“Rags and Bones,” the Band’s fast-moving finale to Northern Lights-Southern Cross, remains this artfully penetrating moment, in that most fans have come to associate songwriter Robbie Robertson exclusively with his Native American roots. Instead, Robertson draws here on the city scenes surrounding his Jewish heritage — completing the album with a torrent of vibrant urban memories every bit as resonant as “Smoke Signal” or “Ghost Dance.”
As with so much of Northern Lights-Southern Cross, this song feels more direct, more revealing, than earlier character studies — as if we’re peeking, for the very first time, behind a veil of Robertson’s own construction. After all, his great grandather — once recognized as a scholar in Israel — was reduced to peddling upon his arrival in the New World. He walked these same alleyways, unfolding a roadmap of discovery that is on-going for Robertson.
“It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I was aware that when people referred to the rags-and-bones man who came up and down the back lanes of downtown Toronto as the ‘sheeny man,’ that it was a derogatory remark,” Robertson tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “I didn’t know that the heritage from Eastern Europe of Jewish people had a connection to the person whose song cried out in the back alleys, and that he was of Jewish decent. I certainly hope to reconnect with this part of my heritage in song again.”
Richard Manuel, meanwhile, remains a wonder of emotional depth — never histrionic but also never slack, so gifted at capturing the motion and ceaseless wonder found in the song’s current of imagery. Garth Hudson’s quilt of keyboards weave in and around Levon Helm’s smacking cadence, even as Robertson’s insistent riff punctuates Manuel’s vocal like a baseball card fluttering through bicycle spokes on a sidewalk.
In this way, “Rags and Bones” brings the Band just as dramatically into a modern environment as did the album’s earlier forays into technology. Centuries, quite literally, seperate these characters from the Virgil Caines and Crazy Chesters of old. For perhaps the first time, it seems as if the Band is ready to engage in the world as it is today, rather than one of its own design.
And so the reflective, deeply underrated Northern Lights-Southern Cross ends, so full of promises — promises of a Band moving determinedly into a new age, promises of rejuvenation, promises of a second period of creative fission, promises ultimately never kept. There would, of course, be other albums. The odds-and-ends collection Islands, a contractual obligation that paved the way for the belated release of the The Last Waltz in 1978. A trio of 1990s-era comeback studio efforts after Robertson’s departure and Manuel’s awful suicide, culminating with 1998’s Jubilation.
Northern Lights-Southern Cross, however, marked the official end of the five-man format, and serves today not simply as a recapitulation but as a bold, if short-lived, step toward relevance in a new era. Yet too often fans — old and new — failed to work far enough past the Band’s original trio of triumphs to discover this album’s second-act successes. It’s taking nothing away from Music from Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright to say that Northern Lights-Southern Cross belongs in the same conversation. And yet it was, and is, too often overlooked.
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