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Chest Fever

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1997
This isn't a finished article (yet), just notes in progress.

After "The Weight", "Chest Fever" is the Big Pink track that has appeared on most subsequent live albums and compilations. It survived the loss of Richard Manuel, to appear in later versions with Levon singing, more recently joined by Randy Ciarlante. It rapidly became an on-stage showpiece for Garth's organ, and as such it was an essential song. The intro was originally from Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D minor.

Garth Hudson
...after that it becomes more unqualifiable, more ethnic.

It soon grew into a lengthy organ solo piece prefacing the song on live performances, which was eventually called "The Genetic Method." I was stuck behind some guys who rattled on loudly about Genesis and Yes all the way through the Band's 1973 Wembley set. A few seconds into "The Genetic Method" they suddely hushed. "Oh, Wow!," said one, "that's brilliant, just like Pink Floyd!" British audiences have always loved a touch of flash instrumental pyrotechnics. I'm sure the same people were upset by the absence of a lengthy drum solo. But the intro to "Chest Fever" was always much better than that. Check out Garth's astonishing four-minute intro from 1976 on the Italian Live in Washinton (sic) CD (which is the 1976 King Biscuit Flower Hour performance) or the one from The Complete Last Waltz.

The lyrics were dummy words, simply designed to fill the gaps while the instrumental tracks were put down. Robbie had intended to rewrite them at a later stage.

Robbie Robertson
I'm not sure that I know the words to "Chest Fever"; I'm not even so sure there are words to "Chest Fever".

He says that the song was a reaction to the mysticism and myth-making of the other lyrics on the album:

Robbie Robertson
"Chest Fever" was like here's the groove, come in a little late. Let's do the whole thing so it's like pulling back, then it gives in and kind of kicks in and goes with the groove a little bit. If you like "Chest Fever" it's for God knows what reason, it's just in there somewhere, this quirky thing. But it doesn't make particularly any kind of sense in the lyrics, in the music, in the arrangement, in anything.

You can snatch ideas from the words though, and though obscure, they remain consistent in live versions. Robbie has been more forthcoming on the lyrics elsewhere (Sleeve notes to Anthology Volume 1):

Robbie Robertson
It's kind of a hard love song, but it's a reversal on that old rock n' roll thing where they're always telling the girl, you know, He's a rebel, he'll never be any good,. This time it's the other way round, people are telling him about this girl and it effects him physically. These things they're telling him move him incredibly, and he's really a victim of that.

Even so, some of the lyrics printed on the web site were a surprise to me. I'd never interpreted "any scarlet would back her" in years of listening to it. I reckon I'd given up trying to comprehend by the end, and I'd dispute one or two of them anyway. Robbie was intent on not having lyrics on the sleeve until Cahoots, pointing out that half the joy of Chuck Berry songs was puzzling out the words. What's there fits his "bad girl" interpretation and there are a number of drug references: tracker, drinking from the bitter cup, "She's stoned" said the Swede", "like a viper in shock", "feel the freeze down to my knees." I always reckoned the transcribed "They say she's a chooser" was "They say she's a juicer" which echoed the line "I know she's a tracker" with a switch to alcohol. But when I listen to the post-Big Pink versions I have to agree it sounds much more like "chooser". And I've no real idea what "chooser" means, presumably someone who picks and chooses as they please (men? drugs?).

Apart from Garth's state-of-the-art organ playing, there is the almost hilarious bridge, where Rick plays violin against wheezing sax from Garth and belching baritone horn from John Simon before the vocal hammers back in. Robbie says it was a deliberately pathetic kind of sound, building the surprise as they kick back into the song.

When Levon Helm has complained about the share out of royalties at this period, this is the song he quotes. His theme is that Garth's contribution was always grossly under-estimated and under-credited. As he says, "what do you remember about Chest Fever - the lyrics or the organ part?" Well, you remember both. And there's the tune and the rhythm as well. In general I love Robbie's lyrics, but it's never bothered me that I can only pick up odd snatches from this one. A close comparison is "We Can Talk" which is Richard Manuel's song, but is just about as disjointed. But the snatches you do grab certainly stick.

On live versions it's usually the most interesting track, because Garth never plays the same thing twice. If you're into Band live tapes, you can get fed up with some other songs because of the lack of variation in versions which are years apart. A particularly interesting live "Chest Fever" is Richard Manuel solo at The Getaway in Woodstock in 1985, where he does the organ part on frenetic piano.

Copyright © Peter Viney 1997.
Peter Viney is working on a critical discography of The Band. Comments welcome.

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