David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 279: Robbie Robertson (Between Trains)

August 30, 2023

Today, we are between trains (destinations, Clarksville and Georgia) with the train trilogy. We are in a station populated by Robbie Robertson, or maybe the ghosts of Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel. Hard to believe 4/5th of The Band have passed away. Since Robertson passed away earlier this month, I have seen any number of lists naming his best songs. The little known "Between Trains" never shows up. As I result, I have to question how valid the list is.

"Between Trains" was on The King of Comedy soundtrack, previously memorialized by me for Van Morrison (Day 10). That is the only place you can find it; no wonder, it keeps getting overlooked.

Once The Band broke up, Robertson seemed permanently between trains. From 1977 until 1987, he was very quiet, doing soundtrack work but no solo albums or collaborative albums until his self-titled album. Even though Robertson had been a contributor to the soundtrack for "Raging Bull," this original song (at least with lyrics) appears to be the first original song written and produced after The Band's The Last Waltz. As a result "Between Trains" is almost perfectly centered between the last strains of The Last Waltz (pick a date between November 1976 and April 1978 for the official end of The Band, recognizing that the most forgettable Islands did come out between The Last Waltz concert and The Last Waltz album) and the release of 1987's Robbie Robertson.

"Between Trains" articulated the enigma that was the leader of one of rock and roll premier bands not really fitting in anywhere, notably from the beginning, "I ain't no cowboy/I just look like one," a nod as much toward his legacy of music with The Band that was one part country & western, one part folk, one part rock, and one part rhythm & blues. (And one part just "The Band" as something inextricably always seemed hard to pin down.) In fact, Robertson may have not quite been able to give up The Band, as he brings the old bearded one, Garth Hudson, to amp up the keyboards. How could we fail to hear a trademark Hudson swirl right at the end of the second stanza? Robertson also recruits the sweet voice of Richard Manuel to fill out the vocals, most notable in the bridge. I wasn't particularly into The Band until later in life, but I wonder if obsessed fans at the time listened to "Between Trains," noting these collaborations and wondered if The Band might reunite.

Lyrically, though, "Between Trains" is all about uneasy independence. At the start of the second stanza, Robertson asserts "I ain't no loner/I just work alone," seemingly apt for a man who had spent the first part of his career in a band so collective that it was simply "the band" (if I am repeating some of Day 7: "The Weight," my apologies. The point is necessary to see Robertson between trains). "There ain't no place where there's a home I could claim," he goes on to sing, leaving us with this image of a hobo hanging around the tracks.

One wonders how revealing Robertson intends to be, then, with the later verse claiming,

I ain't no soldier/but I've been to war/

I done some killin'/all I kill anymore are these pains.

Is he indirectly accepting some responsibility for the dissolution of The Band? Given what Levon Helm wrote about Robertson and The Last Waltz in This Wheel's On Fire, claiming that Robertson's almost egomaniacal oversight of The Last Waltz effectively broke up The Band, is this Robertson's first public confession to some role in that break-up? Befitting a man who can't choose his station, Robertson's song leaves us with just the question. After all, whether deliberate or not, Helm didn't make the "Between Trains" cut.

Sadly, "Between Trains," as well as the eclectic soundtrack to The King Of Comedy, remained out of print until 2016, when it was released on CD. If 5 years had been a long time between trains, 30 years was almost unacceptable. With Robertson now sadly deceased, I wonder how his last wishes were handled.

In "Between Trains," he sang, "so when I'm gone/just lay my remains/somewhere between trains." The very creepy website "Find A Grave" lists his burial information as "burial details unknown." I suspect there are a lot of Robertson fans following the rails trying to find that spot between trains.

Robertson, Robbie. "Between Trains." The King Of Comedy. Warner Brothers, 1983. Link here.

Day 278: Cassandra Wilson "Last Train To Clarksville"

Day 280: Gladys Knight & The Pips "Midnight Train To Georgia"

See complete list here.