Divide and Conquer
Robbie Robertson Throws History into the Bonfire
by Robert WilonskyThis article first appeared in The Dallas Observer, May 1998.
Copyright © 1998 Robert Wilonsky, New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
And so it was left to his mother's people to raise him during summers and other days spent away from his native Toronto, where he and Mom lived. On the Six Nations Reservation near the Canada-U.S. border, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, Robbie grew up listening to the beating of tom-toms, the blowing of flutes, the chanting of ancient hymns. They provided the soundtrack to his childhood, the inextricable memories that stayed with a little boy until they came back to haunt a middle-aged man.
For years, Robbie Robertson had nothing to do with that music: As the chief songwriter and guitarist for the world's greatest rock and roll group -- The Band, and never was one more simply, aptly named -- he wrote music so oddly contrary to those early sounds. He penned songs about Civil War soldiers and survivors; he wrote about train engineers, sharecroppers, and other lost Americans trying to survive life on the Great Divide. It all seemed so diametric to his upbringing: an Indian boy eulogizing Civil War soldiers, celebrating a past that was anything but kind to his own people.
Perhaps that's why his brand-new record Contact From the Underworld of Redboy -- a stirring, evocative album that kick-starts primordial melodies into a techno-ambient present -- is the thing that is, for now, closest to his heart. He speaks only about the record during an hour on the phone -- about how it represents to him a reconnection with his childhood past, how it stirs in him a feeling he didn't even know he had, how it brings close all the things he thought he had long since abandoned. If his records with The Band were modern American masterpieces (made by a gang of Canadians, no less, and their Arkansas ally), then Contact is the sound of a child returned home a wiser, wearier old man.
"I don't know if [my career] has a logical flow, but I remember as a kid hearing the stories from the older folks talking a lot about the Circle," he says. "I remember hearing this thing, like, The sun's a circle, the moon's a circle, the earth's a circle, your soul's a circle, everything in this life happens in a circle, and from where you start out, you can go all the way around the mountain, but you will come back to where it all started. And I was like, 'Whatever -- circle, schmircle.' But eventually, I found myself right back where I started, not only in my life but in my music, and so I thought maybe this is just the way it works. I don't even know what makes the path go in that direction. You have some control over it, but some of it has direction of its own. I don't like to get too heady about the destiny quest, but some of it's true."
Contact From the Underworld of Redboy is an odd, hypnotic record that sounds less like a tangible collection of songs and more like a seamless swell of dreams. It begins with the sampled chant of a Pauite Nation girl, recorded by the Library of Congress in 1942, layered between beats and keyboard atmospherics; and it ends with Robertson whispering about what happens "just on the outskirts of civilization," waiting for friendly visitors from outer space. In between, he seems to visit every aspect of his Indian past, celebrating the dance, peyote ceremonies, ancient spirits; he even samples his myriad phone conversations with activist Leonard Peltier, jailed since 1976 for his alleged, and long-disputed, involvement in the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Contact is the most intriguing of Robertson's four solo records since The Band's dissolution in 1976 -- a dance record, first and foremost, produced by the likes of Howie B (who has worked with Tricky and U2) and Marius de Vries (Björk, Massive Attack). After two decades of crafting the best kinds of roots music with The Band, fashioning rock out of mandolins and organs and other archaic tools, Robertson took a long leap off a high cliff and decided the best way to honor his ancestors' music and heritage was to light it on fire and turn it into so much ceremonial ash and smoke.
"If I tried to describe to somebody the way I was hearing this record and what I was interested in doing on it, it probably wouldn't make much sense on paper," Robertson says. "But just with my experience and my instincts, I knew what I was doing. As we were making this record, the way that musicalities were together and how things just melted together like butter, it was really exciting. We felt like we were in a discovery process. Making this record, for the most part, was just magical. It has a life of its own."
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.)
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.
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."