Tears of Rage: on Modern Americana and The Band

"What must artists working in the tradition of Americana do in order to create work that remains a viable source of love and joy?"

At 17, I was satisfied by very little other than six inch spliffs and the spoils of my dorm’s vending machine.

I had recently begun attending Bard College in upstate New York and, being a city kid, the idyllic area’s strange stillness felt wholly unmooring. A naturally precocious child, I had grown used to waltzing passed bouncers un-carded and unlimited adventures across the city for $2, courtesy of the MTA. Arriving in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, I kicked myself for this voluntary exile from urban life, but affirmed tirelessly the two main reasons I had chosen this school:

  1. Literally nowhere else would have me.
  2. It boasted a robust rock n’ roll folklore—the vandals allegedly took those handles at that there gas station! Donald Fagan and Walter Becker were never coming back to this old school!

Most alluring of all were the whispers that The Band had once used the campus as a place to score chicks.

Thankfully, I have matured slightly—my criteria for destinations is no longer based solely on the possibility that a bunch of talented drunks may wanna fuck me. But at that point, when it still was, said talented drunks were either dead, never looking back from their gilded Malibu perches, or just too old for me. I was forty years too late and depressed as hell about it.

I have always loved music—specifically the type that could now be categorized as “Classic Rock.” When I was little, I operated under the grave misconception that one day I would grow up to be the same age as David Bowie and we could be friends. I did not consider then that time stops for no one, not even the gods of sex and sounds. There would always be unbridgeable gaps between me and the things that I loved so much it hurt.

Nostalgia for something you have never experienced can yield untenable melancholy. But when I learned that Levon Helm was not only alive, but well and just across the river, playing concerts in his home every Saturday night, some sorrow lifted.

Soon enough, a crumbling minivan, moonlighting as a taxi, transported me through the dead of winter, down Tinker Street, up the driveway to Levon’s house, and back in time. When I arrived, I discovered my version of heaven: a group of (retired) Hell’s Angels content in their new lives as Levon’s security detail, a blazing fire pit swarmed by fans from near and far and all in pleasant shock at their proximity to a hero, and a whole table of homemade pies that were FREE. And then there was Ophelia! And Evangeline! And Jemima!

Could I stay? They needed valet parkers! I could do that! But could I drive? No!

I was lucky enough to attend a few more of these Midnight Rambles before Levon’s death in 2012. It would be the closest I would ever get to The Band—but why was I so set on being close to them anyway? What was it about this group of mostly Canadian strangers, dressed as vague frontiersmen and howling at the American moon, that made a New York girl by way of London feel so at home?

This country became my home when I was five years old but my status as an outsider was early felt. In kindergarten, my school mandated speech therapy in an attempt to knock the charming British-isms out of me. Soon after, I picked up on the multitude of “American” things my family didn’t do: we didn’t go camping or bar-be-cue. There was no sunblock or even swimsuits, really (apparently that’s European?). We fought publicly and smoked profusely. While I knew some of these things certified us “bohemian,” I also craved to feel that I belonged in the place I lived: I wanted to be American.

I hear that same yearning in the raw nerve that is Richard Manuel’s voice and piano. I hear it in the faux confidence of Rick Danko. I hear it in Robbie Robertson’s ambitious guitar and Garth Hudson’s meandering organ—as if the more notes he plays, the more likely someone is to finally hear him. Maybe I’m just projecting, but to me, The Band ooze a desire to belong to something. How else do you explain four Canadian boys latching on to one Southern man and whittling his American-ness into their own identity?

Much of the lyrical content of The Band’s songs concerns itself with (oftentimes, unsavory aspects of) American history. But this is not what cements The Band as the pure pioneers of the American sound that they are. Rather, it was their longing to be something other than who they were. After all, what could be more American than pursuing your dreams at full force and leaving everything behind in order to do so?

In this new and devastating American age, wherein white supremacy is normalized and the rights of so many are under feverish attack, I wonder at how we can continue the tradition of American art-making both radically and responsibly. What must artists working in the tradition of Americana do in order to create work that remains a viable source of love and joy, a solid receptacle for loneliness and tears of rage in the world?

Art is profoundly capable of creating social change, and to be an American artist now is to wear that burden even heavier. Looking to my heroes, I see a clue. The Band were not just waxing poetic about harvests that wouldn’t come—they were splitting themselves open for you to see truth of who they were, to hear every vulnerability, disappointment and ounce of heartache. The long black veil was just the mask through which they could be more themselves. And in a political climate riddled with corruption and lies, American artists must tell their truth.

(Photo Credit: Left, Wyndham Boylan-Garnett; Right, Elliott Landy)

Lola Kirke is no stranger to shape-shifting—as an actress with a steadily ascending star, she’s had major roles in David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, as well as the Golden Globe-winning Amazon show Mozart in the Jungle. While less in the fore, her passion for music has stayed constant, with her guitar following her from dressing room to dressing room.

Born to a musical family, Lola embarked on her own musical journey with her four-track EP released in 2016. Tracked live to tape in East Los Angeles and produced by frequent collaborator Wyndham Garnett (Elvis Perkins in Dearland, WYNDHAM) her debut LP Heart Head West, asserts her as part of the artistic tradition she holds so dear: delivering her own heart, laid bare for someone else to hear as theirs.