Rod Stewart’s 1991 cover of Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow” (download) is perhaps the biggest hit that I’ll cover in my series. The third single off of Rod’s Vagabond Heart album, “Broken Arrow” peaked at #20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart and #3 on the AC chart, and the video (featuring Rod’s latest blonde at the time, Rachel Hunter), was a staple for months on both MTV and VH1, (yes, yes, back when they actually played videos). It could be assumed that the reason Rod gives such a heartfelt performance here is because of his love for Ms. Hunter at the time of its recording. For, while it is true that Stewart has moved from woman to woman throughout his life at almost regular intervals, it does seem that for the period of time that he is with his latest paramour, he is genuinely in love. And judging by his performance on this track, Stewart must have been quite smitten with Hunter.
In “Broken Arrow,” like many of his performances discussed in this series, Rod once again gingerly walks the tightrope of his most obvious vocal impulses of this period — screaming and whispering — without tipping over the edge. In the original Rolling Stone review for Vagabond Heart, Don McCleese states that Rod “doesn’t quite connect” with the song, but I don’t agree. I think McCleese probably got sidetracked by two things about the recording — things that in my opinion actually show the strengths of Rod’s performance.
First of all, even with a rather generic power-ballad production that almost urges him to take it over the top, Stewart remains rather restrained, preferring to focus his emotions on providing the words with appropriate inflection, rather than just belting them. Notice for instance in the last chorus: how he delivers the steady rhythm of notes down the scale on the words “bottle of rain,” almost like the steady rhythm of rain itself. Likewise, the similar metaphor of “moving across the water” actually purveys a sense of motion. More than the arrangement, it is Rod’s vocal prowess here that makes the song his own.
That gets us to the second thing that I think critics have gotten sidetracked on regarding the song, and that’s the composer, Robbie Robertson. When Steve Pond reviewed Robertson’s self titled 1987 album-his first album since he had left The Band more than a decade before-he stated “Robbie Robertson’s voice is the only voice for these songs.” In 1991, the critical re-mythologizing of Robbie Robertson was still in effect (and would last through Robertson’s Storyville album that same year, before the reins were pulled back a little), and any performance that Stewart was going to give a Robertson song would then be critically held up to a version that already had its “perfect” voice. How could Rod win?
In fact, I’m surprised, given the ego-stroking he had been receiving, that Robertson even let Stewart record his song, given both Stewart’s less than stellar critical reputation, as well as the simple fact that Robertson is just a major dick. In fact, if you look up “major dick” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, I believe it has a picture of Robbie Robertson giving the finger to Levon Helm with one hand while calling in reservations at Nobu with the other. I imagine that if Stewart actually went to see Robertson in person about the song, it probably went something like this:
Rod Stewart: Hey Robbie, I…
Robbie Robertson: No.
RR: You can’t cover “Broken Arrow.”
RS: Why not?
RR: Because you’re Rod Stewart.
RS: What’s that got to do with it?
RR: You’ll ruin it. Haven’t you seen my reviews? People not only love my songwriting; they’ve finally come around and realized that I’m the only one who should have been singing my songs all along.
RS: Oh come on. I’ll put it out as a single. You’ll make lots of money.
RR: Will money pay for the embarrassment? What’ll I tell Marty Scorsese? Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got courtside seats for the Knicks game.
RS: Oh, a sports fan? I happen to own my own football team…that’s soccer for you on this side of the pond.
RR: Well, what of it?
RS: Well, I also play for them sometimes….
[Rod turns away from Robbie, then flips, and launches an exquisite bicycle kick…right into Robertson’s balls]
RS: How’s about that?
RR: (writhing in pain): Yeah…you make an excellent point…I look forward to hearing your version.
So to sum up: Stewart’s performance on “Broken Arrow” is really good. Stewart’s soccer skills: Probably quite good. Robbie Robertson’s balls: hopefully quite sore. See you next week!