Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Robbie Robertson’s “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #24 on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Tracks
Some great songwriters are great singers. Many songwriters get by as singers. A few great songwriters can’t write great songs for themselves and suck at singing. Not many critics cared in 1987 when Robbie Robertson dropped his eponymous solo debut. In theory the album should have been, as they say in tennis, a match point. Accustomed to letting Richard Manuel and Rick Danko (and Levon Helm on occasion) take the mike, Robertson now found himself in a context where The Band’s warm but weird takes on American folk motifs were as distant from potential listeners as the National Recovery Act was in 1985. To modernize his sound he turned to Daniel Lanois, on fire after producing U2 and especially Peter Gabriel’s So, the second a benchmark for songwriters who thought echo and Suzuki omnichords pointed toward the future by dating themselves to a present.
The result? A well-intentioned farrago, the sort of effort that would have produced a hundred flowers in bloom had it been released (a) during the punk heyday (b) sold as many copies as So. Worse: the rock press lauded Robbie Robertson. While it didn’t come close to producing a hit, it was the sort of album that, afloat on Lanois’ aqueous mix, insinuated itself into the cognoscenti’s brains as an example of Intelligent Songwriting independent of vocal charisma or even vocal commitment. Without any proof beside a brain full of Billboard stories during the late Reagan and Poppy Bush Interzone, I suspect industry vets resented Gabriel for taking so long recording a followup to an album whose marriage of art and mercenary instincts is exactly what the Steve Winwood era of yuppie audiophilia wanted. And Martin Scorsese, long a friend of Robbie’s, was around to abet their resentments, producing a video rich with indigo and blood red backdrops and Robertson backlit as if he were Liv Ullmann in the middle of an onscreen breakdown.
But the public didn’t bite — and the public was right. Over a coffee percolator recorded as if it were drums, “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” indulges the direst instincts of a non-singer. At his frequent best from the late sixties through 1973 Robertson willed himself into becoming a quivering vessel for every post-modern reinterpretation of American myths; in his songs the DNA of six dozen Appalachian death ballads and yellowing microfiched newspaper articles about fires and floods coursed thick and strong. But he couldn’t sing about any of them.
To compensate on his debut he chose a kind of Leonard Cohen-inspired Sprechgesang that fooled nobody. “Ah…for sure, it was too hot to sleep,” he croaks over crying-for-help guitar peals and forlorn organ. I have no idea what “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is about other than a digitization of swamp rock; it updates a sound, all right, but the expense spared the song. Those same organs and guitars drift in and out of the mix like fog lights, forcing Robertson to compensate with the era’s most inept blues singing; I hate him for making Winwood sound like Ray Charles in comparison. When in the video he heaves, “Catch the blue train/Place I’ve never been before!” with his face swathed in shadow, he could be a penitent in sackcloth. And it gets worse. “Wait? Did you hear that? Ohhh…this is sure stirrin’ up some ghosts for me” — I suspect Robertson was paid by the apostrophe.
Too honest to fool himself, Robertson admitted that he chose to sing “kind of like a guy with a deep voice telling you about steaming nights in Arkansas.” No one wants to hear from that guy, though. Nobody wants to hear about steaming nights in Arkansas — unless you can sing like a guy who may have endured steaming nights in Arkansas. Danko and Manuel could have. Lanois’ New Orleans clients the Neville Brothers could have. Peter Gabriel was smart enough never to try. The world should have forgotten “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” but it’s had a mystifying afterlife as a supermarket standard; the mild success of Robbie Robertson, ominously, paid for a similarly etiolated followup called Storyville; and Rod Stewart, as if to prove what a gesture of effortless show sounds like, took RR’s “Broken Arrow” into the American top forty in late 1991.
I suppose we could mourn the evaporation of an era when a young old man like Bono would deign to appear on a record with Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson chanting about the Holy Ghost over syndrums.