Organic Americana: Night Flight’s exclusive interview with Elliott Landy about The Band and his new photography book

By on December 18, 2015

I’ve always wondered why the best songs to song capture the American landscape of the late 60s-early 70s were written by Canadians: Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and “California,” Neil Young’s “Ohio” and “Alabama” are a few that come to mind. During the same era, four guys from Canada: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson — plus one good ol’ American redneck, Levon Helm — recorded a slew of rock-n-roll songs that defined “Americana” in way that hadn’t been done before.

The Band’s organic debut Music from Big Pink came out in 1968 during a year that included the psychedelic Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles and heavy acid blues of Cream’s Wheels of Fire. Here was a group that was consciously avoiding the LSD-tinged sound and visuals that nearly every other major rock band of the day was cashing in on.

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Courtesy of Elliott Landy

The Band not only looked they were from the 1800’s, they even wrote songs about it (their second album included “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). In an era when the Yippies were suggesting that teens and twenties should (metaphorically) “Kill Their Parents” — and everyone between the ages of 15 and 25 were battling the ‘Generation Gap’ — the inside of the Big Pink album proudly displayed a photo of The Band with all of their next of kin, primarily their mothers and fathers!

Elliott Landy’s new book of vintage photographs of The Band doesn’t look like images of a classic rock band. The (mostly) black and white images appear to be five guys from a previous century (think of Mathew Brady’s iconic photos of Abe Lincoln) who’ve been given instruments and equipment from the future. The hardcover book is 12×12, album cover size, allowing for the intimate photos to be as large as possible (and the printing quality is top notch).

There’s a 160 pages worth of photos — only about 30 of which which are previously published, behind-the-scenes shots inside the studio, backstage at gigs, at home in the kitchen, plus expected guests: manager Albert Grossman, promoter Bill Graham, and, of course, Bob Dylan. There’s out-takes and alternate album cover photos, even The Band having lunch at a local Saugerties diner.

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Courtesy of Elliott Landy

The book was initially financed by a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised the money needed to print and review about 8000 photographs from the original negatives.

As Landy pointed out to me when we spoke on the phone this week– and he was remarkably down to earth for a man who has walked among giants — The Band in 2015 just aren’t commercially viable for a publisher to invest all that start up money.

That said, once the heavy lifting was done, Backbeat Books stepped up the plate for the copies being offered at retail and online stores like Amazon, while deluxe editions are available at Landy’s website. The casual fan can get a copy of The Band Photographs 1968-1969 at any good bookstore for the list price of $45 (which is a deal), but for those who want something a bit more fancy there are other options:

LANDY: “The copies that I offer on my website are signed and they also have something that is called a tri-fold sheet in it, which is the index, the thumbnails and the captions of all the images are on the fold-out sheet, so that when you’re sitting and you’re looking at these pictures, because there are no captions in the book, I put all the captions in the back of the book, but if you wanna sit down in an armchair, you can fold out this tri-fold sheet and read about each picture, rather than having to go back and forth, to the index in the back of the book, which is actually a very important part of the experience to do that.”

Then we made 325 deluxe copy editions, again the same essential book, but in that is an original print of The Band with the dog named Hammond, who was Bob Dylan’s dog, and it’s the same setup as the Music from Big Pink photographs but the dog got in the picture. I made an 8×10 fine art pigmenting print that will last two hundred years without fading, and I signed each one, it’s printed in my studio. I signed and numbered each one so that’s included, along with really nice slipcase and also the tri-fold sheet. That’s now $500. We have a hundred of those left, by the way. I made 325 and I’m down to probably less than a hundred now.”

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Courtesy of Elliott Landy

Landy — who photographed the anti-Vietnam war movement and the underground music culture in New York City, beginning in 1967, moving on to rock acts like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Van Morrison, Richie Havens, and, yes, Dylan and the Band — was the official photographer at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. He lived in Woodstock, New York, in and around The Band, and his photos (many of which were used for album and promotional artwork at the time) are as much a part of The Band’s legacy as the music itself. Appropriately, another insider, producer John Simon — who helped record many of their greatest works — supplies the text.

LANDY: “John Simon got to be involved in the book, just by chance. I’m in touch with John but don’t see him very often, and for some reason he was coming over to my house one day — he lives in Napanoch, NY — and he was coming over to my house in Woodstock, and I was on the phone, and I don’t know why he was coming over, maybe to get a couple of copies of my other book, Woodstock Vision: The Spirit Of A Generation, and for some reason I was on the phone with a publisher, and I was talking about doing a Band book.

“And my wife let John in the house and John comes back to where my little office is here, and as he’s coming in, I was saying on the phone ‘I don’t know who we’ll get to write the book’, and John is right there, he just shows up at the doorway, as I’m saying that, just by chance, who knows how the universe works, but it does work. So we both looked at each other, and John said he would do the text. He’d been asked many times to write about The Band, but has always refused, but for me he would do it. So that’s how that happened. It was meant to be by the universe.”

This is The Band in 1968-69, living in Woodstock, before the cocaine-fueled Malibu rot set in. This is The Band playing the Fillmore East and the legendary Winterland Ballroom for the first time. Just seven years later The Last Waltz would take place in the Winterland as well – but the vibrancy and innocence presented here, seems decades earlier.

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Courtesy of Elliott Landy

Here’s more from Pat Thomas’s exclusive conversation with Elliott Landy for Night Flight:

LANDY: “I was a fly on the wall. I wasn’t part of what they were doing. I observed it, I was there, they let me be there. I was part of it in terms of that we felt close to each other, close enough so they would let me stay in their homes, and they would say ‘come up and stay over anytime’ and so on. I was friends with them, so in that way I was part of it, but I wasn’t part of the creative process. My part of the creative process was that I stayed out of it, not interfere, not get in the way, and just document it.”

NIGHT FLIGHT: This book is The Band as we all want to remember them at their most innocent; they’d not even performed a single concert yet in some photos. Unfortunately they move to Malibu, there’s drugs involved, they break up, and there’s bad feelings, but the era captured here is great.

LANDY: “I feel the same way. I’d been in touch with them over the years, and of course it’s very sad the discord that happened, and the separation that happened, and the fact that they couldn’t keep making music together. It’s just like when a marriage breaks up, and you have children, it’s like the children of this marriage was the music that never developed even further, and so on. It’s very sad.”

“I only knew them during this time. I mean, I knew them afterwards and so on, and I wasn’t involved in any of the discord, I wasn’t involved in any of the issues. It wasn’t my business to be involved in any of that. And my experience of them was just what you’re saying, innocence, and love, the love of the music, the love of each other, the sharing, and the joint purpose, they all had the same purpose which was to get their music out there, to be as successful with their music as possible. They didn’t want to be superstars, at least this is what they told me, and in my observation it was true.”

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Courtesy of Elliott Landy

LANDY: “They just wanted to be left alone to play their music, and they were loving people, they were very gracious to their fans. I used to see Levon and Rick just genuinely embrace people that they met. We would be walking in the street, and they would honor the man that worked in the meat store, in Woodstock Meats, and they were as sweet to that person as they would have been to the president of the record label. They were really beautiful people like this. There was no class distinction in their mind, a human being was a human being.”

“I wanted to share this part of their nature, this is really what they were about, this is what my pictures of them were about, that’s why they’re so harmonious because they lent themselves, their beings lent themselves, to the vibration that they were part of, that they created, lent themselves to this kind of visual harmony that exists in my photographs.”

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Courtesy of Elliott Landy

NIGHT FLIGHT: I wanted to say, and this has always amazed me, here’s a band that is four/fifths Canadian and yet somehow seems more American than any American band I can think of.

LANDY: “Yeah, that’s what people say. Jonathan Kaplan wrote the introduction to the book, I’m very grateful for what he wrote, but it’s really the perfect introduction because he put the entire music space that they created into context, and he also puts my photographs into context, and I don’t say this with any egotistical sense, but he really acknowledges the role that they had in terms of creating the image of who these guys were.”

“And it’s not a fake image, it’s not an image were we said ‘hey, let’s create ‘this’ and ‘this is what we wanna look like’ or they didn’t say to me ‘this is what we wanna look like’, it’s something that just came up.”

“When we were doing these shoots, we did one shoot, the first one I went up there, and we got some really beautiful pictures, and one was on the cover of Rolling Stone, you see them sitting, looking at the pond, you see them from the back, and that photograph, which really suited the kind of picture they said they wanted for the cover, because they had explained to me — and Albert Grossman, their manager, had explained to me — that they didn’t want to be… they actually didn’t have a band name for their first album..

“They weren’t called The Band, they didn’t want to have any kind of band name because they felt that would lock them into doing a certain kind of music, and they wanted to be free to change what they did. They didn’t want to be iconified, or … what’s the word, when you’re turned into stone, ossified, made into an icon by public perception.”

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Courtesy of Elliott Landy

NIGHT FLIGHT: The word that I use to describe your book and their music is just one word: ‘organic.’

LANDY: “Very true, thank you. Having gotten to know the guys, I saw that they were really grounded. Their attitudes about life were from another era, they were not the psychedelic kind of guys who were saying ‘the heck with my parents,’ ‘nothing in the past matters at all, it’s only what we can do now,’ ‘we have to change everything,’ and ‘we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater,’ and so on.”

“They wanted to honor their parents, and that’s what the ‘next of kin’ picture on Big Pink is about, they wanted to say ‘we love our parents, they sacrificed, they made us who we are today’. We don’t want to say ‘F___ You’ to them, and ‘we don’t want you anymore,’ we want to say ‘Thank You’ and make them part of our lives because they helped us.”

“So, they were very grounded and very rooted in the past, plus what their music was about, so I just by chance again had been looking at this book of Civil War photographs, and I said ‘this style fits who they are, they’re connected to the earth’ – they all grew up in rural situations – they’re connected to the earth, and that’s what these pictures are about.”

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The Band’s “Next Of Kin” photo by Elliott Landy.

“Whenever these Civil War era photographs are taken, you see people in a landscape, you see people standing on the railroad tracks, people standing in front of mountains and so on. So, we looked for the right place, it was very hard to find the right setting. The way they dressed was the way they dressed normally, they didn’t have to dress up to look like that, that was their clothes, and so I was right in my evaluation in what kind of pictures they needed.”

“And I studied those pictures, and I realized they were taken from a different mind-space than we took pictures now. And when the photographer showed up it was very unique and special event, so everybody kind of paid attention and did what the photographer wanted to get the picture taken, and they looked straight at the camera, and they acted and they looked dignified.”

“We just wanted to get the vibe, and they cooperated, and that’s how that happened, but that vibe, it was an organic situation. We wound up taking the picture right outside in their front yard. We had driven, they had driven around, I had driven around, they with me, all over Woodstock, looking for the right background, and I didn’t see it, and we were hanging out in the living room one day and I looked out the window, and there it was. I was there to take the picture, and we’d gone around looking for where we going to go, and we were planning to drive around, and I looked out the window and it was right there, those mountains.”

“So ‘organically’ is a good word for it. It was organic, I just happened to have this book in my living room and it all fell together.”

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Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm rehearsing in Rick Danko’s Zena Rd. home, Woodstock, 1969. Photo by Elliott Landy.

It’s Christmas time 2015 and about a dozen coffee-table books aimed at the Baby Boomers are hitting the streets right about now – this one won’t cost you a major chunk of your 401(k), but even if it did, it would all be worth it.

Pat Thomas is curator of the recent coffee-table book Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980, and the author of Listen, Whitey!: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975. Both books are published by Fantagraphics Books and also make lovely Christmas gifts.

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Courtesy of Elliott Landy

About Pat Thomas

Esteemed author and reissue producer Pat Thomas spent five years in Oakland, CA, researching Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics, 2012), and his new book, Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary will be published by Fantagraphics in March 2016. As a producer, Pat Thomas has reissued recordings by Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McDaniels, Watts Prophets, and Black Panther Elaine Brown. His music writing has appeared in MOJO, Crawdaddy, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has lectured at San Francisco State University and Evergreen State College. He lives in Los Angeles.