disappointments of Cahoots, is its own kind of miracle. Somehow, however, they did. And the results there would amount to one of the Band’s often-forgotten treasures, a final flourish before everything actually blew apart for the five-man edition.