The Band’s debut album was released in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in the history of this country, and the world for that matter. It was a time of immense social and political change. There was civil unrest, assassination, war raging in Southeast Asia, the rise of the drug culture, and some of the most earth-shaking music ever made as the soundtrack to the whole mess. To say that the Band was unknown would not quite be accurate. They had been slugging it out on the road with Ronnie Hawkins for years, and more recently they had served as Bob Dylan’s backing band. It is fair to say that they weren’t on the radar of most people at the time. So in the midst of all of this change and chaos, what did these four Canadians and one American do? They released an album that took us back to our roots via popular music. Lives were changed. Eric Clapton decided to quit Cream after he heard the album. George Harrison paid close attention to the sound, and became even more disenchanted with the Beatles.
Written and rehearsed for the most part at the house in West Saugerties, N.Y., from which the album gets its name, and with cover art by Bob Dylan, Music From Big Pink opens with “Tears of Rage,” cowritten by Dylan and Band pianist Richard Manuel. It is a rather astonishing opening track, particularly on a debut album, given the depressing nature of the lyrics, and the anguished manner in which Manuel sang them. Richard was my favorite of the triumvirate of lead vocalists that the Band sported, and this track is a perfect indication of the reason for my admiration. The Band’s sound is new and unique, and yet reminiscent of so many flavors from the great melting pot of American music. In short, it was unlike anything else we were hearing at the time.
It goes without saying that there isn’t a single bad track, not a single bad moment on Music From Big Pink. Guitarist Robbie Robertson was not yet dominating the songwriting for the band, and here he contributes but four of the 11 songs. The thing is, two of those songs are the immense hit “The Weight” and the almost equally profound “Chest Fever,” which features stunning work from organist Garth Hudson. It is on the former that we first get to hear from the Band’s lone American, and an American treasure at that, drummer Levon Helm. This is Helm’s only lead vocal on the album. Helm began to be featured more on subsequent albums as the Band realized the great appeal of this American archetype. His voice would eventually became connected with some of the Band’s greatest moments.
There are other standouts, of course, including the covers of the Marijohn Wilkins/Danny Dill country music classic “Long Black Veil,” and Bob Dylan’s moving anthem, “I Shall Be Released,” and the powerful “Wheel’s On Fire,” co-authored by Dylan and Band bassist Rick Danko. It is the less-remembered tracks that delighted me on my most recent listen, though. This time I was particularly taken with Richard Manuel’s mournful “Lonesome Suzie,” which features a beautiful Manuel vocal to match the song’s mood. And then there’s Robertson’s “To Kingdom Come.” As I said, there are no bad tracks.
On November 25, 1976, the Band played their last show, as portrayed in Martin Scorcese’s film “The Last Waltz,” at Bill Graham’s Winterland in San Francisco. They reformed and continued touring in 1983, but without Robertson it was never quite the same. Cursed with chronic alcoholism, the gentle and brilliant Richard Manuel committed suicide in a Florida hotel room on March 4, 1986 while the Band was on tour. On December 10, 1999, bass player Rick Danko died in his sleep. He was 56 years-old, and though he was a long-time drug user, no drugs were found in his system when he died. The bitterness between surviving members Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, over what Helm claims are stolen songwriting credits, is such that Helm did not attend the ceremony when the Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. It seems unlikely that the surviving three members will ever reunite, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be the same without Manuel and Danko. We have the music, though.