Robbie Robertson Reflects on His Life and Career, With Photography by Bryan Adams
Photo: Bryan Adams
It’s nice to be back in the ‘hood,” Robbie Robertson says, nodding in the direction of Yonge Street, two blocks away. He’s not talking about the Future Shop, though; he means the neon strip back in 1960, where clubs with live music, like Le Coq d’Or, catered to fun-loving minor criminals. Robbie was just 16, fresh off the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont. Ronnie Hawkins, the cackling mayor of midnight on the strip, saw the kid had “po-tential” and hired Robertson to play guitar with The Hawks.
That was before Dylan whisked the boys off on a world tour, The Hawks morphed into The Band and they recorded Music From Big Pink, an album that left an indelible mark on rock and roll. Funny that the unmistakable keening sound behind “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” two songs written by Robertson that seem to conjure the old American South, was something incubated in the North.
Fifty years down the road, still wavy-haired but a little fleshier, Robertson crosses the thick white broadloom of his hotel suite to greet me. Le Coq d’Or, this ain’t. Then, I think, I’m about to shake the working hand of one of the 100 best guitar players of all time, according to Rolling Stone magazine. So I go easy. I don’t exert much pressure. But his hand is muscular, the manual equivalent of a six-pack. I can see the yellow lining of a guitar case open on the bed in the next room. “Yeah, I had to do a little playing today. Gotta stay in shape.”
At 67, Robertson is forthcoming and friendly, with an energy that’s just a notch down from boyish. What’s more surprising is that despite having gone to some of the stranger, grittier corners of the universe in his career (“I pulled into Nazareth/was feelin’ ’bout half-past dead –“), his sense of wonder still seems intact. When he talks about the Damon Runyon-side of his early days with The Hawks, hanging out with card sharks and con artists, he sounds amazed that he was one of the guys in the room. It’s like he woke up one morning and found himself in an Elmore Leonard novel.
Filmmaker Bruce MacDonald uses Robertson as a reliable storyteller in his recently aired and hugely entertaining TV documentary, Yonge Street: Toronto Rock and Roll Stories. In it, Robertson tells the story of the mohair suits that Hawkins ordered for the boys in the band from local tailor Lou Myles. They were specially cut to accommodate the bulge of guns and blackjacks, which were “just part of the survival equipment back then,” said Robertson. The clubs were boozy and full of brawlers.
He hadn’t seen the documentary yet but he was happy to elaborate. “Oh yeah, those suit jackets had an inside pocket with a slit beside it, just the right size for a blackjack. There was a little strap that you would leave hanging out so when you had to, you could pull it out quickly,” he said making a whacking gesture, “and bingo! Ronnie told us, you see this spot on the collarbone,” he continued, tapping a finger on his neck, “well, if you hit somebody really hard on that collarbone, it doesn’t matter if he’s Rocky Marciano, he’s going down.” Robertson gives a semi-apologetic chuckle. “This was all part of our education back then. Hawkins also had a pair of brass knuckles, but my thinking was, isn’t there somebody else who can handle this part? I just didn’t want to break up my hands.”
Somehow I don’t think Arcade Fire is worried about this sort of thing.
Robertson, who lives in Beverley Hills, has come to Toronto to take care of a little business – to release How to Become Clairvoyant, his first solo album in 13 years, to be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and to sign a book deal with Random House Canada. Looks like he’s going to follow in the crooked footsteps of that other maestro of longevity, Keith Richards. What is it about lead guitarists and storytelling powers, I wonder? Maybe they’re the ones who carve out the distinctive shape, the narrative spine of a song, while the singer delivers the content.
“His songs are so full of narrative,” says editor and publisher Louise Dennys, who will handle the autobiography. “He’s just a natural storyteller.” They met in Nantucket at the summer home of Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books and Music, when he was introduced to her as “Robert” and Dennys didn’t recognize him at first. “Then he started talking to us about his early days in Canada, and I was captivated.” When he told her that he had tried to work with other writers on a book and it hadn’t worked out, she told him, “You have to be the one to tell this story.”
“So in a couple weeks, I have to roll up my sleeves and start writing,” Robertson says, not at all intimidated by the prospect.
There’s also an ambitious musical-theatrical project in the works, devoted to Native American culture. The son of a Jewish gambler and a Mohawk mother, Robertson has produced two albums of aboriginal- inspired songs in the past, with a ghostly drumbeat that runs through much of his music.
“It’s true. It creeps back. I’ll listen to something I’ve done and say, there it is again.” He shrugs. “Certain things are in the DNA and that’s all there is to it.”
For the past two decades, he has worked steadily in film, contributing the music to several movies by his pal Martin Scorsese, including Raging Bull and King of Comedy. In 2008, when he was recording How to Become Clairvoyant, Scorsese lured him back to L.A. to work on the score for his most recent film, Shutter Island. “It was my idea to use modern classical music, and so after I opened my big mouth I had to then go through thousands of classical recordings. But it was a good education.”
Does his work for soundtracks ever bleed over into his album recordings? “Absolutely. I’d be disappointed if it didn’t. It’s one of the things that led me to work with Trent Reznor,” he said, referring to the musician from Nine Inch Nails who won an Oscar for best soundtrack this year. Reznor contributed music to the album, along with Eric Clapton (with whom Robertson sings a delicate duet), Steve Winwood, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and other notable talents.
Oh, and two more things: at the end of May, he will finally receive the Order of Canada that he was awarded in 2007; and in June, Canada Post is issuing a stamp with his image on it. The only thing missing this year was a gig at the royal wedding.
This stamp-worthy, classical-music enthusiast is not the same Robbie Robertson I interviewed 30 years ago, when I was on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine. It was 1981. I was writing a profile of Ronnie Hawkins, and Robertson had flown up from L.A. to help him celebrate his 46th birthday. He was going to join Hawkins and his band for a one-night gig at the Miss Diana Motor Inn in Peterborough, Ont. The big time!
It is not difficult to profile Hawkins; he is a walking, talking sound bite who loves to mythologize rock history and his own part in it. He has often said that he moved to Canada partly because the government-regulated liquor laws made the clubs less dangerous than they were down in Arkansas. He was also in the habit of greeting attractive women by saying, “I suppose a fuck would be out of the question.”
All I had to do, I realized, was to not take any strange pills, and I would probably get the story I needed. Plus a quote from the legendary Robbie Robertson. But it was my first piece for Rolling Stone, and I was nervous.
I boarded a tour bus with the musicians and a film crew who were making a documentary on Hawkins. I was the studious young journalist in red glasses, sitting in the back of the bus, steno pad at the ready. Sitting opposite me on his own was Robertson, pale, thin and spectral, his eyelids at half-mast. Hawkins’ signature song is “Who Do You Love”, a spooky little number with a line about somebody wearing a “cobra snake as a necktie.” That could have been Robbie at the time. He was a cool customer who resembled a very pretty rattlesnake.
This was three years after the film The Last Waltz had been released. The Band was over, and Robbie had been bunking in with Scorsese during an extended period of Hollywood excess. I leaned across the aisle to ask him a few shy questions about working with Ronnie. He looked at me from a great stony distance and murmured a few words. Then he stared out the bus window, except it was dark by then, and there was nothing out there to see.
Later that night, after the show, everyone went back to Hawkins’ nearby farm. The boys all disappeared up into a room with the crew to shoot some scenes. The wives and I stayed downstairs. Hours went by. Distant laughter. When I got a ride back home the next day with one of the crew, I asked him what the two musicians had talked about.
“Girls,” he said, although that was not the word he used. “How Robertson always got more of them than Hawkins – and how he still does.”
Many of the songs on his new album are autobiographical, and one of them is pretty candid about that period of his life. In “He Don’t Live Here Anymore,” he sings about a time “When you’re waiting for the axe to drop/When you’re hooked too bad you could not stop.” He wrote it for Clapton, who lived through a similar phase and put it behind him too. “We weren’t unique,” Robertson says about the lifestyle that took down many of his peers. “It was all around us then, part of the culture. A lot of people went into that tunnel and found out it was very dark in there. Some came out and some didn’t.”
He doesn’t name names, but two of the musicians who didn’t make it through the tunnel were fellow members of The Band, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Danko, a country boy from southern Ontario, became addicted to painkillers and alcohol and died of a heart attack at 55. Manuel, whose plangent voice and careening violin were a big part of The Band’s sound, managed to get sober for many years, then relapsed. He went back on tour with a reconfigured Band, minus Robertson, and hung himself in a motel room in Orlando, Fla., after a gig at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge.
Robertson survived. “I do remember at one point in L.A., there was a period where it had become dangerous and so unhealthy that a doctor actually said to Martin and me, ‘So, have you done all your best work? Because if not, you have to change right now.’
I thought, whoa, we have to get off that train.”
In another song, he addresses the break-up of The Band, for which Robertson is often blamed. “Walking out on the boys/Was never the plan,” he sings, “We just drifted off course/Couldn’t strike up the band –”
Some people have cast you in the Yoko Ono role, I said. “I know that’s the perception. But remember, there were five of us. Nobody ever said ‘I’m leaving’ or ‘Let’s call it quits.’ It just happened naturally. We didn’t do The Last Waltz to break up. We did it to close a chapter we had been living for 16 years, playing on the road. The idea was to take a break, and maybe open up a new chapter, get something fresh and creative going. But then everyone went their separate ways – and we just never got back together again.”
Marriages end, banks collapse, bands split up. It’s not unusual but it’s still sad. Although the sound on How to Become Clairvoyant is impeccably produced, the songs show a more vulnerable side of the musician. Robertson’s voice, never his strong suit, sounds just right with this material – lived-in and full of yearning. He’s joined the pantheon of broken-voiced older singers like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Ian Tyson, whose imperfect pipes can convey more feeling.
In “When The Night Was Young,” a song about the idealism of the ’60s, Robertson sounds wistful for the days when the young were believers, who thought they “could change the world, stop the war.”
“I do miss the unity of that time,” he says. “Music was the voice of that generation, when the feeling was we have to stand up and make a difference. Now everything is so fragmented, it’s hard to know what people believe in.”
“There’s a lot of [new] music that I do like and appreciate,” he begins diplomatically, “but every once in a while I find myself thinking, ‘Say something. Do something. You know – mean it.'”
The names of musicians who have meant something to Robertson turn up in passing tributes on the album: Sonny Boy Williamson, Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King. The sense of awe he felt discovering them creeps into his voice when he talks about the first time he went south to Arkansas, to meet Levon Helm.
“I took a train, my first train ride, from Toronto to the Mississippi Delta, to West Helena, Arkansas. And I felt I was going to the Holy Land of rock and roll, you know – I felt like Huckleberry Finn.
“When I got there, I found out that all the music that I was blown away by at that age came from a 100-mile range around me. All the names of the places and the people … and the sound of the Mississippi River flowing by – it had an impact on me that was so deep and so profound. I absorbed it deeply, because I loved it. Then a few years later, when it was time for me to write songs with The Band, this is what I had stored up.” Those sounds of the blues, R&B, gospel and the landscape. “And all those characters.”
“Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog/He said I will fix your rags/If you take Jack, my dog –”
It’s hard to say exactly what the strange and wonderful words to “The Weight” mean, but you do get the feeling that the people in it, Miss Annie and Luke the Drifter, were probably real. And since then Robertson has figured out that one way to become clairvoyant, to “see around corners” into the future, is to take a closer look at your past.
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 2011 issue.