Seasoned grads of Ronnie Hawkins’ school of hard knocks, The Band was Dylan’s back-up band. With Dylan, they recorded This Wheel’s On Fire in spring 1967, in a rented house nicknamed Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York, but that recording wasn’t released until June 1975 on “The Basement Tapes” (Columbia C2 33682). Instead, the song’s official debut was in 1968, with Danko singing lead, on “Music from Big Pink” (Capitol SKAO 2955), which reached No. 30 on Billboard. The Band opened their first solo concert with This Wheel’s On Fire, and kept it on their playlist, including at The Hollywood Bowl and on tour with Dylan.
Despite neither The Band nor Dylan having a hit single with This Wheel’s On Fire, the song brought success to many performers, including Julie Driscoll, whose bluesy cover reached No. 5 in the United Kingdom in June 1968 and was aired on the Top of the Pops television show. In Canada it made it to RPM’s No. 13.
Other covers in the late 1960s included one by The Hollies on “The Hollies Sing Dylan.” Not to be outdone, folk-rock innovators The Byrds featured the song on several live and studio albums. Later, Siouxsie and the Banshees had a second U.K. hit with their alternative rock version in 1987. Dylan’s own longer folk-rock effort appears on the bootlegged 1969 “Great White Wonder” album.
This Wheel’s On Fire was the fortuitous result of a motorcycle crash in July 1966 in which Dylan cracked a vertebra. He recuperated at home in Woodstock, New York; The Band members rented the nearby Big Pink house and built a recording studio in the basement. As Danko remembered, “We would come together every day and work and Dylan would come over. He gave me the typewritten lyrics to This Wheel’s On Fire.… Some music I had written on the piano the day before just seemed to fit with Dylan’s lyrics. I worked on the phrasing and the melody. Then Dylan and I wrote the chorus together.”
Dylan’s meaningful lyrics form part of the output for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The tone is eerie, even confusing, but hypnotic. The unusual shape of the minor-key melody, which features many repeated notes within a relatively compact range, gives the effect of being semi-spoken, pushing the lyrics to centre-stage.
Various reviewers have pointed out that the line “This wheel’s on fire, rolling down the road” may refer to the chariot of fire in “King Lear,” or to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel’s vision. For others, the more obvious meaning is the crashing motorcycle on which Dylan almost met a premature end. “Notify my next of kin” as readily speaks to Dylan’s near-death experience as it presages Danko’s premature death at age 55.
On November 25, 1976, The Band performed This Wheel’s On Fire one last time together at their famous final show, “The Last Waltz.” Rick Danko later played the song in his solo shows, as Dylan continued to do into the 2000s.
In addition to Danko and The Band, Canadians who have recorded the song include the legendary Ian and Sylvia, and Serena Ryder on her gold 2006 album “If Your Memory Serves You Well” (itself another line from the song). Other performers range from Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello, and Kylie Minogue to DJ Double D, and Guster.
On the screen, the song featured in the TV series “Absolutely Fabulous” and poet Allen Ginsberg’s biopic “Howl;” in print, its title was borrowed for “This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.”
Rick Danko (1942 ‒ 1999), from Simcoe, Ontario, a bass guitarist, was a founding member of The Band. He later recorded solo and with the re-formed The Band, Ringo Starr, and Paul Butterfield. The Band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, and the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
The legendary songwriter Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) (1941‒) from Duluth, Minnesota, has been inducted into the U.S. Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has won several Grammy awards.