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The Debut Album

by Rob Bowman

From the article "Life Is A Carnival", Goldmine magazine, July 26, 1991, Vol.17, No.15, Issue 287.
© Rob Bowman and Goldmine magazine. Reprinted with permission.

Before Music From Big Pink could be a possibility, one element still needed to be put in place,: Helm had to be enticed back into the fold. "I called Levon," said Danko, "and said `Levon , we're gonna get ready to record. They're giving us a couple of hundred thousand dollars we'd like to share.' He said `I'll be be on the next plane.'"

Albert Grossman, svengali extraordinaire, had assumed managerial responsibilities for the Band: the group had recorded a couple of demos with Grossman. Robertson remembers them with trepidation: "It was horrible, it sounded awful - the engineer couldn't get it straightened out." Be that as it may, the demo was sufficient to get them signed. Grossman had wanted to make a deal with Warner Brothers, where one of his most successful acts, Peter, Paul and Mary, had a mututally satisfactory arrangement.

But Warner Brothers president Mo Ostin was out of town and Grossman wanted to move. Grossman called Capitol, which eagerly said yes. Ostin came back to town, found out he was too late and, according to Robertson, "has been pissed off ever since." The original contract listed their name as the Crackers (the Honkies, believe it or not, was at one time under consideration).

The same week Helm returned, the Band met producer John Simon through filmmaker Howard Alk.

"The first time I met the Band," reminisced Simon, "I was in the house working with Howard Alk with a bunch of movieolas trying to make some sense of this crazy movie [Peter Yarrow's, of Peter, Paul and Mary, You Are What You Eat.] All of a sudden there was en eerie noise outside. We open a window and there's all the guys in the Band dressed up in crazy costumes and playing crazy instruments serenading Howard because it was his birthday!"

Shortly thereafter, Simon and the Band got together and all the pieces of the puzzle was in place. "He was technically lightyears ahead of us," Robertson said. "He understood the recording console, he understood tape machines. We had hardly been around this kind of stuff. John brought it close to home. He had all the expertise in the studio and we had none."

Music From Big Pink was recorded in two separate locations. "Tears Of Rage", "Chest Fever", "We Can Talk", "This Wheel's On Fire" and "The Weight" were all recorded in New York on four-track in two sessions at A&R's seventh floor studios. Simon describes it as "a barn-shaped room that was erected on top of an already existing building. Its acoustics were wonderful." For these sessions, everybody was recorded live on two of the four tracks, the horns were put on the third track, while the fourth track was reserved for vocals and tambourine.

The people at Capitol were so pleased with the results that they flew Simon and the Band to Los Angeles to finish the album at Capitol's own studios, which were equipped with the more modern eight-track facilities. The sessions took over a month to complete, and at one point, when Capitol's studio wasn't available, they all trooped over to the legendary Gold Star studio (site of Phil Spector's greatest achievements). There they cut four songs, including Big Bill Bronzy's "Key To The Highway" (probably modeled on Little Walter's version) which Robertson remembers as "kind of obnoxious", full of multiple guitar riffs reminiscent of his earlier guitar hero work with Ronnie Hawkins.

As with every Band recording, each song from Big Pink has its own feeling, its own temperament. The languid, slow Richard Manuel - Bob Dylan ballad "Tears Of Rage" very deliberately was positioned as the lead track on side one. At the time no one opened an album with a slow song. It was Robertson's idea to do so, his logic being that "Tears Of Rage" sounded so different it would immediately let the world know that this, indeed, was a whole new picture.

The first sounds one heard was Robertson's guitar fed through a Leslie-like black box in tandem with Hudson's organ and Helm's severely deadened tom-toms. (John Simon wonderfully describes Helm as a "bayou folk drummer".) Manuel had written the song with Dylan in the "Basement Tapes" period a year earlier. On the record he delivered an absolutely emotion-filled vocal that describes a parent's heartbreak in a most deeply anguished way. It's one of his finest moments said Robertson: "It's the most heartbreaking performance he ever sung in his life."

Danko joins Manuel on the chorus. Hudson and John Simon laid out a deft touch with their sax and baritone horn lines, which come in at the end of the first verse. Helm demonstrates his mastery at keeping the time in slow songs suspended as if in mid-air. The track always seems to be on the verge of stopping, but of course it never does.

One of the oddest concoctions ever recorded by the Band followed it. "To Kingdom Come" was written and sung by Robertson (his only lead vocal until "Knockin' Lost John" in 1976 - Danko was always on him to sing more), aided and abetted in the vocal department by Danko and Manuel. The song is a somewhat enigmatic paean to guilt, burden and consequences. As with many of Robertson's compositions, religous imagery, with all its connotative power, abounds without the song being explicitly religous.

Robertson's writing had come a long way since "The Stones I Throw" and "Leave Me Alone". The period with Dylan had obviously influenced his lyric writing. It was now less direct, more enigmatic, part of the picture was left incomplete.

"That's the door that he opened but at the same time I was just as influenced by Luis Bunuel or John Ford or [Japanese filmmaker] Kurosawa. I got this hunger for education and knowledge because I hadn't gone to school [since] I started with Ronnie Hawkins when I was 16. So I started to read a whole lot and I started to see these kind of films. I got into all kinds of mythologies, European, influenced me in a style of story-telling. It influenced me in covering something."

Robertson developed into one of the most original and evocative writers of his generation.

Despite his writing ability, the Band, throughout their career, played a number of cover tunes live although, with the exception of the Moondog Matinee LP, very few found their way onto record.

"Long Black Veil" is the exception on the first album (if one doesn't count the Dylan songs as covers, as they grew out of the "Basement Tapes" period with the Band sharing in the birth process. As well, at this point Dylan had not recorded them himself. For most they were inextricably associated with the Band.) Robertson, at the time, "thought it was a great song, lyricwise, in the tradition that I wanted to begin writing in."

To this writer's mind, it is of a piece with the rest of the album. As with the finest of the Band's music, it seems timeless - it could have been written in 1913. Instead, it as written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin; the Band learned it from Lefty Frizzell's version. Danko takes the lead vocal, joined by Helm on the second verse and Manuel on the chorus.

The vocal blend is extraordinarily compelling. John Simon agrees: "It's much more of a country wail or moan. The Four Tops was a city kind of blend, very slick and sweet. [This] was more of a wail from the heart or gut."

Simon plays the baritone horn (which the Band credited on the second album as the "high school" horn) that comes in on the second verse. Helm has the tambourine mounted on his set and is hitting it with a stick and Manuel is playing an electric Wurlitzer piano.

Two songs on Big Pink, "Chest Fever" and "The Weight," continued to be focal points throughout the Band's career. The two songs are near polar opposites of each other. "The Weight" became a signpost of the time. Featured in the film Easy Rider (but not on the soundtrack for contractual reasons), it was partially inspired by the work of Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

"He did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood," says Robertson about Bunuel, "people trying to be good in Viridiana and Nazarin, people trying to do this thing. In `The Weight' it's the same thing. People like Bunuel would make films that had these religious connotations to them but it wasn't necessarily a religous meaning. In Bunuel there were these people trying to be good and it's impossible to be good."

"In `The Weight', it was this very simple thing. Someone says, `Listen, will you me this favour? When you get there will you say "hello" to somebody or will you pick up one of these for me? Oh, you're going to Nazareth, that's where the Martin guitar factory is. Do me a favour when you're there.' This is what it's all about. So the guy goes and one thing leads to another and it's like, `Holy shit, what has this turned into? I've only come here to say "Hello" for somebody and I've got myself in this incredible predicament.' It was very Bunuelish to me at the time."

Opening with Robertson on acoustic guitar, playing a lick that is part Curtis Mayfield and part country, the track is one of absolut majesty. Hudson plays the piano, Helm takes the lead vocal for the first three verses, while Danko assumes responsibility for the fourth verse. Manuel contributes breathtaking high falsetto moans after each chorus. Helm and Danko team up to bring it home in the fifth and final verse.

A number of these songs contained what John Simon described as "personal folklore", with a number of characters and place names having a resonance for the members of the Band which no one else would necessarily understand. For example the "Crazy Chester" referred to in "The Weight" was a real person.

Robertson admitted this but qualified the statement accordingly: "You pick things that come to mind and [they] sometimes have to do with personal experiences and people that you have known. But, they are not `specific' stories. It was North American folklore in the making".

"Chest Fever" was written as a reaction to "The Weight". It is what Robertson refers to as a "vibes" song. "At the time I'm thinking `Wait a minute, where are we going here with Bunuel and all of these ideas and the abstractions and all of the mythology?' This music, for us, started on something that felt good and sounded good and who cares. `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 and 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."

The beginning always remained a showcase for Garth Hudson. On the recorded version he opens with a bit of Bach's "Toccata And Fugue in D Minor." He adds, though, with a whimscial smile, "After that it becomes more unqualifiable, more ethnic." Hudson's intro eventually evolved into what became known as "The Genetic Method." (The title came from a book on musicology. It refers to one way of looking at music from tribal societies.)

In the middle the whole piece breaks down and one hears an out-of-tune Salvation Army band (Hudson on sax, John Simon on baritone, Danko on violin). Echoing Robertson's comments, this touch doesn't make any sense, but it works, invoking one more distant memory of Americana. It also serves as an intentional relief so that when they come back into the song after Helm hollers "very much longer" the groove is that much more powerful. The lyrics were originally "dummy words" to be finished later but "we got kind of used to doing them" said Robertson. "It became that's what it is, no more and no less."

Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" closed Music From Big Pink. Manuel gave it a falsetto treatment from beginning to end. The harmony on the chorus is a perfect example of the characteristic Band vocal blend - Manuel on top, Danko in the middle and Helm on the bottom. The background keyboard sounds were made by a Roxochord through a wah-wah pedal. The net result is that the sound sweeps up very slowly through the harmonics and then back down again. The snare sound was John Simon's idea. Helm turned his snare drum upside down and rippled his finger through his actual snares.

Music From Big Pink was not an instant success. It took time for the work to get out. The name of the group was confusing enough to some people. Even more mysterious was the absence of a photo on the outside jacket. Instead, one got a wonderfully playful Dylan painting adorning the front cover, and a picture of the big pink house that had fostered this music and given the LP its name on the back.

Inside the gatefold jacket two pictures appeared. One was a black-and-white shot deliberately processed to look "old time." The five members of the Band wore rural garb that could have come from the nineteenth century and their names were not identified under the picture.

How that picture came about is kind of interesting in itself. "After we recorded Music From Big Pink" said Robertson, "we were going to do a cover and everybody was saying `Oh, now, you should use this photographer. He's the best in the country and this guy's the best in New York' - all this the best of this, the best of that. It just seemed to be, `Oh God, we're gonna come out with some kind of cutesy picture.' And, these pictures that I see, they don't do nothing for me. But, on the other hand, these pictures so something for me. I was looking at some very old pictures of people working in mines or whatever..."

"So I said, `Well, who's the worst photographer in New York?' They said, `Well, that's hard to say.' I said, `You said who's the best, you must be able to find out who's the worst.' Someone said, `There's this guy, the staff photographer for Rat magazine [it was an underground paper at the time]. I don't know if he's the worst but he works for this magazine which is unquestionably the worst.'

"So I said, `Well, let's try him out.' This was Elliott Landy. We got with him. I showed him these pictures. He said, `I love this stuff, I love these kind of pictures.' So I said, `Well, good, maybe this is going to work out.' That [picture] was the outcome of it. He went on to become the hottest album photographer for years."

The other photograph, entitled "Next of Kin," was in color and included four generations of the Band's relatives. It was the Band's way of taking a deliberate stance against the current rock ethos of ipso facto parental hatred. In late 1968, it went directly against the grain.

Robertson stated emphatically, "We were rebelling against the rebellion. Whatever was happening. If everybody was going east, then we were going west and we never once discussed it. There was this kind of ingrained thing from us all along. We were these kind of rebels with an absolute cause. It was an instinct to separate ourselves from the pack."

The rock press at that time ate up that instinct. The Band was written about and spoken of in the most cryptic of fashions. The fact that they were unable to play live gigs until the spring of 1969, as Danko had a bad car accident ("a little too drunk, a little too high," said Danko) and that they gave no interviews for over a year, further fueled the sense of mystery that enveloped them.

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