By the time Music from Big Pink was released in July, 1968 had already seen both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated. All the hope and change and love in the decade was teetering, though not yet crumbled by the events at Altamont in ‘69. We were a people in pain, but still pushing on, still trying to make things better.
But, if the lasting recordings from that year are any indication, we weren’t able to capture our own feelings on record. The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and, of course, the Beatles were all at the top of their powers and releasing undeniably important records that year. As a culture, we seemed to be looking outside our country for the voices of that generation. Sure, we had Simon and Garfunkel and the Velvet Underground making great and lasting records that year. Yet both records, Bookends and White Light/White Heat, though exceptional, were set outside of what was going on. The preciousness of Simon and Garfunkel and the stubborn art house aesthetic of the Velvet Underground let those groups touch on the signs of the times without tapping into them. Their music was observant of the zeitgeist, but not necessarily representative of it.
It took a group of Canadians, and Levon Helm, to truly capture the sound of America in 1968. Music from Big Pink is soulful and hurt and hopeful and heartbreaking from beginning to end. Having toured as Bob Dylan’s backing band, the Hawks, in 1966, the Band must have taken in the whole country as they traveled it and poured all that roaming feel, all that collective want, into this one record. Even when they use Dylan’s words, particularly on opener “Tears of Rage” and closer “I Shall Be Released”, they make the songs more universally relevant. Where Dylan’s verbose songs felt cluttered and hyper-thoughtful in their anger, the Band stretch them out into warm, keening declarations of an alienated country. The melding of Americana, rhythm and blues, folk, and countless other influences made for a sound that was dusty with tradition, but still new and laid back and inviting.
However, Music from Big Pink doesn’t get enough credit for being so damn strange when it wants to be. What is that guitar sound in “Tears of Rage”? Or the organ dirge at the top of “Chest Fever”? Why does Richard Manual’s voice fall so hauntingly off-key in “Lonesome Suzie”? And what is with just about every weird sound and swirl of faux-strings on “This Wheel’s on Fire”? Perhaps it is easier now not to address these questions. Better to let the giant shadow of “The Weight” fall over the album and call it laid-back country and leave it at that.
But why? It is those strange moments that make the record so germane to its time. As recognizable as the country feel of the record is, the Band always come along and knock us sideways in our skin with some strange sound. They never let us get settled. This isn’t leave-your-worries-behind, front porch music. Music from Big Pink is a reminder that the world around us can be recognizable one second, and completely alien the next. Sometimes, it can feel strange and familiar at the same time. But the key, and what the Band does on this album, is to recognize our hurt, and even embrace it, without giving in to it.
“I Shall Be Released” is exhausted and pained, but its straining hope is the perfect end note to an album that captures that time in America so well. Because by record’s end, they haven’t been released, and neither have we. The world is still out there to change. And while, any day now, any day now, that release is coming, Music from Big Pink is the vital sound of a weary country pushing forward with hope. We had every reason to look across the pond for great music, for great culture, for inspiration. But, in 1968, if we wanted a beautiful, heartfelt rendering of what was going on in America, all we had to do was look north.
The Band - The Weight from The Last Waltz (1978)