‘They’s Winners & They’s Losers . . .’

Last November, I was invited by a Facebook friend to join a group of writers who each post once a week at a blog called Consortium of Seven. The other six folks post about TV and movie delights, about art, about trawling thrift stores, about life. I write about music. Some of the posts I’ve offered there are original to the day; others are revisions of things I’ve offered here during the past fourteen years, The other Monday, I revamped an older post from here, writing about The Band and a moment of serendipity, and I thought I’d share the result here.

My list of musical “must-have” groups and performers is fairly short. By that I mean performers and groups whose official releases I always acquire. When Bruce Springsteen releases a new CD or box set, I buy it. When the Tedeschi Trucks Band comes out with something new, I buy it. And there are three or four others.

Some groups and performers have fallen off that list: I bought everything the Indigo Girls did for more than a decade, then stopped, either because their newer stuff had lost the shining edge they’d displayed during the late 1980s and through the 1990s or because I’d lost the listening ear to hear that edge. I used to buy everything Eric Clapton brought out, but I didn’t enjoy the last few CDs of his that came my way. (And as his behavior during the pandemic has revealed, he’s kind of a dick, which would blunt at least a little my enjoyment of his new work.)

One group that remains on the must-have list is The Band, originally a collection of four Canadians – Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson – and Arkansan Levon Helm, who released several superb albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s (and a few others that had at least flashes of brilliance through 1977, with a live, guest-studded, farewell album in 1978). The group, without Robertson, resumed touring in the 1980s and lost Manuel to suicide.

In the 1990s, the remaining trio – Danko, Hudson and Helm – recruited new players and reassumed the mantle of The Band, releasing three CDs. The albums weren’t as good as the group’s best work from the early years – the lack of Robertson’s often-brilliant songwriting hurt – but they were good sturdy work, nestled in what is now called Americana, the genre that I will always contend was established by the group’s work in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I came across that 1990s resurrection by accident, a year or two after the first of those three efforts – Jericho – was released in 1993. I was driving through the suburbs north of Minneapolis, heading toward my home in the southern portion of the city with the radio likely turned to Minneapolis’ KTCZ, which then and now bills itself as Cities 97. And then from the speaker came the strum of a mandolin followed by the unmistakable voice of Levon Helm, singing the immediately recognized words of “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen:

Well, they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night
And they blew up his house, too
Down on the boardwalk, they’re ready for a fight
Gonna see what them racket boys can do

Now, there’s trouble busin’ in from outta state
And the D.A. can’t get no relief
Gonna be a rumble on the promenade
And the gamblin’ comissioner’s hangin’ on by the skin of his teeth

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Well, I got a job and I put my money away
But I got the kind of debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew out what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold
But with you forever I’ll stay
We’ll be goin’ out where the sand turns to gold
But put your stockings on, ’cause it might get cold

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Now, I’ve been a-lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find
They’s winners and they’s losers and I’m south of the line
Well, I’m tired of getting’ caught out on the losin’ end
But I talked to a man last night, gonna do a little favor for him

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Oh, meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Oh, meet me tonight in Atlantic City

The track faced away in a swirl of accordion, which by that time I recognized came from the fingers of Garth Hudson, and as I neared home, I made a mental note to visit a nearby music store and get the cassette of what had to be a new album by The Band. (A blogging friend of mine insisted to the day he left this earth that without Robertson, the group could not be The Band, but I’m a little less literal on that.)

And as the 1990s passed and the new century came, I got a CD player and began to collect the works of The Band – and the other must-haves – in that format. Though new releases ended when Danko and Helm followed Manuel to wherever we go when our work here is done, reissues continue: I recently acquired fiftieth anniversary packages – both expanded with previously unreleased material – of the 1968 album Music From Big Pink and the 1971 album Stage Fright.

Those will be fine listening, I’m certain. But I’m also certain that no smile is going to break on my face as wide as the one that came during that mid-1990s drive when I realized that The Band – in whatever form – was back and I heard the group’s take on “Atlantic City” for the first time:

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