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Robbie Robertson -- In the Shadow of The Band

by Clive James

From Creem magazine, July 1972. Article copyright © Clive James. Please do not copy or redistribute.

CONSIDERING the Band, we tend to think first about its marvellous ensemble musicality and only incidentally about Jaime Robbie Robertson. There are good reasons for keeping these priorities, but for my own purposes I want to stand them on their heads, talking about Robertson as the master spirit and leaving the Band, with a capital 'B', out of account. In the first place, this will be a necessary step in trying to isolate Robertson's characteristics as a lyricist. In the second place, it will conform with my own convictions -- perhaps idiosyncratic, certainly not widely professed -- about the relative worth of the four Band albums we have had so far. Abruptly and crudely, these convictions run as follows.

In Music from Big Pink both the Band and Robertson are on the climb. In the second album they are both at their peak, producing one of the few rock artifacts in which every potentiality is completely realised. In Stage Fright the Band maintains its musicality but Robertson's lyricism is already softening its focus. In Cahoots Robertson's writing is reduced to plasma and the Band's musicality has started to sound mechanical.

I don't want to be thought of as suggesting that this rapid boom-and-bust was written in the stars or has got something to do with an inherent inability of rock to sustain its own creativity: rock seems to me a form which can be worked with to infinity, and whatever laws govern the behaviour of its practitioners, they are not astral. The Band's (and particularly Robertson's) incapacity to keep up the pressure of completed, filled-out achievement can most probably be written down to those sociological conditions which only an acutely self-preserving personality like Randy Newman has so far been able to out-flank.

To put it briefly, I don't think any cosmic triple-whammy or Indian sign has been put on Robertson in order to deprive him of his creative intelligence. It's much more likely that something has occurred to dissuade his intelligence from operating. And this, in turn, has probably got a lot to do with the fact that his initial virtues as a lyricist were not identified for him by the rapturous critical reception that praised the Band for everything except its most singular quality -- its radiant compound of words and music.

The rock culture's tribute to the Band reached its logical culmination in the Joan Baez hit version of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'. There was something heroic about the casual violence of her assault on the lyric, which would probably have received more reverential treatment from Lulu. But the critical outcry (and there was some of that, to do the rock press credit) had only a shakey base to work from. It had never done much to pay Robertson his due tribute by analysing his precisions and structures -- precisions whose importance Baez underlined by transforming them into imprecisions, structures to whose emotional coherence Baez paid inadvertent homage by reducing them to prettified wreckage.

It was one of those moments when the air was vibrant with the flap and wrangle of chickens coming home to roost. Joan Baez made Robertson a million while simultaneously showing him that his talent was, for all practical purposes, over-refined: its subtleties hadn't registered. We should be able to deduce from this piquant little scene -- if we can't deduce it from larger and often catastrophic events -- that the rock culture is a mass audience and that the individual talent if it wishes to preserve itself, must in part treat acceptance by this mass audience as hostile.

The mass acceptance of the Band has obviously got very little to do with Robertson's unique range of effects as a lyricist. These effects in their full force are available only to an élite. 1 don't count this as a situation to be smug or proud about -- I simply suggest that the situation exists, and faces a practitioner of Robertson's outstanding gifts with some uncomfortable choices.

At a time when the serious rock lyricists in this country were still learning about Randy Newman from Alan Price albums, Robertson struck home as the most compact, compressed, clean-edged talent thus far to emerge. Other men had previously shown these qualities, but only over an historical range as long as their own conscious lifetimes. Chuck Berry, Lennon/McCartney and Sebastian in his Spoonful period had all managed to build up a body of work in which tight rhyming and closely argued stanzas contained meaning under pressure, like an aerosol.

With such an instrument of expression (not just self-expression) they were able to universalise their own memories. But the point here is that the memories were exclusively theirs: except for the occasional stroke from Sebastian, there was no suggestion that the far past was recoverable. And when Bob Dylan reached into a past beyond his own, it was recovered only to serve the purpose of his extended essay in self-definition -- an essay in which compactness, compression and clarity of outline were the very things to be avoided, since the whole cast of his mind demanded that the confusions of all the world should be included in himself.

Robertson's innovation was to raid history for imagery, language and situations while leaving his own personality out of account. Rilke once said that no poet would really mind going to jail, since he would at last be in a position to plunder the treasure-house of his memories unhindered. By making such a statement, Rilke exemplified the personal artist. Robertson, however, exemplified the impersonal artist -- the memories he plundered were folk-memories, not his own.

By calling Robertson an impersonal artist and the other writers mentioned personal ones, I don't mean to imply that the personal is an inferior way of working. In fact, a sheerly personal artist can't be said to exist, since he must universalise his experience to create art at all. What I'm trying to distinguish are two different stances, or strategies. Robertson's strategy -- the impersonal one -- was to compose and accumulate lyrics in which the creator remains a shadow and the subject matter is lit up with a peculiar brilliance.

In a typical Robertson lyric, a century or so of chronological time is abruptly made to collapse between us and an event. Suddenly we are involved in it, hearing the contemporary voices, seeing things happen. And a crucial part of the strategy is that the event tends to remain uninterpreted: we might be given a dramatic interchange between two partially specified characters, or an unbroken monologue from some onlooker to an occurrence of which the details are clear but the pattern incomplete, and from this we try to sort out what is going on, unaided by any logical commentary.

Ellipsis is Robertson's leading tactic, with the result that our first reaction to one of his lyrics is a sense of loss, as if we are receiving intermittently clear radio transmissions from a station outside time. It's a song-writing technique that could never have come into existence if the whole course of modern poetry had not previously established a workable climate, and although it might just be possible to listen to Music From Big Pink (on which only three songs have lyrics by Robertson) without realising that Robertson was a conscious and fastidious intellectual, you couldn't get ten minutes into the second album and still remain in doubt. From my viewpoint -- admittedly a highly specialised one -- The Band is the only truly revolutionary rock album. Upon its emergence, the possible subject matter for rock broke open to infinity.

Avoiding the symbolism and compulsive myth-mongering of Dylan, Robertson picked up fragments of the past and mounted them in fresh mosaics whose only logic was in the way the edges fitted together. The pieces were as clean and bright as if newly prised from a chapel in Ravenna, yet the songs in which they were assembled carried a huge charge of mystery, since the pieces were connected emotionally rather than intellectually. The intellectual force of a Robertson lyric is expended on the fragments, not the totality, which is usually a loose AB or ABC assemblage of stanzas whose order is not crucial. Our usual situation when listening to a Dylan lyric is to understand the drift while being tantalised by blurred detail. Our typical situation when listening to a Robertson lyric is precisely the reverse: every detail is a living, instantly comprehensible drama, but the drift is hard to get and probably isn't a drift at all -- it's an omnidirectional backing and filling, a sonic universe.

The critical reaction to The Band was more intuitive than rational, but it's significant that so many of the album's reviewers hit on that one word: magic. And it was magic without the effort of magic. Robertson's control over his materials was unrhetorical, self-effacing and finally invisible. In the following stanza from his beautiful song 'Rocking Chair', the command of modulation is impeccable -- so much so that it seems effortless. My chief reason for trying to dissect such a living thing is not to kill it off, but to begin the work of showing what art may lie concealed in artlessness. In the rock culture as in any other culture, if the artlessness that conceals art goes unappreciated, not only does art tend to be discouraged, but the posturing that conceals artlessness is encouraged, usually to a fatal degree. What we need to be able to see is how a stanza like this is a written invitation for music to come into being.

Hear the sound, Willie boy?
The Flying Dutchman's on the reef.
It's my belief
We've used up all our time:
This hill's too steep to climb
And the days that remain ain't worth a dime.

This one small stanza is practically a hand-book of Robertson's tactic. The interrogative first line is the only line to go begging for a rhyme: 'boy' gets its echo from the 'b' in 'belief', when the second part of the answer starts unrolling with that characteristic additive extension. Leaving the question aside, we see that the whole of the answer is bounded by solid rhymes: reef/belief and time/climb/dime. Like the Spoonful Sebastian, and unlike Lennon/McCartney, Robertson is a solid rhymer rather than a vowel rhymer: i.e. he matches his terminal consonants, not contenting himself with matched vowels. The flexibility he sacrifices by keeping his rhymes solid he gets back again by working a whole repertoire of modular and syntactical tricks within the lines themselves.

Robertson only partly exploits the possibility that Newman exploits to the limit: there are solid rhymes unacceptable to the eye which are perfectly acceptable to the ear, and in fact Newman is able to draw gasps of astonished delight by rhyming solidly within the peculiarities of his own accent. But drawing attention to his technique is one of Newman's devices for distancing his subject matter -- an alienating device.

Since Robertson is concerned with engagement rather than alienation, it follows that his rhyming should be the reverse of attention-getting, remaining unremarkable for the most part. This stanza is solidly end-rhymed all the way, but without fishing for compliments.

The only deliberate razzle-dazzle is in the assonance that permeates the last line, where the singer is invited to hit the series of 'a'' sounds with equal stress as the stanza's tension breaks open with a bravura flourish. This again is a characteristic device, used at its most buoyant in 'Across the Great Divide', where every listener must at some time have dislocated his knee-cap to the unfolding equal stresses of 'Now tell me hon' what you done with the gun'.

Vernon Watkins once said that poetry rhymes all along the lines as well as at the ends, a critical truth which Robertson accentuates by establishing his end-rhyming as a taken-for-granted convention and building up internal patterns of alliteration (often entailing virtuoso modulations across the vowel spectrum) which finally explode in a line full of fireworks.

If we look at the raw materials of the stanza, trying to leave aside the refinements of handling, we can see straight away how the language ranges unimpeded through a chronology devoid of partitions. The Flying Dutchman comes from the far past, but the days that ain't worth a dime come from the twentieth century -- probably from the Depression, whose emotional conventions ('Buddy, can you spare a dime?') are present throughout the song -- which ends, we should remember, with a calculated echo of Jack Teagarden cross-talking with Louis Armstrong in some long-gone rendition of 'Old Rockin' Chair's Got Me'. But if the Flying Dutchman's on the reef, time must have stopped, since the fate of Vanderdecken is to sail forever. Time has run out all the way, and the two men in the song are suspended in the temporal void. 'Turn the stern and point to shore' is a command that won't have any tangible result. Home is a dream and the men are in the doldrums.

Finally, the meaning of the song resides in this emotional consistency of loss, defeat and helplessness: a mystery built up out of separate clarities, strokes of language that flash like lightning. It's essentially an additive and cumulative, rather than an argued and logical, effect: and yet it's a very stripped, spare and austere effect, economical as to means and treading a dangerous path on obscurity's edge. Without the vigour of chosen language, and the punishing scrupulousness of handling, the listener would be deprived of reasons for staying engaged with the song long enough to be convinced by it.

Robertson's vigour of language was at its height on The Band album, and the reason I tend to talk about him in the past tense is that such a vigour of language is exactly what Stage Fright showed little of, and Cahoots (whose lyrics might as well have been written by Van Dyke Parks) showed none of. There's a possibility that Robertson has used up his initial stock of fully-felt language patterns, but for two reasons this seems to me unlikely. First, the conscious artist (and Robertson is one of those, all right) lasts longer than the unconscious artist precisely because he is careful to refill his warehouse of materials at one end while clearing it from the other.

Second, Robertson's response to language was just too vivid to be anything less than permanent. A man who can pull off that wild coup in 'Jawbone' --
... you'll know just who to thank
When you land right back in the tank

is going to be responsive to language for the rest of his life. There's no way, short of lobotomy, in which he can lose a sensitivity of that order.

Robertson has the number-one gift that any poet can hope to have. He can hear the spoken language as a poem: the real poem to which, as Valery once said, all written poems can only contribute. His treasuring of a word goes beyond the rational. When Joan Baez fiddled with the lyrics of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' she was attempting, in her elementary way, to make sense of words which Robertson had cherished not for their sense alone but for their poise and balance. She didn't know what he was talking about.

In the Band's last two albums the musical interest goes on. It will be an edifying exercise to see if that musical achievement can maintain its drive and complexity without the original linguistic refinement that helped to bring it into being. It's hard to imagine any Band album being less than playable. Their sheer punch is enough to get them through, and I still find myself playing the first track of the Albert Hall Dylan bootleg -- a song of which I can understand scarcely a word -- just to hear the guitar breaks after the second verse. But I still don't think that a raw experience like that matches the complex, subtle excitement of hearing Robertson play lead in the middle of 'King Harvest': pure music taking flight through an atmosphere generated by his superbly chosen language.

If he stopped writing such language because he thought the rock culture didn't want it, then the rock culture is in bigger trouble than he is. The up-coming Band album might do something to modify the line I've taken here, but I'm not betting on it -- certainly not betting on it in the way I'm betting on Newman's album. If Robertson's gift has been thrown away, we haven't got all that much left to throw.

Cream, July 1972
© Clive James

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