Robbie Robertson, “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”
“Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” from Robbie Robertson’s eponymous Juno-winning 1987 album, is a first-class example of how a lyric can paint pictures, can make a listener see and feel exactly what the writer is seeing and feeling. No ambivalence, nothing subject to interpretation – the listener is drawn into the song because the writer lays an interesting storyboard out on the table. And in this case, the excellent production magnifies the power of the lyric to make the song nothing short of a work of art.
“Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is basically a couple of pages from the diary of a man living the levee life, maybe along the Mississippi River in the Deep South. The song would have been called a “recitation” back in the old country music days, as Robertson speaks the verses and sings the choruses. With great lines like Yeah, I can see it now/The distant red neon shivered in the heat and Take a picture of this/The fields are empty, abandoned ’59 Chevy/Laying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John – how can you not visualize these scenes? And if you don’t know who he is, how can you not want to Google “Little Willie John?”
Producer Daniel Lanois (a Canadian like Robertson) recalled the song’s origins with Exclaim! magazine of Canada, saying that “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” was “a line that [Robertson] came up with when he was describing what it was like to hang out in Arkansas with Levon Helm in his old neighbourhood. He was telling me about the hot nights and fishing with dynamite … I was curious about his stories because I wanted them to be on that record … It’s kind of like a guy with a deep voice telling you about steaming nights in Arkansas.”
The final verse of the song is admittedly less clear-cut; it’s presumably about the experience of hanging with “Madame X,” and leaves some things to the imagination to be sure. But by that point the listener is so caught up in the vibe of the song that reaching one’s own conclusions becomes part of the fun.
The single was a relative success, charting in both the U.S. and the U.K. and helping bolster sales of the album in the still-catching-on CD format. It’s near the top of my list when it comes to great examples of cinematic lyricism; it’s like the movie so many songwriters strive to produce, true art that isn’t abstract or over the listener’s head. “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is an excellent model of vivid lyrical imagery, something all writers should make sure their own lyrics contain before wondering why their songs don’t seem to communicate with the listener.