[19 June 2008]
The opening track on 1968’s Music from Big Pink is one of the most perfect pop compositions ever. It is a perfectly atypical opening number and a perfect introduction to the intriguing style of The Band. It is also a depressing suggestion as to how much more perfect they could have been had Richard Manuel been able to keep himself from himself.
Co-written by Manuel and Bob Dylan, “Tears of Rage” is the painful lament of a betrayed parent. The first recorded version of the song is the Dylan-sung one that was released on The Basement Tapes. Dylan’s – usually extraordinary – ability to capture the essence of the song was utterly obliterated by Manuel’s on the official Big Pink reading. The extraordinary anguish in Manuel’s voice added exponentially to the already heartbreaking lyrics. The slower composition, Garth Hudson’s haunting organ, Robbie Robertson’s swirling guitar, the unparalleled rhythm of drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko (who also provides backup vocals), as well as Manuel’s own piano work combined for one of those very rare occasions in which Dylan was completely schooled on one of his own songs (ironically, Manuel does it again on the same album with his version of “I Shall be Released”).
Sadly, the mood of “Tears of Rage” was forebodingly symbolic of the pain and suffering that would eventually consume Richard Manuel – who hanged himself in 1986 after two decades of extreme substance abuse. Perhaps the rarest attribute of The Band was the deficiency of a definitive front-man. With three lead singers and all five members’ status as exceptional musicians, there was no member of The Band who was more important to its achievements than the other; but for the first five minutes of their first album, they seemed to revolve around one genius.
Though the introverted Manuel would continue to prove integral to The Band’s success with his singing and playing abilities, his contributions decreased to the point that Robertson was getting credit for writing all of their songs (whether he actually wrote them or not has been debated) and Rick Danko became, more and more, the go-to-guy for mournful ballads.
The final and lasting image of The Band, for many, was Martin Scorsese’s documentary of their farewell concert, The Last Waltz, in which Manuel sang only one complete on-screen song (“The Shape I’m In”) and the middle verse of the closer “I Shall be Released”, during which he is barely visible, eclipsed by the throng of superstars on stage (Dylan, at center stage, sings the other two verses). As great a movie as it was, The Last Waltz did not portray Manuel in a way that would provide those unfamiliar with him any insight into just how important he was to The Band.
To this day, most people seem to know of The Band, but few know much about them outside of their association with Dylan and would probably only recognize the name “Robbie Robertson”. Their eponymous second album is generally regarded as their definitive statement. While I wouldn’t deny that it is a pretty great album, I feel that Music from Big Pink and, more specifically, “Tears of Rage” are perfect examples of how much better “The Brown Album” could have been had Richard Manuel conquered his inner demons a bit more and played a larger role in the songwriting.