By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Robbie Robertson, released in 1987, sounded like a Peter Gabriel album (appropriate because Gabriel performs on it and because it was produced by Daniel Lanois) and featured appearances by U2, Maria McKee, the BoDeans, and Gil Evans. Garth Hudson made a minor contribution playing keyboards on "American Roulette" and "Fallen Angel," the song written for Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko provided only background vocals on one cut, "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight."
If the songs dealt with many themes familiar to The Band's work, they were now humorless and more self-absorbed--less the idea of how this country affects us and more the notion of how it affects Robbie Robertson. It was as though Robertson was attempting to elevate his earlier work to a higher plain, to make art of what had become his burden. Only "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" (the "hit" single) came close to capturing the magic of the past, but it strayed too close to clichŽ: "I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land," he sang-spoke, relating, perhaps, his first trip to the South. But he fell back on images of magic and voodoo, of trances and spells, shrouding his theme in hamfisted metaphor and mood music. The same could be said of 1991's Storyville, a New Orleans-themed album, despite the appearance of Neville Brothers and myriad other Crescent City heroes.
During the decade between The Band and Robbie Robertson, he had fallen in with the likes of film composer Alex North (they worked together on the sound track to Carny in 1979, which Robertson co-wrote and starred in) and Martin Scorsese, who had directed The Last Waltz and became a running buddy throughout much of the '80s. Robertson scored Raging Bull in 1980, and assembled the sound tracks to The King of Comedy and The Color of Money, and he became intrigued by the impact of writing music to accompany specific ideas and actions.
On top of that, when John Fogerty released Centerfield in 1986, Robertson almost recoiled in horror and fascination: it sounded as though not a day had passed since Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Robertson wondered how nothing could come into Fogerty's life to affect his music.
"It wasn't that I was trying to make a record that did not sound like The Band," Robertson explains of his solo debut. "I was just doing what I did then. It's not like nothing had happened over that period of time. Just pickin' and singin' and 'You play a little riff and then this chorus,' that wasn't appealing to me anymore. I was looking for these bursts of emotions and colors and things to complement the music, and more exotic rhythms, and more drama in the music. I'm very curious, and I am game."
Curiously, while Robertson can see the threads in his work--the search for place and identity that leads, quite naturally, from Music from Big Pink through Music for "The Native Americans"--he does not like to "intellectualize" the themes. Perhaps one day he'll "write about them and think about them," he says, but to do so now might stifle the process.
"I'm just on this train that keeps going down the track, and I can only deal with where I am at the time," he says. "I don't know how to get off the train, and someday when I'm able to get off the train I think that I'll be able to see where I've been.