Police siren, flashing light
I wonder who went down tonight?
Those lines have something that matters to the Seventies. They might be a place to lean against and a place to push off from, a stance that makes some sense of a repetitious apocalyptic mood that grows out of terror and a desire to fight. Those lines might be the beginnings of a way to carry yourself through the decade, just as these lines—
You can do anything
That you wanta do
But uh-uh honey
Lay offa them shoes
Step on my blue suede shoes
—were a stance and an idea of action for a much earlier, simpler time. “This is what we really [wanted] to say,” wrote Michael Lydon. Well, it isn’t what we really want to say anymore. We want to say something else. There are various sources available for something to say, but it is the rock that can bring the force of commonality to our language; because rock and roll, in terms of media and technology, is immediate and accessible, and because even with our sophisticating and our fragmentation, rock and roll is something we dig, for its noise, its irresponsibility, and its fun—we are more inclined to trust its sound and whatever comes with it than we are to trust anything else. Verbally re-creating the sound in situational conversation, the right words snagged onto the best beat, thrown into chords and half-hidden in noise, sung not too clearly, words that eventually move out of their song as a musical phrase representing the sound itself, taking force from the illusionary power of music as such, not as words for a slogan, but a phrase out of the sound capable of being dumped on or inserted into all sorts of situations that by their reception of metaphor become linked to one another and are made coherent as shared experience—this might be the repeating announcement of a fragmenting community that wants to ask for the measure of its own predicament and that might discover it in the found politics of the rock.Among the contenders for oracle is Charles Reich, “The Quiet One” of Yale’s Gold Dust Twins, offering The Greening of America as a sort of Politics of Love Story, and there are many takers for his proclamation of a community whose thought need go no farther than taking itself for granted. The urge toward optimism of those who accept his puerile vision is a product of scary events for which we never prepared ourselves: Kent State, Jackson State, Altamont, the Marin Shoot-out. Bringing the War Home necessarily meant bringing it home to us, but the urge toward community that might conceivably have sustained such action announced its own failure one day on a California drag strip. The future of that community seems to be leading directly toward a privacy that pretends to fraternity. The wish for fraternity, however, is real, and it probably cannot be given up without a rationale that can make its loss invisible. Reich provides that rationale by equating the perception of a goal—and a questionable goal at that—with its accomplishment. His theory is to reality what Love Story is to love. The former may be more attractive than the latter, because they represent something near the opposite of our real condition, and that condition is not a pleasant one
For one of the legacies bestowed by the Sixties on the Seventies is an enormous burden of unfinished politics, and that burden has been seized by the government even as it has been abandoned by those who once fancied themselves politicized. “‘Youth revolution,’ my ass”, wrote a friend of mine once, “we’ll all have cancer and rheumatism before we see the end of it.” Youth, given a sense of its own identity, has a capacity to focus rebellion, but that rebellion can be subverted by an impatience that is no less youthful; the de-politicization for which Reich’s ideas are a rationale is to some degree a matter of impatience: if action will not bring the goal, one still cannot admit the goal is lost; therefore the goal will come by itself. Therefore it is for us only to wait, knowing we are fit to receive it. But the message of “Quinn the Eskimo,” of course, is that Quinn never comes. Reich argues a very weird sort of optimism that is contradicted by the very reasons that give rise to it. Politics, however, will take place whether we like it or not. The danger is that we may learn to like it.
Our new decade begins with a widening war, a legitimation of the betrayal of the blacks, a persistent amputation of the Bill of Rights, and with imprisonment, trials, and the possibilities of execution. In California, Angela Davis faces the gas chamber, along with Ruchell Magee, George Jackson, and other inmates of the California prisons who are charged with murdering their keepers. In Pennsylvania, Catholic militants grouped around the imprisoned Berrigan Brothers face life in prison. The Seattle Seven face a year for contempt, and after that another trial on a Federal riot rap for a demonstration that took place the day after the Chicago Seven were convicted. Another seven in Seattle face Federal felony convictions for a demonstration organized to protest last year’s invasion of Cambodia. The Chicago Seven, free on appeal, still face five years. Pun Plamondon and John Sinclair are on trial for conspiracy in Michigan. All across the country, Black Panthers face trap-set charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. In New Haven, Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins are fighting to stay out of the electric chair. And, somewhere in America, the Weathermen, many doubly indicted for federal crimes, remain at large. They will not leave the country, much as their audience wishes they would; their disappearance into a youthful underground has emerged as not so much a defensive move as an offensive one; it becomes clear why they have no taste for exile. Occasionally, they act, flaunting the ability of the government to catch them and the ability of their abandoned “own side” to dismiss them. They are read out of the movement, read out of the official youth culture, and read out of the American tradition. Still, they will not go away; and their latest communication, New Morning—Changing Weather, makes their presence all the more real. 
The Weathermen continue to exist at a point of tension in American life that they themselves have brought into being. They occupy a phantom middle ground in America, pursued by the government and denounced by those who oppose those in pursuit [but who may very well not oppose the pursuit itself]. Someday, one of these days, the government may begin to catch the Weathermen. Perhaps some will shoot it out, and die. Others may be taken, tried, and sent away to prison, either for contempt of court or for those offenses of which they have been accused.
Their trials may not receive the attention granted to those of Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, or the Chicago Seven. We may be tired of trials by then; the Weathermen will most certainly seem to be guilty, if not of those offenses with which they will be charged, then of others so much like them it will hardly seem to matter. The likely illegality of the laws under which they will be prosecuted will matter less than it has before, because the Weathermen will be bad risks for the courts no less than for us. And finally, and most disgustingly, we may come to see them as fools who deserve no better than to be ignored and put away, as blind rebels who stubbornly refused the dispensation offered by Reich, and who thus could never grasp the wholesome idea that everything was going to work out fine anyway: rebels who will be punished by the government for their crimes and by us for their stubbornness. When the government begins to move in, when the trap that is set right between Nixon and Reich is sprung, it will no doubt be time to find out what it is we really have to say. The chances are good we won’t have the words for that.
Police siren, flashing light
I wonder who went down tonight?
Those lines matter now, and they will matter even more in the coming years. If we celebrate the snake-oil optimism that is now on the market, those lines, far from being any statement of value or contingency, will be instead our reminder of the action that proceeded without us. The fraternity to which our privacy pretends will be made hollow by those lines.
But of course, that will be true only if we hear them. Chances are we won’t; we don’t all listen to the Band. And perhaps one of the reasons we don’t—why we don’t have to—is that those lines that seem to carry so much weight are buried in an unremarkable song that by itself can make no real claim on us.
Those lines—to enforce the possibilities implicit in them—belong on a hit single, or at the very least on the finest track of an album that none of us can really afford to ignore.  The Band, who play these lines, dropped them onto the wrong side of Stage Fright, an album with one good side, one great rock and roll song, and one good hook line that makes the listener pay attention. The one good side—the second one—begins with the one great song with the one good hook line: “The Shape I’m In.”“The Shape I’m In” should be one of the classic singles, a natural point of demarcation, a focus for new definitions, an event of pure sound like “Hound Dog,” “Chantilly Lace,” “Louie, Louie,” or “Satisfaction.” All of them verbally ask for a little more than they can give; that is, they ask questions they can’t really answer. All of them deliver the rock; they are sound before they are anything else, and that sound—strong, powerful, and novel—forces the impression that the song can give answers, or be taken for one. Songs of this order structure the day as they are heard, making the listener aware of his own predicament, which only the song may have made intelligible to him.
Records of this sort give us an idea of what’s at stake in the present moment. Take “Hound Dog,” for one, when it mattered most: when it came out. The song took some of its power from the fact that it was threatening to “destroy” popular music as we knew it, and we dug that, but for a moment, try to rehearse the record simply in terms of song and listener. There you are, moping around, pissed off at someone, with no way to express it. You’re too polite, too reserved. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, because… well, because you’ve heard it’s bad to hurt someone’s feelings. Which leaves you with your own. There’s a song on the radio: “You treat me so mean, Eileen…” Yeah, right, she treats you so mean. But where does that leave you? Treated mean by Eileen, that’s where. You need a voice for your emotions, you’ve gotta get them out of the box they’re in. You tell yourself it doesn’t really matter, and then suddenly the DJ finishes his commercial and—
YOU AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A HOUN’ DOG
YOU AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A HOUN’ DOG
YOU AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A HOUN’ DOG
YOU AIN’T NO FRIEND A’ MINE!
—there it is. You find out you can be rough, hard, impolite, crude, and honest. The force of the stunning guitar that cuts the song into quarters makes it seem that much more real. The record lets you cherish your anger, brings you in touch with a part of yourself that you had no words for. And that’s the gift of the rock.
With “The Shape I’m In” all of this is virtually beside the point. Those lines that might matter so much to the Seventies are not in this song, they’re in another one, probably written by the same man, sung by another, gasping for air in the wrong tune. And anyway, “The Shape I’m In” was not the hit the Band’s still looking for. It wasn’t any kind of hit. It’s just another album track.
Stage Fright seems mostly characterized by musical and thematic variety, as opposed to both Music From Big Pink and The Band. On the first album the group as a whole asserted and proved their unique musical and vocal identity, paid their debt to and acknowledged support from Dylan, and began to explore themes that were confusing, weird, ironic, and ultimately compelling. There was sex on the album, but it wasn’t the usual adolescent variety. It was difficult, like sex on Dylan albums, but somehow more direct. On the second record their music had a more controlled face to it. The wild exuberance and fundamental disdain for lyrics that highlighted “Chest Fever” was organized into the careful construction and easy-to-hear cadence of “Look Out Cleveland.” This made sense: with that second album, the Band, and Robbie Robertson in particular, set out to make a whole series of statements—or perhaps situational definitions—about the possibilities and risks of American life, about the last echoes of the frontier tradition, of the adventure that ultimately turns into defeat: Stagecoach leading inexorably to Monte Walsh. Literally, the Band toured America, racially, sexually, historically, and mythically, dropping place names as the songs rolled by; and, as was perhaps necessary, they ended the album with a magnificent, chilling song that defined the disappearance of the very style of life that had given most of the previous situations of the record their meaning. Instead of falling into the conventional trap of attempting to fit the “meaning” of each song into an appropriate genre of music, they blithely set the whole affair right in the middle of their own music, which emerged as more coherent and effective than any simple “style” ever could have. There was some truth to that slogan, “The Band Playing The Music.” They brought an American music into being, and it was so so mature and so sure of itself that attempts to trace its roots always ended in a dead-end, no matter what one said about the Carter Family or Jerry Lee Lewis or James Burton or Bo Diddley. The Band had brought the strains of the music we were learning to understand as our own together, but only they could use it. They had a lot of weight to carry.
Stage Fright almost had to be an anti-climax for a band that had established its musical identity and made an important statement about why their sense of that identity was valuable to them. Instead of extending the music they had created, the Band stayed within old limits, and strayed only to what was familiar to us from other sources: pop, hard rock, even a waltz. In other words, they dismissed any awesome sense of possibility and simply set out to make a solid, entertaining record.
Though they pretty much succeeded in doing that, which is more than you can say for a lot of groups, they still had the problem of the expectations of the audience for something more. So the anti-climax of Stage Fright matters both in terms of the seamlessness of the album and the general indifference with which it was received by most of the audience, including the critics. The release of their first album was perhaps the major musical event, as purely musical novelty, of the last few years, and the release of the second was a confirmation and an extension of that original excitement, something which organized the support the Band was beginning to receive. With Stage Fright the Band apparently took an opportunity to do a number of things they hadn’t time to do before: fool around, take their commercial success for granted instead of worrying about preserving it, and go after that big hit single that had, frustratingly, completely eluded them. They made a very commercial album, in anyone’s terms but theirs, with numerous cuts that should have looked good on a 45 (“Strawberry Wine,” “Just Another Whistle Stop,” “The Shape I’m In”). Their singing completely reversed the strange out-of-time ensemble shouts that made Big Pink so marvelous, so hard to take for granted, and so rich (you could always hear something new in “The Weight” or half-a dozen other songs). Instead, numbers were given over to solo voices most of the time, and when all three Band vocalists were called into action, the result was a queer trade-off between Manuel, Danko, and Helm, which could either produce a rather humorous kind of fake drama, as on “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” or something so stiff it fell flat on its collective throat, as in “The Rumor.”The basic result of all this was to make the Band easier to listen to, less outrageous, and less fun.  The music was clear-cut instead of inviting, and while the album was hardly a musical failure, it was clearly a failure of context, of rock and roll as such. This gave people pretty much what they expected; and while Sgt. Pepper did as much, in that case no one had any idea how much fun what they expected could be. Stage Fright, unlike Sgt. Pepper, didn’t deepen expectations, but simply confirmed them. The Band, faced with an anti-climax, made an anti-climax album, submitting to the obvious context of their development instead of somehow setting up their own context (say, by making a whole album of devastating hard rock), as Dylan had almost always done. Unlike Dylan, they haven’t learned how to manipulate the excitement of their audience, which is ok, since almost no one else has either.
So, we could file Stage Fright away and wait for the next one, or not wait for the next one, depending on how we feel about it. If we do that, though, we submit to the context as much as the Band. Part of our job as an audience, now that the context of rock and roll is so seamless, is to break through the obvious to discover what really matters in our music. The contextual blandness of Stage Fright as a whole obscures music that might matter, by robbing the album of its necessity, which those first two records surely had. You had to listen to the Band, even if you didn’t like them. Otherwise, you knew you were missing something. To this writer, what matters here is not so much the great music or the great song but the great song that wasn’t quite written. The impulses of this album are scattered, but some of them are crucial impulses, and worth looking for.There are a bunch of songs here. Some of them lean toward parody of Band themes and of styles that were really not that broad to begin with: Helm again attempting to sound like an eighty year-old codger on “Medicine Show,” or Robertson contributing another incredibly meaningful topper to close the album, “The Rumor,” except that “The Rumor” turns out to be vastly meaningless and has pieces of Van Morrison thrown in to boot (what a great name for a band, though). On the other hand, some of it is terrific: “The Shape I’m In,” with Robbie playing the toughest guitar he’s ever cared to exhibit on a Band album, and “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” to name just two. Danko finally steps out to make clear his own contribution to the personality of the Band’s music, working with Helm and Manuel to find a new kind of Motown beat for the clean music of the rest of the band. The drumming on “The Shape I’m In,” along with that weird extended throat rasp they use to punctuate the song, constantly lifts the number out of the usual patterns of hard rock and tosses the listener into something beautifully novel. The humor of “Daniel” may be the best thing about it, especially on an album where the humor is either pretty thin or too obvious to be any fun. Here’s this great religious song (the only God-song you can really dig, instead of “appreciate”), all about miracles and sin and retribution and un-cast shadows, and off to the side, time and again, this old cracker not paying the least attention to the “message”: “Daniel, Daniel, do you mind? If I look it over?” Robertson wins: that line is both the real message of the song and the thing that allows him to get so serious and still keep the song blithely in the rock. “Just lemme touch it, kid. Just once.” Beautiful.
The song that holds the most possibilities is “The Shape I’m In,” and oddly enough other songs on the album seem to comment on it, giving a sense of why “The Shape I’m In,” though it seems obviously the toughest thing here, isn’t as strong as it ought to be, or could have been. The music is hard rock, shot through with surprises of timing and changes that are just a bit faster than one could have expected, and brilliantly played. The music comes first, after all: great music with dumb lyrics makes great rock, great music with great lyrics makes great rock, and bad music with great lyrics arguably fails to make any kind of rock whatsoever. Sound adds immediacy and impact to whatever the song wants to “say” in its lyrics, and the formulation given just above is one reason why so much basically dumb stuff affects us so powerfully from time to time.
The story the song tells is a sort of prosaic, commonplace “Memphis Blues Again”: the singer is caught in one trap after another and he’s trying to get out. Like Dylan in the earlier song, he senses that his confusion is street-corner fate, and the real questions are not “how do I get out” but “how do I survive” and “what comes next.” “The Shape I’m In,” like “Memphis Blues Again,” tries to define the social and personal condition we live in. “This is it, kids. Dig it.”  Typically for rock and roll, there is no pretense of giving the answer (which is part of the problem with “The Rumor,” which ultimately sounds like a Sunday School lesson), but there is a strong claim to defining the situation, and thus making the listener aware of his own predicament—from a perspective the listener might have missed or forgotten—and a claim of sharing that predicament.
If this all comes off—if the singer and the band are really able to convince the listener, automatically or through repetition (and here, of course, is where singles can matter so much more than album tracks), that they do share a predicament—that reinforces the sense of the predicament as defined by the song. To some degree, this is what makes a record powerful. Divisions between the artist and the listener—he’s a star, he’s rich, he’s a pig—are obscured or simply cease to matter (even though they can get in the way, on the level of informed consumerism—“I’ll buy it, but I won’t let it fool me”—which despite fashionable rhetoric, is not, I think, any more than that).
“The Shape I’m In” could hardly be more direct. Levon Helm is singing, with a boost from Manuel. He’s busted. He gets out. He’s back on the street—stranded. He can’t find his girl. Kids are rioting and he knows why but he’s cut off from them and can’t take part. He has a sense of the choices at stake—“Save your neck, or save your brother/Looks like it’s one or the other”—but he doesn’t much like them. He wants it both ways, or maybe he doesn’t want to choose at all. “You don’t know the shape I’m in.” But you do know, says the song; you’re in the same shape yourself.
That’s the impulse of the song. Since it’s the commonplace set to rock, and not the risky transformations of “Memphis Blues Again,” the song doesn’t really challenge the world to a duel, but simply organizes what is close at hand, packages it, and shoots it back, with a certain aim, of course. As a hit single, it would have given us some sense, worth having, of our situation. As an album track on an album that is by no means crucial it’s a first-rate song, but a vehicle for more than it carries.
There’s something thin about the lines of “The Shape I’m In.” They’re too neat. This wouldn’t ordinarily matter, except that this song is ambitious, it has possibilities, but it doesn’t quite deliver what its music is capable of bearing or what its lines suggest. “Two young kids/Might start a ruckus”—now that doesn’t really sum up what’s been going on in this country; though, given the context of the song, it more or less claims to. Things have been a bit more extreme than that. And the answer—“You know they feel/You’re tryin’ to shuck us”—is too apologetic. Sort of like the old The Problem of Youth Today Is A Problem of Communications routine. More to the point is that they’re trying to shuck us because deep down they’re trying to fuck us, and maybe everyone else, in the bargain. And the song ought to know that because its singer has already been busted on general principles. If we’re to take that seriously the song has got to take the situation it’s setting up more seriously. There has to be a sense of risk, calamity, danger or fear to bring out the possibilities of this song.Now in a couple of other numbers on Stage Fright hints of this kind of seriousness creep in, almost out of context. In the rollicking good-timey “Just Another Whistle Stop,” we find not only those lines I’ve been quoting all through this article and for which I’ve been claiming so much, but also this:
And it’s odd man out
You know that’s the rule
A chilling line, if it reminds you that in the movie of Odd Man Out James Mason is an Irish revolutionary, who, fatally shot, abandoned by his comrades, and shunned by the people, wanders the streets bleeding to death until he and the girl he loves are shot to death by the police. Are you supposed to hear it that way? Perhaps not, but it hardly matters if you do hear it that way. Rock and roll is a continuum of association, among other things, and not all the associations have to go back to rock and roll. Dylan once wrote a song out of Psycho, after all.
Things are getting interesting, here in the midst of “Whistle Stop,” which, given Manuel’s loose vocal, the good cheer of the band, and the constant Little Engine That Could feeling of the chorus, is simply the wrong song for these two couplets. Stuck in their song, they tell us mainly that certain things were on Robertson’s mind when he sat down to write songs for Stage Fright, and that most likely those thoughts were too new to him to be really focused in one song. A few fast words—“I wonder who went down tonight” or a glance at the odd man out—are just what “The Shape I’m In” needs to carry that sense of risk that might make the song really matter to us: the knowledge that we can be swept away, put away, with no doors opening after sixty days, that in spite of the perfect humor of Helm in Trouble, when you come right down to it, “it ain’t no joke.”
There’s another comment in “The Rumor,” that, like everything else in that song, seems out of place, but which might have a place in “The Shape I’m In”:
Now all you vigilantes
Gonna make a move
Maybe they don’t
You know I sure hope they don’t…
What do they mean by that, by “vigilantes”? Right-wing extremists? The Government? Or us?
It could very well be us, or people like us, the political vigilantes that are roaming the land with hit-and-run attacks on law and order. These lines, pointless in “The Rumor,” could make an interesting kind of sense in “The Shape I’m In,” and which, along with the other lines I’ve mentioned might lift the ambitions of “The Shape I’m In” high enough to make it the classic song it almost promises to be. The lines from “The Rumor” in particular would introduce a sense of the ambivalence we really feel about the bombers into the song, and while these lines as a verse of “The Shape I’m In” would hardly have more “meaning” both they and the song would have more reality. They would toughen the song—the real problems that matter would all draw on that ambivalence we cannot, for the moment, escape. Those lines in the right song could give us a sense of our own divisions, and the choices that really flow from those divisions, when linked to
Police siren, flashing light
I wonder who went down tonight?
For we are linked to that; we are linked to “the vigilantes” even if we hesitate along with the Band. That contradiction, in fact, makes up the drama of the film of Odd Man Out I mentioned earlier; those who would give the dying revolutionary a drink only to send him on his way, refuse to give him shelter even as they comfort themselves with the satisfaction of knowing they did not betray him. But do they betray him, when you come right down to it? We are going to be faced with the same choices in the coming years, not on the abstract level of paper and ink, but on the simple level of things that will be in our power to do or not to do. If a song can make us aware of those choices—that and nothing more, because if a song can’t tell you what risks to take, it can, at its most effective simply tell you what those risks might be—or define the possibilities of living through a decade in which you’re no longer quite so sure of what side you’re on, because the easy moral superiority of the Sixties has disappeared, then that is a song we can’t afford to miss. Even if it wasn’t quite written.
The job of the music-maker is to make sure we don’t miss it without forcing it down our throats. Seduction, in a word. The Band did most of it, setting up their first real motherfucker of a hard rock smash to make us listen, jerking the reality of their lyrics into view as the lines of the song grew out of the kicks of the music. They set the stage for the apocryphal political drama that is woven into the fabric of Stage Fright, but they never really put the drama on the stage; that is, into “The Shape I’m In.” We find the Band in the odd position of playing hide-and-seek with itself, as far as the stuff I’ve been talking about goes. Still, that gives us something to stumble over in the dark, and the power is in the surprise, if anywhere.
The things that matter are at the margins, rather than out front. Found politics means the politics are where you don’t expect to find them; they’re accidental, or seem that way. If, as with “Street Fighting Man” and “Salt of the Earth,” an affirmation of politics is the first thing you hear, that first impact usually turns out to be a screen for the ambivalence hidden within, that is meant to undermine the easy assumptions that are so easy to hear, an ambivalence which constitutes the real politics of the matter.
It’s not accidental that these various “political” songs I’ve been mentioning are all by foreigners, or that I haven’t devoted page after page to the mysteries of stuff like Volunteers or Blows Against the Empire (ha!). The fact that Grace Slick tried to take Abbie Hoffman to a White House tea is far more interesting than “Tear Down the Walls.” “Tear Down the Walls” is a clumsy song that, as it says, is proud of itself, too proud of itself to be taken seriously. The Airplane, or any rock group that is really selling politics, simply does not have the means within the good hard limits of rock and roll to make interesting arguments as to why we ought to do this or that. Rock was never meant to carry grand theoretical statements or position papers, but only to haphazardly investigate the present moment as an after-thought in the middle of a chord change. More effort than that might go into the writing of a song, of course, but it has to be heard that way, especially outside of a local, self-contained community. In that situation, as the MC5 must have proved, a band can demonstrate politics within a context that is musical without having to pull any punches. But try it on the radio, or on an album, and that tough left hook turns out to be powered by an arm that’s turned to jello. An American band can’t take America in stride, as a plurality of happenstance and possibility, as something fundamentally ambivalent; it suffers America and has to take it seriously. An American band is guilty of America, and thus must first and foremost be honest. It has to care. It has to worry. It has to prove its righteousness.There may be a good deal to be said for that kind of attitude, but be that as it may, it leads to terrible rock and roll songs. A group like the Guess Who, safe in their Canadian vacuum, cutting “American Woman” (“I don’t need your war machine/I don’t need your ghetto scene”—heavy, huh?), and then playing for Tricia Nixon at the White House, can still make a better political record than the Airplane, partly because they know more about hits and partly because their Canadian status releases them from any responsibility of taking their political impulses seriously, letting them flow naturally into a song that is supposed to be nothing more than a hit.
Oh, they’re very crass. They went right out in public and said that “Share the Land” was just a good way to make money and they even hired an Indian to pose on the Share the Land album that followed up the “Share the Land” hit. The paradox of pop is that while the Guess Who may be phony as hell, “Share the Land” is real.
The song turns on just one word, a word that the ordinary exploitation song would never have thought of (and by that I don’t mean that “Share the Land” isn’t an exploitation song, only that it isn’t an ordinary one).
Have you been aware
You got brothers and sisters who care
About what’s gonna happen to you
In a year from now.
Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand
Maybe I’ll be there to share the land
That they’ll be giving away
When we all live together
The song turns on “maybe”—the sense that things are really up for grabs and there’s no point in taking anything for granted, that the dreams of sharing the land are really that: dreams. And there is that weird feel for the future, that “in a year from now,” with the hopeful affirmation that there are people who will help you if you find yourself in deep trouble, along with the half-made assumption that you will. The song, on some level, is a celebration of a community that the song knows never really existed and that the song no longer believes in. It’s a song powered by doubt and a feeling for the risks that are not so much being chosen as they are being imposed.
Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand
Maybe I’ll be there to share the land
Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll be in jail. Maybe I’ll be on the run. Maybe I’ll be dead. Maybe you’ll be dead. Or maybe my records will have stopped selling and you won’t be interested.
You half-hear the Guess Who—fake revolutionary rock band—and you half-hear the role the singer wants you to hear; that is, you half-hear the song outside of its commercial context. If you can do that, whatever truth there is in the song, may spill over until the song itself becomes valuable every time it comes off the radio.
“Share the Land” isn’t a Woodstock song, it’s an Altamont song. In a way, it says more about the disappearance of what we used to take for granted than even the Dead’s magnificent “Speedway Boogie,” because again, the Dead had a responsibility for what that song’s about, and the song is as much an attempt to live up to the responsibility as it is anything else. The Guess Who, in their pop clothes, have about as little responsibility as you could hope for, so they are safe to worry only about what might strike a responsive chord in the audience. Their “maybe” gives the song its edge and sharply undermines all the easy affirmation that we almost hear, until “Share the Land” becomes a depressing song that is fully alive because the depression it invokes is about real things, and that depression is so very close to a dream that in its way is just as vital. Volunteers, to me, takes “the revolution” for granted, and “Share the Land” finally takes nothing for granted and matters so much more.
And it’s a good joke on the Airplane, since the Guess Who copped all their licks.
Things aren’t all that different for the Band. All but Levon Helm are Canadians, of course; Helm is a southerner, like so many rock and rollers. And yet there is something about this foreign rock band that allowed Robbie Robertson to write a song for Helm that tried to sum up his very position as an American; and with all the southerners in rock and roll, isn’t it surprising that it took a Canadian to come to grips with the south in a rock song? (unless you count Carl Perkins’ “Tennessee,” where he invented his pride in hailing from the place where they made the first atomic bomb).
Probably only a man who wasn’t born here could have done it. The Band is linked to America in various ways: through Levon Helm, Ronnie Hawkins, Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan. Most of all, they are linked to this country through a life-time of love for its music, first as they sought it out on radio shows and later as they learned to play it, and wonder of wonders, define it. They came out of the great cultural nothingness of Canada into a world that was rich and vital, a place that had given birth to the blues, to country music, to rock and roll, to jazz, to gospel, to white church music, to bluegrass.
They were neither exiles or immigrants; they were musicians, playing their way up and down the spine of the nation, then all around the world with Dylan, and then settling in Woodstock because that’s the way the cards fell.
While American bands were toying with the idea of leaving America (Steve Miller’s “Living in the USA,” Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up the Country”), the Band was investigating the place.
Weird country, America. Wonder what it’s all about?
The Band, as outsiders, with no rage for what America was doing in their name, because it wasn’t in their name, could afford to ask that sort of question. While young Americans were learning how to feel like exiles in their own country, the Band could consider the country’s possibilities, things that we understood to be personal, but not “American”: sex, open spaces, bigness, weather, tradition, music, dreams, failure. They found a way to understand and to present those things in a context that was American, and to the degree their presentation was effective they brought us in touch with the place where we all had to live.
Robertson, not just because he is Canadian, but mostly because he is brilliant, understood that accepting America was not the whole story. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” lets us in on the secret that the grand parade of the second album is supported by a hope that is really only a memory, the years of waiting for King Harvest that finally turned the farm into skid row. It’s a city bum who is singing the great song of the American land, and the man who could feel free because he owned a piece of it now makes only a pitiful cry that devastates him: “Just don’t judge me by my shoes.” Then Garth Hudson’s organ takes us back into the dream, and the song, finally, traces a circle.
Robertson’s isolation from the guilt that is now part of being an American, his insulation from the debilitation of the spirit that guilt can bring, allows him, I think, a finer sense of the possibilities and the dangers of American life than is accessible to most American songwriters when they deal with problems that are, in the end, deadly serious. The American ends up screaming “I mean it,” and he almost has to; Robertson can feel his way along the margins and say more by saying less. The American would write a song about repression; Robertson needs only two lines, in the right song, once he has the beat down.
One of the jobs of the critic, in these seamless times, is to illuminate the margins; surely if someone needs help to understand that “The Shape I’m In” has the sound of a great rock and roll song there is little the writer can do to help him. All the writer can do is make the song inviting. I know “The Shape I’m In” has a great beat and amazing drumming and terrific guitar playing, but if the listener doesn’t get off on that great beat the marginal politics that eventually matter to hearing the song certainly can’t matter at all. Otherwise the lines in “The Shape I’m In” and the more interesting lines that might have strengthened it are simply thin little statements about nothing much at all. A line from a great poem can ring in your mind; “Police Siren, flashing light” is not great poetry, it’s not poetry at all, but it’s pretty good rock when it’s part of a rock song, and given that, it can ring in your ear as the music thumps into your chest, and achieve that moving, semi-conscious effect of a great line of poetry, that might serve as a signpost and a metaphor for all sorts of disparate, incoherent situations.
The question, finally, is not what the rock means, but how it works, and how it works on us. Tom Smucker, one of the best writers who ever set his hand to rock and roll, sent me a letter a year ago, and he gives a better sense of why we try to answer those questions than I can:
…In a weird way, I feel like the heavier political climate I’ve been living in (due to repression) has led me to have less faith in political-rock and more in just plain old music, you dig? Like I would rather listen to Gary Lewis and the Playboys in the background going through a day of fears, depression, despair (that old counter-revolutionary existential reality), and freak-out, than sit there analyzing Volunteers and how listening to that album is going to stop the pig from busting through your door.
Nevertheless I feel that at some point you know I will get it all together again and say something INTERESTING—you know, like it might be that Bubble-Gum music is the class-conscious music of America or some far-out bullshit like that.
At the moment though, I don’t feel like I have much to say that would be worth saying, which is not to say that I feel like Calvin Coolidge, but rather that, you know, why would I want to say anything? Why would I want to say it? I could say, you know, well the Stones blah blah blah Altamont, smack-heads, Mitchell therefore what? — The Grande Ballroom? — but I don’t feel hip to anything RIGHT AT THE MOMENT.
In a weird way I feel like the thing I learned from Rock and my Strange Obsession with the Beach Boys is that you break out of a lot of shit and find out what is happening just by relaxing yourself and finding out—What It Is That You Really Dig, you know, and the thing that you really dig is never the pretentious shit, the shit that they say you should like, or the shit you think you should like but it’s you know old Rock and Roll. At first you think well I’m a low-level type of guy but this is what I like and that’s me. And then after a while you think well maybe after all this stuff I thought was crummy is really groovy and where it’s at and in fact better than what I was supposed to like and it’s good to be a cat that digs old rock and roll and so at the moment I would just like to find out who I am again and see what it is that I really dig and then make some assumptions from there. Did I ever think I would be someone who sat around trying to change the way he related to Everything because he didn’t want to be a male chauvinist (I never even heard the word until recently)—really actually digging Hank Williams—fantasizing about really going to jail, killing someone, becoming old and bitter and out of it? No.
But that’s who I seem to be.
“Don’t nickname it,” the Showmen sang in It Will Stand, “You might as well claim it.” They were right. Rock on.
Tune in tomorrow for a “Rock-a-Hula” post-script–additional GM reviews from the June ’71 Creem.