Thursday, November 2, 2017

Train: Somewhere Down The Crazy River

Robbie Robertson: Somewhere Down The Crazy River

Writing for three different music blogs often results in crossover posts. I wrote about The Jam here recently, and have just submitted a piece about another Jam song to Cover Me. And I recently wrote about The Last Waltz at Another Old Guy, so I guess that I have Robbie Robertson on my mind.

Strangely, though, this song popped into my head, despite the fact that its title doesn’t have the key word in it, and would seem more appropriate for a Boat theme. And yet, it works.  It took Robertson 11 years before he released his first, self-titled, solo album in 1987, and tried to stretch beyond the Americana sounds that he played for so many years with The Band. The album was produced by Daniel Lanois, who was also working with U2 and Peter Gabriel at the same time, and all of the members of U2, as well as Gabriel and members of his band all appear on the album. Lanois’ typically dreamy, atmospheric sound pervades the album.

“Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is an odd song. Robertson only sang lead on two Band songs, and Levon Helm has claimed that Robertson’s mic was off during the Last Waltz concert (and the Internet rumor mill has his mic off during most Band shows), so it is not Robertson’s singing that he will be remembered for. According to Lanois, he secretly recorded Robertson telling a story about hanging out with Levon Helm in Arkansas, fishing with dynamite on hot nights. Because that’s apparently what one does. Meanwhile, Robertson was fiddling with a Suzuki Omnichord, which Lanois also recorded, and he superimposed the storytelling over that, creating the basic tracks for the song. In between the spoken word parts, which have a sort of Tom Waits feel, Robertson sings, perfectly well, I might add:

Catch the blue train
To places never been before
Look for me
Somewhere down the crazy river
Somewhere down the crazy river
Catch the blue train
All the way to Kokomo
You can find me
Somewhere down the crazy river
Somewhere down the crazy river

In each case, the second “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” is sung, somewhat distorted, by Sam Llanas of The BoDeans. Also featured on the track are fine bass playing and drumming by Tony Levin and Manu Katché, both of  Gabriel’s band (among other things). And Bono is somewhere in the mix, too. It is curiously compelling, which is a tribute to the combination of Robertson’s charismatic, deep voice, his storytelling ability, Lanois’ production and the talent of the musicians. And despite its unconventional sound, it was released as the album’s first single, and was successful.

The video for the song (above), was directed, like The Last Waltz, by Martin Scorsese, whose infatuation with Robertson’s face was still in force. Robertson’s lust interest is played by Maria McKee, at the time the lead singer of the pioneering “cow-punk” band Lone Justice, who were a mid-80s “next big thing” that never happened. Which in itself was sad, since McKee’s voice is incredible (and her solo career never went anywhere, either). She sings on a different song on the album, and one can only assume that she was chosen to be in the video for her looks. When asked about her “acting skills,” McKee was quoted as saying: "... what did I do, I was just being licked by Robbie..."

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