Band – Chest Fever

The great Garth Hudson gives us a wonderful intro to this song. In live shows, the song became a Hudson showcase, with him improvising wildly on organ (and later, on synthesizer) before cutting into the song. This improvisation came to be known as “The Genetic Method.” .Eventually the improvisation quoted Bach’s “Fugue in D Minor” and followed into the song’s main riff. Only part of the improvisation was included on the actual album cut.

Garth Hudson was the Band’s secret weapon according to Robertson. Back when they were backing Ronnie Hawkins….they asked the classically trained Hudson to join them. His parents didn’t like the idea but… Hudson agreed to join the band on two conditions: that Hawkins buy him a Lowrey organ, and that he be paid an extra $10 a week to give music lessons to the other Hawks. After that he was in The Band.

This gem came from Music From Big Pink in 1968. The song is credited to Robbie Robertson. Levon Helm said that he and Richard Manual wrote the lyrics to the song.

I was talking to another blogger the other day about the Band. They lived up to their name more than about any other band. Not only did they all contribute to songs…not writing…but all of them did contribute some but they all could play each others instruments.

Music From Big Pink was a huge influence on other artists back then and to this day. George Harrison and Eric Clapton were two that were influenced by it. Eric even had ideas of joining the Band. You can hear it in music at that time. Psychedelic was out and more Americana or roots music was in. The album’s influence far outweighed it’s chart position.

The album peaked at #18 in Canada and #30 in the Billboard Album Chart. It has to be on the list of best debut albums of all time.

Robbie Robertson: When Garth played the intro to “Chest Fever,” which he called “The Genetic Method,” I was reminded there was no other keyboard player in rock ’n’ roll who had his improvisational abilities and imagination. 

Robbie Robertson: “It’s kind of a hard love song,” “But it’s a reversal on that old rock & roll thing where they’re always telling the girl, ‘He’s a rebel, he’ll never be any good.’ This time, it’s the other way around.” 

From Songfacts

The Band’s guitarist, Robbie Robertson, felt he needed a counterbalance for the album’s centerpiece, “The Weight.” He wrote the music for the song solely for that purpose.

Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, and pianist Richard Manuel improvised lyrics (Robertson often calls them meaningless) over the course of the song. Those lyrics remain unchanged on the track, although they loosely tell a story of a man thrown aside by a hard-drinking, fast-talking woman who subsequently literally becomes sick with love for her.

This was the opening song for the Band’s set at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. 

Chest Fever

I know she’s a tracker
Any style that would back her
They say she’s a chooser
But I just can’t refuse her
She was just there, but then she can’t be here no more

And as my mind unwheels
I feel the freeze down in my knees
But just before she leaves, she receives

She’s been down in the dunes
And she’s dealt with the goons
Now she drinks from a bitter cup
I’m trying to get her to give it up
She was just here, I fear she can’t be there no more

And as my mind unwheels
I feel the freeze down in my knees
But just before she leaves, she receives

It’s long, long when she’s gone
I get weary holding on
Now I’m coldly fading fast
I don’t think I’m gonna last very much longer

She’s stoned said the Swede,
And the moon calf agreed
But I’m like a viper in shock
With my eyes in the clock
She was just there somewhere and here I am again

And as my mind unweaves
I feel the freeze down in my knees
But just before she leaves, she receives

Band – Rag Mama Rag

It doesn’t get much better than this. This wasn’t a huge hit but it doesn’t mean that much when it’s The Band.

The Band did this song by playing musical chairs with the instruments. Most of them grabbed something different than what they normally played. Levon (drummer) sang and played Mandolin, Richard Manuel (piano) played drums, Rick Danko (bass) played fiddle, Garth Hudson (keyboards) played uprigtht piano and producer John Simon played Tuba.

Robbie Robertson wrote the song and was the only one playing their normal instrument…guitar.

The song peaked at #57 in the Billboard 100, #46 in Canada, and #16 in the UK in 1970. The song was on their second album The Band.

Songfacts

One of the Band’s first big European hit singles, “Rag Mama Rag” has some unusual instrumentation. Lead pianist Richard Manuel played drums, drummer Levon Helm played mandolin and sang lead, and bassist Rick Danko played a fiddle. This left the bass spot open on this track, and it was filled by the album’s producer, John Simon. He improvised a bassline on tuba, although he had no idea how to play the instrument. >>

Robbie Robertson is the only songwriter credited on this track, although other members of the group claim they made contributions. The song finds Levon Helm trying to convince his girl to come back home so she can “rag all over” his house. What he has in mind in unclear: “rag” could mean playing ragtime music (a possibility, considering the line “rosin up the bow”), but he might have more prurient intentions.

Rag Mama Rag

Rag Mama rag, can’t believe its true.
Rag Mama Rag, what did you do?
Crawled up to the railroad track
Let the four nine-teen scratch my back

Sag mama sag now
What’s come over you
Rag Mama Rag, I’m a pulling out your gag.
Gonna turn you lose like an old caboose,
Got a tail I need a drag.

I ask about your turtle,
And you ask about the weather,
Well, I can’t jump the hurdle
And we can’t get together.

We could be relaxing in my sleeping bag,
But all you want to do for me mama
Is rag Mama rag there’s no-where to go,
Rag Mama rag. Come on resin up the bow.

Rag Mama rag, where do ya roam?
Rag Mama rag, bring your skinny little body back home.
Its dog eat dog and cat eat mouse, you can
You can rag Mama rag all over my house.

Hail stones beating on the roof,
The bourbon is a hundred proof,
Its you and me and the telephone
Our destiny is quite well known.

We don’t need to sit and brag.
All we gotta do is
Rag Mama rag Mama rag.
Rag Mama rag
Where do you roam?
Rag Mama rag, bring your skinny little body back home

Band – Christmas Must Be Tonight

Robbie Robertson’s Christmas gift to his new son Sebastian during the sessions for Northern Lights-Southern Cross album it never became a seasonal favorite but it should have been. It wasn’t released until the bands Islands album in 1977.

Rick Danko sings this song from a Shepherds point of view. It’s pure and down to earth like only the Band can be. No sleigh bells or other Christmas trappings…just pure music. Maybe that is the reason it never got picked up.

Robbie Robertson re-recorded this song after he left the group. And he did for the soundtrack of Bill Murray’s Scrooged. That version is very good but I still like The Bands version much more…it’s hard to beat Rick Danko.

Christmas Must Be Tonight

Come down to the manger, see the little stranger
Wrapped in swaddling clothes, the prince of peace
Wheels start turning, torches start burning
And the old wise men journey from the East

How a little baby boy bring the people so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
This must be Christmas, must be tonight

A shepherd on a hillside, where over my flock I bide
Oh a cold winter night a band of angels sing
In a dream I heard a voice saying “fear not, come rejoice
It’s the end of the beginning, praise the new born king”

I saw it with my own eyes, written up in the skies
But why a simple herdsmen such as I
And then it came to pass, he was born at last
Right below the star that shines on high

Robbie Robertson – Somewhere Down The Crazy River

I had a friend who raved about Robbie’s new album in the 80s. He said he liked it better than the Bands music…I would never…ever go that far but… I did like it. Listening to this song, it took me a few listens to like it. In fact the first time I heard it I thought…this is repetitive…but after that I could not get enough of it. The back up vocal is great.

It reminds me of a narration for a movie and then Robbie goes into the chorus and the song clicks then.

Robertson enlisted fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois as co-producer of the album. The self titled album Robbie Robertson was a decent comeback for Robbie.

Robertson also brought in The BoDeans to provide group vocals for some of the tracks on the album

The song peaked at #24 in the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts, #91 in Canada, and #15 in the UK in 1988.

The Robbie Robertson album won the 1989 Juno Award for Album of the Year. Lanois and Robertson jointly won the Producer of the Year Juno award at the same ceremony.

From Songfacts

A single from Robbie Robertson’s eponymous debut album, the song finds the former Band’s guitarist singing of the levee life in the Deep South.

RLanois told Exclaim! magazine that the song started with the “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” title. It was a line that Robertson came up with when he was telling the producer about hanging out with former Band colleague Levon Helm in his old Arkansas neighborhood. “He was telling me about the hot nights and fishing with dynamite,” he recalled. “I was curious about his stories because I wanted them to be on that record… It’s kind of like a guy with a deep voice telling you about steaming nights in Arkansas.”

Robbie Robertson wrote the song with Martin Page (“These Dreams,” “We Built This City”). He recalled the time spent with Robertson in an interview with us. “With Robbie, you were really dealing with a song craftsman who would take as long as it took to piece a great piece of music together with great, great atmosphere,” he said. Obviously, his time with Bob Dylan had influenced him.”

“My period with Robbie Robertson was very, very long,” Page added. “I’d bring in ideas and he’d mull over it and we’d experiment and experiment and experiment. But he would encourage me in the way I would sing these demos for him and I would guide him with the demo, then leave him alone.”

Somewhere Down The Crazy River

Yeah, I can see it now
The distant red neon shivered in the heat
I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land
You know, where people play games with the night
God, it was too hot to sleep

I followed the sound of a jukebox coming from up the levee
All of a sudden, I could hear somebody whistling from right behind me
I turned around, and she said
“Why do you always end up down at Nick’s Cafe?”
I said, “Uh, I don’t know, the wind just kinda pushed me this way”
She said, “Hang the rich”

Catch the blue train
Places never been before
Look for me
Somewhere down the crazy river
(Somewhere down the crazy river)
Ooh, catch the blue train
All the way to Kokomo
You can find me
Somewhere down the crazy river
(Somewhere down the crazy river)

Take a picture of this
The fields are empty, abandoned ’59 Chevy
Laying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John
Yeah, that’s when time stood still
You know, I think I’m gonna go down to Madam X
And let her read my mind
She said, “That voodoo stuff don’t do nothing for me”

I’m a man with a clear destination
I’m a man with a broad imagination
You fog the mind, you stir the soul
I can’t find no control

Catch the blue train
Places never been before
Look for me
Somewhere down the crazy river
(Somewhere down the crazy river)
Ooh, catch the blue train
All the way to Kokomo
You can find me
Somewhere down the crazy river
(Somewhere down the crazy river)

Wait, did you hear that?
Oh, this is sure stirring up some ghosts for me
She said, “There’s one thing you gotta learn
Is not to be afraid of it”
I said, “No, I like it, I like it, it’s good”
She said, “You like it now
But you’ll learn to love it later”

I been spellbound
Falling in trances
I been spellbound
Falling in trances
You give me the shivers
Chills and fever
You give me the shivers
You give me the shivers
I been spellbound
I been spellbound
I been spellbound
(Somewhere down the crazy river)
Somewhere down the crazy river

Band – I Shall Be Released

There is a very solemn song with a religious hymnal feel to it. Richard Manuel sings this one with a slight mournful falsetto voice that is just pure as you can get. I Shall Be Released is not commercial, not meant to be a hit, sell a million copies, but just pure music at it’s best…there are no pretensions or gimmicks…this is the Band at one of it’s many peaks.

Bob Dylan wrote this in 1967 but it was not until 1971 on his Greatest Hits Vol. II album that his version was officially released. The Band, who backed up Dylan on his first electric tour, recorded it for Music From Big Pink, which was their first album. Their version is the most well-known.

Everyone under the sun has covered this song but the Band’s own rendition was released first and is probably the best known version.

The song was the B side to The Weight released in 1968. Music From The Big Ping peaked at #30 in the Billboard 100 and #18 in Canada. That wasn’t the biggest thing though…the album helped change the landscape of popular music from the psychedelic harder rock to more earthy roots music.

From Songfacts

This song could be either an anti-death penalty composition or a metaphoric attempt by Dylan at looking forward to being released from Hell on Earth – possibly awaiting the “release” from the hell of being an innocent man wrongly imprisoned.

In Robert Shelton’s biography No Direction Home, he gives the song a different meaning. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966, when he was 25, he retreated from the spotlight. This was after he had suffered great disappointment at the reception his European and American tour dates brought. He’d been booed offstage, called a traitor, and attendance dropped at some of his concert dates. Dylan was seriously injured in the accident, and Shelton states that Dylan withdrew not only to recuperate, but to spend the time in self reflection, and with his family. He goes further, saying that the song represents Dylan’s search for personal salvation. 

This was featured in the 1987 Emmy-winning documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. 

Other artists to record this song include Bette Midler, Nina Simone, and Joan Baez, who performed the song at Woodstock while pregnant with her son, Gabriel. The Band also performed it during their set at the festival.

I Shall Be Released

They say everything can be replaced
They say every distance is not near
So I remember every face
Of every man who put me here

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

They say every man needs protection
They say that every man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Somewhere so high above this wall

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

Now, yonder stands a man in this lonely crowd
A man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shouting so loud
Just crying out that he was framed

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

Band – The Weight

It doesn’t get much more classic than this song by The Band. I’ve covered the “Playing for a Change” version with Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr, and many musicians across the world. It’s been covered by many artists but The Bands version will always be the goto version for me.

Robbie Robertson said he wrote this song one day while noodling with his guitar and trying to come up with songs for Music From Big Pink. When he looked inside his Martin guitar he saw the standard Martin imprint saying that the instrument was crafted in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The name of the town spurred memories of a journey he made from his native Canada down to the Mississippi Delta when he was 16 years old. He thought of all the characters he met on that trip, and in his mind heard voices singing what would become the song’s chorus.

Robbie Robertson also claims this was influenced by the work of Luis Buñuel, a Spanish director who made some of the first movies dealing with surrealism. Robertson was intrigued by the characters in his films, who were often good people who did bad things.

The song peaked at #63 in the Billboard 100, #31 in Canada, and #21 in the UK in 1968.

The song is a standard now…it’s been covered by (from wiki) Little Feat, the Chambers Brothers, Eric Church, Chris Stapleton, Stoney LaRue, The Staple Singers, Waylon Jennings, Joe Cocker, Travis, Grateful Dead, Blues Traveler, New Riders of the Purple Sage, O.A.R., Edwin McCain, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Black Crowes, Spooky Tooth, Hanson, Old Crow Medicine Show, Panic! at the Disco, Shannon Curfman, Aretha Franklin, Joan Osborne, John Denver, Trampled by Turtles, Cassandra Wilson, Miranda Lambert, Al Kooper, and Mike Bloomfield, Deana Carter, New Madrid, Dionne Warwick, and Gillian Welch. Mumford & Sons, RatDog, and Bob Weir are also known to cover this song from time to time. Additional notable versions are by Zac Brown Band, Hoyt Axton, Lee Ann Womack, Smith, Weezer, the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band, Free Wild, Brian Fallon, Aaron Pritchett, and others.

 

From Songfacts

This tells the story of a guy who visits Nazareth, and is asked by his friend Fanny to visit several of her friends. “The Weight” that is his load are all these strange people he promised he would check on. The song was never a big hit, but it endures as a classic rock staple.

Robbie Robertson got the only writing credit for this song, although other members of the group claimed that they contributed to this as well as many of their other songs and were not credited. Since only the writer receives royalties for a song, this created a great deal of tension in The Band.

The vocals are shared by Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm, who harmonize on the choruses. Helm takes lead on the first three verses; Danko takes the fourth (“Crazy Chester followed me…); Helm and Danko share the last verse (“Catch the cannonball…).

One of the distinctive characteristics of The Band was their three lead vocalists. Helm had the added challenge of singing from behind his drum kit when they played live.

Nazareth, where the story takes place, refers to the town in Pennsylvania about 70 miles north of Philadelphia. The rock group Nazareth got their name from this line (“Went down to Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead…”).

In the liner notes for the Across the Great Divide box set, Robbie Robertson is quoted as saying he chose that place because they make legendary Martin guitars there, so he was aware of the town and been there once or twice. Citizens of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, were thrilled when Robertson acknowledged it as the setting in this famous song. >>

The characters in the song – Crazy Chester, Luke, Anna Lee, are based on friends of the band. In Levon Helm’s autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm And The Story Of The Band, he explained:

“We had two or three tunes, or pieces of tunes, and ‘The Weight’ was one I would work on. Robbie had that bit about going down to Nazareth – Pennsylvania, where the Martin guitar factory is at. The song was full of our favorite characters. ‘Luke’ was Jimmy Ray Paulman. ‘Young Anna Lee’ was Anna Lee Williams from Turkey Scratch. ‘Crazy Chester’ was a guy we all knew from Fayetteville who came into town on Saturdays wearing a full set of cap guns on his hips and kinda walked around town to help keep the peace,if you follow me. He was like Hopalong Cassidy, and he was a friend of the Hawks. Ronnie would always check with Crazy Chester to make sure there wasn’t any trouble around town. And Chester would reassure him that everything was peaceable and not to worry, because he was on the case. Two big cap guns, he wore, plus a toupee! There were also ‘Carmen and the Devil’, ‘Miss Moses’ and ‘Fanny,’ a name that just seemed to fit the picture. (I believe she looked a lot like Caladonia.) We recorded the song maybe four times. We weren’t really sure it was going to be on the album, but people really liked it. Rick, Richard, and I would switch the verses around among us, and we all sang the chorus: Put the load right on me!”

There has been more than a little debate among classic rock DJs and enthusiasts over the real meaning of this song. Yes, Robertson has insisted time and again there is no biblical subtext, but many people think he may be deflecting. Consider the following:

– The narrator can’t find a bed in Nazareth, and the guy to whom he makes an inquiry just smiles and says “no.”

– Carmen and the devil were walking side by side, Carmen can go but her friend the devil has to stick around – an allusion to ever-present temptations.

– “Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fall” – possible allusion to Paul on the road to Damascus.

– The most glaring one: “I do believe it’s time to get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one who sent me here with her regards for everyone” – Miss Fanny is the one who sent him to Nazareth, but now it’s time for him to go back to her; Miss Fanny is God, the “time” in question is the crucifixion, and “regards for everyone” is Jesus dying for all of man’s sins. 

This was used in the movie Easy Rider. The Band performed the version heard in the movie, but on the soundtrack, a different group was used because of legal issues.

On September 28, 1968, this song reached its peak US chart position of #63. That same day, Jackie DeShannon’s cover reached its peak of #55 US. DeShannon’s release wasn’t what she had in mind. She explained in her Songfacts interview: “I absolutely said, ‘No way I’m going to do it, it’s The Band’s record, goodbye.’ But the label kept calling me, so I finally said, ‘Well, if you can get confirmation from The Band that they’re not putting it out as a single and I can do it with their permission, then okay.’ So, I recorded it. The record’s going up the chart and all of a sudden, here comes The Band’s single. Then Aretha Franklin’s version comes out. So I was at a radio station talking to the program director, and there were two other people promoting the same record outside the door.”

Aretha Franklin’s version was the biggest hit, reaching #19 in March 1969. Many other acts have since covered the song. A version by Diana Ross and the Supremes with The Temptations reached #46 in October 1969, which was the last time it charted in America. The song was also recorded by: A Group Called Smith, The Black Crowes, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Joan Osborne, Keller Williams, King Curtis & Duane Allman, Otis & Travis, Rotary Connection, Spooky Tooth, and The Ventures.

The album title came from the big pink house in upstate New York they rented and used as a recording studio. The Band was Bob Dylan’s backup band, and they moved there to be near Dylan while he was recovering from a motorcycle accident. Dylan offered to help with this album, but The Band refused because they wanted to make a mark on their own.

Robbie Robertson described this song as being about “the impossibility of sainthood.”

The Staple Singers sing on this in The Band’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz. “Being in The Last Waltz was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to the Staple Singers,” Mavis Staples told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I still can’t get offstage without doing ‘The Weight.'”

While most of The Last Waltz was taken from The Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco, this performance was shot on a sound stage. 

The line, “Catch a Cannonball now, to take me down the line,” refers to a train. There was no real Cannonball except in legend: It was popularized in the song from the 1800s called “The Wabash Cannonball,” and mentioned in some blues songs of the early 1900s, including the original version of “C.C. Rider.”

In 2007, this was used in a commercial for Cingular Wireless. Levon Helm took issue with it and sued BBDO, the advertising agency that came up with the campaign. Said Helm: “It was just a complete, damn sellout of The Band – its reputation, its music; just as much disrespect as you could pour on Richard and Rick’s tombstones.”

The Band played this at Woodstock in 1969. The festival fit in well with their schedule, as they were touring to promote their first album, Music From Big Pink. Their performance stands out as a highlight from the festival, and earned The Band a great deal of exposure. >>

Scottish rock band Nazareth, who are best known for their transatlantic hit “Love Hurts,” took their name from a lyric in this song – “I pulled into Nazareth, Was feelin’ about half past dead.”

This song was featured in the 1978 documentary of The Band, The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese. Most of the film was shot at their Thanksgiving Day, 1976 concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, but their performance of “The Weight” was done in a studio with The Band joined by The Staple Singers, a gospel group who wrung out the spirituality of the song.

In celebration of Band drummer Levon Helm, who died in 2012, “The Weight” was performed at the Grammy Awards the next year with Mavis Staples joining Elton John, Mumford & Sons, the Zac Brown Band and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Unlike many star-packed performances that get messy fast, this one worked. The song is a great showcase for multiple performers and served as a fitting tribute to Helm.

Aretha Franklin’s version featured Duane Allman playing slide guitar using an empty bottle of decongestant pills.

Joe Cocker also covered this song. It was included on the 2005 deluxe edition of his 1970 live album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

Weezer covered this in 2008 and released it as a bonus track on The Red Album.

The Weight

I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
Hey, mister, can you tell me, where a man might find a bed?
He just grinned and shook my hand, “No” was all he said

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me

I picked up my bags, I went looking for a place to hide
When I saw old Carmen and the Devil, walking side by side
I said, “Hey, Carmen, c’mon, let’s go downtown”
She said, “I gotta go, but my friend can stick around”

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me

Go down, Miss Moses, ain’t nothin’ you can say
It’s just old Luke, and Luke’s waiting on the judgment day
Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Annalee
He said, “Do me a favor, son, won’t you stay and keep Annalee company”

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me

[Rick Danko]
Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog
Said, “I will fix your rag, if you’ll take Jack, my dog”
I said, “Wait a minute Chester, you know, I’m a peaceful man”
He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can”

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me

[Helm and Danko]
Catch the cannonball, now to take me down the line
My bag is sinking low, and I do believe it’s time
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one
Who sent me here, with her regards for everyone

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me

Robbie Robertson – The Weight…Around the World

Playing For Change, a global nonprofit which helps provide music education to young people around the world has just released a collaborative version of Robbie Robertson‘s “The Weight,” the classic song recorded by The Band in 1968 for their debut album, Music From Big Pink

https://playingforchange.com/videos/the-weight-song-around-world/

The Band – The Shape I’m In

The first Band album I ever bought was The Best of The Band. When I heard “The Shape I’m In” I knew I was going to like them. I knew the hits of course but the songs I never heard of at that point were great. I then started to buy their albums and loving this band. The song was off on the album Stage Fright and was a B side to the song “Time To Kill.”

There is a great version on The Last Waltz which is below. Robbie wrote the song for Richard to sing and at that time Levon, Rick, and Richard were heavy into heroin and drinking. The song peaked at #64 in Canada.

Robbie Robertson talks some about writing this song

At one time, there was talk that if you wanted to play like the angels, you had to dance with the devil—that heroin was a gateway to music supremacy. That myth was yesterday, but the power of addiction was still in full force. It hit me hard that in a band like ours, if we weren’t operating on all cylinders, it threw the whole machine off course.
This was the first time that writing songs was painful for me. In some cases I couldn’t help but reflect on what was happening behind the curtain. I wrote “The Shape I’m In” for Richard to sing, “Stage Fright” for Rick, and “The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show” for Levon—all with undertones of madness and self-destruction. While watching Richard pound out the rhythm on the clavichord, I couldn’t help but see the irony as he sang out, “Oh, you don’t know, the shape I’m in.”

The Shape I’m In

Go out yonder, peace in the valley
Come downtown, have to rumble in the alley
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

Has anybody seen my lady
This livin’ alone would drive me crazy
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

I’m gonna go down by the water
But I ain’t gonna jump in, no, no
I’ll just be lookin’ for my maker
And I hear that that’s where she’s been?

Oh, out of nine lives, I spent seven
Now, how in the world do you get to Heaven
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

I’ve just spent 60 days in the jail house
For the crime of having no dough, no no
Now here I am back out on the street
For the crime of having nowhere to go

Save your neck or save your brother
Looks like it’s one or the other
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

Now two young kids might start a ruckus
You know they feel you’re tryin’ to shuck us
Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in

Testimony

The autobiography of Robbie Robertson. I read this right after My Cross To Bear by Gregg Allman. The only surprising part is it stops at 1976 and doesn’t cover Robbie’s solo career.

Robbie is 33 when the book ends. It ends at a recording session where only Robbie shows up after The Last Waltz.

If you have read Levon Helm’s This Wheels on Fire you know that Levon was pretty hard on Robbie. He rips him for songwriting credits and The Last Waltz. Robbie takes the high road in his book. He talks about the brotherhood they all shared. He mentions that Levon was his best friend he ever had in his life.

Robbie was in the middle of musical history throughout the book. He talks about joining Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and befriending Levon…they eventually picked up Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. After they split with Ronnie they get busted and gigged at various bars while meeting music legends Sonny Boy Williamson II, Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and then Bob Dylan. After meeting Dylan they start backing him on his first electric tour.

They are in the middle of the chaos of Dylan’s electric tour…Levon quits a few shows into it because of the booing and the people that surround Dylan. The rest of the Band (still called the Hawks) continue to back Dylan around the world. Along the way, they make friends with Brian Jones, The Beatles, Johnny Cash and eventually Jimi Hendrix (Jimmy James at the time).

He also mentions about living at the Chelsea Hotel, Big Pink, Levon coming back, living in Woodstock, playing Woodstock, and being friends with Dylan. This is one book that gives you a side of Dylan you never read much about. Robbie humanizes him while keeping respect. The Band much like the Allman Brothers valued brotherhood. They stuck together and got along really well until heroin started to enter the picture.

He goes into his songwriting and where he got the ideas. A lot of his ideas came from hanging out with Levon at Levon’s home in Arkansas. Robbie enjoyed the area and the southern culture that surrounded him.

Robbie is big foreign film buff who read many screenplays and would have people to pick them up when going through New York. After reading those he said it helped him to express what he felt in lyrics.

You get such a mix of personalities in the book… Edie Sedgwick, Carly Simon, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, to smoking pot with John Lennon in the sixties with John’s special made “cigarettes.”

All of the Band had street smarts and mixed with killers, thieves and mafia members before they made it. They were without money at one point and Robbie and Levon were actually going to wear masks and hold up a high stakes poker game. It’s a wonder one of them wasn’t killed before the band met Dylan.

I’ve read both Levon’s and Robbie’s books. I liked them both. Robbie is more consistent in his telling. There is a reason Robbie wanted to get off the road. Richard Manuel was not in good shape…even on The Last Waltz and Robbie was no angel himself. The road brought temptations that were hard for them to resist.

If you are a Band fan and/or Dylan fan…get it. I would place this book up there with Keith Richard’s book Life. That is about the highest praise I can give…

 

 

The Band

Any band that calls themselves The Band…better be great…this band most certainly was… Four Canadians with one American who wrote and sang Americana music better than anyone.

They started out backing up Ronnie Hawkins in the early sixties… From there they backed up Bob Dylan on his famous conversion to “electric” music. They toured all over the world with Dylan getting booed because of the folk purists hate of Bob’s new electric direction. Levon left at the beginning of that tour but came back when they started to work on their own music.

They were a band in the best sense of the word. the members were Robbie Robertson who played guitar and was the main songwriter. Levon Helm who was the drummer and one of the three singers. Richard Manual played piano and was probably the best singer of the Band. Rick Danko the bass player and also singer and great at harmonies. Garth Hudson the keyboard player extraordinaire. They all could play other instruments…

They would switch up instruments and record at times just to get a different texture to their music.

They rented a house in West Saugerties New York…a big pink house and started to set up in the basement. Bob Dylan would come over and they would record demos.

Bob Dylan was a big influence on The Band. The Band also influenced Bob Dylan in the basement. He had never recorded outside of a studio before and it freed him up a bit. Those recordings were meant to be demos for other performers to sing but were heavily bootlegged so they were officially released in 1975 as “The Basement Tapes” with songs by Dylan and The Band. The songs had pure raw energy and showed a sense of humor also.

They influenced everyone from Eric Clapton..who hid a secret desire to join them…to George Harrison and many more. Their first two albums (Music From Big Pink and The Band) were groundbreaking. They changed the musical landscape…the move from psychedelic to an older sounding looser type of music.

In 1974 Bob Dylan and the Band toured together again. The Band backed Dylan again but also played their own set. They released a live album of that tour called Before The Flood.

Some bands have great voices and tight harmonies. The Beatles, Beach Boys, Eagles to name a few but The Band’s harmonies were loose but at the same time just as tight in their own way. Their music sounded spontaneous but it was well crafted. They always left enough raw edge to keep it interesting.

Robbie Robertson’s words and melodies were Americana flowing through a Canadian who had part Jewish and Native-Canadian roots. He would read one movie screenplay after another. It helped him with his songwriting to express the images he had in his head. Robbie also took stories Levon told him of the south and shaped them into songs.

The Band was no frills…you were not going to see lasers or a Mick Jagger clone running about… they just played their music and did it well. They did not follow trends but they were not afraid to experiment especially Garth Hudson the keyboard player who was always playing with different sounds.

Songs like The Weight, Cripple Creek, The Shape I’m In, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rag Mama Rag, This Wheels On Fire, Stage Fright and the list goes on. The songs still sound fresh and fit perfectly on their respective albums.

You can’t go wrong with a Band album but the ones I would recommend would be Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969).

The Greatest Hits album has the radio songs you know but you miss some great songs by not getting the original albums. The ultimate would be the 2005 release of the box set called A Musical History. It has everything the original band recorded.

They broke up in 1976 and played their last concert with all of the original members in a film called The Last Waltz…

Their music was always uniquely their own. This band earned their name…