Divide and conquer

Robbie Robertson throws history into the bonfire

Time magazine referred to the Dylan-Hawks pairing as "the most decisive moment in rock history," which might have been the most appropriate bit of hyperbole ever offered in rock criticism. Playing with the Hawks liberated Dylan from his man-with-the-acoustic-guitar routine, and he'd never recover from the thrill; and playing with Dylan, whose idea of structure was having none, similarly freed the Hawks, who had spent years playing oldies-but-goodies with the anonymous journeyman Hawkins. As Levon Helm, who rejoined his old mates in 1967, told Barney Hoskyns, author of Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, "Bob's influence certainly helped us and encouraged us to play with a more personal style. By the time we came to do our own stuff, there were no longer any rules."

When Dylan wrecked his motorcycle in the summer of 1966, he reconvened the Hawks in upstate New York, where Dylan was working on a documentary titled Eat the Document; yet what came out of that partnership was far bigger than any movie--it was an ancient sound made brand-new, the stuff of rock and roll revolutions, music that has become so legendary, three decades later it's hard to hear it without the myth getting in the way. Dylan and The Band, as they would call themselves (these five men were inextricable from each other, a solid, solitary unit), turned their throw-away basement tapes into the Holy Text for all rock that followed in the 1960s and beyond.

The Band's own Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, and the following year's masterpiece, The Band, seem even now these exotic, mysterious gems. The songs contained on those two discs--and subsequent Basement Tapes, officially released years later--were funky, beautiful, time-warp grab-bag concoctions that sounded as though they were recorded by modern men during bygone times. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek," "To Kingdom Come," "Rag Mama Rag," "Daniel and the Sacred Harp," and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" were traditional American tales recast through Robertson's Canadian eyes; his was the most extreme brand of outsider rock, American country-blues made by a kid who learned about such sounds from the other side of the border.

Everyone sang everything, everyone played everything (from mandolin to organ to electric guitar), and everyone seemed so much a part of the complete picture; Robertson sang but three songs during his tenure with The Band, but he provided most every single word for Hudson, Manuel, Danko, or the mighty Helm to sing. Robertson created Helm's Virgin Kane of "Dixie" and the struggling farmer of "King Harvest" and all the other characters that populated The Band's first two albums; he linked the Civil War to the Depression (on the farewell Islands) to today and beyond.

"The songs were made to bring life to the fragments of experience, legend, and artifact every American has inherited as the legacy of a mythical past," Marcus wrote in his 1975 book Mystery Train, his attempt to connect The Band and Elvis and Randy Newman and Sly Stone to the whole history of past-and-future American music. "There is no feeling of being dragged into the past for a history lesson; if anything, the past catches up with us. Robbie put his stories on the surface, but they hit home because they draw the traces of that legacy out of each of us, bringing them down to the surface of our own lives."

Robertson, though, denies such grand aspirations now. When mention is made of the theories espoused over the years by Marcus (a friend of Robertson's), he chuckles and offers what's either honest self-effacement or just the brush-off of modesty.

"Whenever I wrote those songs back then or write these songs now, to be really honest, it's all I can think about at the time," he offers. "I wish it was as clever as Greil Marcus says." If nothing else, Robertson has little time--or desire--to dwell on that particular past. When the band danced its Last Waltz in 1976 and offered its half-thought contract-killer Islands, Robertson all but bid farewell to The Band. He would perform with his old mates only rarely, at various Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performances or on other grand stages, but once he and his old mates in the Hawks said good-bye, that was it.

He moved rather quickly into films, starring in and writing some of the music for 1981's Carny; he would also provide his good friend Martin Scorsese, who directed the dynamic The Last Waltz, with scores and source music for Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, and Casino. From a distance, he watched The Band turn into an oldies act, which hurt him but literally killed Richard Manuel, who hung himself in 1986 after a concert in Winter Park, Florida.

Robertson would pay homage to his lost friend on his 1987 solo debut, Robbie Robertson, with the song "Fallen Angel"; it was a moody, murky, evocative farewell--a good-bye without tears. Like the rest of the record, including the single "Somewhere Down the Crazy River," its emotions were to be found in the atmosphere, not in the words. Robertson the solo artist, now friends with film composer Alex North and Scorsese, was more into creating soundtracks and letting the listener fill in the blanks. That it sounded more like a Peter Gabriel/U2 record was hardly surprising: They appeared on the album, which was produced by both artists' frequent collaborator, Daniel Lanois, in his typically hazy custom.

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