Garth Hudson catches a honking groove on the accordion, setting the stage for a galloping assertion of carnal desire to which only Levon Helm — with his patented yard-dog yelp — could do justice.
“Strawberry Wine” is, really, the perfect first-take opener for Stage Fright, upbeat (like so much of this project) and yet deceptively intricate. Listen to the way Rick Danko leaps around on his bass, channeling the funky craftsmanship Motown’s James Jamerson; to the street-jazz cadence coming from Richard Manuel’s drum work; to the rockabilly wildness in Robbie Robertson’s riff. And yet Helm’s character eventually admits that he’d like nothing more than to get lost at the bottom of a bottle, and that air of desperation runs through this whole project like a bone-chilling underwater current.
It’s true, of course, that Stage Fright doesn’t create the worlds unto themselves found on Music from Big Pink or The Band. Gone too are smaller gifts, like the Band’s tendency in the John Simon-produced era to sing with an overlapping intuition, replaced by a more straight-forward one-man, one-mic approach. Instead, the Band’s third album — overseen by the Band themselves — seems to have been intended as a boisterous blowing session, like a record (in keeping with its title) made for the road, to be played before an audience.
That they never quite get there, that these nagging feelings of guilt (or at least of a pervasive anxiety about the path ahead) keep seeping in bothered even friendly critics like Greil Marcus to no end. He’s described Stage Fright as something of an empty promise. But, to me, that tug of emotion is what gives the album its lasting intrigue.
Stage Fright is the story of a group that couldn’t be saved from expectation, even when it tried to keep things simple; couldn’t be saved from their own success, even when it threatened to swallow them whole; couldn’t be saved from themselves, even as the doomed Manuel slipped inexorbitably away as a creative force.
“It was a dark album,” Helm admitted in his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, “and an accurate reflection of our group’s collective psychic weather.”
Not that Robertson couldn’t see it coming. By 1970, he was already stating publicly that the Band and their music were being taken “way too seriously,” and he hoped to write some good-time songs to counteract that. But the truth is, it was already too late for such a thing.
The Band’s sophomore was followed by a well-received tour in support of their first-ever Top 40 hit and a cover spot with Time magazine, following appearances at the celebrated Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals. Cash and fame almost immediately began to have a corrosive effect on the group. “Ever make a million dollars fast?” Danko once mused. “Well, I have, and it’s a goddamn crying shame what success can do.”
As the sessions for Stage Fright arrived, the group would assume producing duties from Simon — who had overseen their first two albums — and a fundamental change in their sound began to take hold, one that can be seen now as emblematic of everything that was happening in real life: The Band had begun to splinter into five individuals. Robertson, part of a young family by then, had moved out of the creative cocoon of upstate New York for Montreal. Left behind, his bandmates were prone to over-indulgences, to wild nights, to car wrecks.
“Things went berserk,” Robertson said more than a decade later. “Different guys went crazy. I don’t know what happened; it’s so difficult to understand. It was self-destructive things. It was drugs, or just a way of life, or driving fast. It’s a fever, a riding of things to the limit. Maybe people think they don’t really deserve success, that they don’t believe in it. So they start fucking with it, start sticking their hand in the fire.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stage Fright began with an idea toward rebuilding community within the Band. The concept, it’s been said, was to record their third album live at the Woodstock Playhouse in front of a group of locals. But the town council, presumably still stunned over how a certain musical festival held over three days the previous summer had become a free-for-all, vetoed that idea. And so Stage Fright would be put to tape on that tiny stage, but without anyone in the crowd to act as a reflective counterpoint.
In the end, that’s an apt image. After all, the resulting songs, so unlike any that had come before, felt disconnected from one another — particular rather than collective. After everything that came before, it took some getting used to. Over time, however, these singular bursts of insight (like chapters in a short story, rather than a novel) have gathered their own gravitas. And the Band simply tears through them. A return to the road had chiseled their sound. They attacked Stage Fright with a muscularity unheard since their days backing Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins, and the album would streak to No. 5 — becoming the Band’s highest-charting studio effort, if somehow one of its most consistently overlooked.
“Strawberry Wine,” with all of its contradictions, in fact heralds a layered, endlessly fascinating project that could only have come from a moment of such deep conflict. That it so accurately captures, refracts and plays off that tension, even while kicking such complete musical ass, is why I’d argue for Stage Fright as a still-misunderstood treasure.
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Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.
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