Robbie Robertson, “Broken Arrow” from Robbie Robertson (1987): Across the Great Divide

There is a pressing atmosphere of passion about this song, beginning with its first repeated notes. Going forward, a melodic cadence then imbues Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow” with this dangerous, undulating sensuality. That it actually took three people to construct that rhythm, as complex and it is propulsive, makes sense.

The principal drummer on the track is Terry Bozzio, who made his name with Frank Zappa and the power-trio edition of UK. Peter Gabriel also provides programming, as well as the resonant keyboards, while co-producer Daniel Lanois adds percussion. Together, they create a tension (before Robertson even approaches his painfully longing lyric) that sustains throughout this signature triumph from 1987’s Robbie Robertson. And, make no mistake, for all of the criticism Robertson has taken over the years for his gravel-pocked approach at the mic, “Broken Arrow” represents one of his best marriages of words and voice.

Lanois’ secondary contributions, pitched and wordless, recall Rick Danko’s helpless cries — but without directly referencing the Band. In truth, there is little about “Broken Arrow” that points to anything that came before, so audacious is its modernity, and so strikingly accessible is its emotional pulse.

Robertson, even on songs of bruising vulnerability like “It Makes No Difference,” never seemed inclined to be so completely open. (A sudden stampede, for instance, serves to break the tension in the latter.) Not so here, as Robertson uses some well-placed First Nation symbolism to frame his desirous longing, and then allows himself an almost unconscious tumble into that feeling — something underscored by that canny placement of a repetitious melody against a syncopated beat.

He’s never sounded more confidential, more up close, more raw and present. In this way, Robertson achieved something he’d clearly set out to do with Robbie Robertson: Make a recording that revealed new things about his songwriting, without getting lost in a maze of reminesence. At the same time, he was opening the door into deeper explorations of his feelings as a Native American. It feels so personal, so interior, that subsequent attempts at interpretation by the Grateful Dead and (especially) Rod Stewart couldn’t help but fall flat.

“I was proud to rip open my chest and bare my soul,” Robertson said at the time. “I’m not embarrassed to talk about these things anymore. Do you know what a skin walker is? It’s a thing in Indian mythology. There are certain people born with this gift, and they’re able to actually get inside you and mess with your feelings and with your mind. And if a skin walker chooses to get a hold of you, there’s not much you can do. I want a song to get inside me, to feel it did the old skin walker on me. I was kind of discovering that on this album, and now I’m pursuing it.”

Here, elsewhere on “Hell’s Half Acre,” and later on the albums Music for the Native Americans and Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, Robertson tried to transform his age-old desire to advance tradition into a new era — something that was surely familiar to anyone who wore out their original copy of Music from Big Pink. But his willingness to speak from the heart? That was what gave these moments a new resonance.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso