Robbie Robertson: Straight Down the Line
The Band's guitarist and songwriter returns, with a little help from Clapton
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
"A lot of times when you're making a record," says Robbie Robertson, "you put your head down and charge forward until you're done. You just hope that the ideas hold up, because you're kind of lost in your own storm. But on this one, I had clarity. This may be the only record I've ever made that when I was done, I thought, That's it, that's what I wanted to do.' On the others, we've always run out of time or energy or something."
The announcement of Robertson's new album, "How to Become Clairvoyant," was itself a surprise. It's the first new recording from the former guitarist and primary songwriter for the Band in 12 years, and it's been a full two decades since he released a project that could be considered a pop album (his last two albums were explorations of his own Native American heritage). An additional surprise, however, is the personal nature of the lyrics, some based on stories that go back to his days in the Hawks, before that raucous, barnstorming crew began its revolutionary work with Bob Dylan or its transformation into the magnificent, pioneering group the Band.
The album started as a series of loose sessions with old friend Eric Clapton ("we weren't sure which direction this was going to go," says Robertson. "It could have been an Eric record or a duet record or a Robbie record."). The singer -- who has maintained a parallel career as Martin Scorsese's musical right hand ever since Scorsese directed the Band's 1976 farewell concert, "The Last Waltz" -- was then summoned to assemble the soundtrack for "Shutter Island." When that project was finished, Robertson returned to his album with a new sense of focus, finishing and sharpening the songs and adding such guests as Trent Reznor, Tom Morello, and pedal steel virtuoso Robert Randolph to the mix.
In a spacious suite high in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel -- where downstairs, two days later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction would take place -- Robertson, 67, reflected on the creation of "Clairvoyant" and his return to the spotlight. "This was one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I've ever had," he said. "I'm feeling like it's not going to be a long time before I make another record."
MSN Music: Why was it finally time to make an album again?
Robbie Robertson: I don't know if there is anything in particular that tells you that, except that you have some ideas or inspiration and you feel like it. I had a lot of wonderful distractions over the last few years, but I have questioned, is this time best spent for me, or should I be making a record? It's such a big part of my past that naturally I do think about it. But some song ideas were coming to me, and I felt a tremendous urge to do it -- as opposed to "Let me see what I can scrap together and do what people expect me to do."
Had these songs gathered over the years, or did you write them in one time period, specifically for this record?
There were some seeds planted with Eric when we were just hanging out and telling stories, and some of those ideas would creep into the songs. I hadn't done that before, and I thought, "That's kind of interesting." But just those couple of clues planted a while back, and then we both went off and did other stuff.
I went back to what we had done kind of by accident, and when I heard it I called Eric and said I thought we were on to something there. And he was like, "I know that." He invited me to come to London and said let's go in the studio and see what happens, see if it tells us which direction to go in. I liked that very much, to just feel our way along and do what really feels natural.
Your relationship with Eric goes back a long way. Didn't he come to Woodstock in 1969 and say that he wanted to join the Band?
I had actually met him before that, in '68. I think it was a little after that when he came to Woodstock.
But he never said anything about coming to join the Band, he never brought it up until he inducted the Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he said it while he was up there. I asked him, "Were you insinuating we needed a new guitarist? Were you coming to take my job? Or saying that we should have two guitars?" And he laughed and never answered me!
When were you aware that there were some personal lyrics emerging in these songs, and that your own history was becoming a part of this project?
That's one of the exciting things about songwriting and the creative process. Most of the time, I start writing a song and I have no idea what I'm doing. Something comes to you and you're waiting for it to reveal itself. It never dawned on me until almost the end that I've never made a record that was this personal. I like the mythology and the fictional things, but this was almost like, "Well, here's what happened." Some time has passed, so I don't mind talking about it.
It opened a door, and with that comfort zone, now I'm going to write an autobiography. I thought it's time to talk about this stuff, that I better tell these stories while I can, while they're still vivid in my memory.
The Band story has certainly been told before -- in biographies, in Levon Helm's book ("This Wheel's on Fire"), in "The Last Waltz" itself. What do you think still needs to be told, or needs to be corrected?
All I can do is tell the story from my point of view and how I felt about it. For the most part, it's a great story, and I'm excited to be able to share that. I don't have a lot of complaints. This isn't a book of me whining; it's really kind of rejoicing in those experiences. I'm good at remembering them, and I'm a good storyteller.
I read the beginning of Barney Hoskyns' book ("Across the Great Divide"), but it was tremendously inaccurate. I don't think he was trying to do anything wrong, but I read it and said, "That's not what happened." I got tired of saying that after 30 pages, so I put it away. I've never read Levon's book -- not because I thought there might be negativity; I just didn't want it to interfere with my own telling of the story. This is not a rebuttal or anything like that. We'll see -- it's like the other creative process for me, so I've got some structure ideas, but other than that, I'm just going to go.
Which of the songs took a direction that surprised you, went somewhere you didn't anticipate?
All of them. I didn't have a fixed idea -- well, on a couple of them I did, like the first song, "Straight Down the Line." I saw this movie years ago called "Double Indemnity," and in the movie, Fred MacMurray says something to Barbara Stanwyck," something like, "We're going to do this, straight down the line." And that stuck with me. So in that song, I was talking about Sonny Boy Williamson, Mahalia Jackson and Frank Sinatra -- all people that commented, "I do not play no rock and roll." I knew that I was carrying that phrase "straight down the line" around with me, and it was a way to put the stamp on this idea of "I do not play no rock and roll."
On "When the Night Was Young," I had no idea where I was going except that it was very reflective of the time after the Hawks left Ronnie Hawkins. We were playing down South, playing all around, and there was a feeling like we were out on our own and heading into the great unknown. We did this whole circle and ended up in New York. I was living at the Chelsea Hotel and Edie Sedgwick was living there, too, and she used to come and hang out in my room all the time. Andy Warhol would come looking for her, and they would call my room and say, "Mr. Warhol is down here. Would Edie happen to be in your room?" And she'd say, "Tell him I'm not here," so I'd have to make up some stories, like "Oh, Edie's not here. She's gone downtown to hear some blues."
So the song became very reflective of that time, and what I connected to that was that today, I feel something is missing. When I ended up in New York, it was working with Bob Dylan, and then the whole thing became clear -- like, wow, look where this is going; there's a tremendous unity with this generation, a feeling like we can make some things happen. So I refer to that as a time when the night was young, and I miss that. Now we're kind of scattered and it's like, where did all these rednecks come from? How did we digress in this tremendous way, where there is no voice of this generation? I think it's OK to admit that there was something really powerful about that. I hear music by some artists that I think are pretty good, but then I think, why don't they say something?
Elvis Costello recently said to me that he went into his most recent album thinking it might be the last actual album he ever makes. Do you feel that way at all?
I just don't think about it, really. Maybe he's right. I feel kind of lost in time. I'm just doing this over here and that over there, and then at some point, when someone says, "Can we do this over here now?" and I can't get there, then it's going to strike me like oh, s---, maybe I can't.
A lot of people from my generation can't write songs anymore, or it's really hard and it's an unpleasant experience. I don't feel that way at all. So you'd think I'd do it more, but maybe that's what allows me to really enjoy it and look forward to more of it. I wish I had more clairvoyance in that, that I could see what's around all those corners -- and I'm working on it, I'm on the case, but I've still got a ways to go.
Alan is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN, and was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tracks. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den" and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP s Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.