On a postage stamp to be issued this June, Robbie Robertson peers into the distance with narrowed eyes. Depending on how you look at him, he’s either contemplative or suspicious. The dichotomy is fitting: the copious literature about his former group, the Band, depicts him alternately as visionary or cool, even a cold, careerist cat.
It’s hard to argue about his artistic vision: even as a teenager playing underage in Yonge Street clubs in the late ’50s and early ’60s, he revolutionized the music of a generation of Canadians with his fierce guitar sound. Soon after, he was instrumental in Bob Dylan’s going electric; with the Band, he blended soul, rock, folk and country in new and influential ways; and more recently he has helped bring mainstream attention to Aboriginal music. On the other hand, his former Band-mates have decried his taking writing credits for most of their songs (drummer Levon Helm still holds a grudge, 35 years after their last recordings), and his solo albums have tended to be heavy on guest stars but short on soul; Band biographer Barney Hoskyns has called him “a yuppie rock ‘n’ roller who’d been in L.A. so long that he’d completely lost touch with his rock ‘n’ roll roots.”
But despite the contemporary production on his about-to-be-released new album, How to Become Clairvoyant, and the requisite small army of guests (among them Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello), the songs recover some of the intimacy and emotional heft of his Band days, revealing a vulnerable side he isn’t usually keen to reveal.
Over the phone from L.A., the 67-year-old Robertson is engaging and upbeat. The album, his first since 1998, had its genesis “several years ago,” he says, when he and Clapton “were just hanging out and playing a little music and telling stories.” They recorded demos which weren’t fleshed out until 2008, when Robertson visited Clapton in London.The chance to “breathe” between sessions, Robertson says, allowed him to explore “a different kind of storytelling.”
On the slow, bluesy Fear of Falling, the two guitar gods even open up about romantic misadventures that left them, as Robertson says, “gun-shy.” Elsewhere on the album, Robertson looks back to good times that went sour. On This Is Where I Get Off, he sings about his split with the Band, who called it quits at his instigation after the 1976 performances for the rockumentary The Last Waltz. Robertson sings, “Walking out on the boys was never the plan / We drifted off course; couldn’t strike up the band”—the creative bond, Robertson suggests, shattered by fame. But if the Band had never become famous, would they have broken up? “It’s hard to be clairvoyant enough to see if things would’ve been different,” he says. “In the beginning, you’re all single and in it together; you mature in different directions. Everybody grows in their own way. And so you start seeing things through different lenses.”
In the aftermath, Robertson moved into Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese’s house, where the two became infamous for their reportedly Herculean intake of controlled substances, a period chronicled on He Don’t Live Here No More. “A lot of people at that time went into this tunnel of insanity and decadence and self-abuse,” he says, “and didn’t come out the other end.” Two such casualties were his Band-mates, keyboardist-singer Richard Manuel (who hanged himself while on tour with the Robertson-less reformed Band in 1986) and bassist-singer Rick Danko, who battled heroin addiction and died in 1999 of a heart attack.
As for Robertson, did the road of excess, as William Blake would have it, lead to the palace of wisdom? “Um, I wouldn’t call it a palace, but I would call it maybe a ghetto of wisdom, because it was a rugged and ragged journey.” At least the journey doesn’t appear to have dimmed his vision—or sapped his considerable confidence. “I’m still in a lot of ways on top of my game,” he enthuses. “A lot of people from my generation still do it, but it’s not very good: [they] can’t write songs anymore. On this record . . . I know I’ve done something really special. I’m relieved, because I look around, and that’s not the rule of thumb.”