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*8.20-CHEST FEVER (The Band)

The Band

LISTEN

[Intro]

I know she's a tracker.
Any scarlet 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 unweaves,
        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 the bitter cup.
I'm trying to get her to give it up.

        She was just here, I fear, but she can’t be here no more.

        [Chorus]

                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!

[Break]

"She's stoned" said the Swede,
And the moon calf agreed.
I'm like a viper in shock
With my eyes in the clock.

        She was just there somewhere and here I am again.

        [Chorus]

[Coda]


Music from Big Pink is not a psychedelic album. Far from it; in fact, the language used for the album is usually that of “roots rock”—something we’d seen a bit of in Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding, and in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s single Suzie Q by this time. But Music from the Big Pink was the actual watershed album that marks a point when “roots rock”, using traditional and country elements, with a nostalgic yearning for an America that had been lost to slick modernity, became the new fashion in music, eventually eclipsing psychedelia, casting long shadows of our forefathers on its optimistic modern view of new frontiers of the mind. George Starostin wrote in his blog Only Solitaire: “Like any influential album, Music From Big Pink is indirectly responsible for much evil in this world, including, among other things, the artistic meltdown of Eric Clapton, but that is also an indication of its greatness — it ought to have taken a really strong record to make a tough guy like Eric start seriously thinking about a change in his musical direction. In a way, Music From Big Pink really was that first record which started to turn “rock” into an institution — it certainly was one of the first rock records that sounded like it was made by old, wizened, experienced people, rather than fresh, hot, sizzling body-and -soul grub for the young ones. And just look at how much facial hair was shared between all the band members, too — most rockers still preferred a clean shave in 1968.”

Though the album was not a big hit, and its single The Weight didn’t break into the American Top 40, stalling at #63, it slowly seeped into American culture. Al Kooper used his influence (as organist for Bob Dylan in the days of Highway 61 Revisited) to praise the album in Rolling Stone magazine, and of course, Dylan’s relation to The Band also helped. (The Band had been Dylan’s tour musicians in 1966, and they had recorded together in 1967 what would later be known as The Basement Tapes, already starting to circulate as one of the earliest of “bootlegs”.) Indeed Dylan wrote three songs on the album that had never been released before to the public. John Wesley Harding and Music from Big Pink (Big Pink was the house where the aforementioned basement studio was) together formed an aesthetic of attempting to write traditional American ballads that would become more popular over time, because they sounded as if they’d always existed, ready to be called out of the collective American unconscious, rather than being produced to conform to or create a current fashion. Ironically, the one song from John Wesley Harding that has reached a “classic” status (All Along the Watchtower) achieved that state in the psychedelic Jimi Hendrix Experience version. But Dylan managed to also write an American standard in I Shall Be Released, which ends the Big Pink album, and shares with The Weight something of the traditional gravitas of Stephen Foster songs written in the 19th century.

Actually, Chest Fever is consistently considered by critics to be the anomaly on Music from the Big Pink. Garth Hudson’s “classical” organ features an improvisation on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and looks forward rather than back to the American past. Today it is considered among the earliest recordings of what would now be considered “progressive rock”. A master of the Lowrey organ (also used by the Beatles in For the Benefit of Mr. Kite) Hudson's orchestral tone sense and style anticipated many of the sonic advances of the polyphonic synthesizer. Indeed, the style of organ playing reminds me a lot of Keith Emerson in his band Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a major force in progressive rock of the early 1970s. Hudson’s organ has a lot more in common with Keith Emerson than other organists celebrated in 1968 such as Steve Winwood, Ray Manzarek, and Al Kooper, all of whom drew from jazz structures. On the other hand, Robbie Robertson’s verses, particularly in the C section where the melody changes into something played by the Salvation Army, are consistent with the traditional forms that The Band was reviving. Stewart Mason of allmusic wrote that Robertson supplied words to the verses to serve simply as stopgap place holders at first, but The Band got used to them and they stuck. The lyrics don’t bear much scrutiny; it’s best to simply suggest that the song is about a man in love with a difficult woman who seems not to leave immediately after sex, and doesn’t come around very often. Of course, clarity of meaning was never one of psychedelic music’s strongest points, as the aesthetic favored ambiguity and multiple interpretations. I don’t consider this a psychedelic record purely because of its lyrical shambles, however. The main interest I have in Chest Fever as a psychedelic record is in the way it brings a the formal exposition of a church organ and a ragtag Salvation Army Band together in one song—a juxtaposition that is quite in agreement with the psychedelic aesthetic.

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