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.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • JC Mosquito

    Years ago I thought I’d invest some time and try to figure out what “Chest Fever” was really about. I came to the conclusion that it’s unknowable, much like the old Appalachian folk song classic “The Cuckoo Bird,” or perhaps even “The Murder Mystery” from The Velvet Underground’s third album. Maybe you’re better off NOT knowing what’s really going on in there.

  • Lonesome Suzie

    Funny, because “Chest Fever” is the song that best exemplifies the problems between Robbie and the rest of The Band as far as the songwriting credits go. He claimed sole responsibility for writing this song (as he did with most other Band songs) even though Levon and Richard are the ones who claim to have written it, together and totally improvised. Garth’s solo alone makes him deserving of a writer’s credit too, especially since it’s the most defining and memorable part of the song, but he was obviously ignored too. For this article to repeat that Robbie was the lone songwriter (note: he doesn’t even know “that there are words to ‘Chest Fever'” – hmm, I wonder why), it only rips off the other members of The Band all over again. This song belongs to Levon, Richard, and especially GARTH. Hell, even Rick before Robbie.

    • Nick DeRiso

      Robbie Robertson is, of course, credited as the lone songwriter on this piece. Repeating that is not ripping anyone off; it’s stating a fact. As for what really happened back then, well, that’s its own investigative series — and one that I’d say is impossible to undertake today considering the current availability of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. The purpose of this one, instead, is to offer a weekly examination of the Band’s output, not a step-by-step re-litigation of the lengthy, emotional and apparently deathless songwriting argument that tore at its seams. There’s no real hope of getting to the bottom of that, and it’s not the point here anyway.

      • GrizzlyBeast

        Levon left no doubt about the Scorsese influenced attempt by good ol’ Robbie to force his way into a leadership position.

  • Mike Curren

    right, Nick. Good article.
    “Lonesome Suzie”, let it go – they have…..

  • Glen Mattiello

    I was lucky enough to grow up next door to Jimmy Weider and just over the top of Ohayo from Dylan. I was a shade too young to fully appreciate the wealth of talent I was surrounded by, but I wouldn’t trade my memories for anything.

  • Butch Dener

    Levon’s delivery of ” very much longer” IS Chest Fever,,
    When he couldn’t sing, Brian Mitchell took that line , knowing he was only the ” placeholder” for Helm,,,
    The night Levon sang again, i caught Zbrian’s eyes during that moment of that iconic verse,,
    We both had tears burning our eyes,, crying,, it meant THAT much to have Levon back in the saddle,,,

    THAT IS CHEST FEVER !!

    B Dener

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