The first trace of otherness comes from the voices.
They are five in all, each ragged and tired in their own way, each contributing to “Tears of Rage” on their own schedule, when agitated by a spirit. Sounding less like a polite choir than a wandering militia, they appear out of place, out of time. The vocals have no discernible connection to when the record arrived in 1968. They might as well be selling elixirs from the back of a horse-drawn platform, moving to the slow, deliberate beat of the back roads of rural America in earlier days. [farm-to-table] artisanal shallots.
The harmonies of Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm take center stage on ‘Tears of Rage’ – and really everything Big Pi Musicnk – because they are so deliberately and completely alien. Within this mass of strident, ardent song are notes of church bells and funeral orations and evenings on lace tablecloths, echoes of times when everyone sang and sang together , as squeaky as they are. Their evocations offer a tentative invitation: come in and poke around. But be careful, because this is not a record. It’s a world.
Music by Big Pink has been with us for 50 years now, and if his DNA has never ceased to be sorted and analyzed, he somehow retains his outsider aura, his ability to surprise, his unusual gift for bending and twisting chronological time.
big pink was unexpected on arrival and still is. It responds to the accelerated gallop of progress around 1968 with murderous ballads and allegorical lessons drawn from hymns, accompanied by pump organ and the whistling brass of a community orchestra. It’s an attic curiosity, sure, but one that activated ten distinct strains of nostalgia while, at the same time, opening up highway-sized avenues for future exploration. (The loosely defined territory labeled “Americana” being one of many…) He taught essential lessons about the importance of a solid framework for a song, and how to let a song breathe. so that the words, however cryptic, can sink into .
At the heart of the album’s ethos is the no-pressure approach to collaboration that prevailed inside the Big Pink house in West Saugerties, NY – in the basement where, after accompanying Bob Dylan on his first electric tour in 1966, The Band and the Bard spent months working on songs and exploring sounds. Legend has it that when producer John Simon asked about the sound The Band was going for, Robbie Robertson replied that they wanted the music to sound “like in the basement”.
They ended up capturing the disc in studios in New York and Los Angeles – total recording time: less than two weeks. But go anywhere at Dylan’s Basement strips completed set that came out in 2014, and you experience the aura of that basement space, and the fertile, almost viral creative energy that happened there. The band may have originally been hired as backing vocalists for Dylan, but they quickly became accomplices – and in helping Dylan develop this material, the five multi-instrumentalists discovered (and then refined) the signature characteristics of their own company.
The struggle with the sprawling and mythical songs of Dylan must have helped these musicians forge this rustic identity which has become the calling card of the group. They learned to sing together in this wonderfully irreverent ad hoc way. Then they adapted that vocal approach to the songs each of them wrote, songs that aligned with and stretched the collective’s already expansive sound. No matter who sang in the lead, whether the tune was hard-hitting rocker (“Chest Fever”) or frank meditation (“In a Station”), The Band always managed to stand completely apart, in its own airspace.
Many rock veterans consider big pink as a sacred text. Eric Clapton, said to have been haunted by it, admitted to listening to it daily. Roger Waters put him right behind the Beatles sergeant. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the most influential record in rock history. “Asonically, the way the record is constructed, I think Music by Big Pink is fundamental to everything that happened after.”
In the reams of scholarship devoted to this record, it is possible to find a million specific elements in the music that reinforce Waters’ broad assertion. Some could be technical considerations, the colorful chords grounding the group vocals. Some might be spiritual, invisibly tied to vanished Sunday School values. All share at least one thing: the deep element of the unexpected. Think about this moment. No one who witnessed the turmoil of 1968 at, say, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago expected a balm like “The Weight” or, for that matter, any of the songs of Music by Big Pink. Rock was getting more and more psychedelic; something small and fragile and on a human scale was not in the realm of possibility. It came out of nowhere, this basement noise. Snuck in and took up residence without taking air. And it still haunts us.