A onion-like song of deeper and deeper complexities, the Band’s “Ophelia” sounds by turns like a Dixieland delight, a gutteral blues, a close-harmony lament and a 1970s-style R&B groover. Credit, in no small way, goes to Levon Helm’s loamy vocal. (He sings with an utterly devastated rapture about a lost and deliciously lascivious lover.) But then there’s Garth Hudson, who creates a splashing masterpiece of sound here that would have humbled the typically paint-covered Jackson Pollock.
Recording now in their own retrofitted California ranch studio, winkingly dubbed Shangri-La, the Band — and specifically, Hudson — suddenly had the time, and the space on tape, to experiment both with the latest musical technology and with their own profoundly intriguing muses.
In keeping, Hudson was said to have used as a many as eight or more tracks just for his own asides on Roland and ARP monophonic synthesizers, various assorted horns, the Lowrey Symphonizer, a Mini Moog, and so on. To put that into perspective, earlier favorites like “This Wheel’s On Fire” on Music from Big Pink only originally used four total, with all of the instruments on two tracks, vocals on another and the horns on a fourth.
The results on songs like “Ophelia,” which remained a key element of Helm and the Band’s live performances and discography from The Last Waltz forward, were a triumph of juxtaposition. The song boasts all manner of rustic inflections (that boozy Big Easy brass, Levon’s country hoot) coming up against a series of then-modern elements. It’s the best example yet of the way the too-often-overlooked Northern Lights-Southern Cross sought to marry the Band’s original sound with technological advances of the time.
“The chord progression on ‘Ophelia,'” songwriter Robbie Robertson tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown, “was something that could have come out of the 1930s. The storytelling was ancient and modern in the same breath. The full-on modernism in the sound, in the arrangement, was paramount in Garth’s experimentation. It is unquestionably one of his greatest feats, in my opinion, on any Band song.”
Robertson unfurls another pair of lengthy ruminations on the guitar, while Rick Danko gets so deep into a funky little pocket on the bass that he must have emerged from Shangi-La covered in lint. Richard Manuel trails right behind Helm for most of the vocal lines, adding a squeal of delight to “I’d die for you!” Helm, meanwhile, sounds like he might never, ever get over the ecstasy of this bad girl’s disappeared passions.
All of that, however, remains the quantifiable element of this track’s greatness, the parts you can put your finger squarely on. The riddle of “Ophelia,” never solvable and endlessly enthralling, remains Hudson’s performance — or, more particularly, his performances. On stage, entire armies of performers would attempt to reproduce what he did all alone on “Ophelia,” and they’d always fall short. This song, even more than “Chest Fever,” is Hudson’s triumph, his musical testament, his masterpiece.