The Band, “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” (1971): Across the Great Divide

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A rare non-canonical song from the Band’s Live at the Academy of Music release, “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” arrived as a flinty push back against expectations — both for the group and for its career. There were, of course, many after the Band’s mythical debut and sophomore releases of the late 1960s, to the point where their fun-loving, bandstand-rattling roots were often ignored.

Not here. This old Chuck Willis tune, forgotten in the wake of his early death, gave the Band a chance to let loose — and let loose they most certainly did. It sounds a lot like catharsis.

In fact, both in message and in its rollicking tone, “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” spoke to everything the Band was pushing against in this moment. Allen Toussaint’s sexy brass counterpoints open the door for a joy-filled, braying rebuke from Levon Helm, who — along with a keening Rick Danko — turns Willis’ line into fighting words.

Rock ‘n’ roll — or at least the visceral salvation it brings — isn’t going anywhere and, if this performance was to be believed, neither was the Band. They simply attack this song, sounding like what they must have sounded as the rough and randy Hawks, rather than the world-weary stars they were quickly becoming.

Along the way, the Band claimed this distant B-side all for themselves. In truth, it should have always been so much more.

Chuck Willis had suffered terribly from stomach ulcers throughout his late-1950s rise as the King of the Stroll. Admitted for surgery just as his fun original run through “Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” was released in ’58, he’d die from complications before the song took off. DJs flipped the disc over to find the more contextually appropriate “What Am I Living For?,” and that track became a million-selling smash instead — reaching the Top 25 on the pop charts while going all the way to No. 9 on the R&B list.

“Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” fared only slightly better, somehow, when issued as a single by the Band in 1972, stalling at a disappointing No. 113 on the U.S. charts. Their earlier-released cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” from these same concerts, was a Top 40 hit.

Even so, its message remained. And when the Band belatedly returned in the 1980s, first without Robbie Robertson and then without Richard Manuel too, this song continued to stand as a bulwark for them. It recalled everything that had come before, provided sharp insight into the crucible of sounds that made up their earliest influences, and it never, ever failed to bring down the house.

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

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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