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.
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.
|Manuel, Robertson, Helm, Hudson, Danko|
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.
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