When You Awake
Notes by Peter VineyCopyright © Peter Viney 1998
Following the recent article on 'The Unfaithful Servant' I thought the notes would be greatly improved by asking for comments before it was posted. In the past, the comments have been spread over the Guestbook, without being attached to the article, which is a loss. Thanks to all who contributed.
When You Awake is by no means a prominent song from The Band. It’s missing from all the compilation albums. 1 However, on the Classic Albums video it’s one of the songs that Robbie and Rick devote most time to. It had a special place for me, because I couldn’t get it out of my head in the winter of 1970. There’s a reason. I had a beaten-up, hand-painted 1953 car, a Vauxhall Wyvern. It was the most American-looking car from the British branch of General Motors and had a peeling chrome grill like a classic Studebaker. Much loved as it was, I spent weeks trying to keep it going. As I was living in the icy winds of East Anglia, that line My old car froze-up last night wouldn’t leave my head. Because it often did. I became adept at replacing the water pump with scrap-yard components, while humming / muttering the last verse to myself. I’d forgotten all about this until I was talking to an old friend from the same era who asked if it was still my favourite song. Well, no, it isn’t. It wasn’t then either, but I did keep singing it to myself. But any song from the brown album is worthy of consideration.
This is a strange song in that it breaks up the full blast Americana of the three preceding tracks and the following one. Listen to it again, and it hardly sounds like any kind of rock song at all. Like all their best tracks you grab images as you relisten but you’re hard put to connect these images together (cf We Can Talk, Chest Fever).
The link here is that we have a narrator’s voice (the little boy) in the verse, and Grandpa’s voice in the chorus. The narrator begins each verse with reporting something that ‘Ollie’ said: Ollie told me … / Ollie showed me … / Ollie warned me … .
I just can’t see how Ollie and Grandpa are the same person. It starts out:
Ollie told me , I’m a fool
That sounds as if the narrator is retreating from Ollie, and seeking solace a mile away at Grandpa’s. I think that’s pretty transparent! Ollie is mainly a voice that sets out problems, while Grandpa’s tone is soothing (it’s hard to work out what Grandpa’s words mean). Without thinking I saw Ollie as parental - but maybe a stepfather or uncle.
Everyone seems to agree that it’s ‘Ollie’ though it’s pronounced ‘Owe-lee’ and every Oliver I knew had a short ‘o’ sound as in ‘got’ at the start of Ollie, not the longer ‘o’ sound in ‘note’.
I was perplexed when I saw this on the lyrics as I’d always heard it as ‘Oh, they …’ (Oh, they told me … /Oh, they showed me / Oh, they warned me …) which utilises the general ‘they’ and seemed to make a lot more sense to me. It’s the ‘they’ that we often use to talk about government organizations:
They ought to do something about road deaths.
We never define who ‘they’ are; but ‘they’ have the wisdom and power to do "something" about a problem. "they" also give advice. When I asked for comments in the Band Guestbook I was pleased to see that it wasn’t just me:
When I first read Hoskyns saying it was "Ollie" I thought ‘What an idiot,’ but that’s what appears in the lyrics. So I’m wrong. It’s clearer in the solo version (not that this is accurate elsewhere, but he couldn’t get this bit wrong). Pity. They works better! Anyway, Pete Rivard comes up with one plausible explanation of 'Owlie':
Stu Huska comes up with another:
Stu's note is supported by the Classic Albums solo version where Danko sings:
Ollie showed me, the fork in the road
which seemed to change Ollie’s perceived gender, and was something I'd wondered about. It would seem that this was deliberate. So why did we all see Ollie as male? Looking back, there's no reason. Ronnie Hawkins allegedly once freaked out because Robbie was reading The Way of Zen on the road and though no one would claim that these were zen aphorisms, they are homilies - odd pieces of advice strung together and recalled by the narrator, with the soothing voice of Grandpa on the chorus functioning in much the way that the chorus’s soothing voice does later in King Harvest. It would be interesting to know how Robbie and Richard divided the task.
Phil from California
The snatches of advice and the way things don’t quite fit together, but resonate well in phrases, reminds me of We Can Talk, which is Richard’s lyrics. I agree that it sounds like two songs welded together, but I'd guess the other way round, with the Manuel part first and the Robertson second.
Ollie (or ‘they’) is a critical voice - Ollie told me I’m a fool ….
In verse 2, Ollie showed the fork in the road and added a list of parental style advice…
Use your days and save your nights …
In verse 3, Ollie warns that it’s a mean old world … the street don’t greet you, yes, it’s true and the verse ends with:
Read the writing on the wall
Which means this stream of advice is pretty continual.
This is what Grandpa has to say, as it’s transcribed:
When You Awake
I don’t believe this is necessarily an accurate transcription, but nothing I come up with makes any more sense. The solo version on Classic Albums is clearer:
When You Awake
The with is on the printed lyrics. It’s just not very prominent on the original.
Stanley Landau On the "Before the Flood" tour I heard the song performed twice and the line "You will be hangin’ on a string from your…" was finished with the word "heart" ie. "you will be hanging on a string from your heart". 11
This is the soothing advice from Grandpa and it’s set as part of a dream.
Confused? You will be because at this point, after three verses and choruses, we suddenly get a different refrain which is repated twice and seems to have little connection.
The next section is jaunty:
Wash my hand in lye water
Sounds like the boy is growing up now. No need for more advice from Ollie and Grandpa, and he’s making sure his hands are disinfected, bleached even, before his date with the (presumably luscious) Captain’s daughter. I suppose this is an extreme version of the kid continually checking for under-arm excretions before the first date. 'lye' is a strong, caustic alkaloid. I've never seen the phrase 'lye water' elsewhere and it's not listed in Websters either.
But again refer to the Rick Danko solo version:
I got a date with the Captain’s doctor
Sounds less fun! And if this song is so personal, why such a change? The official lyrics say daughter and there's no doubt in my mind that is what was on the original.
You may be right and you might be wrong
You might be right and you might be wrong
which is hardly crucial, though a tad less subtle.
Even worse he changes my classic line:
My old car froze up last night
My old car broke down last night
And, to me at least, this is crucial. He makes a lot of fluffs on the guitar as well, which makes you wonder about the intent of the direct cut to Robbie picking out the same song expertly on the video. But then the quote above would indicate that the song has special relevance to Rick Danko, so you have to consider that these changes are not necessarily slips. (But Danko is not usually too accurate on lyrics).
This is followed by a reference to the problems that made them move south from Canada to record the album:
Snow’s gonna come and the frost’s gonna bite
with a fast fade on the last line. The last line is a direct quote from the chorus of the traditional spiritual I Bowed My Head and Cried Holy:
If I could, I surely would
The rock where Moses stood is either old time religion, and/or the Ten Commandments … but the fast fade into nothingness is a comment in itself, and the singer would only stand there if he thought it would do any good. Greil Marcus was critical of the reproduction of this fade on live shows:
Greil (most uncharacteristically) fails to get the point. This fade into oblivion is crucial to the song, and Rick Danko was absolutely correct to maintain it.
It’s got something to do with advice and choices but as a text it crumbles into pieces the more you try to dissect or analyse it. Yet as a song it makes perfect sense, and that is the point.
Official live album: