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Native Intelligence

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

Robertson is fighting a similar battle, in part because Capitol Records has spent much of the Nineties stoking the nostalgia machine with Band flashbacks. In 1994 it issued The Band, a boxed set filled with the combo's most popular work whose release coincided with the surviving members' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Manuel committed suicide in 1986). The following year, the company followed with Live at Watkins Glen, recorded by the Band in 1973 at a festival in upstate New York that drew an estimated 650,000 people. And then there's the aforementioned Invisible Republic, rock journalism at its most unbearably pretentious. While Greil Marcus understands that the understated, mysterious, deadpan quality of the basement tapes is a key to their allure, he fails miserably to infuse his own writing with these characteristics. In lauding the terrific ditty "Lo and Behold!" for instance, he tries desperately to underline its indelibly American qualities by citing authors Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Constance Rourke and William S. Burroughs, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, Andrew Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., James Dean and the union riots at Matewan, West Virginia, in 1920. The overkill would be funny if it weren't so tedious and if it didn't miss the point of the music's gorgeous simplicity by such an enormous margin.

If there's a saving grace in Invisible Republic, it's the occasional comments made by Robertson, whose modesty contrasts sharply with Marcus's haughty histrionics; at one juncture, he undercuts pontificating about the recording process by chalking it up to "reefer run amok." In conversation, he's just as reluctant to participate in the mythologizing of the tapes. "It's not my passion," he concedes. "I did it, and it was great when I did it, and I enjoyed it and I'm glad that it lives on--but it's Greil Marcus who's fascinated by this. I haven't read the book yet because I have trouble retracing those footsteps. And even though I will read it, and even though I think that Greil is a great writer, for me it's like, why stay there? I have to grow and I have to learn and I have to hopefully take all of that stuff and use it well, and then move on to the next place."

In Robertson's opinion, Making a Noise shows that he still has plenty of statements worth making. He's gratified by the enthusiasm PBS programmers have displayed. "A lot of them want to use it in--what do they call those? Pledge drives?--and people tell me that's a good sign." (When he's informed that a previous pledge drive favorite was John Tesh at Red Rocks, he laughs: "Ooooh, that's a blemish on Colorado.") He's still so caught up in the film, in fact, that he has no clue what he'll be doing down the line.

"There are a lot of projects that people are talking to me about right now, but I have to wait to listen to them until I've fulfilled this properly," he says. "Because this is not just a whim for me or some kind of phase that I'm going through. This is about my life and the lives of other people in the community. So I can't turn the page yet. But one day I will. And I can't wait to see what's next."

Visit www.westword.com to download Robbie Robertson sound and video samples.

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