Divide and conquer

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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.

Robertson's solo albums would never recapture the giddy release found on The Band's earliest records, but that was because Robertson had had enough of writing rock and roll. His 1991 Storyville, an homage to New Orleans, lacked Crescent City swing, but had a certain humid appeal; it sweated in a different kind of way. In 1994, he collaborated with the Red Road Ensemble to provide the music to Music For "Native Americans," a TBS-aired documentary, which put Robertson back in touch with the music of his youth and would lead to the eventual, inevitable Contact from the Underworld of Redboy. It's doubtful he will ever make another record using just bass and guitars and drums and vocals. That would be stepping backward, toward a sound too familiar, too comfortable. Instead, he will spend a few months remixing Contact into dance-floor B-sides and riding the wave until it crashes into something else.

Contact is, as Anthony DeCurtis noted recently in Rolling Stone, a "personal journey," music fashioned from knickknacks and artifacts Robertson gathered as he traveled from the reservation to Arkansas and back again. With its screaming, "fuck-you" guitars (as Robertson calls it) and its whispered drumbeats and its myriad guest vocals (from Rita Coolidge to Chief Jake Thomas to a pair of Inuit throat singers), Contact is the product of one man's fanaticism with history and his fetishism for technology. It's no more a history lesson than The Band's albums, no less one artist's giant step toward making tangible the stuff of vague dreams and clouded memory. In the end, Robertson has created a record for him and no one else, proof that you can go home again, if only to rebuild the old neighborhood.

"We all have this dance we must do," Robertson says. "I felt awhile back a longing for the dance, and I first took it out in literature, reading a lot of Native American stories. I immersed myself in Native literature, and that was fulfilling a certain part of watching the dance. But then you think, 'I don't want to watch, I want to dance myself.'

"With this project, I'm trying to stay in the moment, be kind of respectful. This has more to do with than just me. It has to do with the culture and a lot of other people involved, and I'm just enjoying the feeling I have right now. I refuse to talk to anyone about any other projects and think about what's around the bend. I don't want to think like that right now. This is my way of participating in the dance, being part of the ceremony of life.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky