With its watery guitar intro and decaying drum pattern, “Tears of Rage” quickly established the Band as something entirely different — even before Richard Manuel’s devastating vocal began. This was an album-, and career-, opening track like few others.
The idea used to be that you kicked off such things with an up-tempo rocker, not something so darkly elegiac — something so clouded by troubled times. Instead, the Band began its debut album with a song (featuring lyrics by Bob Dylan and a melody from Manuel) about parental heartbreak, and in so doing put forward a lasting metaphor for a nation still learning how to deal with a generation of children returning from an unpopular war.
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Certainly, its first-line Independence Day imagery must have cut deeply for a generation trying to come to terms with the wreckage of the 1960s dream. So much once seen as iron-clad promise at the beginning of the decade had become muddled and confused in an eruption of violence, perhaps most graphically in the fields of Vietnam — but also at home, in the streets of Detroit and of Watts, on a hotel balcony in Memphis and in a kitchen pass through at Los Angeles.
Much of that anguish plays out in the completely interior world of “Tears of Rage,” which features one of Manuel’s very best vocal performances. As he tries to make sense of how things turn out once something is set free, he could be referring only to a child (in something of a King Lear rerun), or a soldier, or a nation. The song, written during The Basement Tapes era when Dylan was the only father among the bunch, works on a number of different levels — a credit to the stirring artistry of all involved.
“Tears of Rage” had been earlier fronted by Dylan, during 1967 sessions at Big Pink, and appears on the Band’s debut in slightly altered form. Every subtle edit, however, seems to give the song a deeper resonance. Where Dylan originally sang “you throw us all aside and put us on our way,” Manuel’s “put us all away” cuts deeper. Dylan’s “to wait upon him hand and foot, yet always answer no” evolves into the far more direct “always tell him no.” His “we pointed out the way to go” is transformed into “pointed you the way to go.” Then “while we watched you discover there was no one true” becomes, in Manuel’s hands, “no would would be true.” They were small, but important, changes — indications that Robbie Robertson and Co. had developed a more complete understanding of the rough sketches they’d worked on the previous year, and of songcraft itself.
Put aside, for a moment, Manuel’s crying vocal — something of such power that it always tends to define “Tears of Rage,” even in the maelstrom of Woodstock — and focus on Levon Helm’s work on the toms. It’s something not often said about rhythm players, but his moaning performance could be accurately described as shatteringly emotional. Every moment of Helm’s cadence plays out with an excruciating loneliness, setting the stage perfectly for what happens as Manuel ramps up into this heart-breaking interpretation of a line that, decades later, would come to accurately describe the fin de siècle feel of the late-1960s: “You know, we’re so alone — and life is brief.”
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