The Band, “Whispering Pines” from The Band (1969): Across the Great Divide

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On an album dominated by strikingly resonant character studies and plenty of hootenanny fun, “Whispering Pines” thrums with unvarnished, seemingly autobiographical emotion.

Richard Manuel doesn’t sing this as if telling the story of a man walled off by loneliness; he lives and breathes every bruising syllable. Recorded at New York City’s Hit Factory, in final sessions that also included the knee-slapping Levon Helm-sung ribaldry of “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Jemima Surrender,” “Pines” finds Manuel reaching for vocal places in an unguardedly heartbroken way. It may be the most unbearably sad thing the Band ever did.

Yet, as personal as “Whispering Pines” has always sounded, Robertson helped complete this song as Manuel began his steep descent into a drug-fueled writer’s block. The music, and a vocal line, had been composed while playing a piano left behind by painter George Bellows in a house where Manuel lived. But he could get no further.

As with “Dixie Down,” Robertson’s canny ability to echo not just the point of view but the deep-seated feelings of his band mates is again on display. “Richard always had this very plaintive attitude in his voice, and sometimes just in his sensitivity as a person,” Robertson recalled later. “I tried to follow that, to go with it and find it musically.”

In all, Robertson would collaborate with Manuel on five songs between 1969’s The Band and 1970’s Stage Fright, before Manuel’s muse left him. There remained among fans a lasting hope, fueled oddly enough by this song, that one day he’d return to the pen. Its closing verse — shared in an aching loveliness with Helm — certainly paints a dark and cold portrait of despair, but Manuel’s final piano figure (not to mention the phrase: “the lost are found”) offer a quiet sense of respite, of peace at the coming dawn.

If only there had been more of that in Manuel’s tragically short life.

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