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Tears of Rage

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998

Tears of Rage
by Bob Dylan & Richard Manuel
Music From Big Pink (1968)

This broke every perceived rule of album programming. You were supposed to start out with a rocker, then do the slow ballad second. Instead Music From Big Pink opens with this slow, stately song sung by Richard Manuel.

Levon Helm
Tears of Rage opened the album with a slow song, which was just another way of rebelling against the rebellion. We were deliberately going against the grain. Few artists had ever opened an album with a slow song, so we had to. At the zenith of the psychedelic era with it’s flaming guitars and endless solos and elongated jams, we weren’t about to make that kind of album. Bob Dylan helped Richard with this number about a parent’s heartbreak, and Richard sang one of the best performances of his life.

The philosophy behind the song was often quoted in contemporary articles on The Band. In direct contrast to the mood of the times, they were not writing about hating their parents or breaking away from their families - hence the ‘Next of Kin’ photo on the centrefold of the album:

Robbie Robertson
You know the punky attitude that had to do with music - hate your mother and stab your father. It’s kind of a trend of some sort, and this
(the next of kin photo)was a statement that we weren’t there. We don’t hate our mothers and fathers. It (Tears of Rage)’s from a parent’s point of view. So what if your parents did you wrong? Maybe they did, but so what? Everybody’s doing what they can do, right or wrong. I’m just tired of hearing all this - that little girl, Janis Ian. You know, Jim Morrison and all those people. I just think that they’re a drag. Even if that is their situation, who cares? [2]

Barney Hoskyns says that the choice of ‘Tears of Rage’ as the opening track was a decision that Robbie fought for against considerable opposition. [3]

Of course everybody ignored the fact that the Manuel melody had a Dylan lyric, not a Robertson or Manuel one. (But notice Levon’s word order above: Dylan helped Richard with this song …).

Paul Williams
What a stunning tune Manuel wrote for this, densely layered with anguish and affection and dignity.

It appears by Dylan and The Band in three versions on the bootlegs from the basement tapes, and again on the official 1975 release The Basement Tapes. All predate Music From Big Pink, but none of them had been released at the time of the album. The Basement Tapes version has strong vocal backing from Richard and Rick, a more dominant organ part, but a similar fragility and mood. It would have been recorded before Levon returned to the fold. Because it was done with Dylan (who also sings it superbly) it had not been worked on to anything like the degree of the Big Pink version. As well as considerable instrumental polishing, the lyrics had been tidied in small details throughout in The Band’s version.

Richard Manuel
(Dylan) came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper - and it was typed out - in line form - and he just said ‘Have you got any music for this?’ I had a couple of musical movements that fit, that seemed to fit, so I just elaborated a little bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean Bob? Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse.’

Greil Marcus
One hears a pure naked emotion in some of Dylan’s writing and singing - in Tears of Rage especially - that can’t be found anywhere else, and I think it is the musical sympathy Dylan and The Band shared in these sessions that gives Tears of Rage, and other numbers their remarkable depth and power.

Never mind who wrote what, it seemed to sum the Band up, and certainly everything they had to say to interviewers fitted the song:

We carried you in our arms
on Independence Day
Now you throw us all aside
and put us all away *
(Dylan version: on our way )
Oh ,what dear daughter neath the sun
(Dylan what daughter beneath the sun)
could treat a father so?
(Dylan: would treather)
To wait upon him hand and foot
yet always tell him no?
(Dylan version 3: answer no )
Tears of rage, tears of grief,
why must I always be the thief?

Dylan was already a parent; none of The Band were, but the song is still surprising because it’s not till kids are teenage that you get that feeling (though one supposes they’d all spent time considerable listening to teenaged girls moaning about their parents). Never mind that it’s a Dylan song. They arranged it. They placed it in its position of total prominence. Richard sang it. As commentators have pointed out, oddly the lyrics and style sound more like a Robertson song rather than Manuel or Dylan, but this is being wise after the event. Discount all the bullshit about Robertson writing this (or Dylan writing The Weight).

The magic image it starts with is the family group on Independence Day, a national holiday where parents watch parades, kids in arms. But of course the problem is that when kids arrive at their own personal day for independence - a mirror of the initial Independence Day - you can’t carry them in your arms anymore, even metaphorically. And if you want to get heavy, then maybe America itself is the child, the daughter, carried by the founding fathers in their arms (on Independence Day).

Paul Williams
I always come back to my first impression, based on the opening lines, that the song is about the American nation as seen from the perspective of the founding fathers, an expression of their pain at how she (personified as a female, Liberty) has turned her back on the ideas in which she was conceived.

We pointed you the way to go
(Dylan: pointed out )
and scratched your name in sand
though you just thought it was nothing more
than a place for you to stand
I want you to know
that while we watched you discover
no one would be true
(Dylan: there was no one true )
that I myself was among the ones
(Dylan I myself remember now … )
who thought it was a childish thing to do

The whole mood of 1968 was kids rebelling against their parents. The tears of rage and grief are all around. The kids have taken all that false instruction. They were turning up at graduation ceremonies wearing black armbands.

Greil Marcus takes up the America theme, but this time America is the parent, rather than the child:

Greil Marcus
They began with ‘Tears of Rage’, an eerie invocation of Independence Day, dragging the organ and those secretive horns across a funereal beat, changing the Fourth of July into an image of betrayal and loneliness: America betrayed by those who would no longer be part of it.

You can go even further if you want. Tim Riley sees an injured soldier being carried in the arms on Independence Day:

Tim Riley
Tears of Rage … is a soldier’s curse upon his commander. It’s the voice of a man who followed his leader into battle, saw his friends slaughtered for a cause he never believed in, only to return to find his superior running for political office, turning his back on the values that were so easily sacrificed. “We carried you in our arms / on Independence Day” is the kind of battle-scar allusion that Robbie Robertson will flesh out on ‘The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” … “Tears of Rage” doesn’t depend on the same associations, but it pursues the same memories and voices , a disbelief in and cynicism about authority so charged with resentment it can barely work up the steam to get pissed off … The leader who was carried in the arms of his troops, who scratched his name in sand, must now hear the bitter voice of the dissenters. The song can be read as an allegory of the Vietnam experience.


Well, I never got that picture myself, and I’m often guilty of over-interpretation, but I put it in here because Riley has thought this through, and I respect his comments on other Dylan songs. I actually think he’s completely wrong here, but he reads the father-daughter (King Lear-Cordelia) theme as an allegory of the soldiers / corrupt leader.

Tim Riley
Most commentators note the allusion to King L:ear, but that passage is actually a measure of self-awareness coming from the accuser (to follow the allusion through, the song’s narrator is identifying with Lear’s daughter Cordelia and pointing out the manipulative snare the father figure lays for the children.)

Sorry. Right over my head. Both Robertson and Helm seemed to think it was about parents and children and so do I. But it is Dylan, and let’s repeat what Richard Manuel said above:

Richard Manuel
I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean Bob? Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse.’

Scratched your name in sand is a kids on the beach reference to me (compare the lyrics of Sara a few years later, You run to the water, your buckets to fill). But maybe here it’s a reference to the Bay of Pigs incident or The Gulf of Tonkin, The Normandy Landings or anything else involving politics, the US military and water! Sorry, Tim Riley, but I think that everything they said about rebelling against the rebellion makes it unlikely that the song is a Vietnam allegory.

It was never a major live number, appearing in early performances then being revived for the final series of concerts in 1975 to 76.

Levon Helm
It had those trademark horns and organ and the moaning tom-tom style of drumming that I’ve been credited with by some observers, but I know that Ringo Starr was doing something like it at the same time. You make the drum notes bend down in pitch. You hit it, it sounds, and then it hums as the note dies out. If the ensemble is right, you can hear it sustain like a bell, and it’s very emotional. It can keep a slow song suspended in an interesting way. As a matter of fact, I found the tuning I used in ‘Tears of Rage’ by tuning to the flourescent lighting in the studio.

Music From Big Pink

The Best of The Band
To Kingdom Come
Across The Great Divide box set (opening track again)

1976 King Biscuit Show (e.g. Live in Washinton (sic) DC, Ophelia)
Crossing The Great Divide (recorded 19 August 69)
Tears of Grief (Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, 25 August 1976)

The Basement Tapes (Columbia)

Three versions exist on The Genuine Basement Tapes Volume 2
- the greatest disaster in writing this, was the discovery that my copy has gone strangely mottled and sounds like it - it’s full of drop outs. The other four in the series are OK, I’ve heard about CD decay, but this is my first experience of it, so beware!

More Greatest Hits

Winterland, San Francisco 18 April 69


  1. Levon Helm & Stephen Davies 'This Wheel's On Fire'
  2. Rolling Stone 27 December 1969
  3. Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide'
  4. Paul Williams, 'Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, 1960-1973'
  5. Interview in The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985
  6. Sleevenotes to 'The Basement Tapes' Columbia, 1975
  7. Paul Williams, 'Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, 1960-1973'
  8. Greil Marcus, 'Mystery Train'
  9. Tim Riley, 'Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary", 1992
  10. Tim Riley, 'Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary", 1992
  11. Interview in The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985
  12. Levon Helm & Stephen Davies 'This Wheel's On Fire'

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