"What do you think of the beginning of 'Jawbone'"? a friend wrote me after seeing this blog. I have to confess I'd never really taken note of the song, a track on the The Band's seminal self-titled 1970 album (record company must have loved taking that to market). Now that I have digested the motley moritat that is "Jawbone," my initial response would be: Beginning? What about the rest of it? It's nuts, and I mean that in a good way.
I've probably taken The Band for granted. When I saw The Last Waltz years ago, I was checking it out for all the guests--Dylan, Joni, Emmylou, Muddy Waters--more than for the furry Canucks who were the ostensible subject of the concert film. On the advice of several musician friends, I've schooled myself a little in the group's essentials ("The Weight," "The Shape I'm In," the problematic "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), and even discovered an unlikely favorite, the disturbing childhood reverie "Moon Struck One."
But one reason it's easy to under-rate The Band is that their songs, like many of Hoagy Carmichael's or John Fogerty's, just sound like they've always been around, or as Ralph Gleason said of "Dixie," "the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn't some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity." Their songs' terrain feels familiar, even well-worn; you feel like you know exactly where you are all the time, and where you're going.
But from the first notes of "Jawbone," with the piano meandering and eerie harmony vocals slipping and sliding in weightless free time on the words "Old jawbone/Where did you first go wrong?", you have no idea where you are, what's happening, what's going to happen next. And when the beat kicks in (at :25), you start knowing even less. For a song that's resolutely major-key, and not even particularly bluesy, it remains deeply disorienting pretty much throughout.
I'm not sure I know how to count 3/2, but the three-beat bars of the verse here ("Three-time loser/You'll never learn") certainly don't feel like 3/4 or 6/8. There are eight of these, plus an extra beat, and then comes the song's catchiest hook, its reason for being--and strikingly, its only switch of perspective, as the narrator who spends most of the song ragging Jawbone for his unlawful ways hands the mike to the subject, who wails unapologetically, "I'm a thief, and I dig it" (:42) over a four-beat bar, followed by an inspired jig of 6 beats, as if Jawbone is kicking up his heels in defiance. There are three of these, and then we slide into a gently chastened 6/8-feel boogie version of the "Old jawbone" chorus (1:02) for eight bars.
After another verse (with the priceless lyric about Jawbone lamenting the small print of his post-office wanted poster) and another "I'm a thief" jig break, the 6/8 chorus returns, but with a discombobulated waltz feel (2:00) this time, and an odd five-then-four-bar shape. Another verse and jig break, only this time the third 6-beat jig is lopped off at four beats--you can almost hear the band rearing up in resistance (2:46) to the fancy meter and ready to rock on straight 4. Which they do for a generous solo section, followed by another verse and jig break.
I'm not sure how often I'll be spinning this odd track in future, but I doubt I'll ever dismiss The Band as derivative roots-rockers again. Clearly all that musty Americana artfully disguises their true art-rock ambitions.