Run away — run away — it’s the restless age, sings the Band at the beginning of Cahoots (Capitol SMAS 651) and they mean it. They also mean it when they sing of the endlessness of the river, admonishing the listener that “You can ride on it or drink it,/Poison it or dam it,/Fish in it and wash in it,/Swim in it and you can die in it, run you river run …” Cahoots is about finding a place for yourself in the restless age.
The mood of the album is filled with a “tinge of extinction.” As the chaos of the carnival is played off against the timelessness of the river, the Band mourns, always more in sorrow than in anger, the passing away of the things they have grown old with and the failure of anything of consequence to rise up in their place. “How you gonna replace human hands?” they ask us in “Last of the Blacksmiths.” And, “How can you sleep when the whistle don’t moan?” in “Where Do We Go From Here.” “Your neighborhood isn’t there anymore,” they jeer in “Smoke Signal.” “Run away — run away — it’s the restless age,” but, “the car broke down when we had just begun.”
In “The Rumor” Robbie Robertson wrote, “… you can forgive or you can regret it, but he can never ever forget it.” In Cahoots, Robertson’s memory is failing him as the institutions, people, and the traditions he reveres are increasingly confined to an imaginary past, denied a real existence by the convoluted form of progress that has overtaken them.
The Band, which was Robertson’s first unified and complete work, conceived of the past in the present. We experienced not the past in the abstract but only the songs’ narrator’s very personal and intimate view of his own past. Indeed, The Band was not a looking back so much as a looking into, forcing the listener into direct participation in the experience.
For example, “when” is “King Harvest” about? Its every image evokes an historical sense, but the events described in the song could have taken place anytime during the last fifty years. And yet, because the narrative is self-contained, the specific context becomes irrelevant. It is, again, the song’s narrator’s view of the past and his place in it that is important, not the past itself. To take the most extreme case, when Levon sings about the Civil War, we feel no sense of role-playing and it is possible to think we are listening to a real survivor of the war, precisely because the song penetrates so deeply into the feelings of Virgil Caine. The Band was thus a closed end vision of the past, an interior piece of work in which a single stylistic point of view was unfailingly and brilliantly maintained.
By comparison, Cahoots is an exterior album with multiple viewpoints, multiple styles, and just enough openness to incorporate the presence of some additional cahoots — Allen Toussaint and Van Morrison. Where on The Band we were made to experience a mythical view of the past as a present reality, Cahoots is merely sometimes about the past, and then only insofar as the past can be made to comment in a direct way on the present. Unlike The Band, Cahoots endistances us from the past, constantly reminding us of what was then and what is now.
In Cahoots, the notion of the commentator is stressed over that of the participant. The narrator of these songs is most often observing others and in the process drawing explicit contrasts, comparisons, and morals. Instead of seeing phenomenon in motion, as they were being experienced, we see them as fixed entities to be described or dealt with: the process is now less important than the conclusions to be drawn about the process. At the same time, the orientation and musical texture is constantly changing so that we are left with the feeling of experiencing things through a stylistic kaleidoscope.
Ultimately, it takes Stage Fright to explain the progression from The Band to Cahoots. The first Band album, Music From Big Pink, was recorded quickly. Comprised mainly of Dylan songs, with some by Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson, the album contained a number of beautiful and haunting performances. However, it lacked the stylistic unity and the clarity of vision that its three successors have all achieved to one degree or another.
With the success of Big Pink the Band took it upon itself to create a masterpiece. With Manuel dropping out as a song-writing force, the Band took months to create an album as perfect in execution as it was in conception. Not only was the myth of the group’s historicity perfectly delineated, but the album was unmarred by any breaks in the stylistic unity of composition and performance and even the recording sound enhanced the album’s character and self-definition.
Eschewing much of modern recording technology, they released, for the first time since the early days of Stax, a perfectly flat album: no limiting, no equalization, no studio echo, in short, none of the three essential technical ingredients heard on virtually every album of whatever type, being released today. As a result, The Band really did sound like a bunch of oldtimers telling us their life histories, all sitting around a circle in that cozy looking cabin on the back cover, playing loud enough to be felt but not so loud that you you would think any of them needed a microphone to be heard by the others.
With The Band completed, the Band made its first extensive tour as a headliner. After years of standing in the shadows, for the first time they had to look the spotlight in the eye and the result was Stage Fright. As Greil Marcus has observed, that was the perfect anti-climax album, even down to including ten songs instead of its predecessor’s twelve. Crucially, Stage Fright was about the present. The lines Marcus focused on as central to the album’s meaning, from “Just Another Whistlestop,” just don’t sound like history: “Police siren, flashing lights, I wonder who went down tonight.”
A good part of the album was concerned with simply observing on going changes (for example, “The Shape I’m In”). But their experiences on the road provided a fresh point of view as well. Robertson started to define himself more and more as the claustrophobic performer.
That claustrophobia is there in the 1950 Alfred Hitchcock movie for which both the album and its best song were named. Ralph Gleason has called “Stage Fright” the best song ever written about performing and perhaps he is right. The endlessness of the role and the role playing of the artist and performer was brilliantly compressed into one potent refrain: “See the man with stage fright,/Just getting up there, to give it all his might,/He got caught in the spotlight,/And when it gets to the end, he’s got to start all over again.”
Unlike The Band, Stage Fright did not sound as put together. Despite the existence of themes, it was a much looser work, mixing songs that might almost have appeared on The Band with things that couldn’t possibly have and further mixed with songs that seemed to be pure fun things, such as the beautifully sung, “Strawberry Wine.”
I hated Stage Fright when it came out, thinking it false and shallow, and filed it away in disappointment after playing it only a few times. Only after getting Cahoots did I listen to it much again. In the past I hadn’t been able to accept the looseness and occasional lightness from a group that had created anything as great as The Band.
The difference in quality between the two now seems less great, although the earlier work remains, in my mind, far superior. If The Band was a perfectly thought out and arranged conceptual masterpiece, it had nothing as loose and free on it as “Strawberry Wine.” And while “The Rumor” could have been worked out more carefully, that moment when Levon and Richard sing “Let it roll away” for the last time, is a towering one, fully the equal of anything the group has yet recorded. No, I must confess that false expectations blinded me to Stage Fright’s virtues until I was able to hear it as the missing link between The Band and Cahoots, for that is what it is historically and musically.
On Cahoots every note and every line is constructed to enhance the meaning of the album. And, in fact, it is the overly constructed aspect of the album that emerges as its greatest flaw. Where on Stage Fright the Band had started to loosen up, with both Robertson and Garth taking good sized solos and the playing sounding in general less rehearsed and more relaxed, on Cahoots we are back to a completely arranged piece of work. Robertson himself finds as little point in things like guitar solos as most people do in drum solos: he dislikes the solo-accompanist conception and would rather use the group as an instrument than just the guitar. Besides which, he finds that the lyrics of his songs do not call for a loose style of playing or for extensive instrumental music, and to him a song is a song, and the song is the thing.
Thus, whatever musical growth there is on Cahoots must be seen in the increased ornateness and intensity of the sound texture. At its best, it results in a density in which everything is as fit to form as it would be in any classical music, sometimes producing the sort of exhilaration that only classical music produces. The opposite side of the coin is that the density imparts to the music a somewhat forbidding quality, making it difficult to get past the barrier of all the parts, in order to pick up on the natural groove of each song. In a reversal of earlier priorities, the bass and drums that gave The Band such a distinctive musical character have been mixed down and the top end, where most of the intricate parts interact, is mixed up.
Lyrically, where Robbie had earlier been free to establish the credibility of his narrative and then to sustain it without imparting to any one line anything more than its proper place in the song called for, he now aims for meaning and significance in every phrase. His conception of a song as a sort of picture in the mind — he “sees his songs” — has developed along with his use of obviously visual and sometimes cinematic imagery. But when he fails to hit his mark he leaves me with the feeling that he is trying too hard to fit into music what he sees in his head. The results can make me feel crowded for space. Unlike The Band, on which the listener was free to enter into the fantasy of the music at his own pace and to supply the missing pieces from his own imagination, in listening to Cahoots, I feel that my every response has been calculated and that I haven’t been left enough room to feel things for myself or even enough room to simply relax and live with the music.
The metaphor of the carnival as life is a common one, but unlike in the pedestrian “W.S. Walcott Show,” on “Life Is A Carnival,” Robertson makes it work. The two major themes of the album, the growing extinction of things remembered and the special problems of the artist watching them pass away from a unique vantage point, are embodied in the image of the carnival — a dying institution made up entirely of performers. Cahoots’ musical ornateness is introduced to us in its first 20 seconds: the album begins with a beautifully syncopated kicker including only drums, guitar and handclaps, suddenly to be joined by seven wonderfully crazy horns, arranged by New Orleans producer-songwriter Allen Toussaint.
Everyone sings on “Life Is A Carnival,” with vocalists dropping in and out and harmonies building throughout the cut. The horns counterbalance the syncopation of the rhythm section and I’m left with a delightfully bubbly sensation bouncing around in my head long after the cut is over. While some of the images are terribly ordinary — for example, “The street is a sideshow” — there are also flashes of Robbie’s cinematic imagery that are close to breathtaking. For example: “Take away — take away — this house of mirrors, Give away — give away — all the souvenirs.”
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is the first of the songs on Cahoots to explore the distance between the observer and the observed. Melodically it is but one of the undistinguished tunes on the record, while the stylized background of Garth on accordian and Levon on mandolin is a rather quaint attempt at creating a European flavor. And yet there is something that brings the ear back to the song’s title which contains a moving and powerful thought. Levon’s vocal evokes the sort of need and frustration that the title implies almost effortlessly.
“4% Pantomime,” another song about performing, is named after the fact that the difference between Johnny Walker Black and Johnny Walker Red is 4%. It is also for the 4% of Mr. Van Morrison’s performance which had to be seen, not heard. Unlike “Stage Fright,” which analyzed the artist’s dilemma, “4% Pantomime” is simply about being a working artist. Many of the Band’s songs have been in the first person but none of them literal representations of themselves. This one even uses real names on the choruses, as two old fashioned juicers — Van Morrison and Richard Manuel — coax as much feeling as they can out of each other.
There is a sadness and near hysteria in the cumulative sense of desperation that pours out of both of them that is more than just moving. Musically, the cut flows and sways with that freedom that is often missing from the album as a whole. The Belfast Cowboy, as Robbie named him when he realized that Manuel couldn’t answer Morrison’s cry of “Oh, Richard” with the unlyrical “Oh, Van,” turns in a magnificent performance and the Band rewarded him by putting him on the cover. To me, he is the joker in the deck.
“Thinkin’ Out Loud” is a performer’s nightmare in which everything that can go wrong does until he is finally saved by waking up, falling to the ground. In the first half of the song, Robbie’s tendency to over-write becomes all too obvious.” Nor is that search for meaningfulness confined to the lyrics. However, musically, the arranged quality works beautifully here, beginning with an eerie sounding line being doubled by guitar and piano. And, as so often happens in this album, Robbie’s lyrical flashes overwhelm his lyrical lapses. By the time the song hits its marvelous last verse with “Room service gone off duty/The bellman has retired/This hotel is a beauty/Even the house dick’s been fired,” the harmony and playing are there to drive the song home with the kind of authority that only the Band is capable of. But withal, a cut that seems to mirror the strengths and weaknesses of Cahoots.
“Volcano” is the album’s attempt at a straight good-timey rocker that doesn’t fall within any of the album’s general themes, and suffers as a result. Surrounded by so much heaviness, its casual lyric content — about a couple eloping — seems without much point. Musically, it is competent but not much more. The intended excitement never gets generated. “The Moon Struck One” is on the periphery of the album’s framework as its story of a Jules and Jim type friendship ultimately turns into a comment on the stability of friendship in general. As John and Julie prepare to drive off to Durango to find themselves after the death of their friend, the image of “The car broke down when we had just begun” resonates beautifully, only to be marred by the flatness of “As we walked back to the house while the moon struck one.” The vocal performance by Richard Manuel is superb.
“Last of the Blacksmiths” is a crucial song embodying more than any other the definition of the “tinge of extinction” and “isolated artist” themes of the album. Sung and played in a desperate style, the lyrics parallel the question of the blacksmith (“how can you replace human hands”) with the question of the musician: “frozen fingers at the keyboard, could this be the reward?” Unfortunately, the acuity of perception then trails off in a typical bit of over-writing and the rest of the song is sustained more by the excellence of the performance than by its lyrical content.
“Where Do We Go From Here” comes dangerously close to being merely topical. Cute rhymes like “Just one more victim of fate/Like California state” do nothing to add to what the song has. The music, while brilliantly put together, has a stiffness which makes it once again forbidding. Like every cut on the album there is something to recommend it: in this case, the opening lines of Rick Danko’s beautiful vocal.
“Shoot Out In Chinatown” is a fairly grim story that makes the point that things cannot be shoved under the rug, to wit: “Buddha has lost his smile/But swears that we will meet again/In just a little while.” The music has more momentum and freshness than most things on the album and the cut is sustained exceptionally well. One of the most enjoyable things on the record.
“Smoke Signal” is a light play on the extinction theme. In “Chinatown” Robertson is talking about deliberate actions of the state while on “Smoke Signal” the humorous allusions seem to be to the process by which people merely lose control, instead of being actively forced to surrender it. Musically, it is a powerful song with some brilliant lines that stick in the mind, especially: “When they’re torn out by the roots/Young brothers join in cahoots.”
If “Life In A Carnival” is an overture, then “The River Hymn” was surely intended as a finale, a sort of ceremonial piece, and on it one’s ultimate impression of Cahoots must rest. It is surely the most ambitious thing the group has ever attempted. Lyrically, it is the culmination of Robertson’s growing style. It is so cinematic, that as it is heard the movie possibilities flash in front of you uncontrollably. Everything described is not only easy to visualize but is, in the listener’s mind, inevitably visualized.
Beyond that, the themes of the album are finally resolved. The isolated performer has finally found a natural setting for his music (“I’m so glad I brought along my mandolin”) not as a touring musician in some sort of modern day circus but as part of the ongoing and unchanging traditions that surround him as a member of a community. And as Robertson holds up the image of this piece of the past that continues even today he is implicitly asking the people of the restless age what they shall now make of the river, and how they intend “to give a little thanks.”
It is only, but crucially, in the music that Robertson’s feeling for the subject fails him. The song begins with Robbie playing some beautiful white gospel piano music. He is joined by Levon’s vocal which leads inevitably to a chorus. As Levon calls up the group’s world view with the majestic lines, “The river’s got no end, it just rolls around the bend,” the song cries out for something to happen. And here, finally, that stiffness which hovers between mere flatness and artistic restraint on so many cuts of the album, falls down on the side of flatness. As the flower starts to bloom, and the voices are added, we are too aware of strings being pulled, of the artist making art. With the whole album preparing us for the climax, we are given an almost perfect conception of a conclusion without that inspiration, that spontaneity, that flash of something special musically that would have made it not perfect, but right. But the background voices sound false and the arrangement, while it builds well enough, always sounds arranged, and we never achieve the sense of freedom that the people dancing and singing down by the river achieve when they really hold the “All Day Singing and Eating on The Ground” festivities that the song is modeled after.
And yet like any magnificent failure the song is better to listen to than many lesser successes and has moments of greatness that at least reveal a potential for the future. As Levon sings, “Son, you ain’t never eased yourself/ until you laid it down in the river,” the mind jumps immediately to a picture of how little that little boy must be and how very big the river is, and then the song’s crying out against the reversal of the natural order of things regains its force. Moments like that, through images like that — those pictures in Robertson’s mind — seem to come straight from the work of another American artist, who raised some of the questions Robbie Robertson does in a different time, in a different way, through a different medium — John Ford.
Cahoots is finally more brilliant failure than flawed masterpiece but the distance between the two may not be all that important just right now. There is a world view and a personal vision fighting to define itself in the music of the Band and the songs of Robbie Robertson. There is a picture binding their work together that in and of itself separates them from so many rock bands. They are in the process of creating a post-adolescent extension of rock, capable of encompassing a wider range of thoughts, feelings, pictures and sounds than most of the white rock musicians of the late Sixties were able to produce. And with Cahoots, I have no compunction in saying that the Band is one of the few functioning units in rock worthy of the name auteurs. As such, their mistakes and failures are more interesting to me than the successes of dozens of lesser artists. And their triumphs, including the ones on the latest album, are among the most interesting things in rock altogether.
As Robbie Robertson has said, “We’re not kids anymore.” To which I can only add that neither am I.