Sunday, November 3, 2013

Track of the Week: The Band, "Rocking Chair"

Two nights ago while my wife was at a friend's birthday party, and after putting the kids to bed, I had the house to myself.  My wild and crazy idea of fun was to watch a documentary about  the sadly departed Levon Helm (I Ain't In It For My Health) and have a couple of glasses of wine.

It had been far too long since I had listened to any of Helm's music, either solo or with the incomparable Band.  There was a time in my life, from roughly about 2002 to 2005, where I was completely obsessed with The Band, and watched The Last Waltz on a weekly basis.  I had been too long apart, because seeing the old clips, as well as recent footage of Helm's "midnight rambles" at his upstate New York home warmed my soul.

The Band's first three records stand up better than just about anything from their era, and we are talking here about 1968-1970, one of the most fertile periods in rock music history.  The key was in their name: this was a group where there was no front man, three different members sang lead, and all provided essential elements to the sound while never overshadowing the other members.  With The Band, the music always came first, and this group, which had cut their teeth on the live circuit for ten years before releasing an LP, knew how to play.  This was not a teenage garage band fucking around and covering up their mistakes with noise and bravado.

The second, self-titled album is my favorite, and high in the running for my favorite album ever by any artist.  There are some more famous songs on it, like "Up On Cripple Creek" and "King Harvest Has Surely Come," but I have a special place in my heart for "Rocking Chair."  It's a song sung in the voices of two old sailors, one of whom longs to be "home again/ down in old Virginny."  Levon Helm sings with Richard Manuel, their voices spookily weaving together and lamenting the inability to go home again.  The sailors at sea have traveled to far and have become too old to ever go back.  Now that I've lived over half my life away from my rural Nebraska homeland, I often fear the same thing, that my home will become forever lost to me.  Trying to talk to my grandmother over the phone as she faces death and her weak voice is hard to hear over the wires is only making that fear more real.

This was hardly the theme that most rock bands, full of the confidence of youth, were singing about back in 1969, and that's why The Band endures.  Seeing footage of Levon Helm old and frail, his voice a fragile instrument ravaged by age and cancer, reminded me a lot of this song.  Despite all the miles he traveled and the travails he endured, he still made great music into his 70s.  I can only wish that when I reach that age, I am still able to do the things that give me most pleasure in life.

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