One Voice For All

The Influence Of Music From Big Pink, The Band’s First Album

Photo by Elliott Landy

For those familiar with the album Music From Big Pink, the title brings to mind quaint images of the house where the legendary basement tapes with Bob Dylan took place. Even though The Band didn’t actually record Music From Big Pink in Big Pink, the album conveys the spirit of the Catskills Mountains. The Band cut five tracks at the A&R Studios in New York at the beginning of 1968. Then, yearning to escape the winter, they flew to Los Angeles to finish the recordings. 

Most of those songs were created in the pink house where Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson — and briefly, Levon Helm — lived for a while. As Dominique Bourgeois, Robbie Robertson’s girlfriend, wrote in the album notes: “A pink house seated in the sun of Overlook Mountain in West Saugerties, New York. Big Pink bore this music and these songs along the way. It’s the first witness of the album that’s been thought and composed right there inside its walls.”

It was perhaps predictable that Bob Dylan offered to play on the album, but Robbie declined. Yet, The Band used one of his primitive paintings for the album cover — a cover that didn’t feature the band’s name. Another oddity for 1968: the album included a photo called Next Of Kin. Taken by Elliott Landy in Simcoe, Ontario, on Rick’s brother’s farm, the picture reunited the families of The Band. 

Music From Big Pink changed the musical landscape. It possesses some innocence, but also a refinement uncommon for a debut album. In his memoir, Levon Helm said, “We wanted Music From Big Pink to sound like nothing anyone else was doing. ” Definitely, they found their own voice. In a way, this album belongs to Woodstock, but it doesn’t exactly belongs to the 1960s. Music From Big Pink is ageless; it combines seamlessly soulful tracks and pastoral tales from another era.  

The cover of Music From Big Pink, painted by Bob Dylan

Tears Of Rage

We carried you in our arms on Independence Day. These powerful lyrics, sung like an angel by Richard Manuel, are the first on the album. Tears Of Rage is a beautiful song, but it came as a shock in 1968 and clashed with the music of those psychedelic times. In his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm said, “Few artists had ever opened an album with a slow song, so we had to.” Indeed, this first track, co-written by Richard Manuel and Bob Dylan, is the perfect introduction to The Band. 

To Kingdom Come

Robbie didn’t consider himself as a singer. Besides, The Band already had three wonderful voices: Richard, Rick and Levon. Yet, Robbie ended up singing his composition To Kingdom Come. After the quasi-religious experience of Tears Of Rage, this track changes the mood with his funky groove. It doesn’t seem out of place, however; it fits with the rest of the eclectic album. Moreover, Robbie displays his talent with a splendid solo at the end of the song.

In A Station

 I already wrote about this song in my piece Something To Feel. Still, there is so much to say about this Richard Manuel’s composition, which is one of my favorites. The melodious intro carries us to Woodstock, in Richard’s secret world. In an interview with Ruth Spencer for The Woodstock Times in 1985, Richard said, “I like to get out and wander around in nature sometimes. That song, In A Station, was totally inspired by Overlook Mountain.” He also said he thought of it as his George Harrison type song. It’s one of Richard Manuel’s treasures, a lovely song with introspective lyrics.

Caledonia Mission

Caledonia was a Canadian town, where Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, would drive by on the way to Six Nations to visit his family. Caledonia Mission is the first song of the album where Rick has the lead vocal with his singular voice. An unconventional voice, but a beautiful one. Robbie couldn’t put it better than he did in Testimony: “Back in the studio, I was enjoying Rick’s vocal on Caledonia Mission. The texture of his voice sounded so honest, so natural.”

The Weight

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead/I just need some place where I can lay my head. The Weight is probably the most known song on Music From Big Pink, and even from The Band. Yet, it almost didn’t make the album. Robbie wrote this masterpiece, inspired by Luis Buñuel’s films, and by actual characters who were part of the life of The Band. The structure of the song is peculiar. Levon sings the first three verses, and Rick sings the iconic Crazy Chester part. All along The Weight, Richard Manuel’s falsetto follows the melody of his organ part — indeed, he and Garth switched instruments for the recording of The Weight.

We Can Talk

We Can Talk is a Richard Manuel’s composition, different from his other contributions to Music From Big Pink. This one is almost absurd, but somehow, it shows Richard’s ability to reflect on the world. Through the song, Richard, Rick and Levon’s voices answered each other with obvious joy. One voice for all/Echoing along the hall. These words are the spirit of the song. And it’s impossible not to mention the evocative line: Stop me if I should sound kinda down in the mouth/But I’d rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the South. Modest as usual, Richard said about this song, “I don’t know where that gospel thing came from. I just got up one morning and found it on the piano.”

Long Black Veil

Long Black Veil fully reveals Rick’s talent, both as singer and bassist. This haunting song, first recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, seems to belong to another century. It’s the brutal story of a man hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. He refused to tell his alibi for the night of the murder: I spoke not a word although it meant my life/I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.

Chest Fever

Garth Hudson was the virtuoso in a band with four other accomplished musicians, which is saying a lot. Chest Fever is his song, even though his talent shines through the entire album. In concert, he would play a long intro called Genetic Method. The lyrics are nonsense, but all that matters here is the complex melody. Because, as Levon Helm wisely said, you don’t remember the lyrics, but the organ part. 

Lonesome Suzie

After the euphoria of Chest Fever, we came back to earth abruptly with the heartbreaking Lonesome Suzie. I wrote about this song in my piece The Lonesome Tale Of Richard Manuel. The Band had the arduous choice of deciding between Katie’s Been Gone, a Manuel/Robertson composition,and Lonesome Suzie. They let the producer, John Simon decide, and the latter made the final cut. Like In A Station, Suzie is a contemplative piece that offers a glimpse into Richard’s sensitive mind.

This Wheel’s On Fire

This Wheel’s On Fire is a contribution between Rick Danko and Bob Dylan, written during the basement tapes. Bob gave the typewritten lyrics to Rick, who was teaching himself to play piano at the time. In an interview with Ruth Spencer for The Woodstock Times, he said, “I worked on the phrasing and the melody. Then Dylan and I wrote the chorus together.” They recorded it at Big Pink first, and this version, sung by Bob Dylan, differs from the one on Music From Big Pink. On The Band album, Rick adapted the song to his hyperactive temperament, whereas The Basement Tapes version has a slower tempo, and a quasi-apocalyptic vibe to it. On Music From Big Pink, it sounds like nothing else, because, as Levon explained,  “Garth got some distinctive sounds on that track by running a telegraph key through a Roxochord toy organ.” 

I Shall Be Released

The album opens with Richard Manuel’s voice, and it closes with him on lead vocal again. I Shall Be Released, written by Bob Dylan, sounds like a hymn. Not only because Richard sings it in his pure falsetto, but also because Rick and Levon add lovely harmonies . I see my light come shining/From the west down to the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released. These lyrics end Music From Big Pink, and when the silence falls, it’s almost unbearable. The only remedy to this melancholy is to listen to the album again. 

Sources:

Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

Ruth Spencer – The Woodstock Times, Vol. 14, no. 12, March 21, 1985 and Vol. 14, no. 15, April 11, 1985

2 thoughts on “One Voice For All

  1. Thank you so much for your article about my favorite album. I wasn’t aware that Dylan offered to perform on the album. I’m sure Robbie’s decision to decline his offer was based on the their wish to be on their own as a band. Well done!

    Like

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