By Jim Schutze
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One has to wonder what Robbie Robertson thought. Robertson has long stayed away from performing on television, but there he was on David Letterman's Late Show last Thursday, performing the haunting "Ghost Dance" from his new album Music for "The Native Americans," backed by a band that featured Rita Coolidge. As Letterman crossed the Ed Sullivan Theater stage to shake Robertson's hand and thank him for performing, Paul Shaffer suddenly launched into a note-for-note performance on the organ of Robertson's 26-year-old song "Chest Fever" from The Band's Music from Big Pink, the landmark album that baffled and thrilled the music world with its complexity and stark beauty.
The show went to commercial before you could see Robertson's reaction to the bandleader's choice of fade-out music, but Robertson has long made it clear The Band is, for the most part, a thing of the past. He showed up when The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, but has not performed with his old mates since he bowed out with "The Last Waltz" concert in 1976 and the contract-fulfilling Islands the following year. He did not even make it when The Band played Madison Square Garden in 1992, honoring old pal and one-time collaborator and boss Bob Dylan.
When drummer-singer-mandolinist Levon Helm got The Band back together in 1984, again in 1985, and then for the "reunion" album Jericho last year, Robertson was replaced by several musicians. The rest of the guys--Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel--needed the money, and Robertson gave them his blessing, but even an outsider could smell the stench of humiliation that follows an oldies band around. The suicide of Band pianist-singer Richard Manuel--who hung himself in a Florida hotel on March 4, 1986, during one such tour--was the final proof of the indignity such money-grubbing creates.
But now, Robertson finds himself in an odd position. A few weeks ago, he released Music for "The Native Americans," his third solo album and one recorded for the recent TBS series of the same name. For Robertson, a Canadian who came to this country as a wide-eyed teenager and remained here as one of the United States' greatest chroniclers, the record is a great personal triumph and the end of a spiritual journey that began almost 50 years ago--when his mother, a Mohawk Indian, would take her little boy to the Six Nations Reservation north of Lake Erie and let him hear the sounds made by the tribal musicians, sounds that encompassed ancient rhythms and Lefty Frizzell all at once.
"I had a chance to plunge head first into this record," he says, "and with a great feeling of, 'It's about time, and that I need to do this.' It gives me the chance to express a whole lot of things I've been carrying around inside me and it's a grand feeling. When you do what I do, to be able to tap into a source like that and use it feels really, really good. It's almost like a weight off your shoulders."
And yet this week Capitol Records is also releasing Across the Great Divide, a three-disc boxed-set that reminds even the most casual listener that once upon a time, a band existed that crafted these exquisite, transcendent songpoems that stand unscathed by the passing of time. No matter what his solo career spawns, The Band will forever remain Robertson's great legacy: they are legends to all who remember the songs--"Up on Cripple Creek," "Whispering Pines," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," "The Weight," "Across the Great Divide," and dozens more--five men (four Canadians, one American) who were able to blend every single note ever heard of American music. Folk, gospel (white or black), ragtime jazz, rockabilly, doo-wop, bebop, pop, Beach Boys, spirituals, country, blues--never before, and never since, had one group been able to integrate so many types of music and somehow make them all sound so right and so totally original.
But, Robertson says, "I'm not interested in doing what I did with The Band. I loved it, and when I was putting together The Band boxed set I thought, 'God, these guys put a whole new spin on the ball.' It was a completely new way of making records, musicianship unlike any other band before or since, the nature of the songs, all of it. And this was without anybody ever discussing originality. We never did anything where someone said, 'Let's do that because it would be more original.' We just did what we did, and it made me feel wonderful having the opportunity to re-listen to that music. But I can't do that anymore. I just can't. I don't know how to."
Robertson's first, greatest exposure to American music--black American music--was through the mighty WLAC-AM out of Nashville, which somehow managed to wiggle its 50,000-watt signal through the States and find Robertson in Canada (future Bandmates Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel also would dial up the station every night). On that station he heard the piercing guitar of Jimmy Reed, the fatback blues of Muddy Waters, the pristine harmonies of Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters; once Elvis came around, then Jerry Lee and the rest of the Memphis gang, Robertson was in and out of a dozen bands (with names like Robbie and the Robots and Thumper and the Trambones) till he eventually got the job of a lifetime.
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