The Band have one of the most interesting origin stories in American rock music in that they were birthed as Bob Dylan’s touring band at a time (1965-1966) when Bob Dylan was the undisputed Zeitgeist of American music and songwriting, and arguably international music and songwriting. Add to this that they were a Canadian-American band, with the latter part of that hyphen representing some Deep South roots, and you have a unique band with a unique perspective traveling with a unique icon. The Band’s debut album Music From Big Pink featured music that was almost entirely composed at a house called Big Pink near where Woodstock would take place a few years later. The songs that were composed at Big Pink took place in 1966 and have Dylan’s fingerprints all over them, as evidenced by the fact that much of what did not make it on Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, was released on Dylan’s The Basement Tapes in 1975. Big Pink, to casual music fans, is almost singularly known for its third track “The Weight,” a pop-folk anthem with the chorus that begins with “Take a load off, Franny.” But on side two of the vinyl incarnation, there is another third track and that track is called “Chest Fever.”
While I love lyrics and vocals, I am at heart someone who will gravitate to music before the lyrics. I absolutely love songs with great writing (Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” is a masterwork in my book) but it’s the music that hooks me to the point that then I will seek out the lyrics and their meaning. Lyrically, “Chest Fever” has zero lyrical meaning. None. Nothing. Robbie Robertson has admitted as much in interviews. The power of “Chest Fever” resides in Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ, an M1 Abrams tank of sound that both sounds like a church organ on steroids and something that presages the overproduced arena rock of a decade later. In any other band in 1968, this organ would most likely be set to a psychedelic track. Instead, it’s a foundational sound to an electric folk-y song, which helps explain yet again what made The Band so unique: they kept the wildly diverse and experimental music of the late ’60s grounded, a band that could seamlessly borrow elements from the gamut of rock of that time without ever losing grip of the roots music that defined their musical and storytelling ethos. “Chest Fever” may mean nothing, but it sure as hell feels like something.