The Return of Robbie Robertson
A decade after The Last Waltz, The Band's leader comes out of retirement to make his Big Statement
by Bill FlanaganFrom Musician magazine, September 1987. The article is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
"I never said, 'I'm not going to write songs for a while,'" Robbie Robertson says. "I just didn't have the lure to get in there, sit down and suffer. And I enjoyed the sense that I didn't have to do it. After I did The Last Waltz I thought, 'This kind of redeems me a little bit. For a little while. '"
Robbie Robertson isn't offering excuses - he's just running down the facts. As guitarist and songwriter for the Band, Robertson was one of rock's most important voices from 1968 - when Music From Big PinkLast Waltz concert. Robertson's charisma in the 1978 film of that concert almost led to a movie career - but after starring in one movie (Carny), Robbie decided he didn't really want to do that, either. So he helped his friend Martin Scorsese with some motion picture soundtracks, and laid low here in Los Angeles. For ten years.
It's an admirable attitude - but not completely unique. John Lennon and John Fogerty are famous examples of rock legends who left for years to recharge. Simon, Dylan and Morrison have had their long vacations, too. What really sets Robertson apart is that (a) he said goodbye before he left, and (b) he's coming back with an album as powerful as the best of his old stuff. "Starting Over" wasn't exactly "Strawberry Fields, " and "Rock 'n' Roll Girls" wasn't "Run Through the Jungle," but Robertson's new record has songs that you could put right beside "The Weight. " Here in California in June he's wrapping up work on the still untitled LP he hopes will make it to the record stores the last week of September. The album has the dignity and depth Band lovers expect, but it ain't More Cahoots. Co-produced by Robbie and Daniel Lanois, and utilizing backup musicians such as Peter Gabriel and U2, Robbie Robertson's first solo album fits the aural space between So and The Joshua Tree. With the bonus of having tunes by one of the five best songwriters of the rock era.
"Daniel Lanois wanted to do it basically because of the songs," Robertson explains. "But one of the things he prides himself on is bringing new inspiration to the party. When we got into it, it all started changing. We'd be recording a song in the studio and I'd go upstairs to my workshop and he'd come in and go, 'Oh my God - what is that you're doing? This is what we've got to pursue!' We're already in the middle of the river with the first thing and all of a sudden we're off on another mission. It was exciting; it kept the sparks flying."
Robbie Robertson's impeccable. He walks into an expensive restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica; the hostess and the waiters all know him, other diners send over drinks, he asks lots of follow up questions about the wine. The guy's obviously got it. He's completely on top of things. He was on the cover of Time magazine at twenty-five, he hangs out with Antonioni. The guy's impeccable. But the funny thing is, under the smooth exterior he's also the ex-carny, the kid who quit school when he turned sixteen to go on the road with rock 'n'roll wildman Ronnie Hawkins. Everybody else in this plush restaurant is squeezed at little tables. But not Robbie. He made reservations for one extra person so he'd get more room. As the waiters bring bread and more free drinks get sent by anonymous Band-lovers, Robbie continues to pretend that his friend must be just running late. He eventually says we'll order some hors d'oeuvres while we're waiting for our pal, and finally, when he's good and ready, he tells the waiter, Okay, we'll order our meals and let him catch up later. And you've got to think - this guy's immaculate. The bourgeois system is not set up to deal with articulate carnies in expensive clothes who use imaginary friends to get the big table.
There's always been some hint of that sort of thing with the official histories of the Band, a suggestion that those five guys had a lot more going on than ever got in the papers. And that maybe the story that did appear in the papers had just a little spin on it. It's like those biographies of Lyndon Johnson that repeated a life story gleaned from other biographies back to Texas newspaper articles that it turned out were based on lies told by Lyndon. Not that the Band told lies - their records were so good that there was no need for hype at all. No, the Band had sort of a wall of myth around it, and writers kept raising it higher.
So what do we know? That Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel came out of Ronnie Hawkins' backup group to support Bob Dylan when he went electric. They played tumultuous concerts in Europe and America, with folkies booing and rockers screaming. In 1966 Dylan was waylayed in Woodstock, New York and the Hawks moved up there, too. With Dylan they recorded a bunch of demos that later became famous as The Basement Tapes. In 1968 Dylan released John Wesley Harding and the Band, as they redubbed themselves, knocked the rock world on its ear with Music From Big Pink. A year later they put out The Band, the brown album everybody's gone through three copies of. It had songs like "Up on Cripple Creek," "King Harvest" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. " They played Woodstock, they got that Time cover. (The magazine called them the first rock band to match the excellence of the Beatles. The Band might have been more impressed if they'd said Willie Dixon.) In 1970 they released Stage Fright, which contained some of Robertson's best writing, and in 1971, Cahoots, which was a little tired. Then there was a long filler period - a live album, an LP of oldies. In 1974 there was the big Dylan/Band tour - Bob's first in eight years and the biggest rock tour ever to that point. Something like four percent of the population of the United States mailed in money for tickets. That tour produced another live album, but the next real Band record, Northern Lights, Southern Cross, did not appear until 1975. It was quickly followed by Islands in 1976, and that was quickly followed by The Last Waltz.
All in all not a very busy career. And there were gaps between tours almost as long as the gaps between LPs. Yet the story put forth in The Last Waltz, and repeated by writers ever since, is that the Band lived on the road and had to wrench themselves away from it before it killed them like it killed Jimi and Janis and Elvis. "We never even played a show until after we did our second album," Robbie admits with a laugh. "It seems like we played everywhere but we weren't out there," he smiles, "like maybe the imagination implies."
One bit of mythmaking that did come true, though, was Robbie's dire prediction about the fate of the Band if they stayed on that endless highway. His four cohorts reunited without him a few years ago, and in early 1986 Richard Manuel died in a Florida hotel room. That tragedy implied that Robertson's motivations for breaking up the Band were based on justified fear.
"It went through cycles of danger," he says slowly. "And one element of danger surpassed the others until it was just frightening. We didn't know what the next day might bring. There were times when we were just scared to death of what would come out of this monster that had seeped out of the woodwork. And we saw it happen to everybody around us. You don't learn from it: it just sucks you in. We started playing together when we were just kids - sixteen, seventeen years old. To see people teetering on the brink constantly.... Richard scared us to death. We scared ourselves to death. These things become the priority, that's what rules your existence.
"We're talking about living a dangerous life. One thing equals another whether it's drinking or drugs or driving as fast as you -an or staying up for as long as you can. That way of life seemed very fitting. At a certain age you don't think, 'This is insane!'"
"I came up with the idea of The Last Waltz. I thought it would be a very soulful move. I said to the guys, 'Listen, we don't want to travel town to town anymore. We should evolve to the next stage. I think we should do this and do it in a very musical fashion. Gather together people who represent different spokes of the wheel that makes up rock 'n'roll.'And everybody said, 'Yeah!' So we did it and it was over with. But you forget when you're doing these things that people have in-bred music, in-bred road. It isn't like all of a sudden they can say goodbye. So it turned out after a while that everybody didn't feel the same way I did about it."
Robertson wasn't offended by the various combinations of his ex-partners who billed themselves as "Band Reunions." "That's when I realized it was in some people's blood," he says. "They couldn't say goodbye. It was too much a part of their past. I didn't feel strange about it, but it wasn't anything I related closely to. I didn't feel like, 'This is a big lie for you guys to do this.' I just felt like if I did it, it would be a big lie. "
So Robertson, the man who wrote, "I'll spend my whole life sleeping" and other odes to enlightened laziness, took the high road and watched his three kids grow up. The Band had signed to Warner Bros. just in time to break up, and eventually that label realized they weren't going to see a Robertson solo album. Meanwhile, a young Band fan named Gery Gersh had gotten a job in A & R at EMI. He convinced Robbie to sign with that company, although Robbie was only half interested and EMI thought he was probably a great songwriter who couldn't sing (the price for Robbie passing most of the Band's vocals off to Rick, Richard, and Levon). When Gersh moved over to Geffen Records he got that company to buy Robbie's contract from EMI. Robertson did a lot of label switching for somebody who wasn't going near a recording studio. Finally, Gersh set out to convince a dubious Robbie that he really should write a bunch of songs and make an album.
"I think he wanted to do this really badly, " Gersh says, "but didn't know how to go about it. And I wanted to do it really badly and didn't know how to go about it. So we just started getting into a series of very intense discussions of what we wanted to do. I didn't want to do it if he wanted to make another Band record, and he didn't want to make another Band record, so we hit it off immediately. We started searching for rhythms, for keyboard programs. We wanted to make the album mostly a guitar record. A lot of strings and swells that add color were done on guitars instead of synthesizers." Gersh and Robbie have some ambitious notions - including evolving a series of Robertson films with corresponding albums. But for now they're taking nothing for granted. "We're making the best Robbie Robertson record we can make," Gersh says. "If the public enjoys it as much as I think they will, it'll be fantastic. If they don't, I'll hold my head up very high. It's weird that this is Robbie Robertson's first solo album. I mean, if it's really well received does he get Best New Artist?"
Work on the album began in June of 1986. Robbie and fellow Canadian Dan Lanois hit it off quickly - they both love experimenting with sounds. They also both like to get a lot of interesting sonic options on tape - and use the mix to choose between them, but not to alter the sounds themselves. Work began, but Robbie's pal Scorsese was after him to do the soundtrack for The Color of Money. Robbie kept trying to say no, and Scorsese kept calling him with one more problem, one more question, one more idea. "I told him, I can't do it. I've really got to give this album my full attention. He just ignored everything I said. He said, 'You know, when we get to this scene...' We were in the water! He's one of my best friends in the world and finally he said, 'Let's cut the crap - you've got to do this.'" So Robbie agreed to do the damn movie. "I thought it was not an ideal move at all, " he shrugs. "I haven't made an album in a while and all of a sudden with my left hand I'm gonna be doing music for this movie? To work with guys like Martin and Gil Evans is a gift from heaven, but the timing...Daniel wasn't crazy about the idea, but he kind of put up with it. Then he had to go over to Ireland to finish up U2's album."
So the Robertson project was put on hold. Lanois, back up The Joshua Tree, got Robbie to promise to come over to Dublin to do some recording with Band fans U2. But first Robertson had to sort through the songs Scorsese was considering for The Color of Money. One was a tune Eric Clapton had submitted. "Marty said, 'I don't think it's going to work in the movie, but it's got something. There's a couple of lines that I like. I'm going to tell Eric to call you and you just straighten out with him what it'll take to make this song work in the movie. "' Robertson laughs at the memory. "So I thought, well this is some strange predicament. Eric's an old friend I hadn't seen in a while. He called me and said, 'Okay, what do we do?'I said, 'I don't know. Let me think about this thing, see if I can come up with something.' I just kind of copped out of the situation, put it out of my mind, and went on with scoring the movie. So a couple of days later he called me back. I said, 'Look, Eric, I've gotta be truthful with ya, you're catching me at a bad time. I've gotta score this movie and I'm in the middle of making an album...' He said, 'Don't tell me about a rough time for you! I'm in the waiting room where my girlfriend is about to have a baby! Don't tell me about timing!' I said, 'Well okay, you win this round - call me back in an hour.'Then I said, 'God! I've got to think of something!' So with all I could I just went into this zone of trying to figure out how to make this song work, how to shift it on the track for Marty. I said to the musicians I had in the studio, 'I'll be back in a minute - I've got to go upstairs and deal with something. Go ahead, you're doing great.' I went and did this thing out of desperation." An hour later when Clapton called back, Robertson sang into the phone, "It's In The Way That You Use It."
Robertson held his breath and waited for Clapton's reaction. "I finished singing it, picked up the phone and I could hear him laughing like mad. I said, Okay, let me hear the joke. He said, 'Oh, this works! This is fantastic! Read them off to me so I can write 'em down.' So I read off the Iyrics to him and I said, 'I'm not completely done with it, but this is what I've got so far.'He said, 'Oh great, see you later."'
From there, Robbie flew to New York to work on Color of Money horn charts with Gil Evans. "We're really under the gun time-wise, people are pulling their hair out, going nuts. We finish up the last piece of music for the film, I play my last guitar fill, and I grab my bag, run down to a taxi, and catch this plane to Dublin to try this musical experiment with U2. It's been set up that we're going to try mixing worlds together to see what happens. Those guys are in a very rootsy period. So anyway, I'm on the plane flying over there and I realize I have nothing written. I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm thinking, 'Oh I'll write something on the plane.' It's the biggest lie I've ever told myself in my life. On the plane I've got the perfect guy sitting beside me - he has a million things to say about everything and I can't stop him. We get to Dublin and they're having a hurricane! The plane barely makes it. I'm driving into town and cars are floating down the street! I'm thinking, 'Boy, this is one big disaster in the making here.' I'm taken to this house, I don't know where I am, I don't know what I'm doing. All I know is, I don't have any songs! Everybody's real nice and it's like another world, a twilight zone I've entered in a storm. I am so delirious from the work I've done in New York I can't even feel the predicament I'm in. I know I've got something to do, but I don't know what it is. They see I'm a hopeless case and send me up to some bedroom on a back floor. With great relief I go up there to try to rest and think, 'Maybe I'll write something while I'm up here!' I jotted down a few ideas. I had thrown two tapes in my bag. One was a horn chart I had done with Gil Evans that we weren't going to use in the movie. I thought maybe I can play this for them, maybe it'll inspire something. And I had this other little cassette of me playing a guitar riff and a tom-tom. Not much to go on. But while I was in the bedroom recuperating I actually got a few ideas. So the next day comes and it's time to deliver on this. Daniel plays the first tape for the guys. They hear this guitar riff, this tom-tom. Bono says, 'Let's go.' I'm thinking, 'Oh, God, let's go where?' I'm pulling scraps of paper out of my pockets. We start - and these guys jumped right in the water. They did something! I thought of a word idea, Bono thought of something. We recorded this song and it was twenty-two minutes long! We listened to it and said, 'That's pretty good!'
"Then somebody comes in and says, 'Eric Clapton's on the phone!' He said, 'Listen, you've only given me seventy percent of the Iyrics on this thing. Where's the rest of them?' I said, 'Eric, could you call me back in an hour?' He said, 'No, no! We've been through this! I'm in the studio singing the song and my voice is about to give out! What are the rest of the words?' So I had to run back up to my little room and sort out what I could. I called him back and I guess in an hour that record was done. I appreciate his patience and understanding. He kept saying to me, 'Where are you? What are you doing there?"'
Robbie went back into the room with U2. The song they had cut - "Sweet Fire of Love" was terrific. Robbie and Edge trade guitar fire while Bono, singing higher than normal, and Robbie, singing lower than normal, rail at each other like Gabriel and Lucifer. "Didn't we cross the waters?" Robbie sings, "Didn't we break the silence?" He sings of coming through the storm. If "Sweet Fire" were on a U2 record, you'd say the song was apocalyptic, but knowing that Robbie entered Dublin through a hurricane, it becomes literal. The Gil Evans horn charts evolved into a track called "Testimony," and then, two gems under his arm, Robbie got some sleep.
"We just threw the chips into the hat and mixed it up to see what would come." Robbie says. "Edge and I got into this guitar thing that I love. I love guitars screaming at, talking to, each other." In Edge, Robertson saw a guitarist like himself, more concerned with total effect than flash or solos. "It's whether it's musical." Robbie nods. "That's all it takes. It doesn't have to be complicated, it just has to speak to the soul of the issue. If it does right by the song you've made the right choice. In this day and age I have trouble telling one guitarist from the other. With Edge I hear three notes and I know it's him. The sound was always way up front for me. Look at Miles Davis! People would play a thousand notes; Miles would play one note, I could recognize him, and it would break my heart to boot. One reason I wanted to try this experiment with U2 was because I was very impressed by this group as a rhythm section. Larry Mullen has incredible rock 'n' roll instincts, and he and Adam, the bass player, do something that feels fantastic. When I'd listen to those guys I'd think, 'This is the real item.'"
"Bono and I talked about Iyrics. How when you're writing Iyrics for a band you have to express it on our behalf. When you're writing for yourself you don't have to do that." So Robbie's new songs are more personal than the Band's Americana?
"They're personal in the sense of playing the character of the storyteller. The songs are not, 'I was born by a river...' I take the view of a character who zooms in on aspects of life and tells it through his words. Some of it is first person; some of it is on behalf of a story - but it's different than I was ever able to do with the Band."
That seems like an odd statement. If it's in the voice of a character anyway, you think, why couldn't he have done it with the Band? But listening to the new songs, one character and set of images emerges that, sure enough, the other guys in the Band would not have been qualified to give voice to: an American Indian.
Robertson has an office - he calls it a workshop - at Village Recorders in Santa Monica. "It's great that it's in a recording studio," he smiles. "That way if I get an idea and I need a microphone, I can call downstairs and borrow one. " There's a carved wooden table Robbie uses as a desk, a couple of couches, and a painting of an American Indian on the wall. Tonight Robbie wants to go to a Native American art opening at a chi-chi gallery in Venice. One of the artists is Darren Vigil, the Indian who did the painting in Robbie's workshop and who's now working on a Robertson portrait. The gallery itself could be the brunt of a Woody Allen skit - they hand out Tootsie Rolls as entrance tickets - but the work is wonderful. Robbie passes through the crowd like he was born in a beret, greeting local artists by name and then offering succinct critiques: "That's Andre - he's doing great. His stuff's a little mathematical but I like it a lot." (Trivia buffs will recall Bob Dylan's famous assessment of Robbie Robertson as a "mathematical guitarist. ")
A lot of the paintings mix up the serious and playful. Darren Vigil's paintings are crammed with images and information - but there's a punch line: He paints little cracks in the claustrophobia through which peek starry skies. Robbie's studying a painting when someone suggests that the Indian unity between spiritual and physical - sort of combining high mass and a cookout - has a parallel in African art.
"Yeah," Robbie says, "but I know a lot more about Indians. My mother was born and raised on the Six Nations Indian Reservation above Lake Erie." Wait. Back that up. Robbie Robertson's mother is an Indian? "Yeah. And my father was Jewish. How's that for a combination?" Born to wander, one supposes - or as Jimmy Iovine puts it: "The Six Nations met the Six Tribes. " Robertson's father was a professional gambler named Claygerman who married an Iroquois woman, took her to the big city of Toronto, and died when Robbie was a small boy. His mother eventually remarried, to a man named Robertson.
"Every summer she would take me to the reservation," Robbie says. "It was like a time warp. My uncles and aunts had lots of kids. I had all these cousins who could tell things from listening to the ground. They could sniff the air and say when it was going to rain - tomorrow. These guys didn't climb trees - they could run up a tree. I'd run to the bottom of the tree, come to a halt, and say, 'What happens if you fall?' It was just a different way of life altogether. A lot of music, though. They all played something - mandolins, fiddles, guitars. That's where I started playing music. "
Robbie's Indian heritage is more obvious on his new album than on anything he did with the Band. "Broken Arrow" - a fragile mood piece full of longing and melancholy - might be the most beautiful song he's ever written. And this guy wrote "Out Of The Blue," "All La Glory" and "It Makes No Difference." "Broken Arrow" is more about Indian summer than Indians - unless, like Robertson, you spent childhood summers on a reservation. It's a song that makes hardened session drummers cry. You better hear it for yourself.
"Hell's Half Acre" is on the opposite end of the totem pole. It's a savage rock song about an Indian boy who is drafted and loses his soul in a meaningless war. "I thought of the whole idea of sending kids off to some foreign land to fight for something they don't understand," Robertson says. "The ultimate rape was to do it to an American Indian. That, to me, showed the picture more vividly." The pain of the song - a decent comparison is U2's "Bullet The Blue Sky" - whips out from the electric guitar. It was cut with the album's basic quartet: Robbie on lead and rhythm, Tony Levin on bass, Manu Katche on drums and Lanois ally (and by coincidence ex-Ronnie Hawkins sideman) Bill Dillon on ambient guitar sounds.
The Native American art opening is packed, but Darren Vigil eventually finds Robbie. They slip out to Darren's car, where the artist has slides of new paintings. Robbie consumes them. He's knocked out by a Matisse-like painting of an Indian woman in sunglasses. Then they decide to take their Tootsie Rolls and head to a disco where a bunch of the Indian artists are having an opening night party. The place is dark and loud and crowded. The P.A.'s blasting "I Want You Back" and "Low Rider." People are dancing and drinking and pinching each other. As the owner leads Robbie to a booth some people shake his hand and some whisper to friends, "You know - Last Waltz, take a load off, Fanny, that guy..." A drunk comes up and starts pushing across that barrier between tipsy enthusiast and pain in the neck. Robbie just smiles. The drunk wants Robbie to come over to his house. Maybe. The drunk wants to come over to Robbie's house: "Where d'ya live?" The drunk wants to buy a round of drinks for Robbie's table - "What'llya have?" First guy: a beer. Second guy: a Coke. Robbie Robertson: "I'11 have a bottle of champagne." He's polite but serious. This shakes the drunk. "No - really... " "Bottle of champagne. " The drunk wavers and then says, "Awright - Robbie Robertson wants a bottle of champagne, I'll get him one." The guy pushes through the crowd up to the bar, gets quoted a price and does a double take. He snakes his way back to Robbie's table and says, "Look - I'll buy ya one drink. You want a beer or something?" Robbie turns and looks at him and says firmly, "A bottle of champagne." Champagne arrives, drunk is gone. Darren Vigil says, "Don't feel bad for that guy - he owes me fifty bucks. " Three allegedly Native American women come to Robbie's table and fan their hands over their mouths going, "Woo woo woo woo woo!" Robbie pops the cork and surveys the dance floor, which is getting wilder by the minute. "These Indians," he says. "Not supposed to drink."
Three weeks later, Robbie Robertson is back in Woodstock, New York. He's standing in the doorway of Bearsville Studios, the legacy of his late manager Albert Grossman. When mixmaster Bob Clearmountain suggested Robertson move the album to Woodstock for the home stretch, he was reluctant. "At first I really didn't want to come up here to do it," he says. "It was like, 'Oh no! I'm starting over!'But it's been great. I'm really glad we came. " Twenty years after the basement tapes, he admits he isn't sure exactly how to find Big Pink. (He never lived there. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel did. ) That whole basement tapes thing got mythologized a little too fast. People are still bootlegging outtakes and goof-offs and things Dylan and the Band did once and forgot about. "But, " Robbie smiles, "none of those bootlegs have 'See Ya Later, Alan Ginsberg.' They don't even know that one exists!"
Moving into the larger of Bearsville's two studios, Robertson cues up a track called "Fallen Angel," a tribute to the late Richard Manuel, the Band's piano player and saddest voice. The song begins:
I don't believe it's all for nothing
In the 80s Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Paul Butterfield blew around the Northeast bar circuit playing musical (and probably chemical) roulette. Sometimes they were so brilliant you couldn't believe it and sometimes they were so awful you'd get depressed. But Danko, the hyperactive, fidgity, fast talking, song-calling, grinning ringleader seemed the most in danger of flying off the side of the Earth. Butterfield seemed sullen and Richard quietly intent. Then Richard hanged himself and Butterfield dropped dead. Suddenly Danko looks like the tail gunner who's lost both his wing men.
"No, " Robbie insists. "Rick is just very vivid in his ways. So you get the impression, 'Holey Moley! What a firecracker this guy is!' But he's just a very animated person. Richard was a big drinker and he stopped drinking. Just before he died he started drinking again. That disease comes back like a sledgehammer. And it drove him crazy. People were telling him, 'Oh, I'm so disappointed in you' and all this stuff. " Robbie sighs. "I think he just scared himself to death."
"Fallen Angel" shares with the other tracks - loud and soft - a haunted quality. Robbie calls it "the voice of a true American mythology." He doesn't see "true mythology" as a contradiction at all. "A lot of it's based on mixing fact and fiction together," he says. "We know these places exist, we know these people exist. I don't know who they are, but I know it's out there somewhere."
Robertson the songwriter has walked a very fine line, a line almost unique in rock. He writes in the voices of characters - the Confederate Virgil Cane, the migrant Cajun in "Arcadian Driftwood," the Indian draftee in "Hell's Half Acre." But he writes these characters with an almost confessional directness. Now this was common in pre-rock 'n' roll songwriting, but rock has tended toward either character writing in extremis or the appearance of autobiography. Most rock 'n' roll character writing is "Midnight Rambler" or "Money For Nothing," Randy Newman's bigot or Lou Reed's rapist. Created characters tend to be cartoons. The other style, the first-person I love you/ I hate you/ I can't get no satisfaction style used by everybody from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, maintains at least the illusion of being autobiographical, of being a true emotional statement. Robbie Robertson is the rare rock songwriter who gives obviously fictional characters as much compassion as other songwriters lavish on "I."
"I don't feel like taking the part of characters to outrage, " he says. "That's a bit of...a trickery to me. This has to be a true American mythology, as opposed to just whatever I could think of. Does it break my heart, does it give me chills, does it conjure up some kind of spell in me that I'll never get over? That is more interesting to me than a song on behalf of a bigot. I have nothing against that - but it doesn't have a valid place in this picture.
"And I was embarrassed by the self-indulgence of 'me me me.' 'Here's a little song about me.' If I started out a song that way it'd make me puke all over the piano." He is quiet for a minute. Then he says, "Everything you write is personal, y'know? You maybe try to disguise or hide what's real personal about it. What is 'Out Of The Blue' if it's not personal? Or 'It Makes No Difference'?"
Yet "It Makes No Difference, " from Northern Lights, is the perfect example of a Robbie Robertson love song. It's downright stoic in its stiff-upper-lipness: "There is no love as true as the love that dies untold." There's a truly strange distancing device in the bridge. Here is this heart-breaking song about soldiering on in the face of unbearable loneliness and suddenly the singer goes, "Stampeding cattle, they rattle the walls." Now what is that if not a way for Robertson to distance himself - a way to say, "This is getting too close to the bone, I better stick in a distraction so people will think it's a song about some other guy, some old cowboy." Where the hell did the cattle stampede come from, Robbie?
"When I was writing that song," he says and interrupts himself: "It's nonsense that you think of these things but nevertheless you go through them - I'm writing and I'm thinking, 'Is this maybe getting a little too legitimate?' So I got to the bridge and I thought, 'Here's where I'll shuffle the deck a little bit.' I do remember at that point thinking, 'Here's where I get to make this song not just traditional, here's where I get to stir up some dust."'
And how better to stir dust than with a stampede?
"I remember people saying for years, 'Y'know, I was thinking of recording that song but when it got to that line I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if I could deliver that.' But although I was looking to break out of that mood for a second and then come back to it, I wasn't at all saying, 'What can I say outrageous?' I wanted to shatter the silence. And the loneliest thing and this feeling that you're going crazy in this room - what could be stronger than stampeding cattle inside the wall? So in a kind of Luis Bunuel philosophy of images it made all the sense in the world to me. I just wanted to feel more of a rumble in the earth. Things were too still for me. I didn't want it to just become sad. I've always appreciated the violence in desolation as much as the helplessness."
Geffen's Gary Gersh is in Woodstock, with aide de camp Judith Haenel. Clearmountain is trying to figure out Lanois' random methods of storing different sounds on each track. Mixing these things isn't half as hard as finding where the information's stashed. There's a problem with a song called "What About Now." It's a march with a fine rhythm, nice synth parts and a solid verse. But the chorus is sounding like Up With People - a little too rousing for this LP, a little too jolly. The obvious problem is the backing vocals - hyperpro Hollywood studio singers with all the right notes and all the wrong feeling. Robertson wants to wipe those backgrounds and replace them with something more offbeat. That something turns out to be Lone Justice singer Maria McKee. Maria pulls up at the studio door with her manager, Jimmy Iovine. Yeah, Jimmy is a hotshot record producer, but not today. Today he's just along to look after his client (although he and Robbie joke about sending Lanois a snapshot of Iovine "fixing" Lanois' tracks.).
Maria has just flown in from a European tour and she's pooped. But Robertson has a gift for making people relax, feel no pressure and work twice as hard. Robbie engages Maria in conversation about Paris, about touring, about headache remedies. He suggests that before they even hear "What About Now," Maria take a listen to "American Roulette," a song that needs a woman's voice on its chorus. Robbie explains that it's about America's way of creating stars to destroy them, that one verse is about James Dean, one about Elvis Presley and the third about Marilyn Monroe. The Bodeans sang on the Presley section (Robertson likes them because they sing like guys in a band who step up to the mike on the chorus - not like session pros). He wants Maria to try the chorus coming out of the Monroe verse. Maria understands what the song needs, and rather than go for the obvious harmony, she and Robbie try for a high, airy sound - a bit like Monroe's little-girl gasp. It works pretty well, but it's hard to get the exact balance between phrasing, pitch and sexy character. Through all the tries Robbie exudes easy confidence. "Maria," he says, hitting the talk-back button, "it's just getting better and better."
Iovine - sitting on the couch and trying really really hard to not be a producer - finally says, "Why don't you slow down the tape a bit so she can have time to get that phrasing right." Robbie looks at his guest as if Jimmy just suggested they all paint themselves blue. "Slow down the track?" he laughs. "But won't she sound like Minnie Mouse when we take it back to normal?" Iovine says try it, and they do, and it works. Then Iovine goes back to being a manager.
It's obvious watching Robertson record that he gets twice as much out of musicians with compliments as other producers do with threats. He goes to the other room to hear Clearmountain's mix of a track called "Showdown At Big Sky." "That's terrific, Bob," he says. "The way Bill's guitar comes up there is great. It makes me wish it started to happen even sooner!" Now another producer might say that as, "The guitar comes up too late!" Robertson's execution is a lot more dignified. Around guys like Clearmountain and Iovine, who are in their early thirties, and Maria, who is in her early twenties, Robertson seems like a great high school coach: He's patient and he emphasizes good values and he works the kids to death. But they feel good about it. (Robertson may retch when he reads that, but it's true.) Of course, the method could only work with people like Clearmountain and McKee, who can do a part twelve different ways on demand. In Maria's case the shorthand gets pretty funny, with Robbie calling, "No - too Linda Rondstadt"; "The last note of that one sounded like Joan Baez", "Not so much like Kate Bush - more like the Ennio Morricone things."
In the other room, Clearmountain and Gersh are working on "Showdown At Big Sky." "The more echo you add, the less they sound like the Bodeans."
"That's not important, what matters is that it sounds good."
"We got the Bodeans for their character."
This whole studio is full of method actors.
Gersh wanted Tom Verlaine to come up and play a guitar part on another song but nobody can track him down. "What do you think of getting Todd Rundgren in?" he asks Clearmountain. Bob's face lights up. "Yeah! That'd be great!" Then he admits, "Well, actually I haven't heard that song. I'd just love to watch him work." They figure since Todd engineered Stage Fright, it would be fitting.
By two a.m. Maria's asleep on the floor, the staff has gone home, Iovine's nodding - and Robbie is sitting at the mixing board with a weary Clearmountain - rocking away.
The next morning at about eleven Maria answers the phone at one of the guest cottages. "Jimmy!" she yells to Iovine upstairs. "The power's gone out at the studio!" Iovine says, "I guess we have plenty of time for breakfast," and turns on the TV Contragate hearings. A few minutes later Clearmountain raps on the door and gets the word from Jimmy. Real bad news for Bob - a power loss could mean the samples he worked on last night are lost. Clearmountain, Iovine and McKee head to a Woodstock natural food joint, where they bump into Gary Gersh. Jimmy asks where's Robbie. "At the studio," Gersh says. "Already?" "Robbie's always at the studio. "
Two hours later workmen are fooling with Bearsville fuse boxes, Clearmountain is firing up safety copies of his samples, Iovine and Gersh are doing business on studio phones, and Robbie is at the piano, working out harmonies with Maria. Robbie is the oldest of this group by ten years, under the most pressure by ten tons, and the most relaxed by ten miles. At about two-thirty Clearmountain plays him the final mix of "Showdown At Big Sky. " The track sounds great. Yesterday the song spent a long time ending, shifting back and forth between two sections without rising or fading. Now the excitement builds right through - and when the tune ends you wish it would keep going. This isn't a result of any cutting - it's a result of Clearmountain's laborious fine tuning and Robbie's football coach guidance.
Robertson steps out of the mixing room and plops down in a chair. He looks tired, but he also looks real confident: the pride of a man who did great work, quit when he was ahead and has come back ten years later with something that can stand with his best. Days earlier he mentioned a thread that ties his songs together. Asked about it now, he says, "All it is for me is the sense of an American mythology. You'll hear it in the song we're going to mix next - 'Somewhere Down The Crazy River.'In my mind there's this mythical place in America where the storyteller lives. And he tells stories based on this place and people who've come through, and his experiences. That's why all the Indian stuff is there, because that's the birth of American mythology. It does something to me; it pushes a button in me. I don't know if it means anything to anybody else, but God, I know that place is out there somewhere." Robbie looks away - like he has one eye on this shadow land already. Then he says, "I've never been, but we all know it's there. And you'll recognize it in bits and pieces. You'll recognize it the way the storyteller tells it."