The Story and Meaning Behind “Tears of Rage” by The Band, the Collaboration with Bob Dylan that Leads off Their Debut Album

With “Tears of Rage,” The Band both highlighted their debt to Bob Dylan and showed how they could leave that behind and forge their own musical path. The song opened their debut album Music from Big Pink, and immediately established their unique abilities as singers, arrangers, and musicians.

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What is the song about? How was the song written and first recorded in the middle of the so-called “Basement Tapes” sessions? And why was it such a striking choice by The Band to be the first thing heard on their first record? Let’s explore the history and mystery behind this stunning track.

A Basement Beauty

Throughout much of 1967, Bob Dylan would gather with four members of what would become The Band in a pink house (“Big Pink”) in West Saugerties, New York, to make music. There wasn’t any real aim in these recordings, other than to possibly come up with publishing demos Dylan could pitch to other artists. No one had any inkling they were making recordings that would become hallowed in rock history as The Basement Tapes.

The men possessed a comfort level with each other from the time The Band spent backing Dylan on his incendiary, electric tours of the previous two years. With touring out of the picture following Dylan’s motorcycle accident, the men were putting together songs that were often relaxed and rambling. Still, every now and then, Dylan would go a bit deeper and more serious on a lyric, and that was the case with “Tears of Rage.”

He typed the lyric out one day and rushed downstairs to find Richard Manuel of The Band playing the piano. Showing him the piece of paper, he asked Manuel if he had any music that might go with the words. Manuel began to expand upon the piano noodling he was doing, and he soon had the chords and melody worked out, even though he wasn’t 100% sure what the words meant.

The Band Steps Out

With the notoriety they had gained from backing Dylan, it wasn’t long before The Band secured a record deal of their own to make their first album. They convinced absent drummer Levon Helm to return to the fold to complete the lineup and went to work. Since Manuel helped compose “Tears of Rage,” that naturally was on the agenda for the first record.

The Band slowed the pace down drastically from how the song had been recorded in Big Pink with Dylan on lead. They also showed off their incredible instrumental abilities, as Garth Hudson’s resigned organ played off the urgent guitar notes of Robbie Roberston and Helm hit every tom with a purpose. Drowsy saxophones by Hudson and producer John Simon added unique embellishment. That’s before we even get to Manuel’s staggering lead vocal, which received support from the moaning harmonies of Rick Danko.

In that time period, a rock band would typically tuck such a slow-paced song away in the middle of an album side. But The Band insisted on opening their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink with “Tears of Rage.” It was their way of letting the rest of the music scene that theirs was a singular approach, one that alchemized roots music of all kinds into a harmonious, mesmerizing whole.

What is the Meaning of “Tears of Rage”?

Perhaps another reason The Band opened up the debut record with “Tears of Rage” is the song’s topic isn’t one with which rock and roll usually concerned itself: the relationship between parents and children. Dylan wrote the song from the perspective of an aggrieved father trying to make sense of his daughter’s decision to go so far afield from the family, both in distance and attitude.

We carried you in our arms on Independence Day / And now you’d throw us all aside and put us all aside, the song begins. The dad’s wounded pride keeps coming to the surface, as does his disbelief at the choices she’s making and the hurt she’s dealing him: But, oh, what kind of love is this that goes from bad to worse? He throws her wishes to grow up too soon back in her face with wilting words: That I myself was among the ones who thought it was just a childish thing to do.

In the chorus, anger gives way to sorrow with some of the most heartbreaking words Dylan has ever penned: Tears of rage, tears of grief / Why must I always be the thief? / Come to me now, you know we’re so alone and life is brief. As sung by Manuel and Danko, those lines somehow embody both reassuring warmth and devastating dejection. “Tears of Rage” simply set The Band apart, both from their former bandleader and the rest of their rock music competition.

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Photo by RB/Redferns

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