Counterbalance No. 80: The Band’s ‘Music from Big Pink’

The Band
Music from Big Pink

Mendelsohn: There is something great about the Band’s Music from Big Pink, sort of an undeniable energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm that really makes some of these songs pop off the wax. But then there are a couple of numbers that just don’t have it all together and that makes the overall cohesiveness of this record suffer. I’m going to blame Bob Dylan. You OK with that, Klinger? That’s about the only thing I have against this album, other than the fact that I like their self-titled sophomore effort more. That record has it all going on—expect for having an awesomely great sing-along song like “The Weight”. I suppose you could make a case for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, but “The Weight” is much more fun to listen to people butcher. What song would you rather listen to people butcher with off-key caterwauling?

Klinger: I oppose caterwauling in all its forms, Mendelsohn—you know that. I’m more concerned with your off-handed comment that Bob Dylan is somehow to blame for you not enjoying Music from Big Pink as much as The Band. Yes, Bob wrote or co-wrote three of the songs here (guitarist Robbie Robertson had not yet positioned himself as chief songwriter), but I’d still say that this is very much the Band’s album. You’re starting to sound like a kid who decides he doesn’t like pickles, but then the burger shows up with pickles on it by accident and you tell him he can just scrape the pickles off. But he decides he can still taste the pickles on the burger and he makes a boo-boo face the entire time and only takes two bites. Well guess what? That just means more burger for me, Mendelsohn.

Still I do agree with you that this album feels like a warm-up for the glory that was to come. At first blush, I’m inclined to chalk that up to the notion that there are still vestiges of psychedelia throughout the album (the harpsichord-like sounds on the baroque-inspired “In a Station”, for example, or the swooshing noises throughout “I Shall Be Released”). Those trace elements, mostly courtesy of the group’s resident wizard Garth Hudson, make the album feel less like a clean break than The Band would just a year later. But that’s to be expected — no music is made in a vacuum, no matter how much these guys seemed to want you to believe that they were a lost tribe of musical wood sprites tucked away in upstate New York. At any rate, can you look past your Bobophobia and consider Music from Big Pink on its own merits?

Mendelsohn: I don’t really have a problem with Dylan’s contributions to this record — “This Wheel’s on Fire” is as Dylan as it gets and in the Band’s hands, it works really well. I just like pushing the Bob Hot-Button to get you riled up — makes things more interesting around here. Although if you want to nitpick, the album cover is fugly with a capital FU. Who plays the piano like that?

There’s nothing wrong with this album per se, but I do disagree with its placement, especially considering the greatness that was to follow. Top 100 on the Great List seems a bit gratuitous to me. I think you hit it on the head when you referred to this record as a warm up. Everything the band would need to bake their organic bread jams is already present, but they hadn’t perfected the recipe yet. It’s a little rough around the edges and didn’t rise all the way in some spots. But, man, when they got it right, it was great. That chunk in the middle — the run from “Caldonia Mission” to “Chest Fever” — is as good as it gets. Getting to that point, however, takes a little work. I’d feel more comfortable coming upon this album if it was somewhere around 150 on the list. Still high in the canon but with more of an acknowledgment of the record’s shortcomings in comparison to what the Band would eventually achieve. Is that fair? I know we aren’t here to compare a group’s work against itself or even against the bigger back drop of overall artistic achievement, but even then I’m not sure this record is hands-down better than what follows it on the Great List. How do you reconcile this record’s placement?

Klinger: Mendelsohn, that is a rabbit hole we do not want to crawl into. Our job is mainly to make sense of how the Critical Industrial Complex has arrived at the list they’ve arrived at. We’ve already encountered albums that I don’t think are as good as Music from Big Pink, and we are certainly going to come upon albums I like better (next week, for example). I will concede your point that this album starts off with a curious pick, though. “Tears of Rage” is a slow, almost stately, number, and it’s lyrically unlike much else going on at the time. During the height of all that 1960s countercultural hoohah, the idea that a pop song would be written from the parents’ point of view seemed unheard of. And the idea that that level of empathy was coming from the voice of their generation himself must have been even more provocative.

But that sense of empathy with a community that’s larger than just a bunch of fuzzy-faced musicians is what made — and makes — the Band so alluring. In 1968, a lot of people’s groovy minds must have been blown when they opened that gatefold and saw the multi-generational “Next of Kin” photo. It’s not about freak flags flying; it’s about home, at a time when home was something young people were supposed to want to escape from. That’s what drew folks like Eric Clapton and George Harrison — and probably even Bob Dylan — to Big Pink.

And for the record, I think the only shortcoming on this album is that it needs more Levon Helm (RIP).

Mendelsohn: I’m still not sure those reasons are good enough to explain why Big Pink follows The Band so closely on the Great List. Yes, the artistic merit, the influence and the will to seek their own path certainly sets them apart from everything — everything — that was happening in 1968. The allure of this group is apparent but every time I drop the needle on this record, I’m always greeted with “Tears of Rage”, and it can be so deflating at times. It’s not that the music is subpar, even if we’ve already referred to it as a “warm up”; it’s more in the presentation. “Tears of Rage” isn’t a Side One/Track One song. “Tears of Rage” should be the centerpiece of the album, the last track on side one, an anchor for the record. The tracking just doesn’t make sense to me but maybe that’s my own conditioning to look for a lead statement, for the shot across the bow that some many really good S1/T1 songs can be. Thematically, I know it is all in “Tears of Rage”, but the manner in which it is presented just doesn’t jibe with me. I don’t need first-song propulsion on every album, but in my mind, the way Music from Big Pink is tracked is indicative of the overall weakness of this record. To return to an earlier metaphor, it just seems half-baked. But then, some people like their bread half-baked and some people like their burned a little burned, which is even weirder.

Klinger: I think you’re a little half-baked if you’re going to focus on the shortcomings of this album, but I’m going to indulge you here. I agree that the sequencing of the album is a little jarring, but it’s important to note that at the time, the rock world was waiting for the debut album from Bob Dylan’s backup band. Dylan’s mystique loomed large over the proceedings, so it’s understandable that they’d want to lead off with one of his contributions. At the same time, “Tears of Rage” draws a line in the sand. There’s not going to be any Sgt. Pepper fanfare here. Maybe you should try listening to side two first, so the album kicks off with the exuberant “We Can Talk”.

Perhaps one of my unprovable theories might help explain what’s causing you such consternation, undue as I think it is. Music from Big Pink was recorded in upstate New York in the winter and early spring, while The Band was, as you recall, recorded in Sammy Davis’ pool house in sunny Los Angeles. You can’t tell me that’s not going to have an impact on their disposition. No surprise that the group is going to have a little more pep in its step. Plus Music from Big Pink features a significantly greater contribution from pianist Richard Manuel, and his voice has a distinctly more soulful/doleful quality to it than the tart tones of drummer Levon Helm.

But then, I love all three of the Band’s voices (and bassist Rick Danko’s contributions are undeniable) and their very distinctive approaches mean that they sing together without ever quite blending. And because you can hear each of their voices in that mix, it’s always tempting to add your own in there as well. On your own it might sound like caterwauling, but when you join together, it’s a community of song — and that’s what I love about the Band.

Mendelsohn: That’s why I love the Band as well, be it caterwauling or a good old-fashioned sing-a-long, these guys were the first and are still the best.