Music from Big Pink at 50: Robbie Robertson on the Band's Debut and Basement Jams with Bob Dylan
As 'Music from Big Pink' turns 50, Robbie Robertson is prepping an expanded version of the Band's legendary debut
It’s fitting that Music from Big Pink was born in a basement, that place where mementos mix with the ruthlessly practical. It was there, in the bowels of the titular salmon-hued split-level, that the Band forwent the Summer of Love’s Technicolor psychedelia to plumb the depths of their musical past amid unfussy, almost spartan conditions in upstate New York. After nearly a decade spent serving other artists in a series of styles and guises, they now spoke for themselves, with their own musical vocabulary drawn from elements of blues, country, gospel, rock, and classical. “Once voice for all,” they sang, “echoing around the hall” — or at least the around cinderblocks and furnace of that dingy cellar. They were famously joined by Bob Dylan, their one-time bandleader, full-time benefactor and friend, who lived not far away on Camelot Road. Together they unwittingly transformed the sleepy Catskills community of Woodstock into something approaching a Camelot for rock ‘n’ roll; a lush, misty and semi-mythical locale that would lend its name (if not its land) to an era, and nurture songs that continue to endure.
Music from Big Pink turns 50 years old this year. In some ways, it appeared 50 years old the day it was issued in 1968, and not just because of Elliott Landy’s stark daguerreotype-like gatefold portrait of the stoic quintet looking more like turn of the century laborers than a rock band. The songs within eschewed even the most basic conventions of the day. While Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton prized mega-watt amplification, Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney studio auteurism, and Jim Morrison and Grace Slick parental disdain, the Band played gentle, unvarnished, deceptively simple arrangements, with lyrics that often displayed compassion and even sympathy for their kin. Over 11 tracks, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson blended the history of American music into something wholly original.
A new expanded box set offers a fresh glimpse of both the finished album in the work in progress. Loaded with outtakes, alternates versions, CD, BluRay and vinyl pressings and even a hardcover book, it also boasts a stereo remix from legendary engineer/producer Bob Clearmountain, done in collaboration with Robertson. “We went back and forth trying to find that certain place in the songs where you’re not getting in the way and you’re doing something that allows the music to wrap around you like it never has before,” the Band’s guitarist tells PEOPLE.
In honor of this upcoming Music from Big Pink collection, and the 50th anniversary of the original, Robertson spoke with PEOPLE at length about recording the Band’s enormously influential classic.
When you were putting the box set together, did you find anything in the session tapes that surprised you?
It was interesting just coming back to something like this. It was like opening this secret box from a long time ago. Before we did the mixes, I went out to my old studio in Malibu, Shangri-La, which Rick Rubin has now. I brought the masters of Music from Big Pink and brought them up on the board there so I could show him how things were combined and what we did to make things sound the way they needed to sound. For me, going back in time and going inside this music, there were extraordinary textures that I’d forgotten about. I brought up the first song, “Tears of Rage,” and [Rubin] was like, “What is going on with that guitar sound!? What is that?” So I told him about it: it was this black box that Garth had made for his keyboard and then he suggested I try it on my guitar. And this sound was something that I’d never heard before.
So going deep inside the music — that was the big surprise: the textures and what was inside all of it. When you go in and you look at the different cycles of how it was constructed, it’s so different than what you do now. It was recorded on four tracks — but there was only four tracks to Sgt. Pepper too. So because of this limiting, precise decisions had to be made back then instinctually. Now you have a hundred tracks and it’s not the same thing at all. It just blew my mind how good we were — and [producer] John Simon was — at making these decisions about the glue that held it all together.
Was it a struggle adapting the sounds and arrangements you developed in the Big Pink basement to a professional recording studio?
“Tears of Rage” was the first one we recorded [at A&R Studios in New York]. This studio made amazing sounding records, and that’s why we went there, but we couldn’t do what their formula was. We couldn’t do it, it didn’t work for us. So we had to set up differently, and use microphones that they never wanted to use. Everything was backwards to them. In the beginning, the engineers thought, “This is a disaster.” They were kind of like, “I don’t even know why you came here, because everything that we do, you’re rejecting.”
So we got set up in a circle, the way we needed to communicate musically and pass our signals to one another. It’s all in the eyes and in gestures and movements that everybody understands emotionally — that’s what’s going on between us. We set this thing up, and finally they say, “Whoa, this is kinda coming together, it’s pretty good.” We recorded “Tears of Rage” and John Simon says, “I think you need to come in and hear this. We’re really getting somewhere.” We went in the control room, they put it on, and it was the first moment that we heard what the Band sounded like. [It was] coming out of those speakers. That was us. That was the place that we had grown to over those years, after the experience of working in rockabilly with Ronnie Hawkins, and then going out on our own as the Hawks, and then hooking up with Bob Dylan and doing this crazy tour where we got boo’d all over the world. All of that music that we had done didn’t resemble in the least what we heard coming out of those speakers. This was our evolution and when we heard that it was like, “That’s it. That’s who we are. That’s our noise.” Then we went out and we played the song again once more and John said, “That’s it, guys. We got it.” And so that was an extraordinary feeling and an extraordinary experience between the five of us.
If you look at a song like “We Can Talk,” the vocal interplay seems impossible without eye contact.
It’s not do-able the way we were set up, with baffles and people almost in different rooms where we couldn’t see each other. We had to do it our way. We couldn’t do it other than the way that we make music. We were lucky that somehow or another it worked and it came together. It broke all the rules, but we felt comfortable breaking rules.
With “Chest Fever” it sounds like the rulebook went out the window. The sound and the structure and the lyrics are so unique. Can you tell me how you came to write that?
It was a song that I wrote during the Basement Tapes, so there’s a surreal quality to it both in terms of what I was writing about, and also the feel of it — playing behind the beat. I wanted to have something that Garth could really shine on, because for all of the keyboard players in the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll, there’s only been one Garth. Nobody has ever done anything remotely close to what he did in the style of his playing. There’s just nothing like it. So I needed to find a way to show off my brother Garth in the song. Then there’s the way the vocals fit between Richard’s voice and Levon’s voice. It was not tight. [laughs] Everything in the track is something that shouldn’t make sense, yet it completely worked.
Garth really loved unique sounds. Didn’t he hook up a telegraph key to his organ for “This Wheel’s on Fire”?
Yes, he was deeply into effects and electronics and hot rodding things, so he never ever stopped doing that. Whenever we would sit down to play something, he would come up with whatever he was imagining. It was always pulling a rabbit out of a hat. We never knew how he was getting the sound he was getting — and we were sitting right beside him!
Bob Dylan co-wrote that song, as well as “Tears of Rage” — what was the collaborative process like with him?
It was just the Big Pink clubhouse. It was the basement workshop and things were just being passed around so naturally. It was like, Bob might pass a lyric sheet or a cup of coffee or a cigarette. There was so much communication and brotherhood in this place, it was so natural and it was no big deal. He would just say, “Hey Rick, why don’t you see if you can think of something to go with this? I’ve got some words, but I don’t know what to do with it musically.” And so Rick would say, “Alright, let me see what I can do.” And it was just like that. It was so natural it felt like we could have done it in our sleep, you know what I mean? Everybody was working, but it felt so good that it didn’t seem hard.
Around the time you were writing at Big Pink, you’ve said you were reading movie scripts in the way that most people read novels. How did film influence you as a songwriter and as a storyteller?
I had trouble separating them. I thought that movies and storytelling and music were all the same thing. They’re not! [laughs] But I thought they were. It was my confusion. I wanted to write songs that felt like they were movies and I grew in that area. I got deeper and deeper into that place even after Big Pink, but this is where it began for me. And like I’ve said many times, the influence and the freedom of [filmmaker] Luis Buñuel’s imagination was really liberating. So I just played, in some cases, by film’s rules, which didn’t apply to what we were doing, but it came out feeling like, “That works, I see the connection. I’m probably the only one to see it that way, but that’s OK — that’s how I got to be able to write this.” That’s how I was able to visualize it and how I was able to teach it to the other guys in a way that they could be in the cast, playing these characters.
What would go into casting a song? Say something like “The Weight” — what were you looking for?
When I wrote that, I had Levon in mind. I needed to find something that fit him better than anything ever fit him, you know? He was my brother and I knew his instrument, I knew his storytelling ability, I knew his sound. I had to do something that was spot on to share that with the rest of the world. So I wrote that song thinking about him. But I’d also been in the basement with the other guys before Levon got back [from his 18-month hiatus from the band], so Richard’s voice always played into everything for me and Rick’s voice always played into everything for me. In [“The Weight”], all of a sudden I said, “OK, when we get to this one verse, Rick, why don’t you sing it?” Nobody did that! All of a sudden in the middle of the song somebody else starts singing the lead part? But I don’t know, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and after we recorded it we were like, “Yeah! Yeah, that’s OK.”
It’s so funny because I didn’t know if the song was going to make it onto the record. I had written this song as kind of a backup idea in case something else didn’t work out. Because it was on the back burner, we didn’t really have the arrangement precise until we got into the studio. When we heard how it was coming together we just said, “Nice surprise!” I had no idea that it was going to become what it became.
So many people have covered “The Weight” over the years, but what was it like to hear Aretha Franklin’s version of it?
Oh, it was thrilling! Can you imagine writing a song and then [producer] Jerry Wexler — the great Jerry Wexler — says, “I’ve just recorded your song ‘The Weight’ with Aretha Franklin and Duane Allman on guitar.” And I thought, “OK…I’m good. Uhhh…I guess that means everything’s going to be alright.”
Oh my god, there are so many great singers in the world, but I don’t know anybody that was better than Aretha Franklin. I just don’t. Other people could sing louder and harder, but she had the texture. It isn’t just about range. She had the texture and the phrasing and the timing and the feel. Her sound was above and beyond anybody else’s. She didn’t yell, she didn’t squall, she didn’t shout. She sang from the heavens. I can remember the first time I ever heard her sing — it was before she was even on Atlantic Records — and thinking, “Wow! That’s right out of the church, and that’s as good as it gets.”
Over the years, many have read into the lyrics on Music from Big Pink as metaphors for the social changes of the 1960s. Did you intend for your music to be social commentary, or was it actually much more personal than that?
You know, 1968 was such an incredible year of things happening in the country and in the world. We lost Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. As much as we went into a sanctuary in the mountains up there and lived inside our own world, you could not help but have some of this rub off on you. There is some joy in Music from Big Pink, but also some deep reflection and sadness in it, too. You just couldn’t help but go there. For the Band, we wanted to express an emotion like nobody else was saying; like nobody else was putting out there in quite the same way. Even when we gave our record to the record company, they had no idea what we were doing and they said, “Are you sure you want to start out the record with a long slow song?” And being part of that time and period allowed you to say, “Absolutely.”