Look Out Cleveland (1969)
The Band occupies an exalted place in the history of Rock-N-Roll. To term them offhandedly as a “roots music” group is like terming Babe Ruth a baseball player or Michael Jordan a basketball player. The Band was so good at playing pure American music – you would have to say “North American” because of their primarily Canadian background – that it is often forgotten that they are among the top-10 Rock-N-Roll bands of all time. It is remarkable given their relatively small output.
In a year that overflowed with an embarrassment of musical riches, 1969, The Band (Brown Album) stands out. It was the year that gave us Abbey Road, three Creedence albums, Led Zepplin II, James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, CS&N’s first album, and The Stones’ Let It Bleed.
“Look Out Cleveland”
“Look Out Cleveland” stands high in the list of creds that puts The Band in the stratospheric range. It vaults out of the starting blocks with a hammering beer-hall piano and a series of throwaway chords from writer/guitarist Robbie Robertson on lead that signals not only its dense thicket of Americana but screams Rock-N-Roll loud, fast, brief and true.
Levon Helm drums his Arkansas heart out on the number, having tuned his wooden kit flat without any reverb, handing the listener the sound of critters chomping away in the hayloft, crunchy, dry and ready to make the hay bales burst into flames. His work resonates deeply but is smoothly reserved. Rick Danko, aside from playing a joyously bouncy bass line, provides sincere, dismayed, admonishing lead vocals that are joined in harmonic Rock-A-Billy chorusing by Levon.
Richard Manuel pounds out a tremendously sticky piano line throughout that helps hold the runaway song together. Garth Hudson chips in with his typically wonderful mad, circus calliope organ play, adding a festive air to the proceedings. A word or two more about Robertson’s guitar playing in a moment.
The best thing about “Look Out Cleveland” musically is that it is essentially played live in the studio with minimal overdubbing (horns). (The “studio” was actually at the West Hollywood home of Sammy Davis, Jr., rented for the purpose – the pool-house was actually made into the studio.)
Because the song refers to Houston in the chorus, we can safely assume that the Cleveland in the song is not the one in Ohio, but rather the town northeast of the big city of the Lone Star State. Cleveland back then, was a sleepy railroad junction of 2,000 souls. Today it is essentially a suburb of Houston. Between hurricanes and tornadoes, it has plenty of storms to go around.
Without a doubt, there is a strain of biblical retribution hanging about “Look Out Cleveland,” but more fundamentally it is a song that captures the chaos of an approaching big storm in a small town. People run around without purpose, while misinformation and wrong-headed advice are freely doled out and late-to-the-cellar images flash.
As the heavy weather approaches – whether it is apocalyptic or only a royal pain in the ass – the music intensifies just as a storm would. One of the great skills The Band has is to take the mundane, inflate it to the archetypal, then deflate it in order to bring it back down to earth again. Additionally, there is often some aw-shucks humor in their songs, a slight tongue-in-cheek attitude that is like a swirl of decorative icing on a scrumptious homemade red velvet cake.
Look out, Cleveland, storm is comin’ through
And it’s runnin’ right up on you
Look out, Houston, there’ll be thunder on the hill
Bye-bye, baby, don’t ya lie so still
Was Wednesday evenin’ when first we heard
(heard a word)
It did not come by train nor bird
T’was when Ben Pike stepped down to say
“This old town’s gonna blow away”
There you have one of the captivating lyrical touches Robertson always seems to throw in. The Band’s songs are populated with characters. In this case, Ben Pike; the justice of the peace; and later on, the nursery rhyme’s old woman who lived in a shoe pop on and off stage.
Robertson is one of the underappreciated guitarists in Rock history. This can only be attributed to the established record that shows he wasn’t flashy, rarely played long solos (to our listening impoverishment) and was willing – on the guitar anyway – to be one of five members of a road-weary, road-polished ensemble.
In “Look Out Cleveland,” he gives a veritable school lesson in Rock-N-Roll guitar history and influences. George Harrison and Eric Clapton’s styles show up in one verse.
The Who’s Jon Entwistle’s heavy-fingered “lead bass” method shows up in each of the choruses, adding emphasis to the words “Look out, Cleveland, storm is comin’ through.” (Robertson admittedly gets a big assist from Danko’s bass on the effort.) Chuck Berry’s influence pokes its nose in – a la “Back In The U.S.A.” – here and there. Carl Perkins is smiling down on the session. Don Gibson’s hiccoughing guitar is in there, too.
“Jemima Surrender,” another quiet Robertson guitar masterpiece – listen to the break at 1:50
None of that comes at the expense of Robertson’s own signature playing, which, as he rocks on, is generally part Country and part Jazz, understated, transcontinental and transcendental. He sounds as if he has become a weathervane that reverberates on its perch from on high over rural America. Robbie is one of a kind and belongs high on any list of the top-20 guitarists of all time.
To complete this turn at superb song-making, “Look Out Cleveland” closes with an 8-bar “break” that crunches to a halt like an old pick-up stopping for a line of goats crossing a Country lane. Best of all, the fun is crammed into 3 minutes and 10 seconds just like an old-fashioned 45-rpm vinyl record.
It all irresistibly thrusts “Look Out Cleveland” into the category of truly great classic Rock songs.
- “You can feel the wood in this record!” Robbie Robertson once said.
- “They had very few ego problems,” said John Simon who worked on The Band (Brown Album). “None of The Band’s members cared who played what instrument. Whatever worked for the song was good. They’d been playing together for years and were consummate musicians.”
Also by The Band on SongMango.com:
- JawboneA sparkler, an eccentric song sketch about a kookie thief wrapped neatly in a 4-minute history lesson of American Rock-N-Roll.
- Don't Do ItA shining alien-metal flower pushes through a magical garden of weeds, beaming in the noonday sun.
- The WeightThe Band pulled back from psychedelic, hard-rocking veins that had been popping on the forehead of Rock to return to something simpler.