Music from Big Pink

categories: Cocktail Hour




Jimmy and Peter fox had attic rooms in their house on South Avenue, New Canaan, CT, and up there under the eaves we listened to music and told stories and smoked various substances, ate elaborate snacks.  One afternoon after I’d turned 16–this would have been in 1968– Jim showed me a new album he’d gotten and put it on his turntable ready to play.  First, though, we had to work his hash pipe a while–temple balls from Thailand (very popular, coming back with the kids who’d been fighting in Vietnam).  You didn’t just listen to a new album without preparation.  I studied the album cover.  The painting, Jim told me, a pleasing Gauguinesque watercolor, was painted by Bob Dylan.  Whoa.  And The Band had been Dylan’s band.  Holy shit.  On the back side was the title: “Music from Big Pink,” simple photo of an


imposing pink house, taken from below.  This was the house The Band lived in (maybe), and the recording studio was up there, and Dylan had written there and recorded.  It was in West Saugerties, New York.  We took a lot of stock in knowing these things and I paid close attention.  Maybe one day we’d drive over there and see.  My ears grew warm with the hashish and my breath grew important and I could feel my hair.  You didn’t listen to an album in order–not the first time.  You listened song by song because if you just played it your attention would wander the way it would on a long driving trip and you’d miss everything after the second song, or maybe third.  We had a lot of theories like that and talked them over endlessly.

Finally, Jimmy put the needle in the proper groove and played me “Tears of Rage.”  I’d never heard such a keening.  Jimmy played it again. “Tears of Rage” was sung by Richard Manuel (co-written with Dylan!).  Later, Levon Helm said it was the best performance Manuel had ever given.  And he did it in the studio.  Jimmy Fox was the first kid I knew to have that album.  Pretty soon everyone would have it.  But that afternoon it was new and fresh and so moving that I couldn’t stop hearing it for weeks, then years.

The next song Jimmy laid on me was “The Weight.”

That was Levon Helm singing, first I’d ever heard of him.  Pretty soon, same, everyone would know him.  A drummer, singing!  And “The Weight” was in the movie “Easy Rider” just that next year.   Those slow rhythms, the emotional voices, the falsetto, the songs of loss and sorrow.  It all really spoke to us, kids waiting to turn 18 and get drafted, unless we could avoid it.

“The Weight.”  Levon Helm sang that.


  1. malcolm writes:

    Oh, and as as an afterthought, I would love to talk about Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs and R. Melzer, and Robot C. Hull and Dave Altman…I will stop now.

  2. malcolm writes:

    After all these years I still have trouble admitting that I wasn’t on board with The Band from the beginning. In 1968, if ValuMart didn’t carry it, you had to travel to Seattle get a record like “Big Pink.” But to be honest, “The Weight” struck me as a tad bit corn-pone. I would come to “Wheels on Fire” on the Byrds first post Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and think that I had discovered Dylan’s great lost song. What a bonehead, especially after hearing Garth Hudson’s fucking goth-rocking intro to Chest Fever. Forty-plus years later and I’m still kicking myself. But when Levon lit into Rag Mama Rag on “The Band” album I was hooked for freaking ever. I think the beauty of our coming of age was that we can remember where we were when we first heard “Good Vibrations,” “Foxy Lady,” “Rosalita,” “Political Science,” “Beat on the Brat,” “Wild Horses,” “What’s Goin’ On” et al. Whatever we call rock ‘n’ roll today is better than ever, but there is too fucking much to absorb. Just think, you and I can probably name a song and talk about what we were doing on that day, at that moment we fell in love with the music, over and over again. It is a gift I would love to give to my girls. Nice recollection.

  3. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Yep, that’s a keeper. And Levon’s recent solo album is too. One of the most brilliant and strange books I’ve ever read, Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic, is about Dylan and the Band, Big Pink and the music they made there, and the rape by America of Appalachia!

  4. Pat Shipley writes:

    The Band is my favorite band. My musical tastes were shaped by my brothers, 7 and 10 years older, in Ann Arbor while I was in New Canaan. I can mark many of the most important events in my life with the Band song it was associated with, even if decades after they broke up.
    Levon Helm was the one who endured. Not just cancer, but playing with the best people amywhere he could till the end of his life. When I saw him for the last time in 2011 he could no longer sing but his eyes lit up as his daughter Amy and Larry Cambell sang songs as he still played the hell out of the drums.
    Each Band member had a gift, many gifts, that made the Band the organism it was. Richard Manuel is, I believe, the greatest singer in rock and roll. His voice could grab you in the chest, sweet or dark, baritone or falsetto.
    Rick Danko’s innocence with fire was never repeated. I still have a smile when I here “This Wheel’s on Fire”, especially since Ab Fab took it as a theme song, as Rick wrote it with Bob Dylan and this is one of the few songs that any of The Band make money on, the rest going to Robbie Robertson. Could Chest Fever exist without Garth Hudson? How could a Canadian write about Dixie, medicine shows and jamborees without Levon. Also curious is the success of The Band and the failure of Robertson’s 3 ? solo albums, none of which if I recall correctly had a good song on them.
    My husband read Levon’s book, “This Wheel’s on Fire” on our honeymoon in Rome.
    We force people who come to the house to watch “Man Outside”, with Bradford Dillman, the worst movie ever made, because all the members of The Band except Robertson are in it. Levon was the sheriff and quite good. He became a good actor as well as a great singer, drummer, mandolin player and keeper of the flame of the hostory of American music.
    I miss him like I knew him.

    • Bill writes:

      I’m with you, Pat. I can hear every song in my head from start to finish, note for note, in real time, just sitting here. I was at Ithaca College at the time of the big Watkins Glen concert, summer 1973, I believe. 600,000 some people, a mess, but the Dead, the Allman Brothers, and The Band. That’s all. They all came out together last thing and played I don’t know how many hours. Anyway, I guess we could all go on and on. Our Dave says he’s seen The Last Waltz eleven times.

      • Pat shipley writes:

        With all respect to Dave, only eleven? It does get a little interactive when you have to do a high kick along with Van Morrison in his sequined jump suit, join Levon in saying “I thought we weren’t gonna talk about it ” when the female companionship aspects of life on the road were discussesd, the famous Scorcese cinematic development of the “bugger mat” to hide the enormous cocaine rock in Neil Young’s nose, etc.
        I have a tad less enjoyment now that I know how much Levon hated the movie for essentially cutting Richard Manual out of the musical scenes and Robbie’s flashy belting out his vocals with the mike turned off.
        I was moved by your recollection of the first time you listened to Big Pink as my husband had given a very similar accounting the day Levon died.
        My husband would like to go on record as having brought several books on our honeymoon as well as stipulating that he read “This Wheel’s on Fire” aloud to me in Rome.