I’ve been attempting to write this There and Back Again for several weeks now. I’d never heard the album before, but since I decided to write about it, I’ve listened to Music From Big Pink about a zillion times. I’ve read up on all the folklore behind The Band, how this album was recorded written at Woodstock with Bob Dylan, their humble beginnings as a backing band, and of course, their infamous last show and subsequent Martin Scorsese documentary. I even added The Last Waltz to the top of my Netflix queue in preparation for this column. Admittedly, I feel asleep halfway through the move and never ended up finishing it because I needed to return the DVD to get the next disc in my current teen-drama television obsession, the exact name of which series is so embarrassing that it will go unsaid.
Despite the enormous amount of new things I’ve learned in preparation to write something about this album, I feel at a loss of things to say. Maybe it starts with their name. The Band. The Band. The name says it all. The archetypal band from what might turn out to be the archetypal era of rock and roll music. The late 1960s and early 1970s- right before the punk rock explosion destroyed all of our sincerity, and far enough into history that they were able to hearken back to a time before, while still retaining brilliant innovation. Music From Big Pink is a relic of its era, and still holds up as impressive today. In their cranking, rollicking Southern melodies I hear everyone from The Beatles to Eric Clapton to Band of Horses. Rarely do you hear a band today that can play their instruments so well, probably another outcome of coming before the punk rock rebellion. Rarely do you hear a band today that influences their peers and contemporaries in the ways that The Band did.
It is a little crazy that I’d never heard this album until now, but it still feels like it’s always been a part of my musical repertoire. As I listen to the album, I get lost imagining myself in 1968. The production and guitar solos suggest hipsters (the original kind) in fringed leather vests and hole-y jeans, flowers in long hair, and smoking weed at outdoor concerts- the kind of stereotypes I have from books and movies, despite my history degree. About one third of the way through the album, suddenly and without warning, the familiar quarter notes come in on the kick drum and i hear, “I pulled into Nazareth…” I’m yanked away from my Woodstock day dreams and right back into the present by a song that I’ve throughout my whole life. “The Weight” is one of the best damn songs I’ve ever heard, and probably one of the best ever written. Its turn into the chorus is so pleasant and so familiar that it makes the rest of the album feel like home, too. It turns out my other favorite song on the album is, “Long Black Veil,” appropriately an old standard, just like “The Weight” has become. I don’t like the song “Chest Fever;” the groove on the organ isn’t my thing. At this point, I’d just be getting into a list of songs I like from the album (pretty much all of them), something I suspect everyone could do, but isn’t particularly interesting to anyone else.
Like I said, I don’t feel particularly guilty for never having gotten into The Band, because I feel like they’re already everywhere in my musical life. Numerous Hold Steady references come to mind. “My name is Rick Danko but people call me one hour photo,” and “My name is Robbie Robertson but people call me Robo,” from “The Swish.” Levon Helm still plays all the time, and his tour dates make it onto the same music blogs as all the contemporary acts who are influenced by him, and may not even know it. One thing I will say about the parts of The Last Waltz that I didn’t sleep through (I know! I know! I’ll rent it again, I promise), was that I was surprised to see how young they all looked. Wearing their tight jeans with long hair and beards, I felt like I was watching almost any band today. That kind of freaked me out, to know that a sound this important and now almost antique was made by a real band, by people the same age as we are now. It’s nice to know that great rock and roll is real. It’s nice to know that it lasts.