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Robbie Robertson Rides Again : A Once-Prolific Rocker Gets Rolling Again With a Solo Album

November 01, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

"I wasn't sure I had anything more to say" is not the sort of thing you'd ever expect to hear out of a proud pop star's mouth.

And when someone once as prolific as Robbie Robertson--the chief creative force behind the Band in the '60s and early '70s and one of the most influential songwriters in rock history--swears he sat out an entire decade without ever once being struck with the urge to pen another tune, let alone record an album, you tend not to believe him.

Surely, occasional sound track work with director Martin Scorsese and spending time at home with the family couldn't have been enough to satisfy the creator of such soulful rock classics as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "The Weight."

But Robertson insists that it wasn't until 1986, almost 10 years after the Band's "Last Waltz" swan song, that the dormant muse finally returned and he commenced work on his first post-Band solo album, "Robbie Robertson" (released last week to rave reviews from hungry press and radio alike).

So what if during that time the folks who grew up with--and had their lives changed by--the Band were out there waiting for fresh output? To dissuade him from the studio, he had only to look to the product of some of his musical compatriots, who continued making more and more mediocre albums, year after year, because it was their job .

"I thought of a lot of people from the same era when I was making a lot of records that had continued making a lot of records," he says now with a chuckle. No naming names here. "A lot of it didn't seem terribly inspired. It gave me some evidence that my instincts were right. This isn't carpentry work, you know. You have to call upon something way inside, and if you can't reach it. . . ."

Nor was Robertson tempted to rejoin his former Band-mates when they reformed without him for several small tours--following the "Last Waltz" concert, movie and record, which purported to document the end of the Band as a touring unit. (One member, Richard Manuel, has since died--a suicide during one such Band "reunion" tour.)

But there's another intriguing--and, for artists, perhaps frightening--hypothesis about why Robertson chose to sit on the sidelines for so long: the suggestion that even in as new an art form as rock--or perhaps especially in rock--the musical elements may be a depletable resource.

"I don't think that it's an endless pit," he affirms. "Since this kind of music began--with Louis Jordan & the Timpani Five, with certain blues artists that were doing things everybody stole from, since the early '50s--a lot of the great lines, great melodies, great rhythms have been used up. And it means you have to search a little bit more.

"I'm writing and I think, 'Oh, I've heard this before. Somebody's already done this, or something like it.' . . . A lot of great ideas and a lot of great pieces of inspiration have been used up in this music. It's not an easy thing to say, that there are only so many stars in the sky. You think, 'Well, that's still a lot.' But over the last million years, a lot of them have been counted already. To find a new star in the sky is pretty hard."

What Robertson finally found he had "to say" anew at last had a great deal to do with his roots--not rock roots, but genetic ones.

At 44, Robbie Robertson still has one of the lowest hairlines in rock 'n' roll. With his normally fluffy 'do slicked back, his countenance can appear quite ... severe , despite his usually amiable demeanor.

Sitting in the office he keeps above a Los Angeles recording studio, Robertson reaches into a desk and pulls out a portrait of himself taken with a primitive camera in an early 20th-Century style, and points out the similarity of his profile to that of a legendary historical figure.

It seems that when he went to a New Mexico Indian reservation recently to shoot a video clip, some of the residents got a little restless, almost violent, even--because, he was later told, of his resemblance to Gen. George Custer, of all people.

Irony of ironies: Robertson's mother is an American Indian.

His interest in that culture--evidenced in new songs like "Broken Arrow" (a love song riddled with Indian symbolism) and "Hell's Half-Acre" (the story of a Native American sent to fight in Vietnam)--is no passing fancy, he assures.

As a boy, Robertson visited Indian reservations in Canada with his mother, and even now his office is adorned on all walls with paintings of and by American Indians. And when he sings "Come bear witness, the half-breed rides again" in the spirited closing song, "Testimony," it's a rare autobiographical allusion.

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