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The Heart of Rock and Soul

The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made

by Dave Marsh

The entries here are from Dave Marsh's book The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. They all have to do with The Band. The text is copyrighted. Please do not copy or redistribute.

206 All Along the Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix
207 Mr. Tambourine Man, The Byrds
208 Sooner or Later (One of Us Must Know), Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's rank as rock and roll's poet-prince is undeniable, but as a certifiable Great Songwriter, he's radically different from any who came before. Great interpretations of Dylan songs by other people are few and far between. Lots of performers have done his songs, of course, and a few have had hits with them, but the words of an old CBS Records ad still speak the truth: Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.

Reduced to paper "One of Us Must Know" doesn't look like much more than a nasty-tongued burst of arch hipster superiority. Who else but its composer would make this lyric, or the sketchy blues melody, seem worthwhile? It has to be The Band (or the Hawks, as they were then known - though without Levon Helm, who initially refused to become a sideman for a folksinger). Though they aren't credited, it's almost impossible to believe that the cathedral organ chords could be played by somebody other than Garth Hudson or that the mathematically inspired guitar licks might be wrung out by someone besides Robbie Robertson. This is the Band's first essay at the signature sound that made "The Weight" and "Chest Fever" instant classics.

Anyway, even if nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, the Byrds at least came close . Their folkie vocals are too sweet to convey the lyric's pungency as well as Dylan's own wracked version - here, the song might as well really be a dopester reverie, rather than its author's more universally troubled vision. (Dylan has properly disavowed the drug connection but he's also lately tried to reduce the song to its trivial source of inspiration, a huge tambourine carried into the session by guitarist Bruce Langhorne. Which only proves that he's the worse judge of his own creations, no big surprise.)

On the other hand, the vocals don't need to be much, because they're set against the greatest electric twelve-string guitar riff ever created. Jim (later Roger) McGuinn got his start backing up pop-folkies like Judy Collins and he played a lot of Greenwich Village banjo to boot. But you'd never know it here, where playing alongside the great Los Angeles session group led by drummer Hal Blaine, he plays hot enough to make the likes of James Burton and Mickey Baker drool. That guitar lick has the guts the vocals lack and it stiffens up whatever's saccharine in the lyric. Maybe this actually is what the Beatles would have sounded like if they'd don't a Dylan song.

"All Along the Watchtower" is unquestionably pure Jimi Hendrix, and by the time he's finished, Jimi accomplishes the unique feat of making you forget all about Dylan's original version. (By the eighties, Dylan was interpolating parts of the Hendrix arrangement into his own show.) Hendrix understands Dylan is a contemporary successor to country bluesmen like Robert Johnson (which is close to the mark of Dylan's own ambition) and his interpretation of "Watchtower" implies a world of hoodoo and juke joints, obliterating the lyric's pretensions and boiling it down to the crucial stuff. Like, "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke."

"Watchtower" is such an odd, abstract lyric that hardly anyone but a coequal genius could have held on long enough to spot the song hidden within it. It's a tribute to Hendrix that he not only found it, but had the nerve to expand on it, with a gorgeous psychedelic guitar solo and a fearsome instrumental yowl as the song ends on the word "howl."

243 Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues [live], Bob Dylan

If you liked the jingly folk-rock of "I Want You" enough to run out and buy the single without waiting another couple of weeks for the album (which only turned out to be Blonde on Blonde), you go the surprise of your life: a B side taken from Dylan's recent European tour on which he and a rock band (which only turned out to be The Band) did things to "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," a song from Highway 61 Revisited, that it's still risky to alk about in broad daylight.

Rock critics like to make a big deal about B sides but there are only maybe a dozen really great ones in the whole history of singles. This one's rank is indisputable, though, because it offers something that wasn't legally available until the early seventies: a recorded glimpse of Dylan's onstage prowess. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" came out before anybody ever thought of bootlegging rock shows, before anybody this side of Jimi Hendrix quite understood Dylan as a great rock and roll stage performer. And so this vicious, majestic music, hidden away in the most obscure place he could think of putting it, struck with amazing force.

Today, it sounds like the reapings of a whirlwind, Dylan's voice as draggy, druggy, and droogy as the surreal Mexican beatnik escapade he's recounting, Robbie Robertson carving dense mathematical figures on guitar, Garth Hudson working pure hoodoo on organ. Slurred and obtuse as Little Richard reading Ezra Pound, there's a magnificence here so great that, if you had to, you could make the case for rock and roll as a species of art using this record and nothing else.

616 The Weight, The Band

How important is a hit single, even in the album rock era? The Band, a group which never cracked the Top 20, serves as the most instructive example. For all Robbie Robertson's brooding self-importance-and if there have been more brooding figures in rock, for self-importance he has no equal-he's simply nothing like a household word.

Robertson undeniably participated in the making of some great music. The problem is that his role in the Band was never quite as central as critics pretend. Robertson may have been his group's chief writer (although, at least on its acclaimed debut album, he was seriously taxed for the pole position by both Richard Manuel and Rick Danko), but he was never its voice. Among the five members of the Band, Robertson was the fourth best singer (and Garth Hudson basically kept his mouth shut) and even the elliptically wise Americana of his lyrics is an interpretation of what he heard from the Band's great drummer, raconteur, and chief vocalist, Levon Helm. (Robertson certainly learned what he know about the South from Helm, since Robbie himself grew up in the far North: Toronto, to be exact.)

Yet if one would argue just whose triumph "The Weight" is, it would be foolish to argue that it isn't a triumphant piece of rock and roll. Opening with stately guitar and drum beats that lock in with the dead certainty of a firing squad, adding elegiac honky-tonk piano chords from Manuel, crowned by Helm's singing on the verse, Danko's vocal on the bridge, and harmonies tossed around like a live grenade, "The Weight" is as fine an example of rock and roll record-making as existed in the year of its birth and it has dated not a whit. You can already feel the constriction that led to the hollow pomposity of the Band's later years (in twenty years, to the monumental pomposity of Robertson's first solo album), but it works like the constrictions of the Motown formulas, establishing a framework out of which emotion and meaning may explode.

And they do, right beyond the bounds of Robertson's acutely studied Dylanisms. The words are bizarre but the meaning that the singers bring to them has an everyday concreteness and that's the contradiction that the music fights to resolve. Populated by weirdnesses ("Carmen and the Devil walkin' side by side," Crazy Chester with his "bag...sinkin' low," ol' Luke who's "waitin' for the Judgment Day"), told in crazy-quilt time, never quite cohering into a story but with a chilling sense of place and time, "The Weight" is as oblique as it is masterful.

The Band came closer to a hit - "Up on Cripple Creek" got to Number 25 and they cracked the Top 40 with a live version of Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It" which was about a tenth as good as the studio take they never officially released. But, to indulge in the sort of hyperbole Robertson likes to abuse, they never quite reached the promised land. And because the Top Ten (or even Top 20), the region that indicates mass acceptance rather than cult success or some species of hype, eluded them, the group's story feels unsettled, maybe unfinished. What that finally means, I think, is that the Band wasn't quite as good as its promise or at least, that it was never quite as important as it was good. There are greater tragedies, but that one's sad enough for me.

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