Divide and conquer

Robbie Robertson throws history into the bonfire

There are those among the diehard Robertson fans who will think Contact a hopping-on-the-bandwagon record, techno for its own commercial sake; they will find the record cold to the touch, so unlike The Band's brand of warm folk-rock. But in the end, it's very much connected to the music Robertson made when he was driving old Dixie down when he was only in his 20s. Both The Band and Contact resurrected old black-and-white photographs, rendering in vibrant color what was once just muted gray.

But Robertson doesn't see the connection between The Band and his latest record--not because it isn't there, but because he doesn't like to intellectualize what's supposed to be an emotional process. "I'm superstitious about thinking it to death," he says. "I'm afraid if I understand it, I won't be able to do it anymore." He chuckles.

Three decades ago, The Band was an odd lot, four Canadian kids and an Arkansas peckerwood who cut their teeth backing a rockabilly has-been; if someone were to film The Band's story, it would make most sense as a John Ford Western, one of those movies about scruffy, dirty children learning the tricks of the trade from a grizzled veteran on last legs. They made their bones providing the train-wreck backbeat to Ronnie Hawkins' archaic boogie, perfecting their brand of American music at the feet of a guy who couldn't make a career in the States and ended up seeking shelter in the Great White North. Up there, frozen fans easily embraced any artist who came their way, and Hawkins was just the right/wrong guy at just the right moment--the cousin of a man more famous than he, Dale "Suzie-Q" Hawkins, just close enough to the real thing to pass for authentic north of the border.

Robertson was one of those kids who considered Hawkins The Real Thing--or an adequate facsimile, anyway--and he became especially fascinated with Hawkins' drummer, a scruffy Arkansas kid named Levon Helm. Robertson eventually joined up with their moveable rockabilly circus, then traveled with Helm to his hometown of West Helena, Arkansas, where the Canadian boy raised on an Indian reservation found his own version of the bluesman's crossroads in the banks of Helm's Mississippi River. By embracing someone else's music, someone else's culture, Robertson had begun to distance himself from the Native American music of his childhood; but he was enthralled by the rushing sounds of the Mississippi and the musical secrets contained in the water, not by the beating of drums. He wasn't running away from his heritage, but running toward his own destiny.

"When I did go on my musical mission quite young, there was some rebellious spirit there of wanting to discover who I was, not what my heritage was," Robertson says now. "And in the process of doing that, you shrug off [your heritage]. You're rebelling against anything you can get your hands on."

Not long after that trip to Arkansas, in 1962, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel would join the Hawks, and it didn't take long for the backup band to prove themselves far more talented than the man getting the biggest cut of the door. A few tracks from that era--including "Who Do You Love," "Do the Honky Tonk," and "He Don't Love You," all found on the 1994 boxed set Across the Great Divide--prove that Robertson was turning into a guitar hero at a novice's age, that Helm was becoming a hillbilly soul singer, and that the rest of The Band (then, still just a band) was outgrowing the tiny stages Hawkins would forever be stuck playing. Even Hawkins would later admit, upon hearing The Band's debut Music From Big Pink, that he wasn't a "good enough musician to understand" what they were up to.

By September 1965, the Hawks would leave Hawkins and end up providing the soundtrack to a revolution: They were the men helping Bob Dylan push folk music to its limits, turning up the volume loud enough to drown out the boos of those who shouted down Dylan as a villainous traitor trying to destroy their precious music. They were his compadres in the conspiracy--all save for Levon Helm, who quit in 1965 in "doubt and despair," writes Greil Marcus in his book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Robertson, Danko, Hudson, and Manuel were his allies in the war on the narrow-minded folkies who liked to protest in peace and quiet.

The audiences were children scared of the thunder, and bootlegs from that period document the angry crowds desperately trying to turn the tide, clapping and shouting at inappropriate moments. On one such illicit disc--the double-disc Guitars Kissing and The Contemporary Fix (recorded during a show in Manchester, England, and also known as the infamous Royal Albert Hall boot)--you can actually hear someone yell "Judas!" before Dylan and the Hawks rip all hell out of "Like a Rolling Stone," and the subsequent cheers of agreement are deafening and snide; it's as though they were daring him to a fight, bare knuckles and all. You can hear the defiant sneer in Dylan's voice when he snarls back: "I don't believe you." He fumbles with his strings for a moment, then spits out, "You're a liar." He then orders the band to play the standard "fuckin' loud," and the music they make is a thrilling train-wreck of anger and beauty. Never before or since has the song sounded so alive. (Columbia was supposed to release the album in 1995, but flinched.)

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