THE BAND: MUSIC FROM BIG PINK (1968)
1) Tears Of Rage; 2) To Kingdom Come; 3) In A Station; 4) Caledonia Mission; 5) The Weight; 6) We Can Talk; 7) Long Black Veil; 8) Chest Fever; 9) Lonesome Suzie; 10) This Wheel's On Fire; 11) I Shall Be Released.
As the elder prophets of the whole wide world of «roots rock», it is only fair, I guess, that The Band was, if not born, then at least definitively baptized in The Basement — with Dylan as parent, priest, and godfather all at once. Before 1967, «The Hawks» were basically just a faceless (and, apparently, not very good) rock'n'roll outfit. But much of Bob's spirit rubbed off on them while they served as his backing band in 1966 and especially while recording together in Woodstock a year later, during Bob's recuperation period.
From that point of view, The Band — even their name is really just a truncated version of «Bob Dylan and the Band» — are essentially a «daughter branch» of Mr. Zimmerman's enterprise. Ponderous lyrics whose «meaning» should be extracted from keywords and intonations rather than wholesale analysis, guruistic attitudes, blues/folk/country chord sequences, hybridization of traditional «Americana» with modernistic approaches — all these things they have in common, even if Robbie Robertson and his pals may not have directly acquired all of them from Bob and Bob only. Still, behind all that they managed to stake a claim all their own already on their first (and, in my humble opinion, their best) album — even despite the fact that it opens with a Dylan cover, and closes with two more Dylan covers.
The obvious factological difference is that The Band is, after all, a band, and places heavy emphasis on musical arrangements and «technicality» — not «virtuosity», which none of its members ever had or ever even strived to achieve, but the utmost care is given to the issues of putting every instrument in its rightful place, and getting exactly as much from that instrument as is required for each song. Not to mention that almost every member is an accomplished singer, and, although they were never big on harmonies, the collective range of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm should be angelic balm on the wounds of those who failed the task of stomaching the resonations of their teacher.
But that's just technical, after all. Where The Band really went their own way was heaviness, and if you are dead set against it from the start, do not even think of listening to their records. The Band took themselves and their attitude seriously — very seriously — from the very start, they implicitly claimed to have shouldered The Rock of Ages, and if you deny them that right, chances are that you will never get along. Unlike Dylan, The Band never ever had a true sense of humor, never showed a single glimpse of a tongue-in-cheek attitude. This is a dangerous way of conducting things — it leaves you no space to retreat when pressed against the wall, and total failure is very easy: all it takes is a lack of talent, or just no sense of direction.
The good news is that, as it turned out, The Band had more than enough talent to burn, and the two years spent with Bob made the direction as precise and easy to follow as possible. On their first album, there is no filler — more than that, there are no real highlights and lowlights, no matter how much one could single out ʽThe Weightʼ on the strength of its ubiquitous "take a load off, Fanny" chorus. In fact, today I am more and more inclined to take all the eleven songs on Big Pink as separate movements of a lengthy, coherent, conceptual, single-minded, single-mooded suite — and also one, may I add, that sounds just as fresh and relevant today as it did in 1968. Maybe even more relevant (depending on whether humanity has indeed gotten dumber over the years or if that's just a statistical illusion).
The suite is, of course, heavily dependent on a sort of «Bible Spirit» that these guys nurture, although nobody is inviting us to interpret the album as a straightforward celebration of Christian or even Judaistic values (not any more than ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ a year later would be intended to stimulate us to whip out the Confederation flag). Mostly slow, stately, emotional tunes, with Garth Hudson's classically-influenced organ and Richard Manuel's blues-and-jazz-influenced piano dominating over Robbie Robertson's rock'n'rollish guitar licks, with «pleading» and «weeping» as the dominant vocal intonations and catharsis as the generally intended effect. And how does it work?
Well, if it does not work over the first thirty seconds — first, with Robertson's «throaty» guitar, run through a «black box» for plaintive effect, and then with Manuel's tragic ring of "we carried you in our arms on Independence Day...", then it just doesn't work, period. But for me, it does. Richard may be overdoing it — he is almost overstepping his regular physical boundaries — but there is no sense of a theatrical or, God forbid, «commercial» exaggeration in his singing. On ʽTears Of Rageʼ and on every other song, The Band are self-appointed prophets fresh from the pages of the Old Testament, a pack of Jeremiahs weeping into their beards over [insert your own favorite of humanity's cardinal sins], and they do mean it and they do believe it, and, in the end, I catch myself believing them, too.
It helps a lot that, at this stage, The Band was still very much a collective force and did not particularly suffer from the domination of one single person — Robbie Robertson does claim credit for the record's biggest hit and three other songs, but he does not sing much, allows others to come up with their own ideas as well, and, in the end, Music From Big Pink is this stately-solemn keyboard-fuelled dirge to the goodness of humanity, rather than the jerkier, rockier guitar-centered music that The Band switched on to after Robertson became their unofficial director / dictator and chief songwriter. This gives Pink an even more respectable — and, the way I have always felt it, much less forgettable — face than whatever followed.
The three Dylan covers (well, two are actually co-credited to Bob and members of The Band) are the obvious highlights — particularly ʽI Shall Be Releasedʼ, sung by Manuel entirely in a mega-vulnerable, breaking-point falsetto that has managed to take my breath away every time I heard it. It is also extremely well-placed at the very end of the record, a drop of spiritual optimism / redemption after all the self-tormenting and obscure confessions, and Manuel's interpretation of the lyrics — he delivers them like an opera hero on the brink of expiring from consumption — is one of the best, I think, in Dylan history, right up there with the Byrds' ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ and other cases of people taking the implicit beauty in Bob's work and making it explicit.
But even without Dylan, Big Pink would still be just as big. ʽThe Weightʼ is nonsense when taken literally, but apparently, neither Aretha Franklin nor the rest of the armies of soul performers who took it up were intent on taking it literally — all they heard was a swing between the suffering vibe (verse, relayed from one member to the other) and the redemption vibe (chorus, shared by all the members), and they took it as authentic, and so should everyone because it is: this is no fake preaching shit à la mode, this is The Band's signature song for spiritual relief, and I do feel that relief when singing along — although mostly, it probably has to do with those lilting, powerful piano chords that build a little stairway up to each chorus.
But there are plenty of other «elegant prayers» on the record — ʽIn A Stationʼ melancholically slides along, meditating about life, love, and the essential uselessness of both; ʽCaledonia Missionʼ epitomizes the sadness of the universe ("hear me if you're near me, can I just rearrange it?" is one of the most sadly intoned lines I've ever heard in a pop song); ʽLong Black Veilʼ, yanked out of the popular traditional repertoire because its words and mood fit in with the purposes of Big Pink to a tee, is quickly echoed by The Band's own ʽLonesome Suzieʼ. Only ʽChest Feverʼ, with its grinding harshness, stands somewhat apart and does not have a lot of sense — many people must have subconsciously felt that the whole song was like a long outro to Garth Hudson's passionate, Bach-derived solo in the intro, and The Band would later play up to that feeling by allowing Garth to really stretch out on that intro in concert, turning it into a full-fledged instrumental showcase of baroque solemnity and sternness.
Still, I do not want to concentrate much on individual songs: the more I try to, the tougher Big Pink sticks together as one inseparable entity. A pretentious entity, yes, and maybe even an insult to those who think that traditionally oriented music should not be spoiled with the arsenal of beat poetry (but why not?), or that it should not be «sanctified» and «sacralized» by an overtly intellectualized approach (but what's the harm?). Like any influential album, Music From Big Pink is indirectly responsible for much evil in this world, including, among other things, the artistic meltdown of Eric Clapton, but that is also an indication of its greatness — it ought to have taken a really strong record to make a tough guy like Eric start seriously thinking about a change in his musical direction. In a way, Music From Big Pink really was that first record which started to turn «rock» into an institution — it certainly was one of the first rock records that sounded like it was made by old, wisened, experienced people, rather than fresh, hot, sizzling body-and -soul grub for the young ones. And just look at how much facial hair was shared between all the band members, too — most rockers still preferred a clean shave in 1968.
All this might make it kinda hard to get a real hard kick out of Big Pink when you are still mostly driven by instincts, gut reactions, and usually prefer to increase your collection with hardcore and power pop rather than somebody sounding like a mix of Woody Guthrie, Alan Ginsberg, Moses, and Aharon. Once you get older, though, or go through some decelerating experience (losing a leg, for instance, or a loved one), Music From Big Pink — and I guarantee this with a 90% certainty — is one of those relatively few truly beautiful pieces of music that will offer a good dose of spiritual healing. Thumbs up for one of the best albums of 1968.
PS. The CD reissue is essential for all the remastering jobs and informative liner notes, but not necessarily for the bonus tracks — most are just alternate takes with minor variations or versions of songs that should rather be heard on Bob Dylan & The Band's Basement Tapes. Although, of course, a song like ʽKatie's Been Goneʼ completely belongs, in form and spirit, on Big Pink proper, no question about it.
Check "Music From Big Pink" (MP3) on Amazon