The Story and Meaning Behind “Chest Fever,” The Band’s Most Rollicking, Mysterious Track

We’re about to dive into the meaning of “Chest Fever” by The Band, but we’ll admit up front that we’re not sure what the heck this song is about. That’s part of what gives it such undeniable charm, in addition to the potency of its instrumental attack.

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How did this mysterious song, including its cryptic but hilarious lyrics, come to be? And how did the song give a spotlight to Garth Hudson, The Band’s instrumental genius? The answers lie in the recording sessions for the debut album by this iconic quintet.

From the Basement to the Spotlight

The five men who played in The Band had already been part of some iconic moments in rock history by the beginning of 1968, but they hadn’t yet recorded an album on their own. That changed with Music from Big Pink, recorded in studios on both coasts and released on the first day of July 1968.

The title was taken from the house where they had recorded with Bob Dylan the previous year. But in truth, only a couple songs that were begun in those informal “Basement Tapes” sessions made it to the record. The Band had several original songs with no connection to Dylan that were in various stages of development when they began to record the album.

“Chest Fever” was more or less an instrumental written by Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, but final lyrics hadn’t really been settled as they went into the studio. By most accounts, Robertson and fellow Band members Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson sort of improvised lyrics as they went along, intending to go back and clean them up. However, once they heard the final take in the studio, they decided to leave the words, nonsensical though they may have been, as they were.

Hudson Gets to Shine

The original lineup of The Band featured five members. Three of them (Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel) traded off lead vocals, meaning those gentlemen received a pretty good share of the spotlight. A fourth member, Robbie Robertson, was the lead guitarist and chief songwriter, which meant he also emerged somewhat from the pack when the debut album was released.

Then there was Garth Hudson. For most Band songs, he would generally be buried at the back of the bandstand behind an organ, his prominent beard swaying as he lost himself in the music. But “Chest Fever” was another story.

With its dramatic, classical-based intro, the song immediately put the glare on Hudson. And when The Band played the song live, they would allow Hudson to go off on all sorts of wild improvisations, to the point where the intro to “Chest Fever” became its own song, entitled “The Genetic Method.” Hudson might not have said too much in interviews, but his playing did more than enough talking, and this was a worthy showcase of his talents.

What is the Meaning Behind “Chest Fever”?

As we mentioned above, “Chest Fever” is impossible to neatly pin down. Robbie Robertson varied in interviews about his take on the song. When the album came out, he talked about how it was a kind of role reversal of the typical love-gone-wrong scenario, in that it’s the guy whose being thrown around by a girl who’s doing the drinking and partying. In later interviews, however, he seemed to get on board with the notion the lyrics were nothing more than fun-sounding gibberish.

That tends to be our take as well, even though there is the rough storyline of the heartbroken guy in place. Couplets like I know she’s a tracker / Any scarlet would back her or She’s stoned, said the Swede / And the moon calf agreed owe more than a little to the kind of craziness Dylan encouraged during The Basement Tapes.

Still, these lines sound great when barked out by Manuel with support from Danko and Helm. In addition, the contrast between the relentless groove of the main section and the sad, shaky horns in the break makes each extreme stand out all the more. And, of course, there’s Garth Hudson, in all his mad-genius glory on the organ, undergirding at all. Basically, one listen and you’re likely to catch “Chest Fever” from The Band, even if you won’t be sure what exactly just hit you.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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