Levon and the Hawks, “He Don’t Love You” (1965): Across the Great Divide

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The Band’s raw pre-Basement Tapes studio era found the group, principally known as Levon and the Hawks, trying to find its own voice after a period backing rockabilly howler Ronnie Hawkins.

There were a handful of tracks, beginning with “Uh-Uh-Uh” and “Leave Me Alone,” both of which were released as the Canadian Squires on Ware Records/Apex. The Band also recorded “The Stones I Throw,” “Go Go Liza Jane” and “He Don’t Love You (And He’ll Break Your Heart),” all of which saw release via Atco as Levon and the Hawks. The latter is perhaps the best indication of their every-day sound, though Robbie Robertson has admitted even the small triumph of “He Don’t Love You” was more happenstance than anything.

“Those records were just some people trying to sign us up,” Robbie Robertson later told Melody Marker. “We didn’t know what was going on; we didn’t have any control over it. They just whipped us into the studio, and we had to cut a few songs in an afternoon. We didn’t know that end of it at all, how you’ve got to be able to talk a little bit [and] you’ve got to say a few things if you want to do what you want to do. We were just doing what someone was telling us to do.”

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“He Don’t Love You (And He’ll Break Your Heart),” in fact, had two chances to gain Levon and the Hawks some measure of wider notice, after appearing as both the b-side to “The Stones I Throw” in 1965 and then a rush-job release of “Go Go Liza Jane” in 1968, when Atco was trying to capitalize on the now-renamed Band’s newfound, post-Music from Big Pink fame.

“The Stones I Throw,” an early attempt at topical songwriting from Robertson, managed to get to No. 22 on a local Toronto song chart but otherwise sank like a, well, stone. Garth Hudson’s ghostly organ pushes the Band well away from their then-bedrock R&B sound, but Richard Manuel’s impassioned vocal doesn’t have quite enough to work with. “All of the reach,” Griel Marcus once rightly said, “and none of the poetry of Music from Big Pink and The Band are present in ‘The Stones I Throw.'”

Meanwhile, Levon and the Hawks’ update of the traditional “Go Go Liza Jane” is lesser still. The only remake of the bunch (though wrongly credited on the single as a Robertson original), it’s more energetic than revelatory. Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel’s voices brilliantly intertwine, but they’re still in search of the poetry Marcus mentioned.

That leaves “He Don’t Love You (And He’ll Break Your Heart),” Levon and the Hawks’ perennial bridesmaid. Principal vocalist Manuel is in his element here, catching a furious groove even as the rest of the Band yelp and crow. No, Robbie Robertson’s lyric does nothing to challenge the narrative heft of “Drove Old Dixie” or “Acadian Driftwood,” but the fizzy “He Don’t Love You” is nevertheless the best vehicle among these early sides.

We hear the Band as they no doubt were, raw and rangy, hinting at something darker but still playing with an early, unbridled danger. A highlight comes when “He Don’t Love You (And He’ll Break Your Heart)” swerves into this manic jungle beat. Richard Manuel is so moved, he barks out: “Make you cry!,” and it’s unclear for a split second whether he’s talking about this song’s hound-dog protagonist or that nasty cadence. I’ve always imagined it was the latter.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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