5

127: The Band, ‘Tears of Rage’ (“Music from Big Pink”)

Posted by jeff on May 16, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Last week, in SoTW 126, we presented Bob Dylan’s original performance of ‘Tears of Rage’ from “The Basement Tapes”. This week we’re presenting ‘Tears of Rage’ as it appears on The Band’s first album, “Music from Big Pink”.

The Band — ‘Tears of Rage’

L to R: Manuel, Hudson, Helm, Robertson, Danko ©Elliot Landy

In July, 1968, hippies were being beaten in Chicago, Black ghettos were on fire, RFK and MLK had been killed, Paris was under siege and Prague was invaded. “Battle lines being drawn.” Rock music was the vehicle for the younger generation to rail against parents, professors, police – louder and faster and flashier, more and more strident and abrasive and combative. Get high, get angy, get laid. Up against the wall, motherfucker.

Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” had provoked nothing more than a collective “Huh?” “Sgt Pepper” had deteriorated into Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge and Steppenwolf and The Doors and Cream .

The Band painted by Bob Dylan

Then Bob Dylan’s backing band – formerly The Hawks, now the non-name The Band – released their first album. The back cover pictured a pink house (hence the title “Music from Big Pink”), and inside was a photo of five guys who looked more like the James Brothers – the gang, not the band. Even worse, they included a picture of a whole tribe of horn-rimmed honkies, captioned ‘Next of Kin’.  This was in a day when everyone else was denying that they had biological parents. Didn’t these guys know anything about being cool?

But the front cover was a primitive painting of the group by The Dylan himself. Not only that, the album featured three songs by him, two of them collaborations with The Band (music for ‘Tears of Rage’ by Richard Manuel, for ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ by Rick Danko, together with ‘I Shall Be Released’). This was at a time when Dylan no more collaborated with mortals than did The Almighty Him/Herself. So “Music from Big Pink” entered the marketplace as an authoritative word from on high, if not Dylan himself speaking, then at least his angels.

But the music? It was so strange. Nary a backbeat on the entire LP. Nothing you could dance to. No electricity. It all sounded as though it had grown up through the ground. The instruments sounded as though they had been picked off a stalk and hand-fashioned. The songs talked about family, faith, and rural life. Talk about ‘Huh?’!

Its impact was subtle but immediate. Eric Clapton heard the album and decided on the spot to break up Cream. It would take us all years to absorb the music from Big Pink – the polar opposite of everything we were experiencing at the time: ensemble music, acoustic, organic. Roots music in a wholly new style.  Five individuals performing as a single unit in a way common to jazz and chamber music, unknown in rock. Listening rather than shouting.

©Elliot Landy

The music created a new aural palette—a rhythm piano (Richard Manuel); a “fourth-dimensional” organ providing distinctive colorings and lead voices (Garth Hudson); a guitar (Robbie Robertson) pursuing a holistic sound; and a drum (Levon Helm) taking an equal creative role in the musical pastiche. Their vocals were a wonder – Levon usually taking the lead (‘The Weight’), the authentic drawling Southerner aside four Canadians; reedy Danko (‘This Wheel’s On Fire’), simultaneously vulnerable and raucous; and the miracle of Richard Manuel’s voice (‘Tears of Rage’, ‘I Shall Be Released’ in a harrowing falsetto, gut-wrenching ‘Lonesome Suzie’ – passionate, expressive, joyous, pained, his eventual suicide already foreshadowed). Producer John Simon also played a critical role in pulling it all together, playing horns with Garth, tweaking the marvelous sounds that are as much a feature of the album as the songs and the musicianship.

The Hawks 1961 ©Serge Daniloff

It is remarkable to think that this quantum shift didn’t have to occur; it was a product of Bob Dylan’s decision to pull off the fast lane.

The Hawks had been touring Canada and the South as a heavy, funky rock/rock&roll/country-tinged rhythm&blues band for five years when they were drafted to back Dylan as the band he used to electrify his sound. They were booed nightly. (I saw one of these performances—it was so raw and raunchy the rafters literally shook; Robbie’s guitar was deafening. I refrained from joining the booing only out of respect for Dylan.) Dylan crashed on his motorcycle, and the whole group retired to the Saugerties near Woodstock, where they took their first break from the road in years. They hung out, walked in the woods, and met daily in the basement to play the old music they loved and recreate the sound and mindset of America.

©Elliot Landy

Robbie Robertson: “My guitar playing was like a premature ejaculation in the beginning. I was in my early twenties with Bob Dylan. Same thing, a hundred guitar solos a night. I’d done this to death…I wanted to discover the sound of the band. ..I’m not gonna play a guitar solo on the whole record. I’m only going to play riffs, Curtis Mayfield kind of riffs. I wanted the drums to have their own character. I wanted the piano not to sound like a big Yamaha grand. I wanted it to sound like an upright piano. I wanted these pictures in your mind. I wanted this flavor. I didn’t want screaming vocals. I wanted sensitive vocals where you can hear the breathing and the voices coming in. This whole thing of discovering the voices…This is emotional and this is story telling. You can see this mythology. This is the record that I wanted to make. “

©Elliot Landy

Drummer Levon Helm, from his autobiography “This Wheel’s on Fire”: “’Tears of Rage’” opened the album with a slow song, which was just another way of our rebelling against the rebellion. We were deliberately going against the grain. Few artists had ever opened an album with a slow song, so we had to. At the zenith of the psychedelic music era, with its flaming guitars and endless solos and elongated jams, we weren’t about to make that kind of album. Bob Dylan helped Richard with this number about a parent’s heartbreak, and Richard sang one of the best performances of his life. It had those trademark horns and organ and the moaning tom-tom style of drumming that I’ve been credited with by some observers, but I know that Ringo Starr was doing something like it at the same time.  [JM: Cf the deadened tom-tom sound Ringo invented on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.] You make the drum notes bend down in pitch. You hit it, it sounds, and then it hums as the note dies out. If the ensemble is right, you can hear the sustain like a bell, and it’s very emotional. It can keep a slow song suspended in an interesting way. (John Simon heard this and started calling me a bayou folk drummer, but not to my face.)”

What is most remarkable to me today about “Music from Big Pink” in general and ‘Tears of Rage’ specifically is the way they assemble the music through mutually interdependent lines. Just like jazz at its best. Listen to the original version of ‘Tears of Rage’ from “The Basement Tapes.” Even wooden-fingered Jeff can play that guitar part, strum-two-three-four, strum-two three-four. Now listen to the opening of The Band’s ‘Tears of Rage’, the very opening of this miraculous album. What’s going on? Where is the rhythmic center? We don’t hit an identifiable marker until about the eighth bar—it’s just intertwining and floating, but all in tandem, a pas de cinq ballet of sounds. So much of what the Band invents can be found right here in this instrumental introduction—the ‘Curtis Mayfield’ guitar riff, the lead voice, but so much an integral part of the whole; the almost inaudible but crucial floating sustained organ; the interplay of the bass and the drum and the rhythm piano, together providing an implicit rhythm created as much by the gaps as by the beats, as intimate as lovers, as self-effacing as monks, as synchronized as guys who have been travelling together for six years.

“Music from Big Pink” is too weighty a work to try to deal with it in its entirety. I’m struggling to give just the first cut a fair shake. I guess I’ll just have to (get to!) revisit some of the other wondrous songs another time. Last week I tried to give an honest reading of the song as its author performed it. But that, for all the beauty and wisdom of the song, is clearly a sketch of a rendition, still in its adolescence. Here, in The Band’s treatment, it finds its full, organic expression.  Manual’s voice together with Garth’s organ and the tambourine and – oh, there’s just no end to the richness of this tapestry. It can’t be plumbed, it can’t be dissected or measured. Just sit back and let it rend your heart.

 

For further edification:

The wonderful Norwegian Web site chronicling all things Band.

Al Kooper’s 1968 review in Rolling Stone magazine of the Album of the Year, “Music from Big Pink”

Alternate version of ‘Tears of Rage’ from the “Big Pink” sessions

An unsuccessful ‘Tears of Rage’ by Manuel and Danko from the LP “Whispering Pines” (1985)

A very successful ‘I Shall Be Released’ by Manuel and Danko from the LP “Whispering Pines” (1985)

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

126: Bob Dylan, ‘Tears of Rage’ (The Basement Tapes)

 

A bizarre personal story of mine regarding the house, Big Pink

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’

 

016: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’

008: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Fairport Convention (Bob Dylan)

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8

211: Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ (“Freak Out!”)

Posted by jeff on May 11, 2019 in Rock

frank_zappa_and_the_mothers_of_invention_album_art-27984The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help I’m a Rock’ (Pt 1)
The Mothers of Invention, ‘Help I’m a Rock’ (Pt 2)

Dear Mr Meshel, 

I read your Song of The Week somewhat regularly, and I do enjoy it on occasion, especially when you talk about The Good Old Days. I heard a rumor that you met Frank Zappa back then. Is it true??? I’d sure love to hear about that. He’s the greatest musician of our times, I think, even more than Taylor Swift.
Yours truley,
Suzie Shamenet, Philadelphia

Well, Suzie, it’s true. I did buy The Mothers of Invention’s debut album “Freak Out” the week it was released (June 27, 1966), way before anyone else in Ohio had heard of them, and was an early proponent. And it’s true that I saw them in concert at Taft Auditorium in Cincinnati in April, 1968. And it’s true that I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr Zappa before the show.

Freak_Out!_back_coverThe reason I’ve refrained from sharing those experiences and thoughts is that the cult of his devotees has grown so in breadth and depth that I feel I’ve been left far behind by the armies of sophisticated young ‘uns for whom Zappa is a cultural icon and musical point of reference. Swing your Fender Stratocaster today and you’ll hit half a dozen fuzzy-cheeked wunderkinder who get him much better than I do. But since you asked…

My perception today is that Things (i.e., music and the cultural revolution it expressed) happened from The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in February, 1964 to Altamont (August 1969) or the release of “Let It Be” (May 1970), take your pick. Everything before was preparation. Everything after was aftermath.

I graduated high school in Cincinnati in June, 1966, smack in the middle of The Golden Age, smack in the middle of Middle America. It was still a singles market in those days. FM radio was still the provenance of classical music. The Top 40 from the week of June 27 still looks pretty good in retrospect:

  1. The Beatles
Paperback Writer
  1. Frank Sinatra
Strangers In The Night
  1. The Rolling Stones
Paint It, Black
  1. The Lovin’ Spoonful
Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?
  1. Simon & Garfunkel
I Am A Rock
  1. The Cyrkle
Red Rubber Ball
  1. Robert Parker
Barefootin’
  1. The Capitols
Cool Jerk
  1. Dusty Springfield
You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

 

Frank-Zappa-CreativityBut I was already looking beyond singles into the 12-track LPs. I’d simply plant my feet in front of the racks of the biggest record shop and rifle the stacks for hours, plucking out everything that looked faintly promising, my only source of information being the flimsy web of data I could glean from the record covers themselves. The albums released that month included:

Elvis Presley Paradise, Hawaiian Style
The Temptations Gettin’ Ready
The Beatles Yesterday and Today
The Mothers of Invention Freak Out!
The Animals Animalisms
Jack Jones The Impossible Dream
The Incredible String Band The Incredible String Band

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frank-zappa_mother-of-inventionn_freak-out-664x400

Suzie, you have no idea how off the charts “Freak Out!” was. The word ‘freak’ was strictly a pejorative in those days (that means ‘a bad word’). The hippie scene was nascent, hardly mentioned in the white boxer-short media. My grandfather saw me, the harbinger of fashion, in cut-off jeans, and asked why I was wearing torn clothing. “It’s the fashion,” I replied. “Oh, the fashion,” he nodded, lighting his pipe, comprehending yet bewildered.

In those days good was good, bad was bad. Good kids wanted to be good. They certainly didn’t want to be freaks. Me? “Freak Out!” entranced me. My parents, who really were not members of the Brain Police might have confiscated the album, had I not hidden it in a plain brown rapper. It was that outrageous. Thirty years later it was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and voted among the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.

The Mothers of Invention, ‘You Didn’t Try to Call Me’

zappaSo there was Frank Zappa (1940-1993) and his band rubbing my face in a new reality – playing off doo-wop and 1950s teen clichés, but with a whole lot of nastyisms: “Wowie zowie, your love’s a treat/Wowie zowie, you can’t be beat/Wowie zowie, baby, you’re so neat/I don’t even care if you shave your legs.” “You’re probably wondering why I’m here/And so am I.”

For a 1966 17-year old, that was really edgy. I admit, it seems just a bit adolescent fifty years on. But what for me was the pièce de résistance of the album was the pentultimate cut, ‘Help, I’m a Rock’. On the original release it was a single 8:37 cut: Help, I’m a Rock (Suite in Three Movements)
I. Okay to Tap Dance
II. In Memoriam, Edgard Varèse
III. It Can’t Happen Here”
Later releases broke the last section into a separate cut.

It’s hard for me to sell a piece like ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ (purportedly dedicated to Elvis). It predates John’s ‘Revolution #9’ by over two years and surpasses it by 20 leagues. John’s is a self-indulgent, meaningless waste of wax. Frank’s is a bold, groundbreaking composition of seditious non-sense.

tumblr_m4agecXzCU1r8q2hao1_500Here’s ‘Ionisation’ by Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), Zappa’s musical guiding light. He believed in “organized sound”, “sound as living matter”, and “musical space as open rather than bounded”, “sound-masses” likening their organization to crystallization. “To stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise”, and he posed the question, “what is music but organized noises?”

Here’s Frank’s answer, and to me – now almost as much as then – it’s thoroughly convincing. I don’t know the conditions under which ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ was conceived, recorded and edited, but the result is (for my ears) a coherent artistic statement. Admittedly, the piece is exhorting the listener to participate in a revolution that’s long been fought and won. The world is full of freaks. Anything goes. I filled out a form for Amazon.com which began by requesting my Name, Address and Sex. The dropdown for the latter offered the choices of “M/F/Other”. Zappa 1, Barry Goldwater 0.

10887264_10152470110517554_162577541007962194_o

Mr & Mrs Zappa, son Frank

Can I convince you that ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ makes ‘sense’? For sure not. It makes non-sense, but it does so in a manner that convinces me. And a lot of other people spanning a whole bunch of generations, geographies and cultures. If Zappa had come to my door in 1966, the neighbors would have called the cops. Today he, the term ‘freak out’ that he coined and the aesthetic it engendered snuggle up on the living room couch watching network TV.

But Suzie, I promised you a story, didn’t I? Well I went to Taft Auditorium in April 1968, with the Mothers’ first three albums in my head. I walked into the interview with no little trepidation, fully expecting Frank Zappa to bite my neck, suck out all my blood, and turn me into a real (California) freak (I was already an Ohio freak, but that’s something wholly other).

He stood up when I walked in, walked towards me smiling, extended his hand, shook mine firmly, saying with disarming warmth, “Hi, I’m Frank Zappa, what’s your name?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the interview I wrote up. The only specific I remember is his maintaining that high schools are derelict in not teaching students the basic skills of coping with life, such as fixing refrigerators (his example).

I remember more about the show. They played ‘Louie, Louie’, with Zappa doing a 5-minute guitar solo on a single note. He asked for a volunteer from the audience to sing a chorus. A young guy with a butch haircut and US Marine written all over him jumped up and grabbed the mike. While he was mumbling it out (if you don’t know the history of trying to decipher the lyrics to ‘Louie, Louie’, you’re missing the Rosetta Stone story of the 1960’s), Zappa tossed him a doll, which the lad proceeded to joyfully dismember. This was a month after My Lai, well over a year before the story broke. What was the audience thinking as we watched? God only knows.

What I do remember clearly was the Mothers’ show-stopping rendition of The Supreme’s ‘Baby Love’. I’ve never been the same since. But I guess maybe you had to be there.

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5

109: Daniel Zamir, ‘Shir HaShomer’

Posted by jeff on May 7, 2019 in History, Israeli, Jazz, Song Of the week

This is a story about shifting gears, about accelerating tempi, about breaking through to the other side, and about new modes of perception. It’s also a story about the early days of Zionism, about nostalgia for childhood, about Lubavitch Hassidut, about prodigality, and about having fun.

And it’s ultimately about jazz. But it going to be a bit of a journey till we get there.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the north of Palestine, the Galilee, was sparsely populated by indigenous Arabs. Hundreds, then thousands of Jewish settlers came to settle unoccupied land, but the locals were notably, often violently inhospitable. In1909, a handful of hotheaded settlers formed HaShomer, a sort of Jewish Defense League. They rode horses and tried to protect the settlers, but were limited to chance encounters and small skirmishes. In the 1930s, the Jewish settlement movement upped the ante by establishing a number of kibbutzim, often using the Homa uMigdal (wall and tower) method (putting up a watchtower and fence overnight, because Turkish rule recognized this as a structure and forbade its destruction). In 1938, Emmanuel Linn (lyrics) and Benjamin Omer (music) prepared a song, ‘Shir HaShomer’ (Song of the Watchman’) for the Channuka party of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, one of these Homa uMigdal settlements.

The song exalts the tenacity of the settlers in holding tight to the land, symbolized by the watchman standing on the tower on high, ready for any marauding attackers, dizzy with love for the very land he is guarding.

מֵעַל הַמִּגְדָּל סָבִיב אַשְׁקִיפָה,
עֵינִי תִּגְמַע מֶרְחַקִּים,
אֶרֶץ רוֹגַעַת בִּדְמִי הַלֵּיל,
הוֹי, שׁוֹמֵר, מַה מִּלֵּיל?

חֲלִיל רוֹעִים יָרֹן
גּוֹלְשִׁים עֶדְרֵי הַצֹּאן,
מַה לִּי וּמִי לִי עוֹד, כְּנַעַן?
רוּחַ מִיָּם הָמָה,
בֵּין שִׁבֳּלֵי קָמָה,
מַה לִּי וּמִי לִי עוֹד, כְּנַעַן?

סַהַר עָלָה מִן הֶהָרִים
הָעֵמֶק עָטָה עֲרָפֶל
אֵי שָׁם נוּגוֹת הַתַּן מְיַלֵּל
הוֹ, שׁוֹמֵר, מַה מִּלֵּיל?

(Verse)
From up on the tower I shall watch afar,
My eye shall drink in the distances,
The land is calm in the dead of night,
Oh, watchman, what brings the night?

(Chorus)
A shepherd’s flute shall rejoice
The flock spilling down the hillside,
What more could I want,Canaan?
The breeze from the sea whispers,
Between the sheathes of wheat,
What more could I want, Canaan?

(Verse)
The moon rising above the hills,
The valley covered in mist
Somewhere a jackal gently wails,
Oh, watchman, what brings the night?

The music of the song reflects the contrast between the frightful night (the verse) and the joyous day (the chorus). The verse is slow, tense, vaguely East European (Russian/Yiddish). The chorus is bouncy, forward moving, drum-driven, confident. The New Jew.

The song became a quintessential expression of the entire Zionist ethos. A boy born in 1950 to an insurance agent and an electric company clerk in urban Petah Tikva, catching just a phrase of the song, becomes in his heart and mind that courageous Israelite from a generation earlier, a reality already hardly imaginable. Sabra children heard these songs as they suckled. They copiously copied and memorized the words in the fourth grade, and sang them and danced to them at their parties at age 13, at 18, at 23, in their hearts and minds still at 60. The song is part and parcel of the very essence of the Israeli self-image.

I consulted with five Sabas, aged 70 to 40, about the cultural connotations of the song. Every single one of the five remarked with a nostalgic smile, “Oh, now it’s running through my head.”

The key phrase, by the way, comes from Isaiah 21:11– שומר, מה מלילה? שומר, מה מליל?. It’s a poetic turn of phrase, something along the line of ‘Oh, watchman, what brings the night? How are you? How are we? Is there danger approaching?’ Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Daniel Zamir, Red Sea Jazz Festival (Photo Itamar Grinberg)

I was fortunate enough to catch a set at the Red Sea Jazz Festival a few years back by the very fine soprano saxophonist Daniel Zamir. Daniel (b. 1981) went through a typical secular high school experience in Israel, then moved to New York and was caught up in John Zorn’s Jewish avant garde free jazz scene. He also became involved in the Chabad (Hassidic) movement, and subsequently returned to Israel. He has evolved into a consummate artist presenting a mix of cutting-edge jazz, klezmer, and no little degree of Israeli-ism.

I’ve known lots of Chabad ‘hozrim b’tshuva’ (adopting a religious life-style). A common trait among virtually all of them is that they maintain their interests and involvement in a wide variety of fields of interest, secular and religious. They don’t cloister themselves. Their Lubavitcher adherence rarely supplants their life in the world outside. But it seems to me that their Chabad ideology always takes a certain primacy, a priority. The Rebbe always has the last word.

I don’t know exactly how Daniel shuffles his very rich deck. I hope to have the chance someday soon to have a nice sitdown with him and try to sort it out. But I’m fascinated by the fact that with all his Lubavitcherkeit and free jazz mentality and Americanism, his music continues to lean so faithfully on his (secular) Zionist roots. He dedicates a CD to Gilad Shalit. He uses songs from “Eretz Yisrael HaYafa” (“Songs of Good Old Israel”) as source material. It isn’t to Ornette Coleman or the Modzitzer Rebbe that he goes – it’s to Naomi Shemer and Benjamin Omer.

Let’s go back to ‘Shir HaShomer’ for a moment. What was the very basic drive that brought the earliest settlers to leave their homes and families and religion in the shtetl and recreate themselves as the New Israelites in a desolate, unwelcoming corner of the Levant? It was the desire to determine their own destiny, to leave behind the life of the persecuted prey, to achieve a self-reliant independence that would enable them to raise their children in security. Not without fear, because they were living within that Homa uMigdal (wall and watchtower). Why is ‘Shir HaShomer’ such an iconic expression of that state? It’s because the verse expresses all the fear that was inherent in their shtetl life (fears that were all too soon realized beyond imagination), segueing into the ‘raucous’ chorus (well, for the 1930s that was a pretty rip-loose rhythm) engendered by the empowerment of freedom.

Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2011 (Photo Itamar Grinberg)

Leaping from the constrained to the unfettered. That’s not such a foreign concept to jazz musicians, is it? Is it not what Miles Davis does when he plays a chorus of the melody of ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’, and then moves from it into an improvised, personal exploration of new, free musical vistas?

So it seems to me that when all those folk-dancing Sabras are gently, smoothly swaying to the rubato verse, and then, Whoo! comes the break-loose chorus, they’re expressing the history of their forefathers that brought them toIsrael.

Nitay Hershkovitz

And it seems to me that when Daniel Zamir drinks from that well, he’s drawing from the very same impulse. Except that now we’re witnessing one very slightly-built soprano saxophonist standing on the shoulders of a couple of giant traditions, Zionism and jazz.

Here’s a clip from a studio version of ‘Shir HaShomer’ from Zamir’s 2002 CD “Amen”. Accompanying him are Daniel Freedman on drums, Omer Avital on bass, and the brilliant Omri Mor on piano, here still in his teens. Zamir writes in the notes, “Omer and Freedman do great work here maintaining the exact structure of the song, but it’s the minute deviances here and there that lead to new, unexpected places (see the end of Omri’s solo). Omri, as is his wont, isn’t flustered by bothersome signature changes from 5/8 to 4/8 and 3/4 and back; he unleashes his wrath without blinking and finishes up with a charming flourish. The brave route the whole group takes throughout the song ends in a massive release that was totally unplanned.”

Gilad Abro (Photo David Rubin)

And that’s just the tame studio version. Fast forward to the 2011 Red Sea Jazz Festival. Put Daniel as the opening act in front of several thousand sympathetic listeners thumbing their noses at the terrorist attacks which threatened to cancel the festivities, lots of af al pi chen (‘despite everything’) in the air.

Listen to Daniel’s warm and winding arpeggios, exploring, probing, breathing a stubborn vitality into this old tune. It’s hard to hear heartthrob Samurai bassist Gilad Abro on this low-resolution recording, but to see him is to recognize him as the heart of the group, pumping blood and energy and excitement into the mix. Listen to Zamir’s generosity as he gives the stage to his young band members. The very talented young pianist Nitay Hershkowits takes the forefront at 3:50, working the melody with the utmost respect, kneading life into it with such persistence. He also learned the song in kindergarten. But probably not in that 11/8 tempo, or whatever it is, that 21-year old drummer Amir Bresler is cooking.

Amir Bresler

At the beginning of the second part, Daniel brings back the melody, but now with a fever, raising the stakes, the four watchmen racing the pulse. And then at 4 minutes from the end, Messrs Zamir, Hershkowitz and Abro lay out, comping for young Amir. This isn’t a drum solo, it’s the climax of a drum concerto. He provides the coup de grace, a stunning, dizzying personal statement as the culmination of Zamir’s reading of ‘Shir HaShomer’ and the tradition from which it arises.

The kid is a drummer genius. I know that’s an oxymoron. I don’t remember ever hearing a drummer with such a sense of musicality, a composer’s sense of structure, an arranger’s sense of texture. He’s twenty-one and a half. He finished the army half a year ago, and is currently working in bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio.

These four young Israelis are singing together in a profoundly expressive musical voice, fully aware of the tradition from which they’re coming, fully exploiting the freedom this tradition has given them to express in their own vibrant, young voices the excitement of break-loose Whoo! Their grandfathers, I believe, would be proud.

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6

126: Bob Dylan, ‘Tears of Rage’ (The Basement Tapes)

Posted by jeff on May 1, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Tears of Rage‘ (The Basement Tapes, Take #1, from the Columbia”The Bootleg Series” 2014)

©Elliot Landy

In the Summer of Love, 1967, while the Beatles were busy overtracking “Sgt. Pepper”, Bob Dylan was holed up in the basement of a pink house in upstate New York with a bunch of friends, playing hokey old country and western music standards at a leisurely tempo while he convalesced from a motorpsycho-broken neck.

Fortunately, Dylan and his touring-band buddies, The Hawks (later The Band), turned on a home tape recorder.  The resulting “Basement Tapes” – a collection of songs which are hilarious, wise, passionate, and pained, and include several grave masterpieces – leaked out as the very first illegal bootleg records (“The Great White Wonder”, “The Troubled Troubadour”–I owned and treasured them both), and here and there in minor cover versions. Then a year later The Band recorded definitive versions of the three most serious songs on their first album “Music from Big Pink” (‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘Tears of Rage’). For an incredible, picaresque story about the house itself, see SoTW 049.

©Elliot Landy

So “The Basement Tapes” had no direct impact on America when they were recorded in 1967. But they are The Watershed, the point at which the dominant aesthetic of the Western world turned from the supersonic to the simple. These recordings were seminal in shaping the way people view the world till today. They contained the seed for the mindset of the ‘organic’, the acoustic, the spiritual. “Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t going nowhere.”

June, 1966, America was exploding. Over 500 American soldiers died in Vietnam that month, the first race riots were breaking out in the Black ghettos of Chicago and other cities. Sympathizers of the nascent counterculture were listening to the new releases “Freak Out!”,” Yesterday and Today” (including the original release of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, ‘Doctor Robert’, and ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’), “Aftermath”, “Daydream”, the debut albums of Love and the Mamas and the Papas.

©Elliot Landy

But the acknowledged leader of the pack was Bob Dylan, popularly proclaimed ‘prophet of the generation’, despite all his disclaimers. He was touring at breakneck speed with his new electric band, rabidly booed by dozens, listened to passionately by thousands. “Blonde on Blonde” was released on June 27, shouting “Everybody must get stoned!” Dylan practiced what he preached, ingesting large quantities of amphetamines and “who-knows what else”. Two days later he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident and disappeared from the public eye for a year and a half, till the release of “John Wesley Harding” in December, 1967.

Critic Mike Marqusee: “At the very moment when avant-gardism was sweeping through new cultural corridors, Dylan decided to dismount. The dandified, aggressively modern surface was replaced by a self-consciously unassuming and traditional garb. The giddiness embodied, celebrated, dissected in the songs of the mid-sixties had left him exhausted. He sought safety in a retreat to the countryside that was also a retreat in time, or more precisely, a search for timelessness.”

©Elliot Landy

The Basement Tapes are rough, unpolished, rehearsal recordings. That’s okay. Perhaps it’s part of their charm, their intimacy. Many of Da Vinci’s greatest masterpieces have reached us only as sketches, right?

Guitarist Robbie Robertson: “One of the things is that if you played loud in the basement, it was really annoying, because it was a cement-walled room. So we played in a little huddle: if you couldn’t hear the singing, you were playing too loud.”

Organist Garth Hudson, “We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditional songs … but others Bob would make up as he went along. … We’d play the melody, he’d sing a few words he’d written, and then make up some more, or else just mouth sounds or even syllables as he went along…It amazed me, Bob’s writing ability. How he would come in, sit down at the typewriter, and write a song. And what was amazing was that almost every one of those songs was funny.” Well, many of them. Not ‘Tears of Rage’.

Columbia Records released a 2-LP “The Basement Tapes” in 1975, questionable both in its audio quality and in its selection. A third of the tracks weren’t connected to Dylan, and a number of the major songs were omitted. In the 1990s a 5-CD bootleg set surfaced, “The Genuine Basement Tapes”, which includes virtually all the recordings from those months.

“Million Dollar Bash”:

But my mind always goes back to bootleg where I learned the core great songs from the session. There was a series of hilarious, comic psychodelerious virtuoso romps: ‘Million Dollar Bash’, ‘Open the Door, Homer’, ‘Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread’, ‘Please Mrs Henry’, ‘Lo and Behold’, ‘Tiny Montgomery’.  Just one taste: “Well, I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist, I punched myself in the face with my fist. I took my potatoes down to be mashed, then I made it over to that million dollar bash.”

And there’s a series of brilliant, inspired songs flitting between the comic and the fantastic and the oh-so-serious: ‘Nothing Was Delivered’, ‘Quinn the Eskimo’, ‘Too Much of Nothing’, ‘Crash on the Levee’, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’. The last of these is ostensibly humorous. But there was enough gravity in it to serve as a catalyst for a 180° change in my life, no exaggeration. We took our music seriously back then.

“You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (improvised lyrics):

And there’s no music more serious than the three songs from that basement that The Band would record for their first album: the cosmic, apocalyptic ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’; ‘I Shall Be Released’, Dylan’s existential meditation on that little question: ‘What is the point of living a life of such pain?’; and our SoTW, ‘Tears of Rage’, a searing cry of the pain of betrayal.

L to R: Manuel, Dylan

If ‘I Shall Be Released’ is Dylan’s “Hamlet”, ‘Tears of Rage’ is his “King Lear”. Before this, Dylan had never collaborated. But bassist Rick Danko provided the music for ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, and pianist Richard Manuel the music for ‘Tears of Rage’.

Manuel: “He came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper … and he just said, ‘Have you got any music for this?’ … I had a couple of musical movements that fit … so I just elaborated a bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean, Bob: “Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse”?‘”

I sure empathize with Richard. For most of my life I’ve been as puzzled by the lyrics to the song as I am moved by them. A strange thing, poetry–you can puzzle at it and puzzle at it, decade after decade, and you know you’ll never ‘solve’ it. If you could, if there were a Hidden Answer in there, it wouldn’t evoke that curiosity, that obsessive probing and plumbing and pondering.

Dylan has some great songs that can be parsed as allegory, stories directly paralleling something else–‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (a drug dealer), ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (Elvis),  ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ (a straight guy at a gay party). But most of his great, evocative works defy such ‘solutions’. What does ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ mean? Well, who knows? And we’ll only diminish it by trying to tie it down to a specific reading.

©Elliot Landy

Dylan himself wrote a wonderful, wise spoof on ‘solving’ his lyrics as the liner notes to “John Wesley Harding”. I heartily recommend reading them. Nonetheless, I’m going to try to provide a running reading of ‘Tears of Rage’ not as a Cymbal symbol, but as scaffolding, a reading which will help us examine it closely, but needs to be dissembled when the work is through.

We carried you in our arms on Independence Day
And now you’d throw us all aside and put us on our way.
Oh what dear daughter ’neath the sun would treat a father so–
To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him, “No?”

A father addressing his daughter. His love is total, his intentions are pure. He will carry her in his arms to take her to participate in a public celebration of communion and community. She, in turn, fulfills her filial duties–but mechanically, denying him the love he has so unselfishly bestowed on her. With the cruelty of coldness, she won’t even leave him room to complain: ‘I do what is required of me by custom and tradition. But the most important thing can’t be legislated, and that you will not get from me.’ Why? What would move her to reject his love, to turn her back on his paternal dedication, to deny requiting him his unreserved dedication to her? There is no answer provided, only the acutest of pain, that of a child’s rejection, the betrayal of unadulterated trust and unbounded love.

Tears of rage, tears of grief, why am I always the one who must be the thief?
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone, and life is brief.

©Elliot Landy

What is he seeking that will impoverish her? Will she be diminished by returning his love? Au contraire. So why? The father is left with no avenue for response. It is a question which can’t be asked, let alone answered. Love cannot be dictated or demanded. The pain of senseless, inexplicable rejection. The speaker can only cry, rage, grieve, pitifully plead. He has no other response available to him.

We pointed out the way for you to go and scratched your name in sand,
Though you just thought it was nothing more than a place for you to stand.
I want you to know that while we watched you discover there was no one true
That I myself, I remember now, thought it was it was a childish thing to do.

Our narrative strains here. Who is the ‘we’? It seems to extend beyond the narrator (and the mother). The community in its role as educator? The amorphous society at large? The pointer they give her seems genuinely altruistic, if transitory. She misperceives it. It is a means, she understands it only as an end. The observers are accused of being childish—were they mockingly waiting for her to be disillusioned? Why is the loving father associating with a less-than-loving ‘we’? Albeit he distances himself from them; but he had nonetheless been party to their cynical stance.

Tears of rage, tears of grief, why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone, and life is brief.

Cry, Dad, cry.

It was all very painless when you ran out to receive
All that false instruction which we never could believe.
And now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse;
But, oh, what kind of love is this which goes from bad to worse?

Is this ‘instruction’ equated with the pointer from the previous verse, or contrasted with it? I could argue either case, and neither seems conclusive or convincing to me. In any case, a pyrrhic victory has been achieved: the heart is full of gold: her dutifulness. But the heart isn’t a purse, is it? It’s not gold that we’re seeking. It’s something much more precious.

Tears of rage, tears of grief, why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone and life is brief

This love the father treasures so–“why is my desire for it unlawful?” he asks himself. “What is my crime? I carried you in my arms, I ask for nothing in return other than a measure of the unconditional love I by nature gave you. But it is unnaturally denied me, and life is irretrievably passing.” Just as the love the father feels is more precious than gold, so the pain he feels is sharper than any physical blade. It is the pain of his inexplicable, senseless rejection.

Let’s take down the scaffold now. I don’t see the song as an allegory. When he wrote it, Dylan had only just become a father. He was presumably happy in his new marriage. So where did this come from? It’s been said that ‘Tears of Rage’ was the first expression of the pain of betrayal felt by many of America’s Vietnam war veterans, or by extension many of its young citizens. Perhaps this is the rejection being expressed, that of political disenfranchisement.

Who knows? Not Richard Manuel, not me, probably not Bob Dylan. But the song is nonetheless a work of profound passion, evocative of the deepest pain I can imagine.

Next week we’ll see how The Band reworked this sketch into a treatment incomparably more crafted, and no less impassioned.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy: 

016: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’

259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

008: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Fairport Convention (Bob Dylan)

190: Bob Dylan, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’

176: Chuck Berry, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’)

248: Bob Dylan, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’

201: Bob Dylan, ‘All Along the Watchtower’

207: The Beatles, ‘Rocky Raccoon’; and Bob Dylan, ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’/’Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’

262: Bob Dylan, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

164: Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’

204: Bob Dylan, ‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions)

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’

 

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