John Simon On Big Pink: Music From Big Pink Turns 50

Last month the legendary Music From Big Pink turned 50 years old. In the hullabaloo surrounding the landmark anniversary, Robbie Robertson was interviewed many times. As one of two surviving members of The Band, it makes sense that people would want to hear about it straight from the source. However, there’s another voice that could shed some light on the birth of Americana music, producer John Simon.

Friend of the site and all-around great guy Patrick Tape-Fleming brought it to my attention that Simon seemed to have been forgotten for some reason. I reached out, and to my surprise, he agreed to answer some questions. Patrick set out on writing down everything he wanted to know, eventually whittling a million questions down to a more manageable number. I sent them over and awaited the answers.

After a few days I received answers to some. A lot of them had to deal with equipment or other areas Mr. Simon wasn’t really able to answer. The ones he did respond to weren’t super insightful. It dawned on me that maybe we were asking the wrong questions. But Mr. Simon didn’t leave us hanging. It turns out he has written a book that comes out next month called Truth, Lies, & Hearsay: A Memoir Of A Musical Life In And Out Of Rock n’ Roll.

He sent me an excerpt to check out ahead of the release. Now, when he said excerpt I was expecting a few quotes related to the album. NO! It’s 22 PAGES of stories and observations about the making of the album. It’s really good stuff. I don’t have a link to pre-order it, but you can hit John Simon’s website to find out more about it.

Rather than post the question and answer that we did, which would be fairly boring, I’m choosing some text from the book that delivers interesting views of The Band and Music From Big Pink specifically.

On meeting The Band for the first time:

One night while Howard (Alk) and I were busily trying to make a movie out of those cans of film, there was this god-awful bleating outside. We went to the window and there were four guys dressed in a halfhearted gesture toward Halloween playing instruments with which they apparently were unfamiliar, serenading Howard because, I think, it was his birthday.

Those four guys plus one more would eventually become known as The Band.

The Band

On Levon Helm’s absence from The Basement Tapes:

Levon had not been part of the band that backed Bob on his recent world tour because, as he put it, he didn’t like being part of a band that Bob’s die-hard Folkie Fans were booing every night (pretty violent for peaceniks, ironically).

They booed because they felt betrayed. Bob was leaving folk music behind for the more vivid palette of rock and roll. “He’s gone electric”, they despairingly moaned.

I believe Mickey Jones was the drummer for that tour.

So, if you’ve put two and two together, you’ve figured out that, contrary to the rewriting of rock history, Levon was not there for those celebrated “basement tapes” recordings. Richard was the principal drummer.

On hearing demos for the first time:

I loved what I heard.  Sure it was crude, but it wasn’t a copy-cat derivative of anything I knew.

The playing was unique: Garth was all over the place, many levels above the organists and pianists in other rock groups.

Rick played the bass melodically. They weren’t just oom-pah bass parts.

Richard was hearing things that other rock drummers wouldn’t even consider that came out in his fearless drumming.

Robbie’s tremulous solos and his rhythm patterns were all perfectly well-chosen.

And the voices! Rick and Richard could howl like in-tune wolves or gentle along a sweet melody. 

On the working relationship with The Band while making Music From Big Pink:

Well, it didn’t feel like producing a record had felt to me before.  I felt like I was contributing as an equal partner with the members of the band, sometimes discussing the songs themselves with Robbie.

Working with The Band, was it a democracy? Pretty much. Nothing went on those records that each of us didn’t approve of.

I felt for the first time that I was in a sort of lab without the pressure of a record company demanding a finished album by a certain date.  We were experimenting with music song-by-song with no clear idea of the result, just seeing where those experiments might take us.

For me it was some kinda Heaven. The fun both musically and personally. The richness of it. Intoxicating. (Of course the marijuana didn’t dispel my euphoria.)

I was happy there. I wanted to stay. One day I asked Robbie if I could join up. He said, “We’ve already got two piano players.”

And that was that.

On The Band’s late-night mischief in upstate New York:

The guys had no early-to-bed-early-to-rise obligations like their IBM neighbors so they rattled around town eccentrically, getting into generally harmless mishaps on a regular basis. Richard liked to drink, and they all smoked a lot of pot so there might be “incidents”, like the night of the “drive-in”.

Richard had brushed his rent-a-car against a guardrail and it got stuck there. When Levon heard about it, he heroically rushed to the scene to come to the aid of his bandmate. But he wheeled around the curb a little too quickly and smashed his fiberglass Corvette into the local police car that was already on the scene. It turned to powder. Later that night, probably in my subconscious zeal to be included in this drama, I backed my car into a tree.

(Richard was so hard on cars, when he would show up at the Hertz office in Kingston for a new vehicle, Lou, the manager, would hide.)

On recording at Columbia’s old Studio A:

When we got to the studio, engineer Don Hahn had set up the session as he would ordinarily have done, with sound barriers between the instruments.

But we had been rehearsing in a small space where everyone could pretty much reach out and touch each other.

After doing a little sound-check, we realized that wasn’t going to work. The guys were accustomed to playing in close proximity to each other in the basement. So we put those baffles away and re-grouped “in the open”.

Besides, they didn’t need the protection of separation, in which, if someone made a mistake, that mistake wouldn’t “bleed” into the other microphones.

They didn’t make mistakes.

On working with musicians who don’t read music:

Because only Garth read music, sometimes I’d become a living page of music paper for the others – signaling the guys when a new section was coming up.  That was really the case with Levon. On “Chest Fever” and countless times while we were recording, I’d lean on the baffles in front of the drums and point to different drums or cymbals to help him remember what was coming up next, like the bridge on this particular song. My conducting him that way was a help in taking that concern off his mind so that he could simply get into the music. It was a good arrangement (in both senses of the word).

On finishing the first day of recording:

But then Robbie pulled out an acoustic guitar which I hadn’t seen him play at all during our days rehearsing at Big Pink.

I thought, “What’s up?”

So I said, “What’s up?”

It turned out that he and Levon had been working on “The Weight” as an opportunity for Levon to sing a lead vocal.

The arrangement came together in the studio.  Garth and Richard switched seats.

Before Richard had joined Ronnie Hawkins he had been exclusively a vocalist. But Ronnie didn’t want anyone else in his band standing up with a microphone and no instrument. So Richard, a quick study, learned to play the piano. He said to me once, “Y’know how some bands have a lead guitar and a rhythm guitar? Well, I play rhythm piano.”

Using that analogy, Garth played lead piano.  He had plenty of chops to play the filigree fills in the choruses of “The Weight”.

On going to California to record at Capitol Records:

Well, we probably could’ve finished up the album there in a couple of days but instead we stayed out of the studio for awhile. I suppose Capitol thought we were rehearsing or writing, but we had just left a Woodstock winter and were just basking in the California sun, having a good time and keeping warm. It would be almost a month before we’d go back into the Capitol studio a second time.

On Robbie Robertson’s anxiety about singing:

When Robbie wrote a song he would usually sing it to whomever was going to sing it on the record. And in doing so, the singer couldn’t help but pick up a lot of Robbie’s inflections in the vocal melodies. But, with three great singers in the band, there wasn’t any need for him to sing.

The result was interesting.  The singers were stand-ins for Robbie. They sang with the phrasing he would’ve used if he were as good at it as they were.

But there came a point in the studio, maybe at the urging of the others, when Robbie got over his feeling of comparative vocal inadequacy and it was decided that his voice would get onto the album.  “To Kingdom Come” would be the chance for that to happen.

On releasing the record and the birth of Americana:

We knew we were making music that didn’t conform to the norm, so when Robbie suggested opening with the slow “Tears Of Rage”, it made sense. When people put the record on their turntable, they’d hear an opening they wouldn’t expect.

This was some new shit.

The record, as a whole, was some new shit. After The Beatles, pop music was stalled in copy-cat repetition.

But, even though the General Populace was slow to catch on, “Music From Big Pink” was a gust of fresh air so strong that it was on every musician’s turntable in 1968.  And an entirely new strain of pop music was born that eventually came to be called “Americana”.

TRUTH, LIES & HEARSAY: A Memoir Of A Musical Life In And Out Of Rock n’ Roll to be published 9/4/18. Many thanks to John Simon for taking time to indulge us and for sending over these amazing excerpts from his new book.

Leave a Reply