Now deep in the heart of a lonely kid / Who suffered so much for what he did / They gave this poor boy his fortune and fame / And since that day he ain’t been the same / See the man with the stage fright / Just standing up there to give it all his might / He got caught in a spotlight / But when we get to the end, Lord he wants to start all over again
Thus the great opening of The Band’s great song, “Stage Fright” from their 1970 album of the same name. Back at the start of these posts this year, I featured Dylan and The Band performing “Forever Young” at the concert filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz in 1978. Today, in honor of Rick Danko’s birthday, I return to that year for the last selection from the Seventies, and to that concert, where you can see Danko and The Band perform today’s song. I’ve always been moved by how frightened Danko looks when he gets to “now when he says that he’s afraid / Won’t you take him at his word? / And for the price this poor boy’s paid / Well, he gets to sing just like a bird.” The way his face is lit by the red spot within the blue spot is very effective and he seems to mean what he says. One of my favorite moments in that excellent film.
Some have speculated that Robertson wrote the song about Dylan, but I don’t see that. Dylan was never shy of performing—from the time he was a teen in his high school talent show—and even if one references his withdrawal from the stage between 1966 and 1968, it doesn’t seem that “stage fright” has much to do with it. Others have considered it a description of Robertson but I think you’d be hard-pressed to say Robertson “sings just like a bird.” The person most obviously suited is Danko, if only because he puts it across so well. Supposedly Robertson intended Richard Manuel to sing it, but Danko’s vocal better-suited the song. I’m not going to try to determine which—if either—suffered more from stage fright, but it seems to me to be Danko’s song all the way.
In any case, it’s a song about how fortune and fame and the life on stage can take their toll—which is certainly a theme of the Scorsese film. It’s also about how lonesome the life in front of crowds can be, as “fancy people go drifting by,” a theme Dylan has developed in some of his songs as well. The idea that “you can make it in your disguise” has a lot to do with the interplay of exposure and concealment that creates so much of the effect of performance. But the lines that most recommend the song here, late in my series, is “when we get to the end / Well, he wants to start all over again.” Some such attitude has affected almost all my writing, where re-reading and revising is a constant process of starting all over again. Not so here. What’s done is done we might say, and that, I would say, is the best advantage of blog-posting.
It’s touching to see The Band performing this song at the end of their heyday in 1976, recalling that Danko died in 1999 at 56, Richard Manuel died in 1986, age 42, and Levon Helm died in 2012, age 71, leaving only Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson of The Band.
Where the moment of truth is right at hand . . .