Across the Great Divide: The Band, “It Makes No Difference” from Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975)

It’s a song that finds new places in your heart every time, that finds new hurts. The enduringly dolorific “It Makes No Difference” remains a moment like few others in the Band catalog — and, ultimately, Rick Danko’s greatest vehicle.

As bereaved an interpreter as Richard Manuel no doubt was, he couldn’t have found the devastatingly lonesome bottom of this song while retaining its sense of reckless emotional abandon. Danko never sounds resigned; he simply doesn’t know how to. And that was Manuel’s forte, anyway.

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Danko, instead, finds layer after layer of experience amidst Garth Hudson’s anguished sax and songwriter Robbie Robertson’s fitfully determined asides on the guitar. Ultimately, they’re walking the same fine line — Danko, between torment and utter heartsick disaster; Hudson and Robertson between stabbing attempts at redemption and a reluctant acceptance. That they find purchase on such a precarious perch is testament to the enduring talents of the Band, and to the final outburst of five-man brilliance that is Northern Lights-Southern Cross.

“I wrote this song specifically for Rick to sing,” Robertson tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown, “and when we first started discovering the possibilities, it kept expanding to more levels of emotion. What Garth and I could add to finalize the statement of this song was purely instinctual.”

Danko’s vocal brings depth to a subject as personal as the average Band narrative had always been historical. Whereas Robertson tended to this point to work in sweeping vistas, “It Makes No Difference” sought for maybe the first time to bring us nose to nose with one lost lover’s thunderstruck plight. When Manuel and Helm join in as part of each delicately aching chorus to complete lines like “I never felt so alone — before,” it has the effect of a cold wind slipping under the door on the darkest of nights. The Band, as a whole, has never constructed a sadder moment, nor one with more direct specificity.

But this song, this vocal, will always belong to Danko, to the point where cover versions — no matter their best intentions — always come off like paper-thin facsimiles. As rains pelts his door, as even the looming dawn can’t save him, as other metaphors large and small occasionally become entangled in a torrent of pain, Danko makes viscerally real the very personal idea that there’s no love as true as one that dies untold. And in so doing, Danko creates with “It Makes No Difference” his most lasting performance.

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.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

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