The Band, “We Can Talk” from Music from Big Pink (1968): Across the Great Divide

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A key line from this Richard Manuel song, “one voice for all,” says everything about the way the Band constructed Music from Big Pink, and what made them so utterly unique in their own time.

Arriving amidst a period of flinty individualism, they were an air-tight unit, singing and writing as one. In the same way that “The Weight” remains this beautifully inscrutable mystery — just as fascinating, whether you ever figure out precisely what’s at stake or not — so does “We Can Talk” rattle along like a happy-go-lucky riddle with no concise answer as to what’s going on ever offered. Or, really, ever needed.

Manuel’s piece, which originally arrived after turning the album over, almost works like a flip-side realization: “We Can Tall” is no less obscure, no less complex than “The Weight,” just a whole lot more fun.

In fact, it’s easy to see this one being performed in that legendary basement that became the Band’s creative crucible, with Rick Danko and Manuel singing as if on either side of the mic, and Levon Helm hooting from a step further back. They sing in spaciously layered, gospel-inspired cadences, harmonizing and then separating with such a loose sense of fraternity that even this song’s most deliriously offbeat lyrical formulations (“There’s no need to slave, the whip is the grave”; “I’d rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the South,” etc.) work despite the inherent lack of internal logic.

This kind of hootenanny makes such quibbles seem untoward.

Manuel coaxes the perfect churchy sounds from his piano, while Garth Hudson’s merry-go-round organ adds to the party atmosphere. Robertson then unleashes a hilariously off-kilter, almost psychedelic turn on the guitar. All of it gives “We Can Talk” this loose, incomplete, utterly real sensibility. In the end, this is the work of people who believe in what they’re doing, who believe in one another, completely. So cryptic, so familial, so deep and joyous and strangely alliterative is this song, there’s a whole world to be discovered inside the one line “Do you really care?”

Yet, if you don’t own Music from Big Pink, you’re unlikely to come across “We Can Talk” — despite a seemingly endless set of Band-related compilations in recent memory. That’s a shame, and not just because this is that rare song in the Richard Manuel canon that doesn’t reside in ruminative twilight.

In some ways, “We Can Talk” is also another perfect distillation of what made — what makes — the Band such an endlessly fascinating study. They don’t give you the answers and, if you really get inside the moment, you find you don’t need them. That’s why “We Can Talk” belongs where it always was, right alongside “The Weight.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Alison

    “There’s no need to slave, the whip is the grave”; “I’d rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the South,” etc.) work despite the inherent lack of internal logic.

    These lines don’t make sense to you?

    Once, I was asked if I had ever tipped a cow. (look it up). To my eternal regret I failed to say “I had a chance one day, but I was all dressed up for Sunday” (the person who asked would have gotten it).
    Love this song.

    • Alison

      Meant to add – this was a nice piece (even with the fact that the two lines you seemed to think are nonsensical, I think are rather profound. Maybe being Canadian helps).

    • Mike

      Listening to the way Levon hits those drums during the line “the whip is the grave “is one of the great joys in life.

  • TJ

    Knowing these guys as well as I did, I want to add that you musn’t take this tune out of the context of it’s times, the Civil Rights movement had made great gains by 67-68 but this was still a sensitive topic and THE BAND did not want to be identified as a “political group” and Albert Grossman wanted it that way as well for them. The two most colorblind white musicians I’ve ever known were Paul Butterfield and Levon Helm, not to say any of the others were prejudiced but these two stood out from the rest, they were fantastic examples of how we all should be..! You can hear my recordings with Garth Hudson by clicking my website link.. TJ

  • Every Mann

    Their most compelling tune.

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