50 Years of Music From Big Pink
by Peter Stone Brown
I guess it was sometime in early June, 1968, when I heard a disc jockey, most likely one on WNEW FM in New York City say that Bob Dylan’s band was about to put out a record. The year had started with Dylan’s return to recording, John Wesley Harding, after an 18 month wait. The album did not pick up where Blonde On Blonde left off. Instead it was a back to basics album with Dylan mostly playing acoustic guitar (piano on two tracks) and harmonica, backed only by bass and drums, with Pete Drake providing pedal steel on the two songs that closed the album. The songs were tightly written ballads that with two exceptions had three verses and no chorus. The songs were deceptively simple and cloaked in mystery and absolutely nothing like the music his contemporaries were making at the time which was mired for better or worse in psychedelia. All through the first part of 1968, (actually it started in December 1967 when Peter, Paul & Mary released a single of “Too Much Of Nothing”) new Dylan songs kept appearing recorded by all manner of artists, from Flatt & Scruggs to Manfred Mann, who had a hit with “Quinn The Eskimo.” I didn’t even know the latter was a Dylan song until one day when my brother asked me, “Do you know ‘The Mighty Quinn’ is a Dylan song? At this point in time, no one except the musicians who received them knew anything about what would eventually be called The Basement Tapes, until later in the summer when a new San Francisco based magazine called Rolling Stone would write about them.
A couple of weeks after hearing that disc jockey say Dylan’s band was putting out a record, a song appeared on the radio that I initially thought was called “Take A Load Off Fanny.” It was basically an acoustic song with bass, drums and piano, and the first thing you noticed was the hard wood sound of the drums. Well actually the first thing you noticed was the harmonies which were part country, part barbershop quartet. That’s not it either. The first thing you noticed was this incredibly beautiful piano part that led off each chorus. But you also noticed that whoever was singing it could sing. And you weren’t even sure what it was about because the lyrics which were kind of mysterious were about someone that no matter what he was trying to do, someone else wanted him to do something else for them.
Then on the first day of July this album appeared that had was looked like a kid’s painting on the cover. There was an elephant and a guy playing a sitar with a bowl on his head, and a tree, and a drummer, a someone pushing someone up over an upright piano. On the back in huge bold capital letters it said “Music From Big Pink” with a tiny photo of a rather ordinary pink house, with a garage and a door leading to a basement. You had to look on the spine to find the name, The Band. That picture was printed on the inside of the gatefold sleeve, where it also said The Band, and underneath listed the names of the musicians but not what they played. One side of the gatefold was taken up with a bright color photo of the musicians standing with a bunch of other people with a bunch of little kids in the front behind a barn that was titled “Next Of Kin.” In one corner was another photo that turned out to be Levon Helm’s parents who couldn’t make the photo shoot. On the other side along with the song and musician credits was a black and white photo of five guys, all wearing hats except one standing on top of a mountain with a range of other mountains behind them. (Bob Dylan also wore a hat on the cover of John Wesley Harding.) The songs included three new Dylan songs, two of them co-writes, which was something he hadn’t done before.
One of those co-writes, “Tears Of Rage” written with pianist Richard Manuel led off the album, and I quickly figured out that Manuel was singing it. It was a song that was so heavy and so intense that as singer/guitarist Happy Traum wrote in Sing Out! Magazine, you had to stop halfway through and put the needle back to the beginning. The song was a slow ballad done at the pace of a funeral dirge with mournful songs in the background, and Garth Hudson’s organ dominating. The very fact that they started their debut album with a slow ballad (which simply wasn’t done) showed these guys meant business. There was also no doubt that Richard Manuel was an incredible singer who sang with a passion rarely matched by anyone else.
As the album went on, the pace picking up considerably with the next song, Robbie Robertson’s “To Kingdom Come,” one of the few songs on which he sang lead. I was becoming apparent that these five guys took everything they ever knew about music, maybe every song they ever heard and put it all together to create the music on this record. It was a sound only those five people could make.
Their roots and origins wouldn’t be known until later that year, that they had all been playing professionally since their teens as members of Ronnie Hawkin’s Hawks, in bars and clubs primarily in Canada, but also in the U.S, had struck out on their own, recorded with blues singer John Hammond and depending on what story you want to believe, either through him or Albert Grossman’s assistant Mary Martin (probably a combination of both) wound up backing up Bob Dylan.
With Ronnie Hawkins the band mostly played straight rock and roll and rockabilly. When they struck out on their own as Levon & The Hawks, they moved strongly into rhythm and blues with occasional forays into Chicago blues. Bob Dylan’s initial rock songs were heavily blues based, but in their time working with Dylan in the basement of Big Pink (and at other locations in and around Woodstock), Dylan showed them the connection between that and folk music as well as country music. And when you listen to Helm and Danko sing, especially on the songs on Big Pink (even though Helm only has one solo lead vocal), there’s no doubt they listened to country music. And there is also no doubt that during the time on tour in ’65 and ’66 and the time they worked together in Woodstock in ’67 that Robertson was playing close attention to how Dylan wrote songs.
Gospel music must be added into all of this, both in the use of organ and piano and in the way the group would toss vocals around like a basketball, so you never knew which singer or combination of singers was going to turn up when. And finally the icing on The Band cake, Garth Hudson, a beyond amazing keyboardist was also a sax player, but more importantly, he was someone who clearly knew not only classical music and music theory, and had listened to all kinds of music worldwide, he incorporated it into his playing and was into trying all kinds of crazy ideas, like using a telegraph key at the beginning of “This Wheel’s On Fire.” Mostly it’s the way he weaves his organ in and out, dancing around the melodies of each song.
On Music From Big Pink, the song credits are pretty evenly distributed. Four Robertson songs, three and a half Manuel songs, three Dylan songs and a cover of a Lefty Frizzell hit that doesn’t sound anything like Lefty Frizzell, yet still works. But it’s not about the song credits, it’s about the ensemble playing, where solos are kept to a minimum, but strong enough when they happen to let you know they could do it if they want to, just as “Chest Fever” shows that they could play hard and heavy with a dash of that psychedelic stuff too.
Ultimately, what makes Big Pink stand out is what great musicians and singers they were and how well they worked together – a true band. In listening to the album, while writing this I decided to listen to my original 50-year-old vinyl copy and for whatever reason on just about every track, I kept noticing Rick Danko’s bass playing, something he never got enough credit for.
One of the sad things about The Band is Richard Manuel stopped writing. He was the poetic dreamer to Robertson’s storyteller, and as “We Can Talk” shows, one with a sense of humor.
What The Band did in creating Music From Big Pink was to make a record that is as hard hitting and timeless now as when it was released half a century ago.