Ten years ago this month Port Townsend music fans were all atwitter about an appearance by Garth Hudson, a key member of the revered musical monolith known as The Band. Hudson and his wife, Maud, were slated to perform at The Upstage, a then venerated and now sorely missed local performance venue.
The three day visit left the townsfolk with a range of impressions. Some basked in his genius and marveled how his mind worked. Others admired what he once was, but weren’t happy about being kept waiting. Still others perceived him as an old guy unable to meet his commitments or get out of the room at checkout time. But some patient souls were willing to approach him at his own speed and made a friend for life.
Hudson, 84, is now living in a care facility in New York’s coincidentally named Hudson Valley, where, we are told, it doesn’t look good.
The adventure began in early August 2011, when Upstage owner Mark Cole found a copy of “Cahoots,” the band’s fourth album, on a table outside of the club. He brought it inside and placed it behind the bar, where it was unclaimed. A few weeks later he received a call from guitarist Eric Fridrich, offering the opportunity to book Garth later in the month. Fortunately he had two open dates. He gave Fridrich a firm yes and began spreading the word.
Prior to his arrival I conducted a 30 minute phone interview with Garth for the Peninsula Daily News. I had a list of questions, which he largely ignored in favor of a music history lesson. He was less interested in the history of rock and roll than in the swing era of the 1940s, before guitars took over. He passed on questions about Bob Dylan and preferred to talk about how Bach walked 200 miles to learn from one of his idols.
“This is amazing when you consider what they wore on their feet in those days,” he said. I used the quote in the article, managing to isolate enough other quotes to suggest that the conversation took place in a linear fashion.
The concert drew a capacity crowd. Eric’s band played for about 45 minutes, all the while looking for Garth’s arrival. A stage assistant went to the hotel to retrieve them, tapped on the door and let himself in. Maud was in her underwear while Garth worked on a portable keyboard. Unhappy with the entrance, Maud announced she would not take the stage.
Minutes later Mark and I were outside their closed door, cajoling them to appear. Maud responded in a surly tone, but in an accent Cole recognized.
“I asked her if she was from Lynbrook – or Long Island (New York).” Cole said. “My mom had the same accent. She was, in fact. From that point on we had no problem getting them out and on way to the Upstage, other than that Maud was in a wheelchair. Garth seemed a bit fragile, a little bent over and moving slowly and carefully, but he was sweetly and truly trying his best to take care of his lady.”
All this kept the audience waiting, but they applauded enthusiastically at Garth’s entrance. It shifted into reverence as he wheeled Maud through the club, down a ramp and onto the stage.
After a while the crowd’s mood shifts from starstruck fascination to irritation and impatience. Garth puttered around the stage setting up as if the audience didn’t exist. No one spoke because the man was working, though not very quickly. Just when people were about to lose patience and go home the music began. They sounded good. Few people left.
Eric’s band was crisp, but Maud’s vocals were all over the map. She killed on a version of “Don’t Do It,” and her reading of “The Weight” gave the standard its due. It sounded nothing like the original, but that was the point.
While acknowledging that Maud had a “homeless and reclusive look,” Cole said the show itself, when it got started, was great. The audience was responsive. And when Maude finally sang, she belted out in a professional and mighty way in entire contradiction to her appearance and her previous behavior.
“”Essentially, the stage was hers. The audience was hers. Fragile-appearing Garth also transformed into the remarkable performer as he is known.”
Cole had decided to book them for a second night. I declined to participate and went home before the whole thing could unfold again.
But go home, and you never know what you’ll miss. The crowd winnowed down to a quartet, Garth, Eric and Maud. Garth wandered back to the piano, playing a long improvised passage. Eric returned to his guitar and Cole, cheekily, sat behind the drums.
“I do not remember how long we played, but after experiencing one of the strangest restauranteur and club owner moments of my life, experiencing one of the finest performances of my life, I played with a couple of the greatest entertainers of my life,” said Cole, who used to play drums in bands and had had kept his skills sharp. The resident Upstage drum kit was his own, and he managed to still practice, between everything else
Ten Years After
Last month I attended a guitar camp in the Catskills (www.campcripplecreek.com) that celebrated the Band’s legacy. I surmised that Garth would be there. He lives nearby, after all. But it wasn’t gonna happen. Asking around, I learned that Garth was living in a nearby care facility, using various euphemisms to describe his imminent mortality.
Through the week campers spoke with reverence about Garth, along with deceased Band members Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. This contrasted with Robbie Robertson, the titular leader who broke up the Band against the wishes of his mates and allegedly cheated them out of royalties. If someone mentioned him, you would expect them to spit on the ground — if not for COVID.
Garth was perceived as a victim of opportunists, such as those who foreclosed on his storage locker and sold off his memorabilia despite offers to sell it to friends of Band drummer Levon Helm. Garth is not unique among his crew in his old age, but it’s clear that no one was there to help him through the hard times. This, it is said, also applies to deceased Band members Manuel and Danko.
I toyed with the idea of stopping in for a visit, to close the loop on this particular story. I decided not to because I didn’t have the nerve, and the choice was removed when COVID closed the facility to visitors.
I was reluctant to share my Garth story with the other “campers” because it was less than reverent. One attendee shared his experiences with Garth at a music venue in the Midwest, where the two struck up a kinship and were soon finishing each other’s sentences. Having some clue as to how Garth’s mind works I was awed, determining that some people shared his wavelength but most do not. A journalist using the standard article template will not make the cut, while a fellow musician tuned into his process will walk away with a permanent connection.
On the last day of camp management left Garth’s address on the merchandise table, encouraging people to drop him a line. While he is physically disabled we are told that he is mentally acute, and enjoys hearing from people. He often responds.
For the time being, you can send a physical letter to Garth Hudson, Ten Broek Commons, 1 Commons Drive, Lake Katrine, NY 12449.
We all face the possibility of ending up in a care facility, whether we are former rock stars or former journalists. You may never get the opportunity to connect with people like Charlie Watts, Don Everly, or any of the others who have passed away this month, but if you pay attention you may find that a once prominent artist, musician or notable is in a facility nearby. You then have the opportunity to say what they meant to you, and sometimes they will actually listen. Come to think of it, that applies to everyone; famous or not, in or out of a care facility. Tell people what they meant to you, while they are cognizant enough to understand.
Author’s note: Cole called me down to the club a few weeks after the show, gifting me with the now-autographed copy of Cahoots. It doesn’t play very well, but is a permanent part of my ever expanding and contracting vinyl collection.
He closed the Upstage in 2013 against his wishes. The temporary closure meant to rehabilitate the floor and the kitchen was stymied when the owner found a lot of expensive issues that could not be fixed. After a few years in Port Angeles, he now lives in Gold Hill, Oregon where he is refurbishing a rental.
Top feature photo by Charlie Bermant