On an album that so often feels overcooked and too careful, the sloshy, gospel-gone-wrong of “4% Pantomime” lets it all hang down. That kind of loose camaraderie from the Band, so natural at first but by this point becoming an ever-more-rare occasion, was sorely missing elsewhere on 1971’s Cahoots.
Recorded on a whim when Van Morrison stopped by the Bearsville Studios as the Band was agonizing its way through a fourth album, “4% Pantomime” would capture an increasingly precious moment of unbridled joy in the studio for singer Richard Manuel, who had become fast friends with Morrison in the period when the emerging Irish talent was recording Moondance. The feeling was clearly contagious. A conversation between the two about the difference in alcoholic content between Johnny Walker’s Red and Black label whiskey (thus, the song’s title) apparently devolved into a series of drinks, and then an impromptu session that ultimately completed a Robbie Robertson song fragment.
As they tell the story of two like-minded musos stuck in Los Angeles with only a brown bottle, Manuel and Morrison famously acted out the parts, bringing this one-take song’s narrative to life even as the rest of the Band played happily along. Maybe it should have never made the final track listing for Cahoots, but “4% Pantomime” certainly lightened things up. “It was almost like this movement thing was going on,” Robertson once said, “and the music was carrying itself. It’s bizarre and wild. It was a lot of fun to do it. It was an archive kind of thing that we actually put on record.”
Manuel takes the first verse, painting a portrait of boozy vicissitudes over his own brilliantly syncopated cadence, before Morrison comes barreling in — baying at the moon with a happy disregard for the neighbors. “4% Pantomime” continues swaying back and forth, punctuated by the thunderous funk of Rick Danko’s bass and an entirely appropriate slur from Garth Hudson’s keyboard, even as Manuel and Morrison lock arms for a pew-splintering run toward the song’s end.
See, the churchy undertones inherent in this anthemic finale are violently run down by a confetti-spewing carnival of decadent revelry. A delirious Manuel howls out Robertson’s new nickname for Morrison (the “Belfast Cowboy”), before Robertson’s guitar pushes the song ever onward via a tornadic riff. By the end of “4% Pantomime,” this session sounds like a barely controlled party that threatened to spill out of the studio at any second.
“It was an extremely liquid session,” Levon Helm recalled in This Wheel’s On Fire. “Van and Richard were into it, and there was horror among the civilians at the studio when the two dead-drunk musicians argued about who would drive the other one home. Richard drove, and I think he made it. Lord knows he wrecked a lot of cars that year.”
Unfortunately, it seems like the bad times were beginning to overtake the good at an alarming rate for Manuel. There wouldn’t be nearly enough of these moments over the last years of this unhappy soul’s life.