Friday, April 4, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 94):"IN A STATION" (1968), The Band

Yesterday was the birthday of Richard Manuel, pianist for The Band and one of the group’s vocalists. And a very distinctive vocalist at that. Today’s song is from the first album The Band released, Music from Big Pink, in 1968. The album was part of the fruits of their efforts after being ensconced in the area of Woodstock, NY, making music in a laid-back, DIY, at-home fashion. The official release, in 1975, of some of the tapes of members of The Band working and rehearsing and recording with Bob Dylan, known as The Basement Tapes, shows some of the spirit of those days. More can be found online of the many recordings and covers and knock-offs that got committed to Garth Hudson’s reel-to-reel.

The Band cleaned up nicely for their first LP, and it is one of the definitive albums of its day. If it weren’t already clear that psychedelia wouldn’t last, an album like Big Pink makes the case with wonderful nonchalance. It’s not that this music isn’t contemporary, it is, but it also feels traditional and ancient, the way good folk music is supposed to. The Band were a great bunch of musicians, first and foremost. In the beginning, at least, there was no grandstanding, rock star stuff. Manuel was a very accomplished musician from before they were The Hawks and his singing voice graces some of their more haunting songs.

Manuel, Robertson, Helm, Hudson, Danko
Personally, I tended to downplay his vocal contribution, preferring the gutsiness of Levon Helm’s singing and the weird, shaky quality in Rick Danko’s vocals. Manuel, though, is very soulful, and I picked today’s song as one that he has sole composing credit on.  “Tears of Rage,” the lead-off song of the album, is one Manuel wrote with Dylan, and Manuel’s vocal takes it where Dylan could never go. For me, the most characteristic “Manuel moment” on today's song is the wordless hums or moans that float in around the midway point and again at the end. There you hear Manuel’s ability to go all ethereal, but in a very emotive way.

The song itself is one that I soaked up in those early tape-making days of 1978. It figured on a side where it was a prime mood-setter. I like the slow and stately quality of the song, with lyrics that would not be out of place in some mind-bending psychedelic epic, but that also have a bit of olde English flair. “Once I was in the halls of a station” isn’t so far a cry from “I dreamed I dwelt in marble halls.” “Fell asleep until the moonlight woke me” is a lovely figure. Set against the observations of the halls, and the children, and the mountain and wild fruit, there are very introspective reflections: “Wonder could you ever know me / Know the reason why I live / Is there nothing you can show me / Life seems so little to give.”  This has the kind of concision that shows The Band have been hanging out with a great songwriter but also that they’ve taken to heart some of the great folk songs of the past. The idea of the unknowable speaker, who is trying (and probably failing) to put his heart on the line here, also sounds a bit arrogant or desperate, or both.  But there’s a bit of “It’s life and life only” underlying the sentiment.

Later that part, which feels musically like the refrain, comes up with “Out of all the idle scheming / Can’t we have something to feel”—I always liked that “idle scheming” as a phrase for all the trivial things we do that never come off. The sorts of things one does to avoid thinking about anything weightier, or anything that might make one really feel something.  The Band were not hippies but they certainly fit in with the idea that there were some ways of life more authentic than others. I think lots of us turned to them as having some connection to how the authentic should sound. And for their first three albums, and here and there throughout their run, they lived up to that.

The part that, to me, has real lyrical charm is: “‘Once upon a time’ leaves me empty / Tomorrow never came.” There’s maybe a bit of a smack-down to two savants of the day: Dylan, who gave us “once upon a time you dressed so fine,” and Lennon, who gave us “tomorrow never knows.” The echo may be unconscious or may be deliberate, but, either way, it’s a nice way of saying the past ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, fables or no, and the future is a lot of stuff that might never happen.

Richard Manuel, of all the members of The Band, had the hardest time with substance abuse. It grabbed him early after they "made it," and made his musical contributions less than they might have been. Some of that may have been caused by having to cede the songwriting to Robbie Robertson, who was kind of demonstrative about his skill. Manuel was a mainstay of the sound of The Band all through it, and it’s regrettable that he ended his own life in 1986 on one of those tours to nowhere that must’ve been a bit too depressing. The Band was not likely to stir big crowds in the late Eighties, that’s for sure. Come the next decade, there would be many more bands looking to them as the “roots rock” pioneers they were.

Must be some way to repay you
Out of the all the good you gave

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