Exploring deep cuts from the Band’s Music from Big Pink: Gimme Five

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The most famous songs found on Music from Big Pink helped define the Band’s legacy forever, from Levon Helm’s hound-dog wail on “The Weight” to Rick Danko’s roof-raising take on “This Wheel’s On Fire,” from Garth Hudson’s mad-scientist flourishes on “Chest Fever” to Richard Manuel’s heartbreaking cries on “I Shall Be Released.” As we celebrate the Band’s genre-defining debut, released on July 1, 1968, let’s move further off the beaten path to explore a handful of lesser-known favorites …

“TO KINGDOM COME”

After reaching across generations on the solemn and startling “Tears of Rage,” the Band leapt into a rambling groove for “To Kingdom Come,” which found Robbie Robertson taking a rare lead vocal turn for a Bob Dylan-esque exploration on the idea of salvation.

Not that it’s entirely spelled out. Robertson, who wouldn’t take the mic again until “Knockin’ Lost John” on 1976’s Islands, had clearly learned well during The Basement Tapes composing apprenticeship with Dylan. There is as much said on “To Kingdom Come,” as is not said — all amid a series of writerly, unforgettable images. (At least one of them, when Robertson brilliantly pairs the colloquial “haints” with saints, seems likely to have sprung from the fertile storytelling of his Southern-born band mate Levon Helm.)

It all happens as part of a larger tapestry of sound, a brotherhood of overlapping voices and musical influences that seemed to arrive on their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink in a fully formed way.

Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Helm establish an insistent, idiosyncratic rhythm behind Robertson — with Danko’s plunking bass offsetting this honky-tonking piano from Manuel. Helm, as always, plays the drums like a singer, following along with a tremendous sensitivity. And as the song unfolds, their voices (by turns, pained, joyful and utterly surprised) weave in and out of the lyric before Robertson begins to unfurl a solo of huge ambition: I hear whispers of his guitarist forebears Hubert Sumlin and James Burton, and also something different, something quieter. As with the lyric, Robertson has mastered a stirring new economy.

All of this amazing sonic depth, so different than the closely conveyed, more straight-forward sound of Big Pink opening track “Tears of Rage,” was the result of a change in recording venue. The Band had begun recording on a four-track console, over a pair of dates at A&R’s studios in New York. Five songs, including the opener, emerged from these live-to-tape sessions. The group was put on two tracks and the horns on a third, with the fourth track reserved for vocals.

Capitol Records officials, upon hearing these initial successes, opted to fly the Band along with producer John Simon out to Los Angeles to finish the album — giving Robertson and Co. the chance to record at the label’s modern eight-track studio. (A session was also held at LA’s Gold Star studio, where a number of legendary sides had been recorded by Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, as well.)

Rather than polishing up their rustic sound, this shift only revealed deeper complexities about the Band. When they enter the final stanza on “To Kingdom Come” (howling “tarred and feathered, yeah!”), Helm’s fat beat is surrounded by Garth Hudson’s ghostly ruminations on the organ — and then four voices singing not together but with one another, each of them individual but of the same mind. In many ways, it is here that the legend of Big Pink begins to pick up steam.

“IN A STATION”

“In a Station,” this light-filled paean to the Band’s pastoral surroundings at Big Pink, is a powerful argument against the recent label repackaging, and repackaging yet again, of their individual songs.

The Band was never a singles group, and certainly their output over a torrential creative outburst in 1968-69 was meant to be experienced of a piece — not as a series of edited moments in what has been a seemingly endless string of best-of and box sets over the past decade or so.

Confine your listening to those grab-bag corporate cash grabs, and you’re going to miss both the tender joys of this Richard Manuel gem, and the larger tapestry of storytelling and feeling at play on Music from Big Pink.

Coming as it does after the excruciating sadness of “Tears of Rage” and the shambolic rumination on salvation that was “To Kingdom Come,” the idyllic reverie of “In a Station” balances everything that came before — even as it provides an early window into the dichotomy that was Manuel as a writer and as a singer.

If “Tears of Rage” showed how desperately lonesome he could be, “In a Station” finds Manuel — with a dreamy accompaniment on the clavinet from Garth Hudson — opening his whole heart up to the world around him. Perhaps, in the end, that simply represented two sides of the same coin for this lost genius, testament (even on rare live performances like the one attached, where Hudson’s diaphanous contributions are pushed to the fore) to a person in the troubled Manuel who simply felt too much.

Meanwhile, Rick Danko provides a warmly supportive assist on bass and backing vocals, then Robbie Robertson steps to the fore for a yearning turn on the electric guitar — imbuing the track with the kind of melancholic grandeur so often associated with George Harrison. There’s really nothing to compare, however, with Manuel’s naked, emotional bravery. He stands in the middle of a swirl of wonder, memory and unabashed ardor until “In a Station” pulls away with an echoing flourish.

“CALEDONIA MISSION”

A showcase for Rick Danko, not just as a mournful and country-inflected singer but also as a rapturously melodic bass player, “Caledonia Mission” also remains one of Robbie Robertson’s more oblique narratives.

It seems by turns to be about a romantic betrayal or, perhaps, a problem with the law. Whatever the trouble here, it sparks Danko (and Richard Manuel, with the second vocal) toward raw depths of emotion, even as Robertson stuffs in a quote from the I-Ching, a stray reference to Arkansas (later omitted in live performances), an endlessly mysterious love interest, no small amount of hocus pocus about old hound dogs, fortune tellers and ginned-up moonshine, and a hard-ass magistrate.

Ronnie Hawkins, the group’s early touring mentor, has posited that the song is about a drug bust that happened to Danko at the Toronto airport, just before they joined Bob Dylan. Levon Helm, who switches to guitar here while Manuel plays drums, later agreed in his autobiography. I’m not sure I hear that tucked away in this image-filled tapestry, but that’s not to say that it’s not there — somewhere.

Meanwhile, Greil Marcus, in his heralded rock tome Mystery Train, used the song as a weigh station amidst a larger theme on finding community — since the narrator’s fate seems to be bound up with the woman’s behind the mission walls. Certainly, songs like this one and their still-to-come fable “The Weight” back up the notion that the Band was searching for connective elements that bind people, families, generations and nations.

Yet such is the magic of Robertson’s quickly evolving gift as a songwriter that he could fashion such a resonant tale, with so many memorably descriptive images, without ever completely settling on a narrative arc. It’s about all of those things, and I suppose none of them.

But this song, for all of its moving parts, will always belong to Danko. The Rock of Ages version above, released in 1972, illustrates how completely true that was — even within a much more boisterous setting. All of the original’s acoustic-focused angles have been replaced by Allen Toussaint’s brawny brass, but Danko’s quiveringly ardent vocal (so full of doubt, and yet so completely in love) remains the center point.

“WE CAN TALK”

A key line from this Richard Manuel song, “one voice for all,” says everything about the way the Band constructed Music from Big Pink, and what made them so utterly unique in their own time.

Arriving amidst a period of flinty individualism, they were an air-tight unit, singing and writing as one. In the same way that “The Weight” remains this beautifully inscrutable mystery — just as fascinating, whether you ever figure out precisely what’s at stake or not — so does “We Can Talk” rattle along like a happy-go-lucky riddle with no concise answer as to what’s going on ever offered. Or, really, ever needed.

Manuel’s piece, which originally arrived after turning the album over, almost works like a flip-side realization: “We Can Talk” is no less obscure, no less complex than “The Weight,” just a whole lot more fun.

In fact, it’s easy to see this one being performed in that legendary basement that became the Band’s creative crucible, with Rick Danko and Manuel singing as if on either side of the mic, and Levon Helm hooting from a step further back. They sing in spaciously layered, gospel-inspired cadences, harmonizing and then separating with such a loose sense of fraternity that even this song’s most deliriously offbeat lyrical formulations (“There’s no need to slave, the whip is the grave”; “I’d rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the South,” etc.) work despite the inherent lack of internal logic.

This kind of hootenanny makes such quibbles seem untoward.

Manuel coaxes the perfect churchy sounds from his piano, while Garth Hudson’s merry-go-round organ adds to the party atmosphere. Robertson then unleashes a hilariously off-kilter, almost psychedelic turn on the guitar. All of it gives “We Can Talk” this loose, incomplete, utterly real sensibility. In the end, this is the work of people who believe in what they’re doing, who believe in one another, completely. So cryptic, so familial, so deep and joyous and strangely alliterative is this song, there’s a whole world to be discovered inside the one line “Do you really care?”

Yet, if you don’t own Music from Big Pink, you’re unlikely to come across “We Can Talk” — despite a seemingly endless set of Band-related compilations in recent memory. That’s a shame, and not just because this is that rare song in the Richard Manuel canon that doesn’t reside in ruminative twilight.

In some ways, “We Can Talk” is also another perfect distillation of what made — what makes — the Band such an endlessly fascinating study. They don’t give you the answers and, if you really get inside the moment, you find you don’t need them. That’s why “We Can Talk” belongs where it always was, right alongside “The Weight.”

“LONESOME SUZIE”

A searcher’s tale about trying to find love, and then finally settling with what you’ve got, “Lonesome Suzie” is Richard Manuel’s fourth and final author credit on the Band’s Music from Big Pink.

Knowing what we now know about the doomed singer, it’s difficult not to imagine Manuel talking about himself as he outlines Suzie’s detachment, her emotional imprisonment. She seems to be forever so alone, so helpless — and the image of Manuel hanging himself just 18 years later floats above the song like a ghostly specter.

After all, despite working as such an integral part of the construction of this debut album, Manuel would eventually come to embody the sad and lost figures that peopled his songs — becoming more and more inward, more and more dependent on drink, more and more tragic.

“Lonesome Suzie,” somehow, would become the last song Manuel was ever credited with writing all by himself for the Band. He’d have a hand in composing three tracks on the group’s 1969 follow up, two on 1970’s Stage Fright, and then go silent for the remainder of the Band’s discography before his untimely death in 1986.

“I did everything to get him to write,” Robbie Robertson once said. “I wrote with him, I begged him, I offered to become his partner in songwriting. I’d pull him into a song I was working on, just to get him in the mood or give him a taste of it, thinking he would go on to follow it up. But he didn’t. There was no answer. My theory is that some people have one song in them, some have five, some have a hundred.”

Whatever the origins of “Lonesome Suzie,” it works as a grounding point after so many epochal dramas and strangely transfixing character sketches on Music from Big Pink. Manuel, as he did in his best moments, sings with startling, unguarded directness.

A 2000 reissue of this project included an alternate take on “Suzie,” with a slightly more upbeat tempo (in particular on the Rick Danko-assisted bridge), but the song’s emotional center remained unchanged: Stripped of artifice, utterly devoid of word play or studio theatrics, Suzie’s pain — Manuel’s pain — becomes our own.

As he sings, with an exquisitely drawn heartbreak, “I guess just watching you has made me lonesome, too.”

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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