The Band's guitarist, Robbie Robertson, felt he needed a counterbalance for the album's centerpiece, "The Weight." He wrote the music for the song solely for that purpose.
The intro to the song, played on an organ by Band multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, was the result of a very long improvisation. Eventually the improvisation quoted Bach's "Fugue in D Minor" and followed into the song's main riff. Only part of the improvisation was included on the actual album cut (the part beginning with the Bach quote). In live shows, the song became a Hudson showcase, with him improvising wildly on organ (and later, on synthesizer) before cutting into the song. This improvisation came to be known as "The Genetic Method."
Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, and pianist Richard Manuel improvised lyrics (Robertson often calls them meaningless) over the course of the song. Those lyrics remain unchanged on the track, although they loosely tell a story of a man thrown aside by a hard-drinking, fast-talking woman who subsequently literally becomes sick with love for her.
This was the opening song for the Band's set at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Suggestion credit: Joey - Athens, GA, for all above
Wilson from Raleigh, NcThe Live at the Academy of Music version of this song is the best.
Frank from Granchester Meadows, GreenlandThe Bands' Best in my opinion.
Leslie from San Diego, CaThree Dog Night also does an excellent job on this song. After reading comments on the other bands who cover this song I am anxious to hear them.
Leslie from San Diego, CaI have always believed this song to be about a prostitute. The lyrics are poetic and so much metaphor points to a "lady of the night." Yes, there is the aspect of heroin indicated in the opening line. The reference to "any scarlet" speaks of what is known in literature as a marginal character, meaning one who lives on the edge of societal norms yet is not necessarily a morally wrong person. Rather than going through the entire song, let me just cite some of the other metaphor that leads me to my deduction. The phrase "like a viper in shock, with my eye on the clock" is obviously referencing sex and time. "As my mind unweaves, I feel the freeze down in my knees" If you think about it, he is relaxing while being disrobed. I would like to hear any input in response to this. Thanks.
Didi from Denver, AlgeriaI think the reference to "hard drinking fast talking" woman was heroin don't you? Love widespread's cover! Looking forward to hearing the Lighthouse cover as well.
Roman from Barrie, Oncheck out the mini-rock-orchestra version by a group called Lighthouse out of Toronto recorded in the late 60 - 70's
Brooke from Birmingham, AlI've heard both WP & Tishamingo do this song live & I agree Tishamingo does a great job but WP tore it up in Birmingham last year!
David from Youngstown, OhAs he was prone to do with the support of the Band's management and record company, Robertson gets full songwriting credit on this one even though he didn't write it by himself. Helm and Manuel played big roles in writing the song. Robertson says the lyrics are meaningless. If that's the case, then Hudson should get writing credit for the song. His organ playing is brilliant on Chest Fever.
Dave from Nyc, NyAn EXCELLENT cover of this song is done by Tishamingo , a Southern rock band. Also Widespread Panic did a cover too. But I prefer the Tishamingo version.
Bill from St. Paul, MnHudon's organ intro is worth the price of admission by itself.
David from Youngstown, OhThree Dog Night did a good version of this on their 1969 debut and self-titled album.
Shannon from Atlanta, GaThe version of this from Rock of Ages is my favorite song from The Band. It's faster and has some awesome horns on it.