The Band was always primarily Robbie Robertson. Listen to those sweet licks on the work he did with Bob Dylan back in the day. Sure, there was this Arkansas character who could sing the sort of music which would become famous again when George Clooney made a movie about it. And, sure, there was that big bear of a guy who could play the shit out of the Hammond B3 organ. And there was the one who played violin and bass and drums and anything else he could get his hands on. He's the one who sang this song about ten years before he offed himself. I don't think I've ever heard vocals as bone-chillingly rip your heart out beautiful as Richard Manuel throws down on "Hobo Jungle." But it was always Robbie Robertson's deal. Never was that more clear than on this attempted comeback album in 1975.
Northern Lights - Southern Cross was the first attempt at original material The Band had recorded in four years. If you know anything about the music business, when you wait that long to put out product, it either means you're just about over or you're seriously changing gears. There were no real gears changed here. Sure, they were using a new (to them) 24-track system and what was (then) new synthesizer technology. Sometimes you can hear Garth Hudson trying to sound like Stevie Wonder on this album.
There were eight cuts on the original album, and Robbie Robertson wrote every one of them. For this effort, he got squat when it came to any sort of recognition. No charting singles. No Grammy nominations. No clothing trends named after him or his group. So, for Robertson, this was the swan song for The Band. He quit the next year. I never listened to another thing they did as a group after this, and I seriously doubt if I missed anything. I did follow Mr. Robertson's work for a while. I sure would have missed a lot had I not ever heard this album in 1975, however.
Some say that the Arcadian Driftwood song is the best thing on this album. It's good, and it tells a great story. But this tune of the hobo was the one that always did it for me.
There was a chill that night in the hobo jungle
Over the train yard lay a smooth coat of frost
And although nobody here really knows where they're goin'
At the very same time, nobody's lost
Once we were spending the night in the garage of a friend in the neighborhood. I guess I was around twelve years old. We stayed up all night. We walked out to the park near his house and the three of us were farting around on the darkened baseball field where we'd spent so many daylight hours running the bases.
Then the fire went out and the night grew still
This old man lay frozen on the cold, cold ground
He was a stray bird and the road was his calling
Riding the rods, sleeping under the stars
Playing the odds
From a rolling boxcar
At one point, I looked over to the bench running along the left field fence. There was an older guy sitting there. I should have ignored him. He looked like some sort of hobo. "Tanks have never rumbled through my little town. No grown up crazy man has ever frightened me." That's a paraphrase of Joni Mitchell, but it's what I would have been thinking if I'd known those words back then. I had no fear.
She attended the funeral in the hobo jungle
Long were they lovers, though never could they wed
Drifters and rounders, and distant friends
Here I lie without anger or regret
I'm in no one's debt
(The pain in Richard Manuel's voice as he sang that verse in 1975 is so clear that you could have mapped his life expectancy better than an actuary, if you were listening with ears that hear. No anger. No regrets. No debt.)
Man goes nowhere
Everything comes like tomorrow
But she took that last ride here by his side
He spent his whole life pursuing the horizon
Sleepin' under the stars
I went over to the guy on the bench in that park in those early morning hours to see what he was doing. He was probably thirty years old and he had a sadness about him that threw off a sort of non-light black hole of an aura. He asked me how old I was. I told him. He said he'd give me five dollars if I'd let him suck me off. I really didn't know what "sucked off" meant, but I got the drift of the suggestion and it sounded like something that might lead down a path which would not be worth five bucks. Even considering inflation.
Playin' the odds
From a rollin' box car.