An Irish band somewhere in France, the late 1990s. It already sounds more romantic than it is. They are recording, which brings the Rolling Stones and Exile On Main Street to mind. Except the Stones were there as tax exiles and brought a coterie of models, dealers and fixers with them. These lads, not so much.
They are living on a pittance but the studio, a mate’s, is cheap and has accommodation. By living frugally, the words ‘Recorded in France’ will appear on the album sleeve. This is worth any hardship, even the hunger which is becoming a daily trial.
It is keenest in the morning which coincides with their only daily treat: a cup of coffee on the seafront. Each day they smoke, as essential expense, and sip coffee as the seagulls swoop and the sun glistens on the Mediterranean. “We will remember these moments,” they all agree.
But the sun is also glistening on the croissants. These they cannot afford. Instead they are forced to watch as others tear at them, dip them in coffee and savour their buttery charms. They look away and drag deep on their cigarettes.
The singer hatches a plot. He resolves to stop smoking, save his money, and buy a croissant. He marks the days painfully but by Friday he is solvent. That morning he gleefully places the pastry on his tray and makes his way to the table. He sits back to enjoy the view: the blue sea, the black coffee, the golden brown treat.
But he never gets to taste it. Seconds later, the coffee is upturned, and the croissant is flying through the air. He has been pinned to the wall by the guitarist, who has, in music terms, ‘lost it’.
“I knew it! I knew it! You’re on a higher rate than us! Just because you’re the singer!” he screams.
“No! No! I’ve stopped smoking so I could afford a croissant,” the singer pleads.
They are amongst the last words spoken in the band, their career ended not by a brawl over a supermodel or the inequitable sharing of a multi-million selling album, but by a croissant, a laminated pastry too far.
I expected to see a few croissants, or their 1970s Woodstock equivalent, hash brownies perhaps, bandied about this week in Band of Brothers, Robbie Robertson’s paean to his time in The Band. Sadly it was not to be. By the time his bandmates realised Robbie had more croissants than them he was living in mansions even thermo-nuclear croissants could not reach.
It was a pity because The Band was an amazing band. They held Bob Dylan’s hand as he traversed the river from the Folk World to Rock‘N’Roll. Mostly Canadian, they somehow subsumed Dixieland culture and history and reflected it back at mid-Sixties America. As Time magazine said of them, in awe, “They have been to the mountain.”
And then it came to dividing the money. And Robbie, as the main songwriter, got the lion’s share, creating divisions between him and his ‘Band of Brothers’ that would haunt them, literally, to the grave. Robbie got to ‘pursue projects’; the others got to stay on the road forever.
I think Robbie was badly advised. There is no arguing with the fact that he wrote the songs, but would he have done so to such effect without the voices, talents, enthusiasm, time, encouragement and sacrifices of his Band of Brothers? Their unstinting belief, their support?
U2, REM and, ahem, Something Happens, are just some bands who took a more egalitarian approach to the sharing of publishing income. Is it coincidence that they have all stayed friends whilst The Band didn’t play together again after The Last Waltz? I think not.
Robertson repeats the Band of Brothers trope repeatedly, but hardly references the fact that he and Levon Helm, more his muse in The Band than his brother, hardly spoke in later years although he claims they had a death-bed reconciliation.
When Something Happens played a venue in Woodstock, about 1993, Helm was playing in a local house band. When I interviewed him in Dublin in the late ’90s he called me ‘Sir’ throughout . Rick Danko did the same. It has stuck in my mind forever. I’ve never figured it out. But I’ll say this: had I been in a band with men such as these, I’d have been more inclined to share out the croissants.