Chasing down “Get Up Jake,” this dollop of hilarious country funk that outlines a crew’s failed attempts to rouse a boozy womanizing deckhand, is every bit as difficult as divining the concrete narrative on knotty fables like “The Weight.” Certainly, “Get Up Jake” never aspired to that kind of mythmaking, much less the complex historical passions of, say, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” But this particular orphaned deep cut sure was fun.
If you could find it. “Get Up Jake” initially got left off 1969’s The Band, apparently because it sounded too much of a piece. Then, it showed up as a b-side for “Don’t Do It,” having been tucked away on the horn-driven 1972 live document Rock of Ages. “Get Up Jake” would reappear again, and on a b-side once more, when the Band released their take on “Ain’t Got No Home” in 1973.
Over the course of those three or four years, the vocal structure of the song would change — with Levon Helm giving the first verse over to Richard Manuel during their live shows, something that only added to the song’s sense of ribald tomfoolery, and to its sense of dark portent.
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The initial studio take, more languid and in mono, was later released as a stereo-remixed bonus cut on a 2000 remastering of The Band. It couldn’t be more different than the galloping — and, to my ear, definitive — live version heard on the old Rock of Ages double album. In turn, a soundboard mix from another night during the same series of concerts at the Academy of Music, released last year, downshifts back into the original’s slightly more unhurried pace. That gives us a chance to experience the song both as a lazy moment of confidentiality (almost like his fellow river travellers would like to remain tucked away in bed, too) and as the kind of rebuke (first with a wink-and-a-nudge, and then something more assertive) that I think it was always meant to be.
All of this sounds like the perfect vehicle for Levon Helm’s kudzu-covered yelp, but in truth “Get Up Jake” — in particular, with the Rock of Ages version — provides a late-period example of the way the Band’s three voices combined to create something nobody else (even more celebrated harmony groups like Crosby Stills and Nash) could touch. Of course, there was less and less of that kind of interplay after their sessions for The Band, and that only imbues this track with additional gravitas.
First, in the originally released live version, we have Richard Manuel. He sets the lip-smacking scene aboard a ferry called the Baltimore, even as writer Robbie Robertson begins uncorking these metallic splashes on his guitar. When “Get Up Jake” nears its first chorus, Helm joins in, underscoring a randy subtext that wasn’t as prominent in the original studio attempt. In both, Rick Danko steps forward next, sounding as nostalgic as Manuel and Helm had been ribald. His portion of the song works as a warning about whiskey and women, but shared from the point of view of someone who has been down that road himself.
Garth Hudson adds a oceanic counterpoint at the Academy of Music shows, perhaps most effective during the chorus when he mimics the waves’ relentless crashing upon the hull below deck. Helm then takes over for the live take’s final, much more foreboding chorus — and his late arrival adds a different weight to what comes next, with Helm serving as the ageless country sage, the hayseed philosopher. “Get Up Jake” concludes with the Band’s trio of peerless vocalists joining together for a final verse followed by a cathartic, wordless coda.
Jake’s fate was just as curious and unresolved, ultimately, as the song that bears his name. In both cases, however, there’s something to be gained in the search.
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