Richard Manuel’s greatest triumph on Stage Fright, and one of his last signature moments of creativity, arrives with “Sleeping” — as does the growing sense that this is a Band album like no other before it.
Emerging from a contemplative intro, so full of hopefulness and yet also defeat, this Robbie Robertson co-written track leaps from a waltz time into a thrilling jazz-inflected cadence — illustrating once again the remarkable musical symbiosis this group once had. Rick Danko, exploring his new Ampeg fretless bass, plays off a series of limber fills from Levon Helm as they push “Sleeping” into this furious sense of ambition. Garth Hudson’s ruminative keyboards then pull everything back into a quiet place again.
And like this album’s opening cut, “Sleeping” — even as Robertson steps forward for a stunningly sympathetic solo, one that echoes and then amplifies the deep-space ruminations of Hudson at the Lowrey — ultimately unveils something far more dark and emotional roiling just beneath the surface. Having gone out, finally, into the world on a series of post-Big Pink concert dates, and having faced both the mythology they themselves had built up and the new problems fame had wrought, there was no getting away from what was happening — despite Robertson’s early idea that Stage Fright should serve as “a little bit of a goof.”
Instead, there’s this: “Sleeping” begins with a lament about “the life we chose,” and continues through a confusingly lonesome period of guessing and searching. The Band is turning definitively away from the enveloping narrative worlds that defined its first two albums to deal with the very real issues of their own lives, and not for the last time on Stage Fright. Is it any wonder that “Sleeping” pines for a world of escape?
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.