The Band by The Band, may very well be my favorite album. It could have very easily been titled Nothing Ever Goes Right For Me, but that would have been the title had this been released thirty years later, and The Band had called itself by one of the proposed names for this band: The Honkies.
It is, I think, the greatest American rock n’ roll album of all, despite the fact that all but their drummer were Canadian. It dares to deal with aging, of all things, as a theme, which is pretty much verboten in the retarded world of The Popular Music There. It might very well be the closest thing to a personal statement made by a bunch of dudes who truly were born to fail and/or die by their own hands.
Many rockers wish to make that sort of statement. It is entirely another to have that statement be entirely honest. It calls for a stunning amount of both innocence and cunning on the part of the artist.
“Standin’ by your window, in pain…Pistol in your hand…” begins the first tune, Across the Great Divide. Even within the first minute of this damn album, your girlfriend is already threatening to shoot you. But you can pull it out, right? You’re a scammer from way back, and clearly you’ve been here before: “And I beg you, dear Mollie, girl…Try and understand your man, the best you can…”
Which is to say; please don’t shoot me, on one hand, but also: we men folk are damaged and stupid and we just don’t fucking know what we’re doing. Please be nice to me.
This forms an interesting theme that runs throughout the album, by the by: the idea that all this bravado that we menfolk run around with all the time is, we know, what we use to attract, as well as to cover up the pain that we suspect we’re not allowed to share. The whole album, in fact, goes back and forth between what would be known as ‘boasters’, were we Jamaican and from the 1930′s, and heart-rendingly honest songs where it’s-if anything-a little too damn honest.
“I had a goal in my younger days…I nearly wrote my will…” That sums up the mood of the entire album, by the way. A joke. A weird joke, and you’re not sure why it’s a joke. Yup: I’m boasting, here! A Big Man! However, also a smart man- though also a self-destructive man, which is where smart men go when they realize that there’s no real place for them in the overarching power structure of menfolk: “But I changed my mind for the better…I’m at the still, had my fill, and I’m fit to kill…”
Now, does that mean that you are only good for killing, or that you are done with it all, and are bent on murder? No answers? Well, let’s talk about gittin’ laid.
Rag Mama Rag begins with what is probably the best fiddle line in rock n’ roll history. It also propels us headlong into the 1969 study of American popular and folk music that this album really is. It drags us past several references that show up in numerous other songs by artists long forgotten, at least in name:
“I’m goin’ to the railroa’ tracks, let the 4:19 scratcha mah baaaack…” Again with the suicide. These guys just won’t quit.
Well, and Richard Manuel, who wrote that/stole it from much older songs, did indeed hang himself in some shitty hotel room shower in…’89 or so I believe. But here, he is young, dumb, fulla cum, and aware of all the above. Still human, and needing what humans need, making his case in the only way he knows how:
“Hailstones beatin’ on the roof…The bourbon is a hundred proof…It’s you and me and the telephone…Our destiny is quite well known…”
And for such a strange album, being equal parts barnburner rock and quiet bluegrass-y, it did have two giant hits, and the third song is one of them. “Virgil Caine is my name, and I served on the Danville train…” It’s just too damn familiar. Too many other people have done it…And it’s still such a fucking wonderful song.
But most of your personal Civil War narratives don’t swerve to the entirely personal as much as this one does. Robbie Robertson wrote it specifically for Levon Helm to sing, and it sounds just like a true son of Dixie is speaking.
And again, most of the song concerns the life of Virgil Caine, with the war only occasionally seeping in around the edges. It is, after all, just another aspect of his life, which is pretty shitty anyway. There’s loss, and things that will never be resolved, but above all else: nothing ever goes right for this guy.
The song is part hymn, part anthem, part dirge, all quite beautiful.
Then the song When You Awake perhaps the only truly mystical moment of the album. The wonderfully beat-to-shit voice of Rick Danko (another one who died by his own hand/stupidity, only a couple years ago) begins a little tale of how someone named Ole (in the Scandahoovian pronunciation; O-lee) told him he was a fool, and how it made him feel so bad that he walked on down to his Grampa’s place, where he is sung this evil little nursery rhyme:
When you awake, you will remember everything
you will be hangin’ on a string, though no wind, you believe
you will relieve your only soul
that you were born but to grow old and never know…
He receives further pieces of not exactly fantastic advice from Ole (“Careful where you step and watch what you eat. Sleep with the light and you got it beat.”), returning to the creepy refrain again and again. It becomes clear that a comment is being made on the subject of folk wisdom, and conventional belief.
Like what? Well, maybe that the homilies that people hold dearest are the worst, though easiest, and that’s why they persist. Also that the ultimate truth, whenever we catch even an edge of it, doesn’t seem especially rosy, but whatcha gonna do?
The song ends in a long bridge, mostly populated by cliches from old blues and folk tunes. It fades out.
Up On Cripple Creek is the other big hit, and I’ve found that whenever I go sing the damn thing in karaoke, people just love it. It’s a song of celebration, but early in my experience with this band, a friend stopped me and pointed out exactly how sad this song really is.
Or is it? I mean, yeah, it’s a song from the viewpoint of an alcoholic who has made up his mind that this is just the way it’s going to be, and at very least he’s lucky that he found someone else who sees his point of view. “A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one,” indeed.
There’s also plenty of that random shit one finds in The Band’s songs…The line about Spike Jones…I dunno. You’ve probably heard this song millions of times.
Whispering Pines is the one song on the album I don’t one hundred per cent love, and therefore haven’t studied its lyrics very closely. It’s one of the openly sad ones; dirgy piano, and…The two dead ones duetting about what sort of sounds to me like being in love with someone who is dead.
I’m still not sure. I’m making dinner right now (pork chops done in apple cider vinegar and beer), and only sorta caught the words. But the overwhelming impression I’m left with is that these guys were far too young to be singing with such an amazing amount of not just world-weariness but a palpable sense of defeat.
Side two kicks off with Jemima Surrender. This is another boaster, the fragile male ego on display for all to see. It has one of the best damn guitar solos in classic rock.
This is good time music. The whole album encapsulates the lives of many people I’ve known and loved: brawlers, drinkers, hard-luck types and above all else; people who were lonely as hell and just wanted to be loved.
You can change your name, you can find a new walk
you can change your lock, it’s all the same.
You don’t have to give out, if you only give in.
You can jump and shout, but can’t you see girl
that I’m bound to win?
He don’t mean it. He knows he’s bound to lose, and that she can see through all that swagger as well as anyone.
Rocking Chair is a song about knowing that you’re done. You’ve sailed the seas, and it was all worth it, but on the other hand, be realistic, man…
Hear the sound, Willy boy
the Flyin’ Dutchman’s on the reef
It’s my belief we’ve used up all of our time
this hill’s too steep to climb
and the days that remain ain’t worth a dime…
Time to grow up, just in time to confront the reality of mortality and age.
The same friend who really walked me around this band also had this to say about Look Out Cleveland, the next song, “What is that song actually about?” For the life of me, I don’t know. It bears a great deal in common with many songs like it in the idiom, in which you are asked to be afraid of/prepare for some unnamed something that is coming your way. It could be viewed as rock n’ roll in its ascendancy, telling mainstream America that it won’t be going away. Maybe that’s it.
Jawbone is another sad song with a lazy, relaxed boogie beat that just might distract you from the desperation inherent in the story. It mostly concerns the observations of the community about why you-Jawbone-might just want to quit the criminal life. And what do you have as your rejoinder?
“I’m a thief, and I dig it”, sounding increasingly desperate each time you say it, almost whining. Knowing that you should change, and you can’t. Knowing that the odds are against anyone growing old as a professional thief, and it sucks…
That damn mournful piano again. “The Unfaithful Servant” begins.
Unfaithful servant, I hear you’re leaving soon in the morning
what did you do to the lady that she says she’s gonna have to send you away?
Like a stranger, you turned your back
left your key, and gone to pack
Bear in mind who’s to blame for all the shame
She really cared, the time she spared
and the home you shared…
The human cost of all your runnin’ and thievin’ and a-drinkin’ surrounds you finally, as people who genuinely love you nonetheless must let you go. Everybody knows you still for the essentially good person you are, but your presence here is poisonous. Matter of fact, people are kind of glad to see you go:
Let us not bow our heads
for we won’t be complainin’
life has been good to us all
even when that sky is rainin’
At this point, it’s not the community talking, it’s You:
To take it with a grain of salt
is all I can do; it’s no one’s fault
Makes no difference if we fade away
It’s just as it was; much too cold for me to stay…
It’s not like you didn’t try, but your true nature did indeed rear its head:
Goodbye to that country home
so long, lady I have known
farewell to my other side
I guess I’ll just take it in stride…
Curiously, the narrative goes back to the unforgiving folks in your town, who have had a strange turn of tone:
Unfaithful servant, you will learn to find your place
I can see it in your smile, and yes I can see it in your face
The memories will linger on
The good old days; they’re all gone
Oh lonesome servant, can’t you see
We’re still one in the same, just you and me?
I challenge you to be the only dry eye left in the room as the guitar plays us out, accompanied by mournful horns.
I view this as an autumnal album, above all else. It’s brown; how ’bout that? And it claims ambiguity as its central theme, which is Fall, if you ask me. It is fitting that the final song is King Harvest Has Surely Come.
It’s yet another song that sounds celebratory, but if the narrator was a friend of yours, you’d be trying to talk him out of his enthusiasm. The song is actually a little confusing, as the protagonist is both a farmer and a union laborer. It’s unclear what it is, exactly, that he does.
His hope is so touching and infectious, and yet, especially after all the other stories you’ve heard on this album, you just can’t trust it. Especially at the end, where he says,
And here comes a man with a paper in his hand
tellin’ us our hard times are about to end
and if they don’t give us what we like
he says, ‘Men, that’s when we gotta go on strike’.
With the basically 1800′s slant of the entire album, I think we know where this is going to end.