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Shoot Out In Chinatown

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998

Shoot Out In Chinatown (J.R. Robertson), Cahoots, 1971

The recent back and forth in the Guestbook on the subject of supposed racism in Shoot Out In Chinatown and Move to Japan has prompted me to have another look at the former. Shoot Out In Chinatown was knocked right back at the time of release for the "racist" mock-Chinese (Chinese takeaway) guitar bits and lyrics, and Greil Marcus had his say in Mystery Train:

Greil Marcus
The music no longer had any life of its own; it took its cues from the lyrics, and when the result wasnít flat, it was cute. When I Paint My Masterpiece was about an expatriate artist in Europe, so the tune featured a little Michael LeGrand accordion; the utterly pointless Shoot Out In Chinatown came complete with Fu Manchu guitar, a touch so tasteless it verged on racism.

Few of the critics liked Cahoots. But, as ever, Marcus makes a point, though obliquely. There is a "tourist" subplot to Cahoots, from the accordion to suggest the Europe of ruins and gondolas, through the plinkety-plonk pastiche Chinese sound on Shoot Out in Chinatown, to the sleazy Alan Toussaint horns on Life Is A Carnival or the self-conscious revival meeting in The River Hymn. As Levon has admitted, Robbie Robertson was fighting to hold the Band together through the recording. Only he and Danko seem to have had much interest in the album. Robertson was trying desperately to re-use proven and trusted themes. Hence the tour of Americana historical locations, like the revivalist meeting and the carnival (again). San Franciscoís Chinatown would seem to offer another suitable slice of American myth. It was where you rushed to spend your money after hitting it big up on Cripple Creek. Robertson, as usual, was using popular American mythology. Present day Chinatown IS a tourist attraction and a parody of itself (and presumably was in 1971 too), right down to the pagoda-style call boxes, which have been copied in Londonís tiny Chinatown district. Itís also a present-day community, and thatís where the fear of offence comes in.

You cannot deny the effects that stereotyping can have on people. Iím not joking when I say that the English feel this strongly nowadays. In recent American films the villain is invariably English, from The Lion King through Braveheart to Titanic. In Titanic, the only seriously unpleasant American, Cal, has a British accent and a British bodyguard. And not one contemporary account has an Irish steerage passenger being shot by a British officer. This tendency has been the result of falling over backwards to avoid offending any other nationality. Whereas British visitors were always greeted with enthusiasm and interest, this trend will surely lead to us being viewed with increasing suspicion! Iím not trying to start a heavy correspondence on movies, just saying that negative stereotypes can and will have a lasting effect. Marcusís point was not that they were creating a mock-Chinese sound, nothing wrong with that, but that the sound was like a Fu Manchu film. I donít have access to any Fu Manchu films to check, but it sounds like the kind of thing I remember. On the other hand, maybe itís just a mock Chinese sound.

Not every critic hated it. Richard Williams in Melody Maker was positive, previewing one month before the albumís release in 1971:

Richard Williams
He ... makes musical and lyrical cross-references of outrageous cleverness. You might think Shoot Out In Chinatown - with its parodying of Chinese music - is about the great days of the ghetto, around the turn of this century. Not so - itís about right now, because San Franciscoís Chinatown police force has just been broken up, signalling the end of an era. Robbie obviously reads more of Time Magazine than just the cover stories on his group.

The song was intended to be a parody, and its starting point in Robertsonís mind was the headline about the disbanding of the Chinatown police a few months earlier. It therefore fits Cahoots themes of disappearing railroads and American eagles and buffalo and vanishing blacksmiths. The symbols were being concreted over, and Chinatown was one of them.

The second and third choruses stress this:

Shoot out in Chinatown,
They nailed up every door
Theyíre gonna level it to the ground
And close it up for ever more

Then in the last chorus:

Theyíre gonna turn the place upside down
Till you wonít recognize it at all.

So far it seems to be a lament for a soon-to-be-lost district (how wrong he was, in fact). The bits that may have caused offence are right at the start:

Trouble on the waterfront,
Evil in the air
When the Chinatown patrol came down
To bring a little order there
They came in undercover
To the laundryís back room
And right there before their eyes
Was a Shanghai saloon

And continue through the middle.

For about five dollars or one thousand yen
you could gamble and ramble in a brothel
or take it to the opium den

It rushes through the cliches. I like gamble and ramble. The lyrics also mention laundry back rooms, Shanghai, Confucious, Buddha, The Waterfront, Frisco in its heyday imported from Hong Kong, fire dragons.

I donít think anyone is going to deny the existence of brothels, gambling dens and opium houses in 19th century Chinatown in San Francisco. I leafed through a couple of recent guide books, and they both mention these things prominently, as well as the existence of 7500 laundries and telephone operators able to speak five Chinese dialects (Robertson missed that one.) Modern tourist San Francisco reiterates the Ďbrothels and gamblingí at every opportunity, as do the tourist stopovers in Alaska like Skagway, or the gold mining towns of Colorado.

The starting point was the breakup of the Chinatown Police (Patrol) and itís not really clear what their role is - they lined them up against the wall. Is it about police brutality? Or what? The last verse is an odd mix:

Confucious had once stated
All across the land
Below the surface crime and love
They go hand in hand

All across the land has absolutely no purpose except to provide a rhyme for hand in hand. Also the hallmark of a songwriter in trouble, trying to make it scan is there, the unecessary pronoun:

Below the surface crime and love
They go hand in hand

they is redundant . You never hear people say Crime and love they go hand in hand. Itís a purely song lyric device, dating back to early English ballads. But everyone uses it :

No reason to get excited, the thief he kindly spoke ...
(Bob Dylan, All Along The Watchtower)

When I bought Cahoots, on the day it was released, I listened for hours and hours waiting for the tunes to sink in. I assumed (quite wrongly) that they would. In fact, the only three tunes that stuck firmly were Life Is A Carnival (of course), When I Paint My Masterpiece and Shoot Out In Chinatown. The damned thing is catchy. Even more so in comparison to the dull (Volcano, Thinking Out Loud, Smoke Signal) and the truly dire (The Moon Struck One).

To compare a 1971 Robertson composition with a song written by other people (Joe Flood, Levon Helm, John Simon, Stan Szeleste, Jim Weider) twenty years later, Move to Japan, then pointing to them as evidence of an ongoing attitude towards Asians, is stretching the point severely. As Move to Japan exists on tapes of Japanese concerts (e.g. Quatro Club, Tokyo, May 1994) the Band clearly werenít embarrassed by it, nor considered it offensive. As more than one defender has pointed out, The Band has nothing to be ashamed of in its attitudes to African-Americans nor Native-Americans, so no malice should be assumed in a slightly incautious song from quarter of a century ago.

As one Guestbook contributor pointed out, Shoot Out In Chinatown is hardly one of their seminal works. Iíve never heard a live tape with it on, though in Levonís autobiography he mentions working on it for performance. Not only that, it isnít on any of the collections either, even though The Moon Struck One made it to the box set (Julie was my sweetheart, little John was my cohort ... that really is below standard!). Theyíve never seen it as part of their repertory, nor, judging by the collections, as part of their history. Itís just an obscure album track from one of their least popular albums. But I still find the tune coming into my head.

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998


If you have constructive comments, criticisms or additions, please either use the Guestbook or e-mail me direct. If you just feel angry and want to issue flames, please simply e-mail me!

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