Riffing on the rift

Last Updated: 2:31 AM, April 3, 2011

Posted: 7:54 PM, April 2, 2011

Long before rappers like Tupac and Biggie started beefs that ended in gunfire, The Band struck up a feud that seems to have no end.

Over the many decades since the group ' best-known for backing up Bob Dylan during his 'Basement Tapes' days and for starring in the Martin Scorsese concert film 'The Last Waltz' ' first parted ways in 1976, its members have battled over credit and royalties.

Former Band guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson has almost always been made out as the villain. Drummer and singer Levon Helm called him a 'thieving, lying son of a bitch.' A good chunk of Helm's 1993 autobiography, 'This Wheel's on Fire,' castigated Robertson for grabbing more than his share of money and songwriting credits.

Through it all, Robertson ' who penned The Band's biggest hits, 'The Weight' and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' ' remained largely silent. None of his songs on four solo albums addressed the heartbreaking circumstances of the group, including the deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko ' the former to suicide in 1986, the latter to heart failure after a battle with drug addiction, in 1999.

Finally, on his first release in 13 years, 'How To Become Clairvoyant,' which debuts Tuesday, Robertson confronts this chapter in his life.

'When writing songs, I was very much into expressing things through fictional characters. I was not real comfortable with the whole 'me, me, me' songwriting thing,' Robertson tells The Post.

He didn't even realize what he was writing about until songs such as 'This Is Where I Get Off' came pouring out. 'Walking out on the boys was never the plan,' he sings. 'We just drifted off course, couldn't strike up the band.'

While he doesn't directly address Helm's accusations ' Robertson has previously denied taking an unfair share of songwriting royalties ' he says the slams never got him down.

'I never felt bad about this,' says Robertson, who has had 'little discussions' with Helm to try and patch things up. (They were unsuccessful.) He still refers to Helm as his 'brother from another mother.'

'People go through periods when things are dark and cloudy, and they talk dark and cloudy. I have no issues with any of the guys in the band, and I have no issues with anything Levon has said because I was there. I know what the truth is.'

His feelings on The Band aren't the only aspects of his past he mines on the new record, which features contributions from Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Trent Reznor. On 'He Doesn't Live Here No More,' Robertson addresses the period after The Band's breakup, when he and good friend Scorsese became housemates and party buddies.

'It was an extraordinary time creatively,' says Robertson, who remains good friends with the director and has contributed music to several of his films. 'We were having an amazing time, and it bonded our friendship, but it was also a very destructive, dark period. Once we got inside that tunnel, we realized that some people weren't coming out.'

So when he sings, 'I been moving in the fast lane/I was only trying to kill the pain,' he addresses an experience he says was universal.

'It was like, 'We're all in this together,' and then we thought, 'Oh my god. This is not working. We have to pull ourselves together and not go down with the ship.' '

While Robertson cleaned up long ago, he's thrilled to have finally found comfort in addressing it in song.

'I think I found a way to do it without coming off self-indulgent,' he says. 'I was really just telling a story. I could have easily called this, 'Here's What Happened.' '

 

The SLG, Savoy Jazz and Denon Records catalogs are available for purchase at the following sites: