In the late sixties, the guys who made the Judas thump and fever of Dylan’s much-maligned electric tour rented a little pink four-square on a hundred acres in the New York countryside. Bossman Bob had them on retainer post motorcycle crash, so Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko shacked up and jammed with Dylan and Robbie Robertson who both lived close by. Soon enough, Levon Helm came back from the oil rig where he’d done his time in self-imposed exile, a conscientious objector to abject fame and success, and in the basement of the house they called Big Pink, this group, who’d been playing professionally together since they’d been an average of 19 years old, became the Band, which is about as un-self-conscious a name as could be imagined. If you’re a twenty-something-year-old member of a professional backing group with self-evident raw, natural talent, living your best life on Bob Dylan’s dime in the late ‘60s, the notion that you were hot shit might come pretty easily, and they really may have been the best band in America. They could knock you down, take your wallet, lick your wounds for you, liquor you up, and make you boogie before you could say how do you do sir.
In the Big Pink days, there was a typewriter in the house that everybody shared, and I’ve thought about it countless times over the years as a sort of ur-object of communal creativity. I always imagine peeking inside the window into a kitchen that is day-lit behind little floral curtains above the sink. There’s a percolator plugged in on a formica countertop, and roommates shuffle around sort of ignoring one another like roommates do in the morning. Somebody types a couple of lines on the machine, half of a couplet or an obscure riff on a Luis Buñuel movie that has crossed their mind. Later on, someone comes by and enters a slant-wise response. The pages stacked up, and this lived and practically applied Mad Libs/Burroughs cut-up technique, an ongoing experiment in associative synthesis—in play really— pervaded the house and filtered into the tunes on The Basement Tapes or Music from Big Pink. The Band set themselves up to stew in their own creativity together, constantly woodshedding, hashing out that sound that was actually innovative, and yet so cryptically familiar, even familial.
Between the thousands of shows played with Ronnie Hawkins as the Hawks, into the Dylan era, and for decades after on the road as a group, Richard Manuel recalled, “We drove ourselves to as near perfection as we could get. To the point where we’d really thrill each other. There was a clairvoyance.” The 10,000 hours required to become an expert in any pursuit were, for the members of the Band, really spent learning to know what the other guys were getting ready to do, and what lies at the root of their sound is this ability to anticipate movement and get in the rut with the rest of the gang. This sense of individuals moving as one organism is everywhere on Music from Big Pink.
Put your head into the record and just marvel at the way the frequencies are separated from but cooperate with one another. That frizzle-fry proto-country-funk of tunes like “To Kingdom Come” next to the locomotive paddle-wheeler “We Can Talk” punctuated and bookended by the warm, dolorous Richard Manuel stunners “Tears of Rage,” “Lonesome Suzie,” and “I Shall Be Released.” Where others have noted the album as an anthology of original songs cobbled together with a handful of Dylan tunes and a trad. cover, without the supposed cohesive novelistic thread of the Band’s eponymous second record, I find the freshman effort moving, balletic, and nuanced. The work of hyper-talented individual artists who have dedicated themselves to playing unselfishly, for the sake of the song.
What was finally formalized at Big Pink was the primacy of the song-as-objective, and the understanding that the Band was truly a sum of the parts. Performing live at Winterland in 1969, the group left Dylan’s employ and returned under their own steam as the Band with so much virtuosity that folks say even back then it was hard to decipher who was really in charge. There was a shifting center of gravity. They changed singers. Switched instruments. Everyone was an incredibly adept player and Danko, Helm, and Manuel could each assume the role of frontman.
I wonder how we would all think of the Band if Martin Scorcese had never made the thrilling but very imperfect and problematic documentary The Last Waltz which, I think, had the effect of obscuring the Band as a true ensemble. In the camera’s eye of The Last Waltz, and in the subsequent fog of the intervening decades, I perceive that many listeners and observers would attribute the lion’s share of creative drive to Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, with Rick Danko bringing up the rear. These three just happened to be the most outspoken members of the group who appear in the film more than anybody else. Garth Hudson was, I believe, very glad to live in the background of his younger peers as tutor and arranger and the most sagacious, musically adept member of the group.
Richard Manuel doesn’t appear in the film very much. He was in the throes of a pretty brutal collection of habits and depression that would culminate in his suicide in 1986. In the concert footage, he is infrequently in the center of the frame, and in the interview segments he comes off as a little bit of a fucking lunatic, a grinning, coked-up spider inhabiting a human frame. But he was considered to be one of the Band’s principal singers in the early years and has as many songwriting credits on the first record as Robertson. In the arc of the Band’s music, Richard Manuel can be seen as something of a vocal ace-in-the-hole. He just never fails to dazzle, but he took a backseat in popular perception, and I think that just piles one tragedy on top of another.
He was the youngest member of the the Band and the most soft-spoken. Shy to the point of seeming brittle, by some accounts. George Harrison would later recall an intimate recognition of his own timidity in Manuel, one that was focused into and contrasted by the strength and character of his voice. Manuel had a distinctive range that moved between a true baritone that noted the R&B icons he’d emulated as a young man, and a high, soulful uncertainty, a questing, somber falsetto that was as unmasked and vulnerable a voice as any I’ve heard. Lately when I listen to the Band, I just miss him.
Taking one of the most significant, dynamic all-star ensembles in the history of rock music and picking favorites is folly. And the Band was about the songs, not the individuals. But, damn, you collect all the cards and you tape a couple of them to the wall. Manuel was my favorite, and Music from Big Pink is Manuel’s record in my mind.