And now, an ode to one of the most unusual — and powerful — songs from the 80s: Robbie Robertson's “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.”
1987 saw the release of Robbie Robertson's long-awaited, self-titled solo album. Robertson had, in fact, waited 11 years after the breakup of The Band before emerging as a solo artist, and Robbie Robertson represents some of his most ambitious work. He chose producer Daniel Lanois, who was enjoying a hot streak crafting U2's and Peter Gabriel's blockbuster albums (The Joshua Tree and So), to help him forge a newer sound. Indeed, the first single, “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” remains one of Robertson's most offbeat — yet oddly sensual — songs to date.
Admittedly, Robertson possesses a limited voice range in comparison to Band-mate Levon Helm; therefore most of the song is spoken-word, with Robertson singing only a few lines of the refrain. Wisely, he recruited BoDean's front man Sammy BoDean to provide subtle vocals to the chorus. Over a slinky, almost middle eastern beat, Robertson narrates a story about meeting an apparent old flame in the desert. “The distant red neon shivered in the heat / I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land / You know where people play games with the night,” he rasps. After meeting the woman in a run-down café, she asks him why he always ends up meeting her there. “I don't know, the wind just kind of pushed me that way,” he replies with a slightly sarcastic tone.
The refrain then arrives, Robertson's gravelly voice surprisingly effective in conveying the laziness and starkness of the atmosphere. BoDean's higher voice contrasts with his, echoing the phrase “somewhere down the crazy river.”
The second verse paints a vivid picture of the scene, Robertson's words creating a clear visual:
Take a picture of this
The fields are empty, abandoned '59 Chevy
Laying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John
Yeah, that's when time stood still
After the refrain, Robertson segues into the bridge by contrasting sanity and madness:
I'm a man with a clear destination
I'm a man with a broad imagination
You fog the mind, you stir the soul
I can't find, no control
The slow percussion returns the listener to the story, with the old flame making comments tinged with sexuality. "There's one thing you've got to learn / Is not to be afraid of it,” instructs the woman. When the narrator protests that he does indeed like “it,” she replies, "You like it now. But you'll learn to love it later." He utters this last line with a slight wink in the voice, yet keeping the subject teasingly vague. Over BoDean's vocals, Robertson half sings the phrases “I been spellbound, falling in trances, as the song gradually fades, the swirling drums still figuring prominently.
Today, “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” still leaves listeners scratching their heads. What is that song really about? Has Robertson based it on some real incident? Or is he simply playing the role of a narrator, telling someone else's story? Is it supposed to be a poem? Its steamy video, featuring Maria McKee (Lone Justice) and Robertson in a passionate clinch, further complicates the song's meaning.
To me, the mark of a great song is that it stays with you, whether it be for pleasant or unsettling reasons. With its exotic beat, abstract lyrics, and gravelly vocals, the song stood out from the 1987 pop landscape, and remains an anomaly. The rest of the album fell into relative obscurity (except for Robertson fans, of course), but the single has cemented its status as one of the stranger — yet compelling — singles to emerge from the 1980s.