Jawbone (1969)

The Band

Written by Richard Manuel and J.R. "Robbie" Robertson
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Jawbone Dank Levon Manuel

Three-fifths of The Band, left to right: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel

A lot of lip-smackin’ goodies were hauled in from the paw-paw patch of The Band’s self-titled second album, commonly called The Brown Album.

Some have achieved lasting fame in the mainstream – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and to a lesser extent, “Up On Cripple Creek” and “Rag Mama Rag.” It also gave us the religiously raucous “Look Out Cleveland.”

The Band wasn’t a hit-making group, relying instead on the musical version of the inside game of baseball.

The four-minute history of Rock-N-Roll

“Jawbone” is a sparkler from the album, an eccentric song sketch about a kookie career thief wrapped neatly inside a four-minute history lesson on American Rock-N-Roll. There are also relaxed side excursions through the Blues, Country Funk, steamboat Dixieland tent-revival shouting and moaning, and almost every other genre you can imagine.

Swirling around, too, is a marked sense of humor, tongue-in-cheek, hoof-in-mouth, hangin’-round-the-whiskey-still humor.

A wizened, admonitory voice sings the verses while Jawbone himself proudly and ridiculously replies in the choruses.

Jawbone The Band TimeOh, Jawbone, when did you first go wrong?
Oh, Jawbone, where is it you belong?

A three-time loser, you’ll never learn
Lay down your tools before you burn 
Ya keep on runnin’ and hidin’ your face
Spreadin’ your heat all over the place 

I’m a thief, and I dig it!
I’m up on a beef, I’m gonna rig it!
I’m a thief, and I dig it!

Part of the instrumental arrangement is ingeniously constructed to sound as if someone is ranging through the night, step by step under the cover of darkness. Levon Helms’ and Rick Danko’s howling, yip-yipping Country harmonies jostle in tight synch with Richard Manuel’s pleading, cajoling lead vocals. (Manuel also contributes a rollicking piano that punches up the humor considerably.)

Old Jawbone ain’t just a thief. He’s a proud, reckless, vain small-timer feeding on corn pone and adrenalin. The verse’s punchline tells us the opposite of what we might expect from a burglar’s state of mind:

Sneak through the night up on your toes
To look in your eye, it never shows [that]
Your name up on the post office wall
Puts you on edge ’cause they wrote it too small!

Jawbone Rich Manuel

Richard Manuel: I’m a thief and I dig it…

On top of that, he’s a guy bent on revenge.

We don’t really know why, Could it be simply for being an outcast? For being forced to steal and cheat? Or will it be the kind of revenge that will drive him to commit a crime even more outrageous so he gets bigger billing in the post office?

The subject matter is unique in the annals of Rock-N-Roll. Then again, so are the group’s “The Weight,” “Stage Fright,” and a later, folky piece about the French-Canadian diaspora called “Acadian Driftwood.”

The title character is also apparently prone to choosing pretty bad partners in crime, turning the adage about “honor among thieves” on its ear.

Oh, Jawbone, revenge stays on your mind
Oh, Jawbone, you been doin’ too much time

Pull off a job with an inside man
Who needs the cash and likes your plan
Then you will know just who to thank
When ya land right back in the tank!

The chorus is repeated with even more gusto. Then Robbie Robertson uplifts “Jawbone” with one of the finest, most intense guitar solos in the history of Rock.

It lasts a scant 25 seconds, but in it the listener hears the whole sweep of American rural music from the Ozarks to the Smokeys to Memphis, and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. The entire time the iron skillet is scorching hot. The whole band cooks around these 16 bars, give or take, with an almost barbaric fervor. The only off note comes when you find yourself wishing it was a three or four minute break between the vocals.

Ever so smoothly, the five merciless musicians come back to the verse, with the singer-sage beseeching Jawbone one last time, almost in a medicine show pitch:

Jawbone brown albumOh, Jawbone, why don’t’cha go on home?
Oh, Jawbone, where is it you belong?
Boostin’ and goin’ out on the lam
Ya know that you’ll steal
anything that you can

Temptation stands just behind that door
So what you want to go and open it for?

What else could Jawbone reply?

A short coda sets the tune down as gently as if it were an heirloom being laid away in a drawer on an eider-down pillow. Without stretching a point, “Jawbone” is a keepsake itself.

It’s precious not fragile, rough around the edges the way great Rock-N-Roll ought to be.

It is most definitely a song to preserve for the ages.

  • Robbie Robertson on the American South and music: “To me it was like the middle of the wagon wheel of rock ‘n’ roll – that area around Memphis, where all those people came out of – and I thought it was such a powerful rock ‘n’ roll medicine in a sense.”
  • Robertson, this time on Woodstock and The Catskills in New York State: “I think [my songs] were influenced by the ambience. I don’t think I would have written the same songs that I wrote up there if I had been living in the city. I felt a little easier about things.”

Also by The Band on SongMango.com:

  • 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.
  • Look Out ClevelandRobbie Robertson gives a veritable school lesson in Rock-N-Roll guitar history and influences.