Knowing what I know about the Band, their fans, and 'the feud' that just won't die, I went into this interview half-expecting Robbie Robertson'whose new record, How to Become Clairvoyant, was released April 5th'to be an arrogant prick. After all, if the vitriol that's been written and spewed about the legendary songwriter, guitarist, and erstwhile member of the Band over the past two decades is to be believed, this is the guy who screwed his bandmates, who took all the credit for work that was not solely his, who claimed the fame and glory for himself, who took the money and ran.
But as Rick Danko, the Band's late bass player and co-lead singer and Robertson's bandmate for more than a decade, famously said in The Last Waltz, 'You can't believe most of what you hear.' I took those words to heart and kept them close at hand during the years I worked with Danko throughout the 1990s. He'd often say, 'Life's too short for negativity,' and I kept that in mind, too. I was there in 1993, working day-to-day with Rick, when the Band, minus Robertson, was in the throes of a musical renaissance precipitated by a spate of high-profile and critically acclaimed side projects, guest appearances, a record deal, and the much-ballyhooed (deservedly so) release of Jericho, the group's first studio album since 1977's Islands. It was the same year that Danko was promoting an award-winning collaboration for Rykodisc, and the same year that Levon Helm published This Wheel's On Fire, an undeniably bitter tome that's part memoir, part Band history, and, some would say, part Robbie Robertson sucker punch. All these years later, as much as I admire and respect Helm, it seems even more one-sided and scathing than it did then.
Don't get me wrong'I've had mixed feelings about Robertson myself over the years. He'like Helm and, of course, Danko'had been one of my musical heroes from the time I was a kid, so when I finally had the opportunity to meet him in the '90s, I was excited. In the span of eight years, I'd had two very brief encounters with Robertson.
The first one consisted of his greeting me with a raised eyebrow over dark sunglasses on a rainy day, and the other consisted of a raspy 'hello' and a condescending, or so I interpreted it, half-smile. Both instances were disappointing, for sure, but I eventually chalked them up to bad timing and less-than-ideal circumstances.
Now, the timing is great and the circumstances are much better. Robbie Robertson, who will turn 68 in July, is enjoying one of the most prolific, productive, and rewarding phases of his stellar 50-plus-year career. How to Become Clairvoyant (429 Records), his first release since 1998's Grammy-nominated Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, debuted at number 13'the highest debut of any of his solo projects'on the Billboard 200, and is garnering mostly very positive reviews for its rich, textural, melodic, guitar-laden, and sometimes poignant songs, including two''When the Night Was Young' and 'This is Where I Get Off''that allude to (Robertson says he 'doesn't like to be too on the nose') his early days with the Hawks and the end of his involvement with the Band.
The album will not disappoint fans who've waited nearly 13 years to hear the well-crafted, sometimes mythical, often allegorical songs Robertson is known for. How to Become Clairvoyant, like most of his work, both with the Band and as a solo artist, is full of colorful characters'some real, some imagined, some a little of both'that give a few of the songs a bit of a roman-'-clef quality. Once in a while, Robertson mentions people by name, but only, it seems, when they're well-known or somewhat removed from him (like Andy Warhol, who makes an appearance, along with his 'late-night muse' in 'When the Night Was Young'). More often, though, he uses pseudonyms, metaphors, guises, and veils'perhaps as a means of self-preservation, or perhaps to playfully throw listeners off the scent, as with the mention of 'Luke the Drifter' in the same song. 'Band fans will be all over that one,' I tell him, noting that the mere mention of 'Luke' will conjure images of 'The Weight' and connections that may or may not be there. While fans of Hank Williams, will immediately know that 'Luke the Drifter' is Williams' nom de plume, some may wonder, was that mention of Luke intentional? Subconscious? A coincidence? What else does he have up his sleeve? Robertson says there's no connection, telling me only, 'Luke in 'The Weight' is based on somebody else.'
In addition to his cast of characters, Robertson brought together a roster of genre-spanning, heavyweight talents for Clairvoyant including his longtime friend Eric Clapton, who plays on several tracks, wrote one song ('Madame X'), and co-wrote two others ('Fear of Falling' and 'Won't Be Back'). Also featured are keyboard wiz Steve Winwood, Robert Randolph, Trent Reznor, and Grammy-winning guitarist Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave).
This is turning out to be quite a busy spring for Robertson. Coinciding with the album's release was his induction to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. (Awards are no stranger to Robertson, who has many, including multiple Junos, and with the Band, is a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member.) On April 11th, it was announced that Robertson will pen a memoir, the title and publication date of which have not yet been determined. He's also working on a title called Hiawatha and The Peacemaker for Abrams Books, and is in negotiations for a music book for children that 'turns them on to the greatest music artists of all time.' On May 27th, he will receive the Order of Canada (which was actually awarded in 2007) and, in June, he will be featured on a Canadian postage stamp.
Robbie Robertson's come a long way from his days with Ronnie Hawkins, when he was a cocky, good-looking teen who could bend those heavy-gauge strings and make them wail and sing. He can still make them wail and sing, but these days, he's a tad more mellow. He still speaks in that instantly recognizable, smoky voice with its perfect diction, crisp narrator's elocution, and slight 'Canadian raising' (the pronunciation of the 'out' sound as 'oat'), but now it's tempered with a little more hoarseness. Just once I wanted to hear him say 'shuffle the deck,' one of his favorite phrases, but he didn't.
I found him engaging, amiable, funny, eloquent, and, at times, almost ebullient, especially when he talked about the special collector's edition of the new record, which is a gorgeous collection of music, art, specially designed tarot cards, and other special items'each set numbered and signed by Robertson'making it worth the $300 price tag for collectors who can afford it.
Our interview turned out to be more of a conversation'no caveats, no provisos, nothing off-limits, and from my end, no seemingly requisite Dylan questions'and, in fact, our allotted time for the interview was extended twice. Still, I didn't have the time'or the courage'to ask him how, in The Last Waltz, Eric Clapton's guitar strap disconnected just in time for Robbie to take a blistering solo on 'Further On Up the Road' or whether the elusive Last Waltz fly [which made its screen "debut" during the film's first interview scene between Robertson and Martin Scorsese] was real.
Crawdaddy!: Maybe we should start with the collector's set. Can you tell me a little about it?
Robbie Robertson: Yeah. There were some extraordinary things that happened in the making of this record that I've never experienced before. One of the things is the way that the record took shape and things that were happening in the writing process on this.
Crawdaddy!: Such as?
Robertson: First of all, mostly, you know, I write on my own. But there were experiences that I was having with just me and Eric Clapton sitting across from one another in my studio with a couple of guitars. And while we were doing that, you know, I have recording equipment there, so I was able to say, 'Oh, in case something dawns on us'' We were working on things, and there is a purity and an innocence in some of the early versions of the songs that Eric and I listened to, and we thought, 'Oh man, there's something about that' there's a quality about that.' It's almost like The Basement Tapes from years ago, where [we thought] nobody's ever going to hear this, so when we do this, we can really, really just be in that moment. You know what I mean?
Crawdaddy!: Sure, I think I do.
Robertson: It's such a private thing, and what excites me about this is that, unlike The Basement Tapes that were done specifically for music publishers back then, the idea was that nobody's ever gonna hear this stuff.
Crawdaddy!: I didn't know that about The Basement Tapes. So it was almost like a demo-type thing?
Robertson: Almost. Well, they never had that word 'demo' back then, you know? [laughs] A lot of people recorded Bob Dylan's songs, so we were like, 'Okay, well, let's record a bunch of these things in any which way, just so we get the song idea across, and then if anybody wants to record them, it'll be good for Bob's publishing.' It's just a very simple thing. That's not what we were doing with this, but the technique of doing it'it was so non-precious, and it was so intimate, that you were inside the music. You could feel it being created before your ears. So anyway, that was part of the idea, and then I realized that I had a lot of this music. There were other songs that we were considering, other ideas that we thought, 'Oh, maybe we should have that song, or one of these kinds of songs.'
Crawdaddy!: What kinds of songs are they?
Robertson: They are outtakes in a way, but they were more connected to the heart of the issue than just outtakes.
Crawdaddy!: What to you mean by 'the heart of the issue'?
Robertson: I mean that these were the initial ideas of something that ended up branching off into something else that it became. But when you go back and look at the origins of these things, there's something about this stuff that' it's like the heartbeat of where this all came from. What excites me about this is now you can share this kind of thing'and some of it is as good, if not better, than stuff on the record.
Crawdaddy!: I felt that way about some of the song sketches on the Band box set [2005's A Musical History].
Robertson: Yeah, now that's something, too. But this is a different thing. And, I'm telling you, I've just never had this kind of experience before. So that was one of the elements that kind of led me in this direction, to say, 'Oh my god'we can do this other edition; okay, that's kind of interesting.' It has 10 bonus tracks on it. This is not a collection, or a 'best of' or a 'history of''this is a different animal.
Crawdaddy!: In addition to the bonus tracks and the music itself, there are some other really cool things on the set, though. Tell me about some of the art.
Robertson: This guy that I know, this artist in New York'Richard Prince is his name'he's one of the biggest American artists that there is nowadays. He gets like, six or seven million dollars a painting. So he said to me, 'Can I do some artwork for your record? The music'I'm just inspired.' And I'm like, 'There's no downside here.' So I said, 'Of course.' So he did five pieces of art for this and signed them. Some of them in this package are lithographs; some are in this book. It was like, 'Whoa, that's really unusual.'
Crawdaddy!: Aren't there photographs, too?
Robertson: This photographer, who's maybe the best music photographer in the world, Anton Corbijn, did a whole series of clairvoyant photographs.
Crawdaddy!: What are 'clairvoyant photographs'?
Robertson: Some of them are pictures that he took of me, but it is a mood. There are like, film noir images that are just stunning. There's a picture of me that he took that's like a piece of art, and in it, I'm reading a book called Become Clairvoyant. He did this whole series of work that is extraordinary, and it's because it's artwork. But where does this go? It goes into something that you invent, like what this collector's edition is. Then there's this guy Ricky Jay, who's maybe the best magician in the world, and one of the great archivists of magic of all time, and so he contributed to this project all of these clairvoyant images from his archives, and it all starts to add up in this package. Whenever there's something that feels like, 'I've never done anything like this before,' so many people say 'Oh, years ago, we used to be able to do this, we could do that, and now you can't do that anymore.' Well, this is something that we could never do in the past'to put together a package like this and [have it be] relevant to the times.
Crawdaddy!: I've seen the specs and the contents, and it looks really beautiful. I really like the tarot cards and the whole idea of clairvoyance. Let's talk about the album and the title. Something I've always loved about your music is that you seem to have a fascination with mystical things, unexplained things, and this 'dark side' that you half want to look at and half want to hide from.
Robertson: Yeah [laughs].
Crawdaddy!: So I'm not off-base with that?
Robertson: No [laughs]. No, that's called a bull's-eye.
Crawdaddy!: Mmm, love that darkness. I hear it in the Band's music, on your first solo album [1987's Robbie Robertson], on [your second solo album, 1991's] Storyville'and I hear it and see it here.
Robertson: Well, wait until you see the whole package. I'm telling you, it's that to the extreme. The way this whole thing was designed and put together, it is so beautiful and elegant and rough and edgy. It also has vinyl of all the music in there, but it's clear vinyl, really pure for all the people who really love vinyl'it's the extreme of that.
Crawdaddy!: This seems to be coming at a great time for you, with the [Canadian] Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Canadian postage stamp.
Robertson: It's just so cool that in Canada they would even think to do that, that they would put music people who aren't dead on a postage stamp [laughs].
Crawdaddy!: So they can enjoy it while they're here, right?
Robertson: Yeah, because in the United States you have to be dead to be on a postage stamp. You know, and jeez, that's a little morbid [laughs].
Crawdaddy!: Well I really love the album' and your mentioning The Basement Tapes before reminded me of a silly little question I've always wanted to ask you.
Crawdaddy!: Well, though I rarely asked Rick questions about 'Band stuff,' I had to know who was playing the tambourine on 'Apple Suckling Tree' [performed by Dylan and the Band], so I asked him, and he said it was you. I kept saying 'No way,' and he kept saying, 'Yes.' Is it you?
Robertson: You know, I would have to hear it. It's been so long since I've heard that. But if Rick said that I did, then it's true.
Crawdaddy!: Okay. I just can't picture it.
Robertson: He wouldn't have said it unless it was true. And just because of the nature of that, when we were recording that stuff, anybody could have been upstairs making coffee, and somebody else plays the drums, and another person plays something else'all different instruments. It was like that. It was done with such a sense of freedom, you know? And there's something about thinking, 'Well, you know, this is just for us. We're doing this just for us.' You know, when I was working on these things [what became the bonus tracks for the How to Become Clairvoyant collector's edition], like I was saying before, with Eric Clapton, we were thinking, 'This is just for us.' And to be able to share that' when I played this stuff for Eric, he was so moved by these interpretations that we'd done, this kind of innocence in them'it's emotionally undeniable.
Crawdaddy!: Maybe because when it's just for you guys, just messing around, there's no sense of self-consciousness.
Crawdaddy!: So tell me about the actual record.
Robertson: Well, it's not all like [the collector's edition]. Some of these things were taken much further. There's a track on this'the first song on my album, 'Straight Down the Line', this came from the movie Double Indemnity. It was made the year that I was born [Note: The film was actually released in 1944; Robertson was born in 1943]. It's a classic movie with Barbara Stanwyck.
Crawdaddy!: I love her in Stella Dallas, but I never saw Double Indemnity.
Robertson: Oh, it's a must. You need to go and see this movie at breakneck speed. It is that amazing. In this movie'and I love film noir anyway, talking about darkness [laughs]'that just happened to be made around the time I was born'I see it years later, and in the movie, Barbara Stanwyck says to him [noir-ish voice], 'That's right, baby, we're gonna do it straight down the line.'
Crawdaddy!: So that line stuck with you.
Robertson: Yeah, it stuck with me. And so, in these bonus tracks, there's a track that I did with [reggae production team] Sly and Robbie. And in that track'it's called 'In the War Zone''it's a street-gang serenade, if there is such a thing' In the song, I use the line for the first time, 'straight down the line.' But it was just an experiment; I wasn't thinking anything about it. And my friend Howie B was involved in it. So I did this thing and then forgot about it. I ran across it a while back, and I thought, 'That's where 'straight down the line' comes from.' So following these clues back to Double Indemnity, and then to this thing with Sly and Robbie' The track itself, 'In the War Zone', is wicked, I'm telling you. There is really something about this. I just love the idea of being able to go so inside the music on a project.
Crawdaddy!: There are only 2,500 copies available [of the collector's edition]. Is that what it is?
Robertson: That's what it is'because that's all I could sign and number [laughs].
Crawdaddy!: Can we talk about the concept for the album? Was it a concept, was it just a name, or was it looking at the past to predict the future? Also, did the album precede the name or vice versa?
Robertson: As the music was coming together, there was a thread running through it, and it was exactly what you just said: I was looking at the past to predict the future. And then, while I was still working on the record, it just added to a certain enlightenment or something as I was doing this, and it gave me more courage to be able to look deeper into the past. But I'm looking at it from this point of view, and the idea of being to see around corners is something that I've always been fascinated with.
Crawdaddy!: What do you mean by that?
Robertson: What I mean is that you have a feeling for something, that you do things because you have a feeling for them. And when you really trust those feelings, that's clairvoyance. And I thought, 'Oh man, I wanna go closer to that!' I want to be able to trust that more and more on my journey'not only on my musical journey, but on my life's journey.
Crawdaddy!: So you're talking about intuition.
Robertson: It is intuitive, yes, of course.
Crawdaddy!: How did the album title come to you?
Robertson: It was right in the midst of everything. I was stirring up this whole thing, this music. And as I was stirring it up, and feeling it, and as it was growing around me, this idea came to me and I started recognizing it in all of the songs. I started recognizing this hint of clairvoyance, and this longing' and I thought, 'God, you know what I'd like to do more than anything? I would like to make music that gives you a feeling of clairvoyance, and that if you listen to it enough, you'll be able to see around corners, too.' It's us living in our mythical imagination as much as anything, but there's also truth in these as well. And I like that fine line; I like walking that fine line.
Crawdaddy!: That's what I meant about that 'dark side''wanting to look yet wanting to turn away. I remember one interview, in the late '80s, where you said the Band were just 'street punks that got lucky.' I know that the Band was a lot more than that, but you seemed to think that was a cool thing. I've gotten the sense, from a lot of your work, that there's this place where'like in 'Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight' [from Robbie Robertson] for instance'you want to go, but only so far. Or like 'This is Where I Get Off' from this album'you sort of touch it, but yet you don't want to touch it.
Robertson: What it is, is trying to avoid the obvious and embrace the unexpected. It's just a healthy thing to me. And I think that I've rode that line in music always. And in that song ['This is Where I Get Off'] in particular, you're absolutely right. You're talking about something, but you don't wanna say, 'Well, that's too on the nose. That's too obvious.' That's two things that I don't like right there [laughs]. We don't like it when it's too obvious, and we don't like it when it's too on the nose.
Crawdaddy!: This song almost made me cry. The very first notes reminded me a bit of 'It Makes No Difference', and also a bit of 'Soap Box Preacher' [from Storyville]. The guitar'definitely a signature Robbie guitar sound. But it also had this very mournful sound. I wouldn't say regret, but definitely a melancholy.
Robertson: There is a sadness there. Well, there's nothing that I like better than a great sad song, to begin with. You know, we all enjoy a funny song or whatever once in a while, but a beautiful, sad song'you just swim in it, and you live in it. So, in making music for me, if I can't reach for that place that tries to move you emotionally on that level, I'm just not doing my job.
Crawdaddy!: I hear you. Well, quite honestly, there's sort of a sadness among many Band fans'and, talking about the obvious, I'm not gonna really go there'but there is a sadness about the way things have happened'or the way they're perceived.
Robertson: Well, you know, things take their course, and sometimes it's above and beyond any of our reach. Nobody broke up the Band. Nobody ever said, 'I'm leaving the Band''none of the guys. In this group, the reason it was called the Band was because it really was a band. This wasn't a singer and a guitar player and some other guys. It really was that, and everybody completely balanced out the way that this thing worked. After The Last Waltz, nobody was breaking up the Band. The idea was, 'Okay, now it's time for everybody to have the opportunity to catch their breath. Let's get focused; let's get healthy; let's get on our feet and do some of the best work we've ever done. We're just not going to be necessarily going out and schlepping around on the road, because we're not doing that very well anymore, you know.'
Crawdaddy!: Was that your decision, the part about the road? Because I know, for instance, that Rick was kind of a road warrior. He loved playing.
Robertson: No, but it was dictated by everybody's behavior. It wasn't like, 'Okay, we're making a decision here.' It was like we didn't have any choice in the matter; we needed to put that behind us. And then when we did this, everybody said, 'Oh god, yeah, we really need to take care of one another.' And Rick wanted to make a record himself, and Levon wanted to make a record. People had other projects that they wanted to do, just to clear their heads and get away from being on this same track for so long, right? And everybody understood that. I had some stuff that I wanted to experiment with.
Crawdaddy!: So what happened?
Robertson: Everybody went off to do their little things, and we were all in touch and talking about doing this and talking about doing that, but when it came time to come back, nobody came back.
Crawdaddy!: Do you mean literally or figuratively?
Robertson: No, I mean literally. I mean, we still had our studio [Shangri-La]; we still had our place where we would go and try to make magic and do creative things. And people just didn't want to show up anymore. So, when the passion is not there in something, you can't force it. You have to accept some things. And this happens in friendships; it happens in marriages; it happens in all kinds of relationships, you know? We had spent a long time together. And I thought, 'I've gotta read the writing on the wall here. This is really telling us something'either everybody doesn't want to come back, or they can't come back. And whichever that is, I have to stand up and accept it.' That's what our job was'accepting that. Whether we wanted that'whether we intellectually wanted it or whatever'that's what was happening, and that's what did happen.
Crawdaddy!: That's a very sound explanation, and I appreciate it. I won't go into all the stuff about songwriting again because it's been going on for so long, but there's one particular song'and that's 'Dixie' ['The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down']'that there seems to be so much animosity around. Do you know why? I would love to hear it from you.
Robertson: I don't know what animosity there is. I don't know what you mean.
Crawdaddy!: That was the one song that, when the Band got together in their new incarnation, after The Last Waltz, I don't think they ever played.
Robertson: They never played that song?
Crawdaddy!: 'Dixie'? No, not that I know of.
Robertson: Oh, I didn't know that. I don't know anything about this.
Crawdaddy!: There's always been this songwriting thing, you know, and what constitutes songwriting'
Robertson: You know, some people write songs and some people don't. Some people can and some people can't. Some people can a little bit, but not too much, right, not very much. I've just been a songwriter all my life; that's what I do. I love writing songs, and I write songs, and the whole thing about the songwriting thing is just pure nonsense. I gave credit to the guys that were just there when I was writing songs. I didn't have to do that. I gave the guys publishing on all of the stuff'we all shared in that, you know, and I didn't have to do that. Whenever I wrote a song with somebody'like, I wrote songs with Richard [Manuel], and we co-wrote songs'that's what we did. And that's what it is. There was no mystery to this, like, 'Oh, we were really writing the songs.' Nobody was writing the songs except me, unless it says so. And nobody ever mentioned this until 15 or 20 years after the Band was no longer together. The whole thing is just really preposterous.
Crawdaddy!: The first I heard of it was in the early '90s. And I'm not trying to do 'the interview that sets the record straight' or anything.
Robertson: And I don't even mind talking about it, just because' to me, I'd never really paid that much attention to that. This came up when Levon was really having a tough time. Levon used to blame everybody for something, you know. It was either the manager, or the lawyer, or the agent, or the business manager, or the accountant'it was always somebody else's fault. And it was something that I felt horrible about, because I didn't believe in it, and I very much tried to convince him that' these people aren't stealing from you. You don't have enough for them to steal from you. And I got really, really tired of trying to explain this a million times. Then when I wasn't there anymore, then, all of a sudden, it was me. But I was used to that, so that's why I never gave it much credibility. Anyway, I just wish Levon all the best in the world'he is a great guy, and I love all the guys in the Band dearly. I just don't wish anybody any bad at all. But I wrote the songs on this album, I wrote the songs on those albums'that's what I do. And back then, I went off and wrote the songs, and like I said, the couple of times that I ever wrote when anybody was there' I wrote 'Life is a Carnival', and I gave Levon credit and Rick credit because they were there when I was doing it.
Crawdaddy!: So you wrote that song entirely?
Robertson: Oh yes, absolutely. Levon played drums on it, and he sang on it. He did what he did on it and all of the other songs. He figured out a nice little drum part on it. That's not writing a song, I'm sorry.
Crawdaddy!: I didn't mean to go into that territory, but it's just this thing that's there, and if I didn't ask you, people would be saying, 'Why didn't she ask him about this?' So thank you.
Robertson: Yeah, it's no problem. Nobody else has really asked me very much about that.
Crawdaddy!: I'm sorry about that.
Robertson: No, no, no' I don't mind. Like I said, I love these guys, you know, and I feel terrible that anybody had to go through any bad stuff. And if I had the ability to fix it, I would fix it, but it is what it is. But it's just ridiculous to come along years later and claim that he [Levon] wrote the songs or whatever'I don't even know what the argument is; it's so preposterous to me.
Crawdaddy!: Well, thanks for clearing it up. There's just been this cloud'
Robertson: Not for me, not for me. There's not a cloud for me. That's why I don't mind talking about it at all, because I was there. I know what happened.
Crawdaddy!: How would you want the Band to be remembered?
Robertson: I would want the Band to be remembered as a real band. There was just a wonderful balance in this group, the way the whole thing worked. What Garth [Hudson] did was completely unique. Nobody else in the world was able to do anything near what Garth would do in the group. Rick, his singing and his playing'god only made one of those, and he broke the mold after that. Richard Manuel could make you cry in a second with his singing, and he was also just an amazing, beautiful soul, too. And Levon is one of the most talented people I've ever crossed paths with in my life. Levon taught me so much and is the closest thing I've ever had in my life to a brother. So anyway, I just have such warm, fond memories of the Band, and I would just want that to be passed on.
Crawdaddy!: And how would you like to be remembered?
Robertson: I just want be remembered as somebody who was really passionate about what he did and who loved a good challenge.
Watch the Band perform 'The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down' from The Last Waltz