In a group of friends, there’s always that one jackass. That guy who plays devil’s advocate all the time, and starts unnecessary, purely speculative, and entirely esoteric arguments. They are especially nerdy arguments laced with wild assumptions a lot of the time1, and most people around “that guy” at the bar get particularly annoyed when he waxes what he thinks is pure philosophy when, really, he’s just talking to hear his own head rattle.
I realized recently that I’m that guy.
I worked at a video store. I write about music. I repost egregious and inflammatory statements about rock ‘n’ roll, politics, Tim Tebow, or whatever on my Facebook wall. It seems that I was born to be a critic.
Now normally, I don’t bring unnecessary niceties like statistics, logic, reasonable discourse or any of that horse-hockey to the table when I’m throwing down my opinion. But then two seemingly unrelated events coincided within about an hour:
1) I read Chuck Klosterman’s airtight Value Over Replacement Musician scale.
2) A friend of mine started talking shit about Rick Danko.
This settled it. I now had a tool – and a decent prototype at that – for solving one of rockdom’s longest standing debates: Who is the most irreplaceable member of The Band? So I undertook a four-hour detour from the work I’m actually paid to do, and watched The Last Waltz twice in one sitting. My views may teeter back and forth between belligerent hyperbole and unnecessary, ebullient praise, and I’ve culled many of my impressions of the Band entirely from the film, but I hope you Band nerds agree with at least some of my arguments.
Again, I’m invoking Grantland’s “Rock VORP” value scale, so please consult their rules for clarification and scoring breakdown. The scores are entirely my discretion. I welcome lucid counterarguments, but know this first before you open: you will not sway my opinions.
1. Songwriting (40 pts.)
Robertson had his hand in writing every song on the self-titled album, as well as almost every great song they did; he wrote the half of the original material on Big Pink that Dylan and Manuel didn’t write. Manuel scores for his contribution to Big Pink and gets bonus points for “Tears of Rage.” Helm wrote one song: “Jemima Surrender.” Danko gets one point for his only real contribution, co-writing “Wheel’s on Fire.”
2. Sonic Contribution (20 pts.)
Helm is The Band’s best singer hands down – as I’ve determined by a fairly large survey of my friends – and he held down the beat for The Band’s many musical styles with righteous and soulful efficiency. RR looks positively pompous when he takes a guitar solo, but cranks out jams nevertheless; per Rolling Stone, he’s the 59th best guitarist ever. Take that as you will. Danko gave us his golden howl (“… if you’ll take Jack mah Daaaaawg”) and those nimble bass lines. The Hud plays more instruments than anyone in The Band, and they’re usually integral to the arrangements.
3. Visual (10 points)
Each of the five guys has bad teeth. All five have had some form of proto-hipster/backwoods hick facial hair, and generally just look like seedy men you wouldn’t want your daughter bringing home. Somewhere between chopping wood, shooting squirrels for dinner and drinking rainwater out of a boot, they spent ten or so years making exemplary white soul music.
4. Live performance – based mostly on The Last Waltz (or TLW) (10 pts.)
Helm’s sweaty expressions range from someone’s-grabbing-my-nuts agony to wallowing-in-glory happiness, all while he drops solid beats and sings lead vocals or harmonies. RR hogs the screen in TLW, but for good reason. He picks up (and tops) Eric Clapton’s guitar shredding in “Further On Up The Road” when EC’s strap breaks mid-solo. He gets a one-point deduction for phony backing vocals though2. Sadly, Manuel is off-camera too often in TLW for you to really notice how much he’s doing. I blame Martin Scorsese. And though Danko’s vocals get forty times better live, and though the Hud’s sax solo in TLW probably goes down better than ambrosia, there are only so many points to go around.
5. Attitude (10 pts.)
Helm in TLW: “New York, it was an adult portion. It was an adult dose. So it took a couple of trips to get into it. You just go in the first time and you get your ass kicked and you take off. As soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again. Eventually, you fall right in love with it.”
Manuel was infamous for loving the ladies and the booze way too much3, so he garners quite a few here. Danko’s rock-star life style never ended; he got busted with smuggling drugs into Japan. When he was 55.
6. Intangibles (15 pts.)
Helm was the only real American in The Band, and a good ole-fashioned, unintelligible redneck at that. Also, The Band was originally called Levon and the Hawks. Done.
Manuel was The Band’s true rock ‘n’ roll burnout. He reportedly chugged up to eight bottles of Grand Marnier per day towards the end of his life, and drank himself silly and committed suicide after a Winter Haven gig in 1986. Whoa.
RR was the only member who never agreed to join their band on the several occasions they reunited. Pussy. Hudson gets a bonus point for that peerless beard of his. He also garners an extra cool point for scoring extra work with Scorsese a number of times after TLW.
Robertson: 32 + 5 + 2 + 2 + 1 +2 = 44 points
Helm: 1 + 6 + 2 + 5 + 3 + 5 = 22 points
Manuel: 6 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 3 = 14 points
Danko: 1 + 4 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 1 = 11 points
Hudson: 0 + 3 + 2 + 1 + 1 + 2 = 9 points
Even though I deducted points from RR for being an attention hog in TLW, for Microphone-gate, and for generally seeming like a douchebag on a number of occasions, and even though Helm tops more lists than Robertson, RR dominates the songwriting credit and the overall score.
Adjusted Rock VORM (Member score/# of members)
Robertson: 44/5 = 8.8
Helm: 22/5 = 4.4
Manuel: 14/5 = 2.8
Danko: 11/5 = 2.2
Hudson: 9/5 = 1.8
“Real” Rock VORM (adjusted for The Band’s “Established Value”)
According to their wiki pages, these are The Band’s major accolades:
- #50 band of all-time on Rolling Stone (RS) 2004 List
- T-62nd band inducted into Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame
- #34 album of all-time on 2003 RS list (Music from Big Pink)
- #45 album of all-time on 2003 RS list (The Band)
- #85 band of all-time on 2004 VH1 list
By my reckoning, that puts them somewhere below The Clash and The Replacements, but squarely above Thin Lizzy, The Carpenters and The Stooges, so we’ll slap a solid 0.89 points based on The Band’s “established value.” That makes each member of the Band’s “Real” Rock VORM….
Sadly, that means my man Danko is apparently fairly replaceable, albeit by two decent men, give or take. Again, replacement candidates will be considered only if they have bad teeth and love women and booze as much as Rick. In theory, the scores say that Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson are more essential to The Band than, say, Albert Hammond, Jr. is to the Strokes (RRV = 2.754, per Klosterman). Regardless of your thoughts on my scoring or on VORM in general, I know in the deepest reaches of my soul that each member of The Band is worth more than Morrissey or Sting will ever be. I’ll do the statistics to confirm that later.
1) Among these arguments, I’m including “Would Tebow have connected on the kick Billy Cundiff missed in the AFC title game?” and “Can anything or anyone possibly beat a grizzly with chainsaws for arms in a cage match?”
2) TLW depicted Robertson wailing his backing vocals into the mike, but his mike was actually turned off throughout most of the concert, a typical practice during their live performances. Loser.
3) (dialogue from TLW)
Scorsese: What about women and the road?
Manuel: I love ‘em! That’s probably why we’ve been on the road. That’s it. Not that I don’t like the music.