Out of such a stance came a sound that nevertheless had a strange glamour and a seductive abstraction. In a time when the country was tearing itself apart over race and war, Music From Big Pink suggested another country, one that had been there before you were born and would be there when you were forgotten. Countless people, musicians and listeners, suddenly realized they wanted to live in that country—or that they already did.
The Band was where the group filled in the map. No more Gothic fables, no more haunts and whispers: The people here were flesh and blood. On some frontier outpost—which could be a bar in Chicago or a dock in Georgia—they gathered to talk and brag about what really mattered to them: whiskey, the best fuck of their lives, stories their grandparents told them, fiddle contests, and the fear of losing it all, of being left alone with nothing. The songs, mostly by guitarist Robbie Robertson, were uproarious, full of outrageous double-entendres that drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, and pianist Richard Manuel would toss back and forth in the vocals and, more invisibly, in the riffs and patterns they, Robertson and organist Garth Hudson, shuffled among themselves. The songs were disturbing, like warnings from people who escaped before you could ask them any questions. But the cheap paradise that Helm lined out in the “drunkard’s dream” of “Up on Cripple Creek” wasn’t wiped out by the terror Manuel gave “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” or by the black rumble Danko found for the tune on his bass, a roll that was all the more fatalistic for the music’s refusal to even entertain the suggestion that the singer could tell it anything it hadn’t heard a hundred times before. You took your pleasures where you found them, the songs said, and you paid up when the day was through. If you couldn’t pay, you left town.
The record was a Top Ten hit. It made the Band a starring act. They never quite recaptured the emotional and moral balance of the songs, the back-slapping, tear-in-my-beer fraternity that lay behind them or the threatened sense of portent and judgment that lay behind that. As of thirty years later, nobody else has, either; the country that the Band described and acted out, so easy to recognize, wasn’t easy to live up to. As Benjamin Franklin said upon leaving the constitutional convention, when asked what sort of nation he and the others had contrived: “A republic, if you can keep it.”