Given that Music From Big Pink came out in the turbulent summer of 1968, it’s tempting to frame the album as a set of soothing sounds for troubled times. Don’t believe it. The Band‘s debut LP was quietly radical. In a period when the musical landscape was overrun with psychedelic whimsy, their synthesis of country, blues, gospel, Western classical, and rock was enriching and inspiring. While Jimi Hendrix, Cream and the Who split eardrums with overdriven amplification, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richael Manuel turned down the volume, revealing the intricacies of their arrangements and complexity of their lyrics. While the Beatles and the Brian Wilson sought studio laboratories where they could achieve technical excellence, the Band holed up in a dank concrete cellar in the wilderness of the Catskills to find their muse. Everything about their stripped-down sound and style seemed to violate fundamental rules of the industry.
“We were rebelling against the rebellion,” Robbie Robertson reflected years later. “If everybody was going east, then we were going west and we never once discussed it. There was this kind of ingrained thing from us all along. We were these kind of rebels with an absolute cause. It was an instinct to separate ourselves from the pack.”
The quintet managed the seemingly impossible task of escaping their reputation as Bob Dylan’s backing band purely on the strength of their writing and playing. “These guys weren’t teenagers. They were seasoned veterans whose debut album sounded more like a band in their prime,” producer John Simon observed in 1993. “The songs were more like buried treasure from American lore than new songs by contemporary artists.” Those who tuned in simply to hear the Dylan-penned “I Shall Be Released” – as well as “Tears of Rage” and “This Wheel’s on Fire,” both of which he co-authored – were stunned by the depth of original compositions like Robinson’s “The Weight,” which emerged as the album’s standout track.
The idea of moving out to the country has become a rock & roll cliché, but the Band did it first – and they did it best. “This album was recorded in approximately two weeks,” Al Kooper wrote in his five-star Rolling Stone review. “There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.” But according to Levon Helm, Music From Big Pink wasn’t quite met with universal acclaim. “Our local paper in Woodstock, by the way, said the album was OK but we could have done better.”
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark album – and the upcoming release of an expanded box set featuring outtakes and other rarities – here are 10 facts you might not have known about the Band’s debut.
1. Big Pink wasn’t exactly a rock-star-worthy country estate.
The story of Big Pink really began the moment Bob Dylan lost control of his Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle while riding through the outskirts of Woodstock, New York on July 29th, 1966. All upcoming concert dates were cancelled as rock’s poet laureate recovered from his injuries at his nearby home, casting his backing band into a state of professional limbo. Drummer Levon Helm had departed the group (albeit temporarily) the previous year, earning a living on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. To the remaining members, this began to look more and more like a good career move. “We didn’t know what to do,” Rick Danko said in Levon Helm’s memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire. “We were road musicians without a road to go on. We still wanted to record, so we started looking for a place to rehearse some music.”
New York proved expensive for an out-of-work band subsisting on a modest retainer. Their thoughts turned to rural towns in the Catskills that were home to Dylan, their mutual manager Albert Grossman and a handful of other friends from the New York City scene. Danko and Richard Manuel had ventured upstate for the first time in February 1967 to assist Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary, another Grossman client) with a film project, and Robbie Robertson had made a similar visit to help Dylan and Howard Alk assemble Eat the Document, a documentary of their recent English tour. With unspoiled forests and scenic mountain views, the region’s natural beauty soon had the former road warriors under its spell. “It couldn’t have been a better place,” Garth Hudson told author Barney Hoskyns in Across the Great Divide. “There was a lot of magic in Woodstock. Everywhere you went the legends were reflected in the names of the places and the streets – Warwarsing, Ohayo, Bearsville Flats.”
Danko posted up at the Woodstock Motel while he went house hunting for a base of their own. “The idea was to find a clubhouse – a place where the guys could live with a space for us to make music,” Robertson explained in his 2016 memoir, Testimony. Before long the bassist found just the place, a boxy split-level at 2188 Stoll Road in Saugerties that looked like it had been airdropped in from the suburbs. The garish salmon-colored paint job had earned the home a nickname from the locals: Big Pink. For all of its aesthetic shortcomings, it boasted a hundred acres of woods and fields, views of Overlook Mountain, a pond, four bedrooms, a simple kitchen, dining room, and a living room furnished with knick-knacks and a neon beer sign for decoration – all for just $125 a month. Though hardly luxurious, its biggest selling point was the spacious basement. “That was my focus: turning that subterranean space into what we’d needed all along,” Robertson wrote. “The goal was to use whatever gear we could from our live show to create a setup that would let us discover our own musical path.”
Robertson and Hudson happily set about gathering supplies for a rudimentary home recording facility, but the response from a technologically savvy friend gave them pause. “I had this guy that I know look at the thing in the basement,” Robertson remembered in 2011. “He said, ‘Well this is a disaster. This is the worst situation. You have a cement floor, you have cinderblock walls, and you have a big metal furnace in here. These are all of the things that you can’t have if you’re trying to record something. Even if you’re just recording it for your own information, you can’t do this – it won’t work. You’ll listen to it and you’ll be depressed. Your music will sound so bad that you’ll never want to record again.'” Considering they were already locked into the lease, the band had no choice but to press on. They outfitted the cellar with some Norelco microphones, two Altec mixers, and a quarter-inch Ampex 400 tape recorder and hoped for the best.
Hudson, Manuel and Danko moved into Big Pink that spring, and Robertson found his own abode close by with his girlfriend, French-Canadian journalist Dominique Bourgeois. They quickly settled into an uncomplicated routine. “Richard did all the cooking,” Danko described in This Wheel’s on Fire. “Garth washed all the dishes (he didn’t trust anyone else to do them because he wanted them clean) and I took the garbage to the dump, personally, and kept the fireplace going with split logs.” Dylan, their nominal boss, became a frequent visitor, and together they workshopped music in the basement. “The songs just kept on coming, and we all felt there was something amazing going on,” Robertson told Hoskyns. “Somebody would figure something out, we’d run down to the basement and record it, and a little later there’d be another one. I’d be up in the bedroom with the guitar, Bob would be at the typewriter, and somebody else would be in the corner working on something. It was definitely happening and it was really exhilarating.” Among the 100-plus songs that were recorded that year – endlessly bootlegged as “the Basement Tapes” before being released as a box set in 2014 – are the seeds of Music From Big Pink.
2. Music From Big Pink wasn’t recorded at Big Pink.
Contrary to its name, Music From Big Pink was not actually tracked at Big Pink, and neither were a number of songs from the legendary Basement Tapes. Though the timeline for the ad hoc Basement Tapes sessions can be hazy, the recordings began in earnest around the early spring of 1967 at Bob Dylan’s Byrdcliffe home, Hi-Lo-Ha, before shifting to the famous basement at the start of summer. Once Levon Helm returned from his two-year hiatus that October, the house began to feel cramped and the four Big Pink residents sought new accommodations. Helm and Rick Danko moved into a home on Wittenberg Road, which became the new center of recording operations, while Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel shacked up at a place on Ohayo Mountain Road, and Robbie Robertson remained at his own homestead with his soon-to-be wife.
After the band joined forces with freelance producer John Simon following a fortuitous meeting at Howard Alk’s birthday party in the fall of 1967, Albert Grossman secured financing for the group to record at A&R’s Studio A in NYC – the barn-shaped 10,000-square-foot facility located on the seventh floor of 799 Seventh Avenue. When sessions began in the early weeks of January 1968, Simon asked the band how they wanted the music to sound. “Just like it did in the basement,” was Robertson’s succinct reply. “Playing in the basement taught us that going into somebody else’s place, where they don’t go past six o’clock, there are union rules and everybody is watching the clock – that’s not the way to make music,” Robertson told Uncut in 2015. “We said we need to bring the situation so it fits us, rather than vice versa.”
Engineers initially tried to use standard studio configurations with the group, cordoning them off with sound baffles to prevent leakage. But after months of playing eyeball-to-eyeball among cinderblocks, the separation was unnerving. “We said, ‘We can’t do this. We’ve got to get in a circle like the basement, we’ve got to play to one another. We’re speaking a language. This doesn’t work,'” Robertson recalled. Technicians were skeptical, but the band were thrilled by the fruits of these first sessions, which included “Tears of Rage,” “We Can Talk,” “Chest Fever,” and “The Weight.” Executives at Capitol Records, who signed the band in early February, were so pleased that they sent them to Los Angeles to take full advantage of the state of the art 8-track studio located at the famous tower headquarters on Vine Street. The album was mostly completed here, though the group would make a short excursion to Gold Star Studios, where Phil Spector pioneered his Wall of Sound. In his memoir, Helm recalls cutting a version of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” at Gold Star, but this song, and seemingly all others from those sessions, did not make the final album.
3. “The Weight” was considered a second-string song and almost didn’t make the album.
When Helm returned to the fold in October 1967, Robertson marked the reunion by writing a tune to showcase the vocal styles of his band mate. “I thought, Jeez, I want to write a song that Levon can sing better than anybody, ’cause I knew his abilities,” Robertson told Uncut. “He was my closest friend and I wanted to do something really special for him.” Sitting in his workroom, he glimpsed a label inside the sound hole of his Martin D-28 guitar reading “Nazareth, Pennsylvania” – the location of the factory. The juxtaposition of the Biblical-sounding locale with heartland Americana sent Robertson’s imagination into flight. “In my mind, there’s this mythical place in America where the storyteller lives,” he said in 1987. “And he tells stories based on this place and on people who’ve passed through it. I’ve never been there, but we all know it’s there.”
A song began to take shape, based less on the Bible and more on the films of Spanish director Luis Buñuel, who used surreal imagery to offer critiques of organized religion. “He did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood – people trying to be good in Viridiana and Nazarin, people trying to do this thing,” Robertson explained later. “In ‘The Weight’ it’s the same thing. People like Buñuel would make films that had these religious connotations to them but it wasn’t necessarily a religious meaning. In Buñuel there were these people trying to be good and it’s impossible to be good.” To populate his own “Buñuelish” parable of a man laden with favors for others, he drew from idiosyncratic figures the band had come across throughout their shared history. “Anna Lee” was Helm’s friend Anna Lee Amsden, “Carmen” another name from the drummer’s hometown, and “Crazy Chester,” according to Helm, “was a guy we all knew from Fayetteville who came into town on Saturdays wearing a full set of cap guns on his hips and kind walked around town to help keep the peace, if you follow me.” All of these characters got mixed into Robertson’s tale, which he wrote in a single sitting.
“The following day I played the tune for the guys to see if it might be a contender,” Robertson wrote in Testimony. “They reacted very strongly to the song’s possibilities, but I mostly thought of it as a fallback tune in case one of the other songs didn’t work out.” The band dusted the piece off at A&R Studio A mostly as an afterthought during sessions one day. “We had tried it a number of different ways, but we weren’t that excited about it,” he said in a 1995 interview with Guitar Player. “So we were in the studio, and just out of trying to not be boring, we said, ‘Well, let’s give that “Take a load off Fanny” song a shot.'” A new arrangement was hastily divined, with Garth Hudson on barrelhouse piano. “We recorded it, and it wasn’t until we listened back to it that we realized, ‘Holy shit, this song’s really got something.'”
4. Robbie Robertson never got around to finishing the lyrics for “Chest Fever.”
For all of the complex emotions and meanings wrapped up in “The Weight,” the same can’t be said for another Robertson composition. “I’m not sure that I know the words to ‘Chest Fever’; I’m not even so sure there are words to ‘Chest Fever,'” he told Barney Hoskyns, only half joking. The idiosyncratic track, swinging wildly between “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”–like bombast and what sounds like a wheezy, well-lubricated Salvation Army Band, was born out of a jam session and, in Helm’s estimation, was recorded for the album in a semi-complete state. “‘Chest Fever’ had improvised lyrics that Robbie put together for the rehearsals and never got around to rewriting,” he wrote in his memoir. “The song came kinda late in the whole process and got recorded before it was finished.”
The Band would use the song to open their set at Woodstock the following summer, summoning the attention of half a million weary flower children with Garth Hudson’s imposing demonic-carousel organ prelude, based heavily on Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor.” (The segment would later evolve into its own instrumental piece, known as “The Genetic Method” – itself a reference to Hudson’s “fascination with nineteenth-century music primers,” per Hoskyns – during live sets.) “If you like “Chest Fever,” it’s for God knows what reason. It’s just in there somewhere, this quirky thing,” Robertson reflected. “But it doesn’t make particularly any kind of sense in the lyrics, in the music, in the arrangement, in anything.” Nonetheless, the song has its fans: Paul Shaffer used it to introduce Bill Murray’s final appearance on the TLate Show with David Letterman in 2015.
5. Morse code helped Garth Hudson get his distinctive keyboard sound on “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
Several years older than the others and boasting the pedigree of a classically trained player, Garth Hudson established his reputation as the group’s eccentric professor during their early Sixties period as the Hawks, when he famously charged $10 a week to give music lessons to his bandmates. Though some members took umbrage to practicing scales, they quickly saw the benefits of having such a mind in their midst. “Just having Garth as a teacher was an honor,” Helm wrote in his memoir. “He’d listen to a song on the radio in the Cadillac and tell us the chords as it went along. Complicated chord structures? No problem. Garth would figure them out, and we found ourselves able to play anything.” More than honing their talent as performers, Hudson’s skills helped the band flourish as writers and arrangers. “A tremendous amount of our musical sophistication – if there is any – really came from Garth’s background,” Robertson admitted in a 1982 interview with Musician. “And with the kind of chord structures and harmonies that we’ve used and combinations of instruments and which one on top in the melody and which one on the bottom – a tremendous amount of that comes from Garth, if not all of it.”
As the decade progressed, Hudson became known as the band’s resident techie and sonic tinker. He tricked out his Lowery Festival organ with a variety of customized effects, including wah-wah and pitch-bending pedals, and an early two-speed rotating Leslie speaker cabinet. When they settled in at Big Pink in early 1967, he took the lead in assembling the musical workshop in the basement, cobbling together a home studio out of electronic odds and ends. His tireless adjustments and experiments continued during studio sessions for Music From Big Pink. “We called Garth ‘H.B.’ among ourselves,” Helm recalled. “This stood for ‘Honey Boy,’ because at the end of the day, after the other instruments were put away, Garth was still in the studio sweetening the tracks, stacking up those chords, putting on brass, woodwinds, whatever was needed to make that music sing.”
When it came time to record “This Wheel’s on Fire,” a Rick Danko tune put to Bob Dylan’s lyrics, Hudson created an unusual staccato keyboard effect by hooking up his RMI Rock-Si-Chord electric piano to an old semi-automatic telegraph key purchased from an army surplus store. “It has a reiteration feature, so that if you move the key in one direction, you would get one dot or dash, and if you move it the other way, you would get reiterated dots,” he explained in a December 1983 interview with Keyboard Magazine. “I got a little box and mounted some quarter-inch receptacles into it through which you could connect the key to the instrument. Then you set the reiteration rate, and you were ready to play.” Manipulating the on/off signal on the device created an abrupt, percussive sound, much like Morse code. “Garth just hit that key when he wanted the sound,” remembered Helm.
6. The album’s old-fashioned portrait features a naked hippie dancing just out of frame.
The group bucked conventional wisdom by opening Music From Big Pink with a slow song, the gently soulful Richard Manuel–Bob Dylan collaboration “Tears of Rage.” The Band were equally determined to go their own way for the sleeve art, rejecting numerous suggestions for world-renowned photographers to take a slick group portrait. “It just seemed to be, ‘Oh God, we’re gonna come out with some kind of cutesy picture.’ And, these pictures that I see, they don’t do nothing for me,” Robertson recalled. Instead, the guitarist had been taken by a book of 19th-century photographs from the Western frontier, depicting grim-faced laborers in rigid poses. “On the other hand, these pictures do something for me.” Rather than hire “the best” cameraman, Robertson made a request for “the worst,” and he was duly passed the name of Elliott Landy, a shutterbug for the decidedly ragged underground paper Rat. Albert Grossman first crossed paths with the photographer while personally escorting him out of a Woody Guthrie tribute concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1968, where the Band performed with Dylan.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Landy and Robertson hit it off, and in late April the group made the trek to the Bearsville home where Levon Helm and Rick Danko moved after leaving Big Pink. There they donned period hats, vests and string ties – not radically dissimilar to their everyday attire – and trooped out to a grass hill to recreate an old fashioned daguerreotype. “I told them that in those days film was very slow and people had to stand very still,” Landy explained. “You were posed, you took a deep breath, and you didn’t move. … I gave it about a quarter second exposure, which is why it’s a little bit blurry.” The band did their best to maintain their stern expressions, but they faced an unexpected challenge. “While the photographer was focusing his camera, the young wife of a friend of Garth’s was dancing behind Landy, trying to make us smile,” Helm wrote in This Wheel’s on Fire. “As he snapped the first shot, she tore off her dress and did a naked little grind. So there we were, trying to be cool in the face of this outrageous hippie dance. I think that’s the shot we ended up using.”
In addition to the Bearsville session, Landy and the band traveled further north to the small town of Simcoe, Ontario, to shoot a portrait with the group’s Canadian relatives at a farm owned by Rick Danko’s brother. (Helm’s parents, who were unable to make the trip from Arkansas, were cropped into the upper left corner.) The so-called “Next of Kin” image represented another stand in the band’s rebellion against rebellion, flying in the face of rock stars like Jim Morrison, who acted out Oedipal fantasies nightly onstage. “You know the punky attitude that had to do with music – hate your mother and stab your father. It’s kind of a trend of some sort, and this was a statement that we weren’t there,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1969. “We don’t hate our mothers and fathers.”
7. The album sleeve was designed by future “I (Heart) NY” graphic artist Milton Glaser.
“A certain mystery surrounded our debut,” Levon Helm reflected in 1993. “There was no cover shot of the group on the record, only Bob Dylan’s painting of five musicians, a roadie, and an elephant. The group photo inside didn’t identify us by name.” In truth, Big Pink itself got far more recognition on the jacket than the musicians themselves. The titular split-level was touted on the back cover in bold headline-sized font surrounding a small portrait, and inside it was mythologized with a brief verse written by Robbie Robertson’s now-wife, Dominique.
The striking design was courtesy of Milton Glaser, a graphic artist who created the colorful poster found in Bob Dylan’s greatest hits album the previous year. In a sense, Glaser sparked the entire project – it was he who first took Albert Grossman to visit Woodstock in the early Sixties. The burgeoning folk impresario was smitten with the idyllic scenery and purchased a rural retreat of his own in nearby Bearsville soon after, setting the scene for Dylan’s own move and the musical influx that followed.
Glaser still lived nearby when Robertson sought him out to design the cover for his group’s debut using Dylan’s painting, Landy’s mountain-view portrait, and the Next of Kin photo. “I told him we were thinking of going with the album title Music From Big Pink,” he wrote in Testimony. “He said, ‘What’s Big Pink?’ I told him about our clubhouse, where the music we were making had originated. ‘Can we get a photo of that house,’ he asked, ‘so we understand what Big Pink is?’ I said, ‘It’s really kind of ugly, and the house is pink.’ ‘That’s OK,’ said Milt, ‘it may be good. What about the group’s name?’ ‘We don’t have a fancy name. We’re just called “the Band.”‘”
8. The Band were originally signed to Capitol under the name “The Crackers.”
The nucleus of the band had performed as the Hawks since 1960, but eight years later the quintet was in dire need of a rebrand. For a start, the moniker had ties to their long-gone days backing the rockabilly barnstormer Ronnie Hawkins at the dawn of the decade. More troubling, the rise of the antiwar movement had given the term “hawk” a new and unpleasant definition as a pro-militant. This was both an inaccurate depiction of the peaceable Canadians (plus Helm) and also a poor way to market a rock band in the late Sixties. But they had little need for a name up in Woodstock, where they were quite literally the only band in town, and the matter was tabled for a time.
The naming issue was still undecided on January 20th, 1968, when the group backed Dylan at Carnegie Hall for the Woody Guthrie tribute concert. “We’re crashing through the back doors of the hall with our gear, and an old man guarding backstage says, ‘Hey, what group is this?'” Helm wrote in his memoir. As a joke, he fired back with “The Crackers” – a self-deprecating (and not particularly P.C.) reference to uneducated white Southerners. He thought nothing more of it for a time, but several weeks later, as contracts with Capitol Records were in the midst of being written, the need for a name became crucial. Richard Manuel jokingly proposed “The Marshmallow Overcoats” and “The Chocolate Subway,” flowery phrases in the psychedelic Sgt. Pepper mold. Robertson countered with an equally jokey suggestion: “The Royal Canadians Except for Levon.” The Dixie-born drummer offered “The Crackers,” although this time he was serious. “Crackers were poor Southern white folks, and as far as I was concerned, that was the music we were doing,” he explained in This Wheel’s on Fire. “I voted to call it the Crackers and never regretted it.”
His bandmates bought it and together they presented it to the label execs – who missed the reference entirely. “The record company thought that was a nice name, at first,” Robertson wrote in Testimony. “They thought we meant soda crackers, Ritz, or honey ginger – not uneducated, country, bigoted, Southern white trash.” Ultimately, the name on the Capitol “Artists Declaration” form reads “Group performing as the Crackers.”
The precise reason why “The Crackers” fails to appear on Music From Big Pink is subject to debate. As Helm tells it, someone at Capitol wised up to true meaning of the term. “When the album was eventually released on July 1st, 1968, we were shocked to find it credited not to the Crackers but to a group called … The Band,” he wrote. “Well, it was us. That’s what Woodstock people called us locally: the band. When the people on the other side of the desk at Capitol didn’t want to release an album called Music From Big Pink by the Crackers, they just went and changed our name!” However, Robertson has maintained in interviews and his memoir that the decision to drop “the Crackers” was a conscious choice by the musicians. “You know, for one thing, there aren’t many bands around Woodstock and our friends and neighbors just call us the band and that’s the way we think of ourselves,” he told Rolling Stone soon after the album’s release.
Interestingly, an interview Robertson gave to The Eye in September 1968 suggests that their familiar sobriquet was actually a Prince-like absence of a name. “One thing I’d like to clear up, we have no name for the group,” he insisted. “We’re not interested in doing record promotion or going on Johnny Carson to plug the LP … the name of the group is just our Christian names. The only reason the LP is by ‘The Band’ is so they can file it in the record stores. And also, that’s the way we’re known to our friends and neighbors.” Indeed, when “The Weight” was first issued as a single that same month, reviewers credited the song to “James Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm.” Promo posters followed suit, although many bore a banner proclaiming, “Better known as the Band.”
9. A grilling mishap and a car accident prevented them from touring, so Capitol planned a cringe-worthy promo contest.
The Band’s failure to tour or give interviews following Big Pink‘s release in the summer of 1968 could have easily doomed the endeavor from the start. Yet their reluctance to adhere to the rules of the promotional game only enhanced their musical purity in the eyes of the public and strengthened their reputation as rural enigmas. “People were like, ‘What are they doing up in those mountains?'” Robertson told Uncut in 2015. “Nobody quite knew what to make of it.” Though Albert Grossman had a history of persuading his artists to remain silent in order to cultivate mystique, the Band’s disinterest in show-business glitz was mostly genuine. “Our policy was not to tour if we could help it,” wrote Helm. “The policy was to keep making music using the methods and work habits that had kept us productive through the basement tapes and Big Pink era. We didn’t care about being stars. We just wanted to survive with our integrity.”
But there were other factors at play, including a hidden danger of their rural retreat. “The house had a nice view of the Ashokan Resevoir, and a barbecue grill, which Richard tried to fire up one day by building a gasoline fire in the bottom,” Helm describes in his memoir. Hudson recalls Manuel “pouring some lighter fluid in it. Well, the thing exploded and the flame shot out and burned his ankle.” According to Helm, the pit “turned into a bomb, and he ended up grilling the top of his foot – third degree burns. So Richard couldn’t work for two months, another reason we didn’t tour behind Big Pink in the summer of ’68.”
The Band’s unfortunate proclivity for motor-vehicle accidents was also to blame for their inability to hit the road. Helm had injured his leg in a motorcycle spin-out, and Danko nearly died when he wrapped his car around a tree after being, in his words, “a little too drunk, a little too high.” The crash broke his neck and fractured his back in four places, thus requiring him to stay effectively bedridden for several months. “I was in for weeks of traction,” he says in This Wheel’s on Fire. “I told Albert not to tell the press I’d had an accident and decided to suppress all my hyper instincts and lie perfectly still for the time it took my neck to heal.” They wouldn’t perform live as “the Band” until April 17th, 1969, making their debut at San Francisco’s Winterland.
With the Band indisposed, the promotions team at Capitol tried to conjure up creative ways to sell the album. Their solution was a series of contests that, in Helm’s opinion, “tried to market us like some teenybopper group.” A “Big Pink Think” campaign was proposed; inviting fans to “name” Dylan’s cover painting. A fill-in-the-blank competition was also floated, inviting hopefuls to complete the sentence: “If I could be a Big Pink anything, I’d be a Big Pink _____.” Prizes were to include pink lemonade, pink stuffed pandas, and a pink Yamaha motorbike. “They suggested getting an elephant painted pink in front of Tower Records in L.A. for the release of our record,” a horrified Robertson recalled in Testimony. “Albert and I flew to Los Angeles to get on the same page with Capitol’s new president, Stanley Gortikov, and to enlighten the company as to what Big Pink and the Band represented, which most certainly was not a pink elephant, nor a ‘name this band’ contest, which Capitol had also suggested.” The ideas were promptly dropped.
10. The album helped convince Eric Clapton to split up Cream, and provided a hard-rock group with their name.
Music From Big Pink managed to catch the attention of the biggest names in rock without the help of the Big Pink Think campaign. Even the Beatles, whose studio pyrotechnics had provided a foil for the lo-fi basement dwellers, took notice of their rootsy approach. Paul McCartney can be heard launching into an ad-libbed “take a load off, Fanny” toward the end of the Beatles’ promotional video for “Hey Jude,” issued later that September, and George Harrison made a pilgrimage to see Dylan and the Band on their home turf in the Catskills that fall.
But few rock stars were as moved as Harrison’s friend Eric Clapton, whose passion for Big Pink bordered on evangelical. A bootleg tape of the album served as a spiritual balm throughout that summer’s unhappy, yet lucrative, tour with his group, Cream – then among the most popular acts in the world. “It stopped me in my tracks,” he said of the record in his 2007 memoir, “and it also highlighted all of the problems I thought [Cream] had. Here was a band that was really doing it right, incorporating influences from country music, blues, jazz, and rock, and writing great songs. I couldn’t help but compare them to us, which was stupid and futile, but I was frantically looking for a yardstick, and here it was. Listening to that album, as great as it was, just made me feel that we were stuck and I wanted out.” That July, weeks after Music From Big Pink was released, he announced that Cream would disband.
Like Harrison, Clapton also paid a visit to the Woodstock, although he never got up the nerve to share his ulterior motive. “I really sort of went there to ask if I could join the band! But I didn’t have the guts to say it,” he admitted while inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Instead, he would try to recreate their nuanced playing and collaborative spirit in a new group, the short-lived Blind Faith, and during his stint with Delaney & Bonnie.
In retrospect, Robertson had mixed emotions about his role in shifting Clapton’s musical trajectory. “Big Pink had turned him around with its subtleties and laid-back feeling,” he says in Testimony. “Cream played with a much more bombastic approach and he wanted a change. That was a huge compliment coming from Eric, but I liked some of Cream’s songs and wasn’t sure how I felt about our record being partially responsible for their demise.”
While Big Pink inadvertently took one group out of commission, it also inspired (at very least) one new one. Scottish hard rockers Nazareth, later of “Love Hurts” fame, formed in 1968, taking their moniker from one of Robertson’s best-known lyrics. “We were sitting around in the place we used to rehearse in when we first got together, and we couldn’t agree on a name,” vocalist Dan McCafferty said in 2014. “We were listening to ‘The Weight’ when it first came out, and Pete Agnew, our bass player, said, ‘What about Nazareth?’ And that was it.”