A Request (The Mojo Band Article)
Several acquaintances have periodically jabbed at me about posting a piece that I scribbled out a couple of years back for the English rock mag Mojo. Although it can be acquired on this side of the pond it is not circulated widely and many people missed it when it was first published. So, seeing that they have all asked so nicely and I being in a humbled but generous mood I’m acquiescing and laying it down.
A brief background. I was approached by said magazine to contribute a piece to their “Albums That Changed The World” feature. Knowing I have always held the Band in high regard and especially their 1st album “Music From Big Pink” they imagined it was a safe bet that I’d be in.
My decision to do it was easily made as it was not an interview and that it had nothing to do with me other than my recollections and thoughts on a piece of music I cherish. All I had to do was email them the article and that was that. They did edit it slightly but I am posting my unedited version.
If for some bizarre reason you don’t own this record get on your bike and pick one up immediately. (I guess in modern terms that would be get on line.)
The Mojo Band Article
While I’m not entirely convinced that a record album has the ability to change the world (I’ll leave that sort of thing to Hitler invading Poland,) I am positive that there are a handful that have totally reconfigured our musical landscape like nothing before or after them.
I was a pretty green scrapper, fresh out of the sticks and adrift in London, when “Music From Big Pink” came out. Elton and I were writing and recording our first songs, and in our down time we would spend hours in rapturous expectancy hanging out at Musicland on Berwick Street awaiting the latest releases from our mythic America.
My musical tastes at the time were not necessarily in keeping with current trends as I leaned more towards traditional country and blues. Yes, I loved Dylan, Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Love and all the rest of what was turning our world upside down at the time, but there was in me this closet junkie for traditional music the sort of which just wasn’t hip back then. The guys that blew my skirt up were storytellers like Johnny Horton, Woody Guthrie, Marty Robbins, The Louvin Brothers and Johnny Cash (long before the hipsters had a crush on him.)
So imagine the vindication I felt in that cool as fuck record store when “Tears Of Rage,” a culmination of all these inspirations, unfolded lazily from the speakers. I was immediately mesmerized, dragged along on its funeral-like fire: the strangled guitar, the ethereal organ, Levon Helm’s foreboding tom-tom pattern and Richard Manuel’s achingly beautiful voice.
It’s hard to truly revaluate my feelings for what I felt in that moment. Perhaps this was just a freak track? Nothing could possibly follow in this revolutionary fashion. Boy, was I wrong. After “The Weight” had totally left my lyrical aspirations in ruins and Garth Hudson’s incendiary intro to “Chest Fever” had blown every fuse in my body, it was only left to Rik Danko’s heavenly wail on the coda of “I Shall Be Released” to leave me a blubbering wreck in the Soho night. Here was music that sounded like it had been forged out of solid rock in the Appalachian moonlight by men of another time. That’s how it sounded – timeless - as if there was an alternate universe somewhere inhabited by five unique individuals who were handed their voices and instruments by the long arms of God. In simpler terms, for me it was a welding together of everything I dreamed music should be: earthy, honest, soulful, eclectic, traditional, modernist and, in essence, a blueprint to the Sistine Chapel of rock-n-roll.
On top of all this, let’s recall how cool these guys looked. They made Hillbilly hip, undertaker suits among the dungaree and denim drenched kinfolk inside the gatefold. It’s no wonder so many top-notch musicians of the age wanted to but couldn’t belong. Eric Clapton with his afro and kaftans, or the “Let It Be” burnt out George Harrison aching for redemption. Everyone wanted to be in The Band and I mean EVERYONE. But you could see it was an unobtainable world, a million miles from Swinging Anything. They were an outlaw band holed up and clinging together to the coattails of fable and folklore.
A certain amount has been said about The Band’s influence on our earlier work, specifically “Tumbleweed Connection” However; Americana had been in my blood from an early and impressionistic age. What “Big Pink” and it’s follow up did for me was kick open the door and say it’s OK to write about history, about the land and the characters who inhabited it over a century ago. The fact that we did it from the perspective of strangers viewing a strange land is irrelevant. It may have seemed presumptuous to some, but I didn’t care. I loved the expanse and opportunity in America, the blood soaked 1800’s and it’s magical and glorious wilderness. The Band simply lit the blue touch paper.
Listen to “Big Pink” today and nothing has really changed, except in many ways it seems even more awe inspiring and fiercely original. The ragged interwoven complexity of the vocals, Robertson’s stinging economical guitar work (not a note is wasted!) and for master class 101 listen to his solo at the end of “To Kingdom Come.” The very fact that these guys were blending characteristically unhip instruments with those of a more accepted nature speaks volumes for their tenacity. They were so musically adept, each one a virtuoso on most anything handed him that to waste this experimentation would have been a crime. I guess their splendid isolation inspired the mythic quality of their work. Although they continued to write and record exceptional and groundbreaking music, “Music From Big Pink” remains an emotional classic of biblical proportions.
If, indeed, there is an album equivalent to the great American novel, this is it.