Rock & Cool
by Rene Homier-RoyA article about Robbie Robertson a year after his first solo- album was released. The article is taken from the Canadian magazine Via and was published in 1988. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Thanks to Serge Daniloff for sending us a copy of the original article.
Torontonian Robbie Robertson has been Bob Dyland's band leader. Then he became the leader of The Band. After years of triumph, followed by years of near retirement, he came back last year with a beautiful - and extremely successful - album. Has he changed? Is he still the coolest rock star ever?
They don't come any cooler. The other day he was telling some friends of how he experienced his first earthquake in California, shortly after moving to Malibu. He was sitting on the grass near a swimming pool with members of The Band. Suddenly, there was a rumbling sound, low at first, but increasing in volume. The ground began to rock, and the palm trees to sway back and forth. Some people might have started screaming. Others would have fled. Or fainted. Not Robbie Robertson. He stretched out on his back and calmly contemplated a natural phenomenon he had never experienced. That's all.
This extraordinary ability to remain cool, not as common as one might think, has always been the dominant feature of his personality. He was cool before it become fashionable, when he was only 17 in his home city of Toronto, dreaming of making music. He remained cool after cool went out of style, after he became a rock'n roll mega-star, appearing with Bob Dylan and as the leader of The Band (the first North American rock group to make the cover of Time Magazine). And always, always, through the crazy pace of tours, the temptations of the limitless money and the demands of his music, he remained totally cool.
Robbie Robertson's cool is not coldness or indifference; being cool, for him, simply means expressing his feelings, even the strongest ones, with the greatest caution. Never doing anything rash. Relying on irony rather than fury. And, maybe, just keeping a breathing space between himself and the crazy world around him.
He has spent the last ten years in discreet silence, meditating on his achievements, and trying to convince himself that music - and success, and its attendant turmoil - were essential to him. He has worked, but keeping to the shadows, more or less. After the critical success of Carny, a surprising film in which he shared the spotlight with Jodie Foster and Gary Busey, and for which he was co-writer, co-producer and composer, he worked on the music for most of Martin Scorsese's recent films (Raging Bull, King of Comedy, The Color of Money), and spent the rest of his time preparing his comeback. Without broadcasting it too much, with no haste and, most of all, without giving in to any temptation except his desire to make music, when the urge became too strong to resist. Terribly cool, I tell you.
This careful approach resulted in his first solo album last year, Robbie Robertson; two of the songs on it ("Showdown at Big Sky" and "Fallen Angel") were hits, and anyone who watches even a bit of television must have seen the videos at least once. He was back in the winner's circle. And at the last Juno Awards ceremony, he and the other members of The Band were inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining other immortals of Canadian pop music. Then, after a brief trip to Germany, where Percy Adlon, the director of Bagdad Café, tried to persuade him to write the music for his new film, Robertson returned to Los Angeles and to the painstaking toil of preparing his next album. When it emerges, in a month or a year, one thing is sure: it will bear Robertson's personal stamp.
That rare ability of imparting something of himself to his work has always been a dominant characteristic of Robbie Robertson's career and of the other musicians in The Band. In their beginnings, they rejected everything that made groups popular at that time: the so-called psychedelic music, the outlandish appearance, the obligatory message of peace and love at its least convincing. Instead of this empty spectacle, The Band offered solid lyrics and music of unusual subtlety for the time. And they were rewarded. Their albums were extremely popular, as were their concerts. In fact, Martin Scorsese turned their final concert into a cult film, The Last Waltz, while some of their songs were interpreted by others with tremendous success (Joan Baez made her version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" into a pop anthem).
Their real breakthrough, after eight years of touring as The Hawks, among other names, came with Bob Dylan, when the apostle of folk music and the acoustic guitar decided to go electric. The musicians who helped him make the transition from folk to rock, a surprising one at the time, were later to call themselves The Band.
It was around that time that I first met Robbie Robertson. A friend of mine knew him, and thanks to her I was invited to attend the opening night of Dylans show in Paris. There were absolutely no seats left, and I got my first glimpse of Bob Dylan and his band while seated on a gigantic speaker on stage, barely hidden behind the curtain.
That show remains one of my greatest memories. Because it was then that I discovered a myth of American culture, at a time when both the myth and the culture were in transition. The show was designed to be cool, as cool as its stars, but the French a udience reacted to it with impatience. At one point they began booing Dylan, who was trying, slowly but with all the good intentions in the world, to re-tune his guitar after breaking a string. As he calmly repeated to the raging crowd, he just wanted to make better music for them.
On that Parisian stage was everything that, at that point, characterized the lives of those strange beings, the stars of rock music. The way they are handed everything before they even know they want it. The demands made of them, by those who never seem to think they might like to be left alone, in peace. All the fans, all the groupies, and all the rest.
In an interview published in the historic 20th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, a veritable Who's Who of American pop culture over the last 20 years, Robertson was asked whether he missed the status of superstar and all the effortless satisfactions that go with it. He replied that nothing could be worse, really, than all that solicitude for a star's well-being. It had the most perverse effect imaginable: by ruining pleasures you didn't know existed, or whether you wanted to experience them.
He has escaped that world, in a way. No more car collections (he had several superb antique Mercedes), no more beach house at Malibu, no more jet set, no more craziness. Today, Robertson and his family share a lovely, but not opulent, house in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. There he leads a life that obviously satisfies him. He has all kinds of plans, and the extraordinary success of his latest album that has re-established him as a star. On top of that, there is a calm, after the wildness of years gone by, the feeling of having stopped in time and succeeded at what is most important: finding some balance in his personal life, and the opportunity to work quietly and without too much pressure on the music he truly loves.
When he was with The Band, Robbie Robertson's voice was rarely heard. Now there is that other pleasure, one he nearly denied himself: the joy of singing for himself, by himself, the words and music he writes. In a voice that is warm and rich, and very, very cool.