Every year since 1963 we have all singled out one album to sum up what happened that year. It was usually the Beatles with their double barrels of rubber souls, revolvers and peppers. Dylan has sometimes contended with his frontrunning electric albums. Six months are left is this proselytizing year of music; we can expect a new Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, perhaps even a mate for J W Harding; but I have chosen my album for 1968. Music from Big Pink is an event and should be treated as one.
Very quietly, for six years, a band has been brewing. They’d pop up once a while behind Ronnie Hawkins or on their own as the Hawks or affectionately called “the Crackers,” but it was sort of hip to know who they were outside of Toronto. They left Toronto three years ago to tour with Dylan. But when the concerts were over, and the boos had turned to standing ovations, what was to become of these nameless faces?
They came home to Woodstock with Dylan and put down firm roots for two-years. It was Dylan’s “out of touch” year and they began to spawn this music, this hybrid that took its seeds in the strange pink house. Whereas the Dylan “sound” on recording was filled with Bloom-fielding guitar, Kooper hunt and peck organ and tinkly country-gospelish piano, a fortunate blending of the right people in the right place etc., the Big Pink sound has matured throughout six years picking up favorites along the way and is only basically influenced by the former.
I hear the Beach Boys, the Coasters, Hank Williams, the Association, the Swan Silvertones as well as obviously Dylan and the Beatles. What a varied bunch of influences. I love all the music created by the above people and a montage of these forms (bigpink) boggles the mind. But it’salso something else. It’s that good old, intangible, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it “White Soul.” Not so much a white cat imitating a spade, but something else that reaches you on a non-Negro level like church music or country music or Jewish music or Dylan. The singing is so honest and unaffected, I can’t see how anyone could find it offensive (as in “white people can’t pull this kind of thing off”.)
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This album was made along the lines of the motto: “Honesty is the best policy.” The best part of pop music today is honesty. The “She’s Leaving Home,” the “Without Her’s,” the “Dear Landlord’s” etc. When you hear a dishonest record you feel you’ve been insulted or turned off in comparison. It’s like the difference between “Dock of the Bay” and “This Guy’s In Love With You.” Both are excellent compositions and both were number one. But you believe Otis while you sort of question Herb Alpert. You can believe every line in this album and if you choose to, it can only elevate your listening pleasure immeasurably.
Robbie Robertson makes an auspicious debut here as a composer and lyricist represented by fourtunes. Two are stone knockouts: “The Weight” probably the most commercial item in the set with a most contagious chorus that addicts you into singing along… “take a load off Fanny, take a load for free, take a load off Fanny and… you put the load right on me…” “To Kingdom Come” starts out smashing you in the face with weird syncopations and cascading melody lines and then goes into that same groovy bring-it-on-home chorus that earmarks “Weight.”
Individually what makes up this album is Robby Robertson whose past discography includes “Obviously Five Believers” on Blonde on Blonde, the “live” version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the much ignored Dylan single, “Crawl Out Your Window.” Rick Danko, on bass and vocals, is one of the more outgoing people in the band, he can be depend upon to give you a lot of good matured shit whenever you see him; he of the new breed in bass players, the facile freaks like Harvey Brooks, Jim Fielder and Tim Bogert. He is only different from these three in his tasteful understating.
Richard Manuel is affectionately called “Beak” or was at one time; a deft pianist with a strong feeling for country-gospel bigpink music. A strong contributing composer: “Tears of Rage,” “In A Station,” “We Can Talk,” and “Lonesome Suzie.”
Garth Hudson is one of the strangest people I ever met. If Harvey Brooks is the gentle grizzly bear of rock and roll then Garth is the gentle brown bear. He is the only person I know who can take a Hammond B3 organ apart and put it back together again or play like that if it’s called for. While backing Dylan on tour he received wide acclaim for his fourth dimensional work on “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”
Levon Helm is a solid rock for the band. He is an exciting drummer with many ideas to toss around. I worked with him in Dylan’s first band and he kept us together like an enormous iron metronome. Levon was the leader of the Hawks.
John Simon, a brilliant producer-composer-musician, finally has this album as a testimonial to his talent. The reason the album sounds so good is Simon. He is a perfectionist and has had to suffer the critical rap in the past for what has not been his error, but now he’s vindicated.
These are fiery ingredients and results can be expected to be explosive. The chord changes are refreshing, the stories are told in a subtle yet taut way; country tales of real people you can relate to (the daughter in “Tears of Rage”) the singing sometimes loose as field-help but just right. The packaging, including Dylan’s non-Rembrandt cover art, is apropos and honest (there’s that word again). This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.