I had three songs in mind for this post. Strangely enough, they share a common theme – the sea. Being a New Zealander (and an Aucklander in particular) I have spent most of my life surrounded by the ocean. In this instance however, what draws me to these songs is the response it elicits from songwriters and musicians alike. On one level or another we all still have a strong connection to elemental forms, and water is as potent an element as any. It is therefore no surprise that so many artists have tapped into this universal wellspring.
I will come to the other songs in due course, but I want to focus this week on “Sail Away” by Rick Roberts. Sail Away appears on Rick Roberts’ debut solo album, “Windmills”, released in 1972. Roberts was fresh from his time with The Flying Burrito Brothers, where he had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of Gram Parsons. Roberts brought more of a folk rock sound to the Burritos, further removed from the group’s country roots which Parsons had founded the band upon. While the band began to fade, Roberts was coming into his own both as a writer and performer.
“Windmills” has a very relaxed feel, as if everyone involved was simply playing music for the sheer enjoyment of it. The songs and performances are all the better for it. There are a number of superlative tracks, but for me “Sail Away” is the standout song. Roberts tells his story as if it was an old fashioned folk tale, giving the song an authentic touch almost without the listener realising it.
“Sail Away” is a love letter but also a farewell. Stories of the sea often tell of sailors and the choices they make between the love of a woman and the lure of the sea. The scene is a departure – hard decisions have been made, final farewells are being said. It is a gentle parting, both the man and woman trying to spare the other’s feelings:
Still he tells her it is not goodbye, She knows he is only trying to spare the sorrow of the word goodbye So she in turn spares him her crying
And if she feels the pain, it cannot be seen
The pace of the song captures the feel of the ship and the ocean. One can easily hear the guitar, drums and piano acting as ship, sea and wind. There is a deliberate pace and movement that mimics the ship’s departure on rolling seas. Roberts’ guitar is soothing, almost hypnotic in its rhythm.
Both sailor and lady stand helpless, watching their lives drift apart. The reverie is only broken by the lady’s desperate plea:
Man of the ocean, man of the sea She said ‘Do you ever dream of me?’
Almost as if in response to this, our sailor turns his focus to his duties and his gaze to the horizon, away from her:
So hoist the mainsail boys, I think it’s time we were away The wind is coming up, the tide is turning on the wave The sailor bends his back and shuts his eyes All his dreams now are fading
Roberts is careful to emphasise key words as a reflection of the mood – ‘sorrow’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘(fading) dreams’ appear several times. Both protagonists finally accept their parting with grace, if not a touch of regret. Roberts gives both a moment of realisation and finality:
All his dreams now are fading It’s not the last time he will say goodbye He turns his back on the lady
And for her:
So she vows there’ll be no sorrow And if she feels the pain, it cannot be seen There’ll be another ship tomorrow
As if to affirm the courage of their convictions, Roberts sings for each a touching, achingly beautiful “So sail away“. All energies are now lent to departure:
“Sail away, sail away, sail away!”
The wind rises and Jane Getz’s gorgeous piano carries us to the horizon and beyond.
“Sail Away” is given greater poignancy by the fact that it was born out of experience. The song was inspired by Rick Roberts’ relationship with Michelle Wood, whom he met in Amsterdam. The album title “Windmills” was also inspired by her, and such is the impact she had on Rick, the album is dedicated to Michelle.
I like to call songs like “Sail Away” intimate epics – it tells a moving and extremely personal story on a stage of great breadth and majesty. Roberts wrote many great songs (including the wonderful ‘Colorado’) and went on to terrific success later in the decade with Firefall, but I don’t believe he wrote a better song than “Sail Away”. It is a beautifully written song, and for me, a masterpiece.