The Band, “Jawbone” from The Band (1969): Across the Great Divide

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After a mirage of an intro, “Jawbone” — one of the most underrated moments on The Band — catches a shambolic groove even as Richard Manuel explores the story of a unrepentant ne’er-do-well. From there, this thrillingly episodic track moves with an easy-to-dismiss grace between its two wildly differing musical impulses, swinging from a woozy irreverece to something more loose-limbed and down in the groove. Call it front-porch prog.

Manuel eventually gives way for a outburst of funkified Telecaster jangle from co-writer Robbie Robertson, adding yet another layer of musical intrigue, before “Jawbone” returns to its deeply fascinating to and fro. Manuel, for whatever troubles (vocal and otherwise) that awaited, sings here with a piercing honesty, taking you with deceptive intellect deep inside the complex web of justifications and easy excuses that must surround a life of petty crime.

Meanwhile, Levon Helm — and this is the kind of thing that he almost never gets enough credit for — manages the song’s tricky 6/4 time signature with the blithe ease of a jazzman. Blame the multi-talented Manuel for putting him in that position with “Jawbone” — though, it was no where near the first time, of course.

“Richard wasn’t happy until he made me change rhythm patterns at least twice,” Helm once said, laughing. “I could always depend on a good workout when Richard was helping to write the songs. He might want to go from a shuffle to a march, and vice versa. It was stuff that kept you on your toes all the time. That sort of thing was easy for Richard, so he didn’t give a damn. He could play drums left-handed or right-handed. It didn’t matter.”

Listen, too, as Helm shadows Manuel’s vocal. It’s a moment of pained conscience, but — like the song itself — is endlessly varied, sounding at times like a hurt-filled rebuke and at others like a helpless moan. Helm said, in This Wheel’s On Fire, that he and Manuel recorded a portion of “Jawbone” in his bathroom, and the acoustics bear that out. For all of the galloping sense of fun on its surface, the song’s chorus (I’m a thief, and I dig it) echoes deep into the heart of a lonely loser — someone who knows everything is wrong but is simply helpless to fix it.

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