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We Can Talk

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

The first section "On lyrics in general" is expanded from a similar section in an earlier article, but it's especially relevant here.

"We Can Talk"
Written by Richard Manuel
From Music From Big Pink

On lyrics in general

Robbie Robertson
I hate having (lyrics on albums) now. I say 'Is my diction so bad?' People piss and moan about it, but I don't like it. When I read other people's lyrics on their sleeves I think they look stupid. If I read the lyrics to some of my favourite songs, they don't mean shit to me. But if I hear 'When A Man Loves A Woman', it is so powerful and emotional. All I want out of any of these songs is the right emotion. I don't give a shit what the lyrics are. Dylan rambled on way too much for my liking. I remember years ago saying to him: 'listen to 'When A Man Loves A Woman'; I like this more than any of the songs we're playing. This is emotional to me; our songs are clever. I don't care for clever. Let's try and get somewhere that has an emotional thing. 1

(The track which Robertson urged Dylan to listen to varies every time he has retold the story - but it's always a soul classic, so we get the idea)

Robbie Robertson
I have a funny attitude to words though. I grew up on rock 'n' roll music and there were no words on the back of the album. I learned the words to all of Little Richard's songs the best I could, and what I couldn't figure out didn't matter. 2

Richard Manuel, 1943-1986. Too soon gone.
Ruth Albert Spencer
You never put the lyrics on the albums. You always have to listen about twenty times to get the words.
Richard Manuel
No not on the album (Big Pink). But on most of our albums we had them on the sleeve.
Ruth Albert Spencer
No, no.
Richard Manuel
Yes, on most of them we did.
Ruth Albert Spencer
No, honey.
Richard Manuel
I definitely remember. The lyrics are on there.
Ruth Albert Spencer
No. They were never written out. You'd just have to figure them out.
Richard Manuel
Well, then, they gave me phony covers and jackets. 3

Greil Marcus
When the music (on Big Pink) is most exciting - when the guitar is fighting for space in the clatter while voices yelp and wail as one man finishes another man's line or spins it off in a new direction - the lyrics are blind baggage and they emerge only in snatches. This is the finest rock 'n' roll tradition. 4

A tradition, surely. Roy Orbison remembered the words of Mary Lou for Ronnie Hawkins.

Ronnie Hawkins
I couldn't remember all the words but Roy Orbison who was touring with the Teen Kings, knew the one verse that I didn't. A couple of months later Roy was driving along humming that tune and thinking about recording it, when he turned on the radio and heard me doing it.5

That's the problem with oral history. Ronnie recorded Mary Lou on April 29th 1959. Roy Orbison disbanded The Teen Kings in 1956. Still, Roy recalls the same incident as occurring when he knew Ronnie in Arkansas in 1955:

Roy Orbison
I sang him the song Mary Lou that he went off and recorded. He made a big hit before I ever made it.6

Lyric swopping was happening all the time with rock songs. When I was at school, and every kid wanted to be in a group, we'd swop lyrics to Stones songs or Chuck Berry songs. You were never quite sure what the words actually were. Take Memphis, Tennessee. The song sheet says that his uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall. It doesn't sound like that. Most bands in my area voted for 'the phone boy took the message ?'. I once sweated out the words to Route 66 from a detailed atlas while the Stones version cranked tinnily out of the Dansette behind me - and looking back I made a few mistakes even with the atlas. Most British groups just used to mouth meaningless noises - 'See a Murillo, gallop to Mexico, and half of Arizona, don't forget to phone ya, Winston, dumadumdum, Saint Bernadine, oh, what you?' (or crap to that effect). Chuck Berry sang 'Jack, take my way', everybody else, including Mick Jagger, sang 'Just take my way'. And Berry's words were an example of great clarity compared to Little Richard.

Robbie is quite serious when he says he believes lyrics should be part-heard, part-understood. That's the difference between a song and a poem. Good rock is not poetry set to music (however widely you want to define poetry). Rock is something else. Few great songs are transparent in meaning. Many of the best are not-quite-heard. The lyrics throughout Big Pink are considerably less transparent and more fragmented than those on their second album, but this is nothing that needs apologizing for. I've enjoyed the music (and the words) on Big Pink for years without feeling any great compulsion to see them written out, or to puzzle out detailed meanings. The music gives a mood, and the words heighten and enhance it.

We Can Talk

Levon Helm
It's a funny song that really captures the way we spoke to one another; lots of outrageous rhymes and corny puns. Richard just got up one morning - or afternoon - sat down at the piano, and started playing this gospel song with its famous line: "But I'd rather be burned up in Canada than to freeze here in the South."7

This is a perfect opener for side two, in contrast to Tears of Rage on side one, and another Manuel song. Unlike his other compositions, this is tailor made for the ensemble rather than for a lead vocal by himself. The way the lyrics are swopped between singers, and get lost in the general hurly-burly previews what happens on the next track but one, Chest Fever. Rick and Richard are close in to the mics, Levon appears to be around / across / along the hall. The distance between the perceived positions is accentuated on the remasters. The lines are exchanged, finished for each other, then everything suddenly blends together in a line that sums up their finest vocal work:

'One voice for all, echoing (echoing) around the hall!'

Manuel's writing here is as dense, complex and enigmatic as Robertson's. We Can Talk defies explanation, yet bursts from the lyrics imprint themselves in the mind:

We could try to reason but you might think it's treason ?
Did you ever milk a cow? I had the chance one day but I was all dressed up for Sunday ?
I'd rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the South!

We've got to find a sharper blade or have a new one made?
There's no need to slave, the whip is the grave ?8

The song is a series of snatches of conversations; perhaps it's emphasising the eventual cameradie among the members of The Band after years on the road (and presumably the inevitable fallings out).

Richard Manuel
(there's) a whole vocal thing I wasn't aware we had before. I remember thinking "I really like this stuff."9

It's all tied together with the wackiest, oddly-accented most fabulous drum track you've ever heard. Greil Marcus sums it up in Mystery Train (devoting more space to this song than almost any other by The Band):

Greil Marcus
.. a Richard Manuel tune that sounds like the best merry-go-round in the world. Full of exultation, exhortation, smiles and complaints, it is the song of a man who has gone far enough to have become part of what he sings about. 'It's safe now', he says, 'to take a backward glance.' 10

Richard Manuel
The songs that I wrote myself ... I'd usually have a musical idea and then I'd give it a theme, an idea to go with it ... like 'We Can Talk' ... that song ... 'We can talk about it now.'? I just got up one morning and wrote that song. I got that gospel thing on the piano. 11


Dylanologist Michael Gray (Song and Dance Man) makes a distinction between analysis of lyrics (this line echoes a specific line in Genesis 19) and interpretation (I reckon this might have been about a bust in Canada). He favours the former and disparages the latter. I'm afraid this will veer heavily into the latter!

The words to "We Can Talk" on the site aren't totally accurate. Some are disputable, some are wrong. I thought it was "echoing AROUND the hall" not "ACROSS the hall" (and the echoing voice sings ROUND rather than AROUND). Greil Marcus, who quotes more of this lyric than any other, heard AROUND too, but others hear it as ALONG. I have my doubts, though AROUND makes more sense. ACROSS, it isn't!

"The leaves have turned to chalk" is what it says in the lyrics, but without doubt there's a BECAUSE which isn't transcribed at the start of the line. The words on the site were off sheet music for the first two albums, which questions the veracity of the sheet music. Sheet music in those days was often given to someone else to transcribe and to put in the dots. But even Levon gets the words wrong. In his biography he recalls "rather be burned UP in Canada" but there's no "UP" on the recording. The Band have always switched minor structural words, but while these might be (and are often) wrong on the transcribed lyrics, I'd guess "content words" (such as LEAVES) are more likely to be right. I always heard PLAINS, which makes more sense in the Sodom & Gommorrah context of being turned to salt.

Dave Hopkins
We Can Talk also gives us all three voices in equal turns, echoing each other and completing each other's lines in an extraordinary way (listen to how they all sing "Do you really care?" at different times with different cadences - seemingly breaking all the usual rules of popular music performance - and nail it, perfectly; that's quite a feat!). When listening to the song again right now, though, I'm struck most of all by the sheer enthusiasm with which Levon, Rick and Richard belt out the vocals - so convincingly that I soon stop worrying about who Father Clock might be or under exactly what circumstances someone might have his only opportunity to milk a cow, yet be forced to decline due to a lack of appropriate clothing. Instead, I just sit back and enjoy it. 12

This is one of the older set of songs on Big Pink, conceived in the house, so may well be the first example of the trademark vocal swopping (Levon says they discovered it on Ain't No More Cane, but that was to remain hidden for another seven years.) It's complex, lines swopped, lines completed for someone else - because these are all phrases the listener has heard so often repeated, that he can complete them.

Twin keyboards, Garth and Richard, intertwine wonderfully before that resonant THUMP of Levon's drum.

We can talk about it now
(outtake: yeah) It's that same old riddle only starting from the middle
(or Marcus: always starts from the middle )
I'd fix it but I don't know how
Well, we could try to reason but you might think it's treason

I used to hear from the start to the middle myself, but though outtakes vary, the final version is (I believe) as in the sheet music. You can almost guess the origins of some of the lines. The cool voice of reason (management? Robbie?) being interpreted as 'treason", perhaps. I'd fix it but I don't know how is sung with perfectly appropriate intonation too.

One voice for all
Echoing around the hall
Don't give up on Father Clock
We can talk about it now

I always hear, "Don't give up on 5 o'clock...", not "on Father Clock..." 13

Father Clock is a nice retake on Old Father Time, so makes some sense to me. It's the kind of reworking of a cliché that would stick in the mind.

Greil Marcus
For its moment, the song - a free and friendly conversation between the men in the Band and anyone who might care to listen - is that one voice.14

Which is the point I always come back to whenever I hear it. Whether the myth is bullshit or not (and I suspect it's been well hyped), Band fans love to think of the indominatable band of brothers myth - the one voice for all.

Come, let me show you how
To keep the wheels turnin' you've got to keep the engine churnin'

(not on sheet music: Well) Did you ever milk a cow
I had the chance one day but I was all dressed up for Sunday

To keep the wheel's turnin' is the sort of truism that people tend to say. One Southern English club owner used to amuse visiting bands (unconciously) by always advising the bass player that he should listen to the drummer, as if it was a new idea and a secret. He thought that repeating this (again and again and again) suggested that he had some musical knowledge.

The dialogue in Did you ever milk a cow? (from Levon) and I had the chance one day, but I was all dressed up for Sunday (from Rick) makes it sound as if they improvised humorous conversations on the road (which I've heard other musicians do). It's good comic dialogue. Everyone remembers it. With TheBand you can't rule out double entendre but I don't know where.

Everybody, everywhere
Do you really care
Pick up your heads and walk
We can talk about it now

It seems to me we've been holding something
underneath our tongues
I'm afraid if you ever got a pat on the back
It would likely burst your lungs
Woh, stop me, if I should sound kinda down in the mouth
But I'd rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the south

The last line is one that sticks in everyone's minds. I've never felt the need to analyse it before, except that it's a surprise juxtaposition, as normally you associate cold with Canada and heat with the South. On to interpretation, I can imagine the disconsolate and homesick Hawks having a bad time on the Southern circuit, and someone saying "If we were back in Canada now?" (cf. Frank Zappa's "If we'd all been living in California" off Uncle Meat ). Then someone else says, 'Yeah, but the promoters really ripped us off last time ?" (they always do). So, 'I'd rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the South,' then the line would be remembered and repeated whenever things went wrong.

The other guess about the verse connects to Caledonia Mission (see the article on this site) and the story of the bust in Canada (or maybe Ronnie Hawkins meant this song too / instead). There's even possibly a comic cartoon image (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers?) of someone hiding a lighted "cigarette" under their tongues and getting slapped on the back. A double meaning of burned comes there. Holding something underneath your tongue could be a newly-coined phrase meaning an interesting variant of holding your tongue i.e. keeping quiet, or something like 'keeping stuff bottled up inside'. A pat on the back could be the comic slap, causing explosive coughing. It could also be 'praise'. A pat on the back is praise, and the result of praise, or of success, means getting swollen up with self-importance to bursting point. But Levon's story of having to use an insufficiently-loaded credit card to buy air tickets to California during the recordings, suggest that at this point they'd not enjoyed either financial reward or any praise. I guess they'd seen enough of it in others.

Robbie's guitar does wonderful things throughout this section, and the keyboards fade away to allow his playful, almost mock-psychedelic guitar part to shine through.

Pulling that eternal plough
We've got to find a sharper blade or have a new one made
Rest awhile and cool your brow
(Marcus:) Don't you see, there's no need to slave)
(Sheet music:) Don't need it. No need to ?
(Outtake:) You see there's no need ?
The whip is in the grave

Pulling that eternal pough fits, though there have been arguments for lonely / holy nights, eternal vow which shows how loose these lyrics seem to be! The only word I'd swear to is eternal.

Amanda (from New Zealand)
One of my favourite lines from the song is "Well we could try to reason. But you might think it's treason". I also like "It seems to me if you ever got a pat on the back it would likely burst your lungs" and "We've got to find a sharper blade or have a new one made"...There really is a dark undercurrent going through that song despite the humour and the joyous way they sing it. But thats true of most folk and blues music and of life as well when ya think about it15

Yes, there are dark undercurrents, as their humour is dark, but the idea of needing a sharper blade assists with pulling the eternal plough. They're struggling with the 'plough', the response is 'rest awhile, cool your brow.' There's no need to slave, those days are over. Which is what they must have hoped for from the Capitol contract! A whip buried in the grave harks back to slavery days, which are gone.

This verse caused Greil Marcus to wax poetic and I agree with his hearing of the lyrics. If you listen to the earlier pressings they are actually clearer than the remaster: Don't you see ? It checks out on the live versions too, where the singing is closer to the microphone.

Greil Marcus
The song creates out of words and music, a big, open, undeniable image of what the country could sound like at its best, of what it could feel like. One good burst of rock & roll blows the trail clean ? "Dontcha see" he shouts in an extraordinary flash of vision, that seems to reveal the secret America holds, even as it hints at deeper secrets, "there's no need to slave." "The whip" he sings "is in the grave."16

' No salt, no trance
It's safe now to take a backward glance
Because the ( leaves) have turned to (chalk)
(Sheet music:) 'because' is missing
We can talk about it now,
We can talk about it now

jps mentions this verse in the Band guestbook:

Now without the listing, I wouldn't have even heard salt, trance or backward glance. The best I could hear in the next line was "The fleas have turned to Cha". But now that I hear it it looks like a biblical reference to Lot, his wife and daughters leaving Sodom and Gomorrah. I couldn't hear "leaves" but thought I heard "plains" or "flames" They all seem to fit in the context of:

From Genesis 19:
Flee for your lives! Don't look back, and don't stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!".....
Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah--from the LORD out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities--and also the vegetation in the land. But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.17

It fits with a number of other Biblical references which were used in Band lyrics and mentions both plains and vegetation (which could be leaves). So why have the 'leaves turned to chalk'? Maybe it's because they look like white ash, incinerated in the flash that turned Lot's wife to salt, hanging there for a moment, white. Whether it's flames, plain or leaves probably doesn't matter. It would refer to a weird and catacysmic event in any case.

Dave Hopkins
It's funny how we hear lyrics differently...I've always heard "echoing ALONG the hall" and "the FLAMES have turned to chalk." Listening to the song again, I still think that's what I hear, but due to the discussion I'm less sure than before!18

Little Brother
I hear "ALONG the hall". And isn't it "the FLAMES have turned to chalk"? Indeed, it's one of those ambiguous sonic moments where the harder one strains to listen, the more elusive the referent gets. I just tried a few times, and all I'm sure of is an "...ain..." sound. Or is that "ane"19

Diamond Lil
Here's another vote for FLAMES in We Can Talk.... except I always thought it was "The flames have turned to char.' Makes more sense than chalk . And my favorite line in that tune? "I'd fix it but I don't know how". Everyone, at least once a day, knows what that feels like. I know I sure do. 20

John (New York)
I truly believe that it is 'PLAINS have turned to chalk'. If only the booklet that comes with the album had the lyrics.21

Pehr Smith
I think the We Can Talk line is The flames have turned to chalk- I think its a reference to Sodom and Gommorah, when Sarah turned back to see the leveling against the orders of God not to turn back she turned into a pillar of salt.22

I used to be a 'plains have turned to chalk' listener, but after listening to the live Isle of Wight version, I'd say Lil's "flames have turned to char" gets my vote. I'd also say that whatever follows "no salt" doesn't sound anything like "no trance". It's got an "en" or "ain" sound in it. 23

If you think about it, the Biblical reference is NO salt, so it's safe to take a backward glance. So the cataclysm hasn't happened, Lot's wife hasn't been changed to salt, which would naturally lead to the 'flames have turned to char' - they've gone out.

Final word:

Barney Hoskyns
The song stands as one of The Band's masterworks, a breathless call-and-response yelp of sanctified joy. ? Self-deprecating as (Richard Manuel) later was about his talents as a lyricist, "We Can Talk" was as good in its humorously cryptic way as anything Robbie ever wrote.24


Studio albums

Live albums

It's not appeared on any of the three official live albums ( Rock of Ages, The Last Waltz, Live at Watkin's Glen ) even though it was performed live in the early years, it was dropped.


Astonishingly, this song, so highly rated in Mystery Train, Greil Marcus's first critical work on The Band, appears on not one compilation. Not even the three CD box set has room for it. And in spite of his fulsome praise above it isn't even on the Hoskyns-compiled The Shape I'm In: Very Best of the Band.

Dave Hopkins
We Can Talk is never really held up as a famous or classic song; perusing the discography, I don't see it on any of the major compilations. However, my own personal impression from reading this Guestbook regularly is that it's a real sentimental favorite among those who post here, and I always include it on any tape I make of Band material. One reason for its popularity may be that it virtually stands alone as an uptempo, extroverted, even fun song from a composer known more for his serious, introspective ballads. Of course, I don't mean to slight Richard's other work by this comment; I'm just trying to point out that I think we enjoy hearing something different...and there are precious few Manuel compositions to choose from. 25


And it's missing from the CD bootlegs apart from:
  • The Band: Royal Albert Rags, Albert Hall, London, 2 June 1971
    This is sourced from an audience tape. This is confirmed by the close presence of the handclapping between numbers. The Royal Albert Hall's appalling acoustic is prominent, and the balance is messy with cutting treble on voices and guitar and reasonable bass but with very murky middle range (and the Royal Albert Hall has that sound for everyone who plays there). Definitely one for Robbie fans - you CAN hear the guitar and cymbals clearly, though as ever Richard's piano is largely lost. Garth's organ part has developed and expanded.

  • Levon & the Hawks/ The Band: Old Shoes (2000) - studio outtakes
    See below.


A collectors' tape has been circulating for years (Greil Marcus & Barney Hoskyns had obviously both heard it) which includes thirteen takes of We Can Talk giving a fascinating guide to the recording process. Some of it (takes 2 to 5) appeared in 2000 on the bootleg Old Shoesin awful quality. To my memory, this isn't as good as the tape I heard, and sounds a few generations further down the tape-trading line.* They all play on every take, proving that the song was a 'live in the studio performance'.

Take 1: instrumental
Take 2: false start
Take 3: A bit ragged - cut off by John Simon because of Rick's mic popping & also for Robbie to retune slightly
Take 4: False start "Sloppy!" shouts Simon
Take 5: Complete - OK until Rick's mic pops in last verse
Take 6: Complete - Simon asks for one more
Take 7: false start
Take 8: Complete - Simon says this one is 'Getting there'
Take 9: false start - Robbie is accused of turning his volume up.
Take 10: Pretty soon breaks up into crackle
Take 11: false start - Simon is getting irritable, Garth has a 'heavy toe'
Take 12: further dissolves into crackle
Take 13: Complete 'that was really close'

* I've spent an hour looking for this tape, which I annotated as above several years ago. I can even see the label in my mind's eye, but I honestly cannot find it, so don't ask!

There are live versions on tape, covering major early concerts. None of them I've heard are clear or well-recorded, which is a shame, as often live versions resolve questions about the exact words of Band songs.

From the tape Archive on this site:

  • 21 June 1969 Woodstock Festival
  • 31 August 1969 Isle of Wight Festival (opening number)
  • 17 January 1970 Toronto
  • 5 November 1970 Tuft's University
  • 7 November 1970, Worcester
  • 20 May 1971 Frankfurt, Germany
  • 27 May 1971 Copenhagen
  • 2 June 1971 Royal Albert Hall, London
  • 3 June 1971 Royal Albert Hall, London
  • 6 June 1971 Rotterdam

As it's not even on the American shows listed in the tape archive for July and August 1971, I assume it was dropped directly after the early summer 1971 European tour. It doesn't seem to have featured in Richard Manuel solo shows either, not that it's possible with fewer than three voices.

Cover versions

None, to my knowledge. Not surprising, considering the lead vocal trading.


1 Vox magazine October 1991

2 Rolling Stone 27 December 1969

3 Interview, The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985

4 Greil Marcus 'Mystery Train'

5 Record Collector, Ronnie Hawkins interview, Jan 1987

6 Quoted in 'Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story' by Ellis Amburn (1990)

7 Levon Helm & Stephen Davies "This Wheel's On Fire"

8 'We Can Talk' © Richard Manuel

9 Quoted in Barney Hoskyns "Across the Great Divide"

10 Greil Marcus 'Mystery Train'

11 Interview, The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985

12 Dave Hopkins, Band Guestbook, 4 November 2000

13 Gene, Band Guestbook, 5 November 2000

14 Greil Marcus, Mystery Train

15 Amanda, Band Guestbook, 6 November 2000

16 Greil Marcus, "Mystery Train"

17 jps, Band Guestbook, 4 November 2000

18 Dave Hopkins, Band Guestbook, 4 November 2000

19 Little Brother, Band Guestbook, 4 November 2000

20 Diamond Lil, Band Guestbook, 5 November 2000

21 John, New York, Band Guestbook, 5 November 2000

22 Pehr Smith, Band Guestbook, 6 November 2000

23 The British Royal Family would prounce 'trance' as 'trence'!

24 Barney Hoskyns, "Across the Great Divide".

25 Dave Hopkins, Band Guestbook, 4 November 2000

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