It's an emotional time of year, ambivalent and mysterious and magical. Nature's turning in, dying, yet I always feel renewed and excited. I describe the Band's "Music From Big Pink" with all the same words. It is complex, full of contradictions, but the emotional line through the album is constant. Fall is my favorite time to be alive, and "Big Pink" is music that I continually carry with me through life.
I picked the album up in high school, during a long spell of depression and social confusion. I can't remember if it was even fall at the time, but the album sounded like fall to me from the first track. "Tears of Rage" immediately buried itself in my gut. It blew me away that a song sung such a long time before I was born (originally recorded the year my mom was born), could say so much to me so sincerely, unabashed. It's all in Richard Manuel's voice, way out front; the thickness of it, somehow distinguished-sounding even as he struggles to hide the lump in his throat. The song is like a fogged-out riverside funeral -- horns barely in tune in the dampness emerge from nowhere and a guitar swims throughout like a ghost voice. There's a magic to this music that creeps around you. You stop hearing instruments and start hearing sounds, and the voices become tellers of stories in dreams.
"In a Station" -- with its ancient regality, Garth Hudson's warped organ and Manuel's moonlit moans -- reminds me of camping in the fall. Something about the image of a station (a train station?), and the line "Fell asleep til the moonlight woke me…" make me think of an ancient America -- the Band's version of Rip Van Winkle. Dream blurring into life in an ageless red-orange-yellow, forest colors that somehow come through in the dark.
I can't remember if I saw Easy Rider first or heard "The Weight" on "Big Pink," but it doesn't matter. The song made me -- still makes me -- want to drift, move, tell stories I heard in the last town to people I've just met. "The Weight" is the perfect song with which to roll through the hilly fall country of Middle America. Levon Helm's lean-forward yell-singing and wide-open beat -- even the tone of the drums themselves -- actually feel like the landscape. Fall is an adventure outside your door.
Side 2 gets a little weirder, more lighthearted. You hear Big Pink the house, the boys themselves making the music a little more clearly. Drinking, smoking, singing songs in the barn. The album becomes anxious and more concerned with problems in this world than ghosts and dreams and the dead. That said, "Long Black Veil" is sung from the point of view of a dead man. It's one of my favorite covers ever -- the soulful organ leading into that funky Band backbeat, and Rick Danko inhabits the dead man with a voice somehow more emotional for its dull weakness than if he had sung it sentimentally. Coupled with his offbeat bass plucking, it throws a keener ambivalence over the song only the Band could pull off.
Like fall, the album both takes me back to younger days and makes me feel old. "Lonesome Suzie" breaks my heart on multiple levels, makes me sad I didn't know Richard Manuel, makes me want to help Suzie.
Big Pink is such dense music. It confuses and enlightens me; it is all murk and angelic clarity. When the leaves blow across the street and the chill settles at night, I think of "Music From Big Pink." It's strange and sad and funny and beautiful and I learn from it all the time.
Discover more great autumn albums in our "Falling in Love With Music" series.