The Band, “Chest Fever” from Music from Big Pink (1968): Across the Great Divide

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It starts out as Bach, and then it becomes something entirely guttural, midnight funky, so completely dangerous. And that’s all before anybody but Garth Hudson does a thing on “Chest Fever.”

Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, featured in a whoopingly doubled vocal, add their own shambolic character to Robbie Robertson’s strange tale of romantic atonement — and then there’s that boozy interlude, with its memorably humorous wheeze. Still, this will always be Hudson’s moment, a foundation for every argument as to his status as the Band’s most underrated musical element.

It was producer John Simon’s idea, Hudson has said, to attach his prelude to “Chest Fever,” providing a rare showcase for an individualist who had chosen the Lowrey organ over the far more popular Hammond B-3. Hudson’s initial solo was edited down, though the Band would provide ample space for its return in concert over the years.

Eventually, the piece would get its own name, “The Genetic Method.” But whatever his flights of improvisational fancy, Hudson always settles into the same titanic groove — just in time for Robertson’s canny reversal of the oft-told admonition about a bad boy and a good girl to unfold.

“Chest Fever,” in as much as the narrative can be unraveled at all, seems to be about a lovestruck sop who finds every successive horror story about his beloved all the more enthralling. It goes to the point of dizzying sickness, really, as revealed in that hilarious bridge. Rick Danko saws on a fiddle while Hudson and Simon take a snoozy turn on their saxes. Manuel then cries: “I don’t think I’m gonna last” before Helm adds with carnal delight: “Very much longer!,” and by then Hudson has charged back in with a malevolent wink.

Robertson, for his part, has insisted that the words were simply jumbled placeholders, odd snippets of half-heard thoughts that mean less than we’ve come to imagine.

“I’m not sure that I know the words to ‘Chest Fever,'” he once said, backing away from any literal interpretation. “I’m not even so sure there are words to ‘Chest Fever.'”

Hudson, meanwhile, has certainly taken that improvisational idea to heart, never playing the intro the same way twice. “It became a chance for the rest of us to take a breather,” Robertson has said. “Garth would just go out there and fuck up everybody’s head for a few minutes.”

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