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Chest Fever

I sit here listening to “Chest Fever” from The Band….a glorious song that never fails to stir me even though I have no idea what it’s about….and neither does anybody else.

But music is its own language. When I hear Garth Hudson’s organ falling from the sky…leading into that rolling riff, it pulls me back from whatever precipice I’ve been hanging over. And that’s before those three voices arrive. Richard and Rick and Levon singing together with the power of a closed fist….

And as my mind unweaves, I feel the freeze down in my knees
But just before she leaves, she receives

That four note riff…it snakes its way into my brain and affects my dopamine levels. When I’m old and dying, instead of plying me with drugs, play me songs like this and let me drift off to wherever it is that we go when the pain stops.

George Harrison once said….”how many Beatles does it take to change a lightbulb? Well, four..”

seeff_thebandThe Band were like that. Equals. Five men. Each, on his own, would have made some sort of mark. Undoubtedly. But they could only have changed the world by coalescing. Robbie Robertson was their main songwriter, but since he hasn’t written a single great song since he left the group (change my mind), you have to wonder. Levon has always claimed that the songs were a group effort, and went to his grave bitter about Robbie getting all the credit (and most of the cash). “Chest Fever” is credited completely to Robertson, but the lyrics were largely improvised by Levon and Richard Manuel, and the song itself was tied together by Garth Hudson’s organ, surely created by he alone. It’s not the kind of song that is written alone in your room with an acoustic guitar. It’s too big for that. Too ambitious. Art like “Chest Fever” is created by ignoring rules, and then obliterating whatever is left over. By ten hands, not two. By the ache of three voices climbing on top of each other. By a crazed genius in the back who sounds like a circus calliope. And with Robbie on the fringes, like some cosmic catcher in the rye, saving the others from getting too close to the sun. Take any of the five away, and “Chest Fever” does not exist.

Everything great about American music, how it can synthesize the blues and country and bluegrass and pop and dance and classical and Little Richard induced rock and roll into a gumbo stew that can feed the world 3 minutes at a time, is here in The Band’s first few records. And it was only when these 5 men got away from each other that the music became anything other than unforgettable.

Who knows why? Egos. Drugs. Peccadilloes. Robbie went off to Hollywood. Made music for movies that sounded like….well….music for movies. The other four soldiered on, making great music as they barnstormed their way around the world, but not great new music. The muse was gone.

And then we lost Richard. Sweet Richard. That twinkle in his eye might have been helped along with the endless bottles of Courvoisier he downed to keep the train on the tracks. But he deserved so much better than depression killing him in a shit Florida motel, after yet another show. One of the saddest voices in the annals of popular music. And one of the best.

And then Rick…..bloated by various excesses. And the need to constantly move or die. Like a shark. That big heart grew so tired. He laid down to sleep and stayed there.

And we all knew what was coming….but Levon was a soul in flight. He had many more glorious years ahead. Already a legend, he became the kind that are carved on mountains. But cancer caught him when nothing else could.

Garth never said much. Ever. A true eccentric who only seemed able to communicate with music. Without it, he all but disappeared. Lost his house in 2002. Had to sell off possessions, one of which was an un-cashed check from EMI in 1979 for $26,000, at a garage sale…..irony completely dead. And if that’s not proof of eccentricity I don’t know what is.

So Robbie is alone out there…..the Band’s narrative is at his mercy. He just released a well received documentary on the group called “Once We Were Brothers”, which not surprisingly paints him as the one level-head amongst the shiftless crazies, which might be true but it’s pretty easy to re-write history when everybody else is conveniently dead (Garth was not asked to be in the doc, apparently. Also, you may want to read Levon’s memoir “The Wheel’s On Fire” to notice some….er…pushback on Robbie’s take on things).

So be it.

Some will swear I’m reading too much into “Chest Fever”.

But you can’t help what moves you. You can’t force yourself to feel bad when something makes you feel good. You can’t be lowered and lifted at the same time.

Music can do both, but the best only moves you in one direction.

And if The Band weren’t the best, they’ll surely do until the best comes around.

Now I’m gonna listen to “Acadian Driftwood” on repeat. Don’t wait up.

In a bit…

–tf

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