Native Intelligence

Robbie Robertson digs into his past so he can move into the future.

The Band (the handle the Hawks assumed in 1968) soon proved it didn't need Dylan to make great records. The outfit's bow, 1968's Music From Big Pink, was a fine introduction, and 1969's The Band, highlighted by "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," sounded even better; the album is so deeply rooted in the type of North American music Robertson first absorbed while north of the border that it stubbornly refuses to date. A handful of subsequent platters (especially 1970's Stage Fright and 1972's Rock of Ages) were also first-rate, and although a collaboration with Dylan on the 1974 studio platter Planet Waves didn't hit anticipated heights, the same year's live Before the Flood showed that the remarkable connection between Dylan, Robertson and the rest remained very much intact. But Robertson was becoming restless, and after staging The Last Waltz (which included guest appearances by Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Van Morrison) and participating in 1977's Islands, his final studio excursion with the Band, he set off on his own.

In the more than two decades since, Robertson has overseen the soundtracks for the Scorsese films Raging Bull, King of Comedy, The Color of Money and Casino; acted in 1979's Carny alongside Gary Busey and Jodi Foster and in 1994's The Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson; and put out two well-reviewed but modest-selling solo platters, 1987's Robbie Robertson and 1991's Storyville. But it was the opportunity to assemble the score for 1994's The Native Americans, a history of Native Americans made for the cable channel TBS, that laid the groundwork for Contact From the Underworld of Redboy and Making a Noise. All three efforts allowed Robertson to dive into the literal and metaphysical environments that helped shape him but that he wasn't always comfortable revisiting.

"When my mother was growing up, her aunt from Toronto told her, 'If you're going to get ahead, you need to lose the Indian thing,'" he says. "And when she'd go for a job or to meet people, her aunt said, 'Don't even bring up the Indian thing. That's the way it works out here in the world.' Now, when I was growing up, it wasn't like that; it wasn't like I was told 'You've got to hide this.' But her experiences, and the experiences of some of my other relatives, had a profound effect on me. There's a famous phrase that applies to this: 'Be proud that you're an Indian, but be careful who you tell.'"

When Robertson became a public figure, he didn't go out of his way to conceal his Indian heritage, but neither did he trumpet it. "In the Sixties there was this whole thing with the peaceniks and the beatniks and the hippies and all of that who wanted to go back to an Indian way of life--and even though they meant well about it, they didn't get it. So that made me feel better about things than I had, but still a little bit weird. And people would also make jokes. Not mean jokes--not redboy jokes--but jokes in regard to things that Indians are supposed to know, like, well, 'Why don't you ask Robbie? He's the Indian.' It wasn't mean-spirited, but nevertheless, it didn't make me say, 'Yeah, I'll cover that for you.' It made me think, don't bother me, please--because it wasn't the right kind of support or encouragement. And then there was the whole romanticism of things, where everyone thought of Indians in this completely romantic, corny, stereotypical, cliched kind of way--like the Indian on the hill with his arm raised against the sunset. That brought out a whole denial thing, a big guilt and denial thing."

Overcoming these feelings was a gradual process, Robertson says. "It wasn't a single incident at all, but a culmination of a whole bunch of things," he says. "I saw books starting to be published, and there was an openness that I could hear in people's conversations and attitudes that I could hear, and that was different from before. I could hear a respect factor--a respect for people who understood that God is the earth and the sky and the gift of life. It all added up to an awareness, a different kind of caring, and it made me believe that now would be the time to share some of the things that I've been carrying around with me my whole life. Because you can't share something if nobody else wants to share it. If that was the case, the idea of making a record and doing a documentary like this that would never be seen and never be heard would be too heartbreaking."

On Contact From the Underworld of Redboy, Robertson touches upon a slew of Indian-oriented themes: Witness "Sacrifice," featuring a spoken-word interlude by jailed activist Leonard Peltier; "The Code of Handsome Lake," a narrative that condenses a Six Nations legend about an eighteenth-century Seneca chief; and "Peyote Healing," which explores hallucinogenic rituals without exploiting them. Native musical textures are also prevalent, most overtly on "Stomp Dance (Unity)," made in conjunction with the Six Nations Women Singers. But Robertson doesn't make the mistake of slapping these concepts onto his songs like so much war paint. Instead, he mingles them with thoroughly modern sounds contributed by the likes of programmer Howie B, who's worked with Tricky, Massive Attack and Bjsrk, and DJ Premier, the sonic architect for Gang Starr. It's an ambitious, forward-looking blend that Robertson says came together in the most natural way possible.

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