Olympian Hero Worship
by George VecseyFrom the New York Times, February 9, 2002.
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company.
Everybody has a personal high point from the opening ceremony Friday night. Mine was Robbie Robertson. I really wasn't into all the turgid symbolism of the good old West, but I can always go for a good concert.
Sometimes your ears just perk up. I can be killing time just before the national anthem and suddenly there is Brantford Marsalis or Bruce Hornsby or, one time before a Braves game in Atlanta, a smashing woman with a gorgeous mane of gray hair. Be still, my pounding heart, that's Emmy Lou Harris! Makes your whole night.
That's how it was for me Friday, watching and hearing Robbie Robertson, who has been one of my favorite musicians since the late 60's. He wrote some of the best songs the Band ever recorded . "It Makes No Difference" and "Acadian Driftwood," just for openers . and his lead guitar made you want to dance or weep.
Robertson's a survivor, in his new life as a modern Native Canadian. Back then, he didn't talk much about being half Jewish and half Mohawk, and having spent his summers with his mother's family at the Six Nations Reserve in Canada. He didn't start writing and singing about that part of him until after the Band broke up on Thanksgiving night in 1976. He still performs and does albums and he even did a documentary on being a Native Canadian.
Friday night he sang with the Red Road Ensemble, a Native American band, as well as Rita Coolidge and her group, Walela (Hummingbird in Cherokee). Robertson did a song about singing out loud, being heard, an anthem for the first people of this continent. Five Utah nations wore their ceremonial outfits and even rode horses onto the ice at the opening ceremony, and Robertson sounded good.
A quarter-century after the Band broke up, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko are gone. Levon Helm wasn't well for a while, and Garth Hudson had financial problems recently, but Robbie's looking healthy.
One of the nice things about having a press badge is once in a great while you even get to talk to somebody you really admire. The other day they brought out some of the opening-ceremony talent for a press conference. There, behind the dark glasses, was Robbie Robertson.
Later, a few writers chatted him up in the corridor. The first question was whether he played hockey as a child in Toronto.
"A little," he said, "but I was never big on the frozen outdoors. I kept telling myself, `One of these days . one of these days . I'm not gonna have the ice on my face.' " So now he lives in California.
We asked Robertson whether Canadians resented the financial and cultural influence of the United States. He spent too much time observing Levon Helm's Arkansas take on the world to have any knee-jerk political prejudices. And he said he had absolutely no problem with American athletes carrying in the tattered World Trade Center flag last night.
"There's a lot of love and a lot of caring," Robertson said. "The most soulful thing you can say is, `Keep on doing what you do best.' "
He also said he was proud to represent the Six Nations Reserve. And he hoped his lips and fingers would not freeze.
"I hold these hand warmers right until it's time to go out," he said.
I wanted to tell him how much his music has meant to me, and that my grandson, George, who turns 5 tomorrow, can sing every word of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." But Robertson isn't much for small talk, which is cool. I'm going up to the mountains on Saturday. I'll put a Band tape in my headset. My Olympics are already a success.