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.
By 1960, Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins was teetering awfully close to obscurity: his cousin Dale had scored a hit with "Suzie-Q," but Ronnie had watched the sun set on the short-lived rockabilly heyday. Hawkins had found that the folks up in Canada were wild for anything from American that rocked even slightly and authentically, and moved his show to Toronto and the Canadian circuit and took with him a hillbilly kid from Arkansas named Levon Helm. Robertson, who loitered around Hawkins' shows, became enamored of the Hawk and Helm especially, and signed on when a replacement was needed.
Helm brought Robertson back with him to Arkansas, and the trip transformed Robertson, giving life to images and sounds and smells that seemed foreign to a boy from the other side of the mountains. When he first came to the United States, he was an awestruck teenager seduced by the rural backwoods of West Helena, Arkansas, and the music he heard coming from the bushes and barns.
"I am eternally looking for the thing that impressed me first and foremost about music," Robertson says. "I would listen to it and it would give me chills, and it would take me somewhere that I didn't know I wanted to go."
It would forever give him the outsider's perspective, like the tourist to whom every dirty road seems like Main Street and every rotting house appears as a great landmark; as he once said of first seeing the Mississippi River in 1960, "If I'd grown up down there, I'd probably have said, 'Well, this looks a little muddy to me.' But I thought, 'My God! The mighty Mississippi! Right there!'" A few years later, that experience would surface in the dozens of songs written for The Band that, in the early '60s, was still just a band.
Not long after Danko, Manuel, and Hudson were signed up in slow succession, the backup band figured it was good enough to go its own way. One Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks track shows up on Across the Great Divide--a blistering, possessed version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," recorded in March 1963. Already, Robertson sounded twice his age on lead guitar: he had the prowess of one-time competitor Roy Buchanan, the flair of James Burton, the growl of Muddy Waters down cold, and he stomps all over Hawkins.
Two other Hawks tracks--the previously unreleased "Do the Honky Tonk" by Don Robey and Robertson's "He Don't Love You," both credited to Levon Helm and the Hawks--were done without the bossman and gave the first indication that these five men had within them some tremendous music that couldn't be contained within one genre.
1968's Music from Big Pink and The Band the following year remain two of the greatest records ever recorded, and each is well-represented on Across the Great Divide. Twenty-five years after the fact, they now sound like short stories set to unnameable music--sketches of America past (the Civil War, the mythical Cripple Creek) and present, paintings of a landscape we take for granted but which Robertson and his Bandmates saw brand-new through innocent eyes. It's ironic, if not sad, that it takes Canadians like The Band and Neil Young and Cowboy Junkies to interpret our culture and hand it back to us purer and clearer than when they got hold of it.
Though each member was equally important to the chemistry of The Band--without Danko or Manuel or Hudson or especially Helm, the legends likely would have remained anonymous--Robertson was the principle songwriter of The Band and, though he sang only three songs throughout their 16 years together (with Hawkins, with Bob Dylan in the mid-'60s, then as The Band), his was the voice heard loudly in the mix. Robertson says The Band could have easily been titled America, and one need look no further than the song "Across the Great Divide" to see why. As Greil Marcus wrote in his startling essay 1975 "The Band: Pilgrims' Progress," the title itself contained a dual meaning--"The Great Divide is where the two sides of the country separate," Marcus wrote, "but is also where the two sides meet."
That song and the rest that follow, he continued, "are meant to cross the great divide between men and women; between the past and present; between the country and the city; between the North and the South; between The Band and their new audience." And, he stressed, it was always a celebration of discovery of a land the natives ignore, but one in which The Band found great hope and inspiration. The boxed set is almost like a history book and travel guide set to this immense and inescapable music.
But if The Band presented the possibility that "there are still open spaces out there," as Good Times editor Marvin Garson told Marcus on the eve of The Band's debut at San Francisco's Winterland in 1969, Robertson's solo albums (even Music for "The Native Americans," which is the richest and most detailed of the three) are like listening to music made by a claustrophobic in a small room. They are dense, at best, so thick and closed-off there's no room for a listener to ever step foot inside the music.
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 clich: "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.
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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.