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Shape I'm In

by D L Lewis

Thanks to Peter Viney for comments and the appendix. Thanks also to Julie Richter, Pat Brennan, plus other regulars of 'Little Pink' who both encouraged me and suggested ideas which were incorporated into this article.

Composed by J R Robertson,
Appears on Stage Fright, track 6.

Richard Manuel: Lead Vocal & Hohner Pianet with a Mutron phase shifter
Levon Helm: Back Vocal & Drums
Rick Danko: Back Vocal & Bass
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ

'Shape I'm In' opens with a barely constrained keyboard, augmented by typical Robertson fills, and a breathy sigh vocal fill by Manuel. Manuel's sigh is an effective wordless and keyless use of the human voice as a pure instrument, rather than using the voice to tell the story. After the introduction finishes, the whole band launches into a driving soul beat highly reminiscent of the 'Bo Diddley' rhythm, frantically just ahead of the beat. In one of his best vocal performances, Richard Manuel takes the part of a down-and-outer, recently out-of-jail, with no hope of redemption.

The lyrics are relatively straightforward, but deserve some attention:

Go out yonder
Peace in the valley,
Come down town,
Got to rumble in the alley

Oh, you don't know, The Shape I'm In

The lyrics are, as so often in Band songs, full of Christian and Biblical allusion: 'Peace in the Valley' is one of the great Protestant hymns. (Incidentally, Elvis sang it on one of his Ed Sullivan performances). The lack of redemption is stated right in the first verse: the opening couplet states that to go anywhere else, peace would be achieved. However, stuck down town, it's a fight for survival. The protagonist's wife/girlfriend has left, presumably in despair, and it hasn't improved his position any:

Has anybody seen my lady?
This livin' alone will drive me crazy
And again the chorus is a plaintive cry of frustration: you don't know the shape I'm in - the you is directed at the listener - the listener can't know how bad it is.

The music of the bridge strikes an even more plaintive tone. The driving rhythm of the Band is subjugated into a lovely melody. The singer plans to 'head down to the water' (again, note the Biblical allusion: the listener may think he is heading for baptism) in the first bridge. However, the singer is not after redemption - he is not going to jump in: instead, he is looking for his maker, because he has heard that's where she is. Is this a call for his mother, or the feminized god? (Many early Christian sects had the Holy Spirit as a woman.) The other, more bleak, interpretation is that he is going to kill himself (meet your maker has long been a euphemism for death). He does not find her, either because he doesn't go, or she's not there (or he decides not to commit suicide). Nevertheless, his situation is not improved by these actions.

The driving rhythm starts again. The singer's position is desperate - out of the nine lives usually accorded a cat, he's spent seven of them. He despairs of getting out - 'now how in the world do I get to heaven?' Whether 'heaven' is the eternal home for the good after death, or just 'peace in the valley' on earth is also not clear. What is clear is that the singer wants out of his situation completely. It also suggests he is living in Hell, and he probably is.

The second bridge states the singer has just done a sixty-day stretch in jail, essentially for not having money (or vagrancy). Now he is released, he is committing another crime - he is unemployed and homeless, and is now doing time for the societal (if not legal) crime of 'havin' nowhere to go'.

In such a world, you only have two choices - save yourself, or save those close to you. Both are impossible. The Last Waltz version stops here, but the original and other versions add a final couplet - two kids might start 'a ruckus', because 'they feel, you're tryin' to shuck us'. 'You' is now not just the passive listener of the song, but the reason that there is the discontent and frustration of the earlier versions. Society may be to blame: certainly disaffected youth feel so. You have prevented 'peace in the valley': it is no wonder that young people might channel their energies into violence - they have been shucked. In all honesty, it is a clumsy construction, but its message is clear. The Band rarely, if ever, used cursewords in songwriting (using curse words was and is a sure way to stop airplay). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the imprecise 'shuck' is not suggesting another word. Yet, shuck itself has a certain linguistic value. It is a North American term for being conned, or scammed. This is an extremely valid use of the word. But also, when corn is shucked, it is stripped, used and the core is disposed of. Robertson understands the frustrations of the lower strata of society: of major lyricists, only Springsteen surpasses Robertson in the modern era in his empathy and understanding of poverty and the struggles of the working classes (though Robertson possibly understands the homeless and nearly homeless better than Springsteen - his upbringing and those years on the road were a hard, but effective teacher.) Robertson takes a pessimistic view in this song - a more optimistic view is taken in 'Life is a Carnival', for example. According to Barney Hoskyns, 'Shape I'm In' was explicitly about Richard Manuel's state at the time.

The Band, for all their technical ability and genuine talent, often ended songs inconclusively. Songs often just end. 'Shape I'm In' is no exception, but in this case, the song's ending (on the original recording, at least) underlines and reinforces the hopelessness of the case. It also leaves the song (and therefore the story) hanging.

Stage Fright itself is an album which has darker songs, and songs which may seem one thing, but also another. 'Shape I'm In' is no exception. It can be read as a metaphor for the Band's success - despite the fame and the money, things aren't any better - in some ways, they're worse, because the fans see a successful musical entity, but in reality, things are rough. (Another song in this vein is 'Time to Kill, which reads as a paean to domestic bliss, but may also suggest boredom and frustration). The driving rhythm of 'Shape I'm In' does not suggest the quite sad story it tells, though it does suggest a level of anger.

It was one of the Band's better songs, and perhaps the most performed Band song by other ensembles (with the exception of 'The Weight'). After Richard Manuel's death, Rick Danko took the lead. Manuel sang the song with anger. In The Last Waltz, he growls the lyrics: it is a superb version of the song, if not the supreme version. Rick Danko's version (as seen on, for example, Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band) is less angry - his slightly behind the beat interpretation suggests sadness, but a certain acceptance of his lot - he might want to get out, but he realizes he can't. You don't know the shape he's in. Had Levon Helm taken the lead, he might have been arrested for vagrancy, but he would have been charged, at the very least, with resisting arrest. Richard and Levon could 'do' anger; Rick (for all his talent) couldn't.

Manuel plays the clavinet to great effect, rather than the piano. It fills out the harmonies, and rounds out the 'high end', giving a nice balance to his baritone voice. Helm and Danko provide harmonies. The three voices together are one of the great vocal blends of the rock era (equal, if not superior to, the Beatles, The Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel.)

Robbie Robertson's guitar part is filled with typical Robertson touches - blues/rock fills, soul/country rhythms and at least three different tracks. The rhythm part is filled with single line runs, trills, fretted slides, sophisticated chording and percussive strumming, sometimes several of these at once. Garth Hudson puts in a never less than masterful organ part. Hudson takes the solo, and demonstrates why he is such a force on keyboards. He improvises brilliantly: the music swirls around and back, and he builds unique harmonies on top of Robertson's own brilliant chordal manoeuvres.

Danko and Helm's parts are not technically difficult, but, musically, it is hard to recreate the drive they achieved. The driving rhythms they supply in the verses add to the song's total effect. Helm's drumming drives the song into frenzy, but winds it back in the quieter sections. The drumming in the instrumental introduction is restrained, despite using tom-toms exclusively. He plays a fill, which implies the power to come, without ruining the feel and effect of the introduction. Danko's playing relies more on maintaining the drive, rather than his usual melodic inventiveness. It shows, though, that the Band's rhythm section was a powerful, driving force, as good as, if not better than any of their contemporaries. The whole rhythmic drive is edgy, aggressive almost- and the other instruments contribute to the rhythm section.

It retains a deserved and devoted following, as evinced by the number of bands who have covered it. 'Little Pink', the Band GuestBook has seen the song affectionately parodied in the past. It is probably one of the Band's more accessible songs in terms of other musicians trying to play it. For these reasons, and many more, it deserves its place on various greatest hits compilations, in The Last Waltz and in various other showcases.

--D L Lewis, Sydney, Australia, February 2007



John Bauldie (Q):
Stage Fright, the third Band LP from 1970, may well be the greatest of their records. There is more of Robbie Robertson's wonderful guitar playing on Stage Fright than any other LP; there is The Band's greatest rock 'n' roll song, 'The Shape I'm In'...
Levon Helm (This Wheel's On Fire):
It was a dark album, and an accurate reflection of our group's psychic weather. 'Daniel and The Sacred Harp' was about selling your soul for music. 'Stage Fright' was about the terror of performing. 'The Shape I'm In' was about desperation. 'The Rumor' was about paranoia.

The Question of the Mixes

The vinyl version used three Glyn Johns mixes ('The Shape I'm In', 'All La Glory', 'The Rumor'). All the other mixes were by Todd Rundgren

Seemingly, the 1990 Capitol CD used Glyn Johns mixes and the 1994 DCC gold release used Todd Rundgren's mixes - so every mix was different.

The original mixes were restored on the 2000 remaster


It was a B side in the USA, but an A side in Europe:

Time To Kill / The Shape I'm In (US, Capitol 2870)
The Shape I'm In / The Rumour (Capitol 15675) March 1971

Cover versions


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