Building off Ezekiel’s biblical vision, “This Wheel’s On Fire” recalls — more than any other track on Music from Big Pink — the collaborative setting between the Band and Bob Dylan which served as this album’s wellspring. That it arrives in the form of a song exploring the rewards (or punishments?) to be found after trials and tribulations couldn’t be more appropriate.
“This Wheel’s On Fire,” after all, was borne out of the creative outburst codified in bootlegs (and a much later official release) as The Basement Tapes. In this fizzy atmosphere of wide-open creativity, Bob Dylan shared a lyrical jump start here, with the Band’s Rick Danko adding the musical road map — and later these diving, unforgettable bass lines. The pair of them then collaborated on the gas pedal-mashing chorus.
The sum-total result of those sessions was to loose the Band from every pre-conceived notion there was about them — be that as Dylan’s old backing band or, previous to that, as the rough-and-tumble rockabilly cats backing Ronnie Hawkins. Still, if Music from Big Pink was about exploring new and very wide open spaces, then “This Wheel’s On Fire” takes you to the end of the road.
Oblique but relentlessly propulsive, the track’s interconnected verses paint a dark portrait about the fates, and the cyclic nature of things. Was the genesis of this Dylan’s sudden brush with fame? His course-altering motorcycle crash? Whatever it was, Danko — who sings with a yearning strain, like his take came at the end of a long day in the studio — was able to plug into that roiling sense of portent. Perhaps he, too, could see what success might do to the Band.
Despite its aggressive groove, the Band had a difficult time in getting things just right. “This Wheel’s On Fire” was one of five tracks cut over two marathon sessions in New York City onto a four-track tape machine. The instrumental elements on those dates were done live, on tracks 1-2, with horns on the third track and vocals on the fourth. Though A&R Studios provided dramatic acoustics, and a warm sound that made “Tears of Rage” and “The Weight” sound so viscerally present, in this case the set up didn’t serve the Band so well. It seems the snare drum had been buried in the original mix, and so producer John Simon had Levon Helm painstakingly overdub his part to complete the tune.
Along the way, the Band’s new musical trajectory was charted in part by the continued experiments of Garth Hudson — who, again, serves as the song’s ace in the hole, adding clavinet and rocksichord to his trusty Lowrey. Richard Manuel, who joined Helm on these swooning backing vocals, is at the acoustic piano — with Robbie Robertson on guitar.
Hudson has said that his goal was to give each of the Band’s tracks a different sound, and in this case he achieved it by running that RMI rocksichord through an amplifier specially built by Pete Traynor. A Leslie speaker was mounted above a rotating chute, designed to change the direction of sound. Hudson then controlled the oscillations with the use of a telegraph key, creating the unique reiterating element that defines “This Wheel’s On Fire.”
This song would be covered, though to obviously lesser effect, both by Julie Driscoll and then the Byrds — and the former of them went to No. 5 in the UK. That, for whatever it was worth, began a transformative period for the Band. Suddenly, just as they discovered their muse, life would become infused with distractions. Danko copped to it, later on: “Those first royalty checks we got almost killed some of us,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that it’s a crying shame to see what success can do to some people. I’m sure it wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to the Band.”
Across the Great Divide, Nick DeRiso’s song-by-song examination of the Band — both together and apart — runs on Thursday mornings at SomethingElseReviews.com.