Robbie Robertson on The Band, A Book and Clapton
Relix contributing editor Randy Ray turns 50 today, so it seemed fitting to present his recent conversation with Robbie Robertson.
Robbie Robertson has had a key role in shaping some of the finest music of his generation, whether it was with Bob Dylan, The Band, his solo projects or on soundtrack work for numerous Martin Scorsese films. The guitarist and songwriter has kept busy this year, too, releasing the four-disc Band box set Live at the Academy of Music 1971, and his first book, Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World. The latter effort is an illustrated text and two-CD music tome for young readers, co-authored with his son Sebastian, and music industry veterans Jim Guerinot and Jared Levine.
Like some of his elder-statesman peers, Robertson is also “deep in” the writing process for his autobiography, continuing the dialogue about his music, which has influenced a new generation of artists in recent years.
Why did you choose to revisit The Band’s 1971 Academy of Music material?
I was never satisfied with what I had done in mixing [the original Rock of Ages 1972 double album]. I mixed the album with Phil Ramone in Miami, and when we got back and listened to it, we both thought, “This wasn’t good.”
I had to mix the album over again at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, N.Y. I mixed it with the studio engineer, who was good, but he did the best he could with a studio that was half-built. When it came out, the reception was extraordinary. We couldn’t have asked for anything better. And everybody loved it except me. What I didn’t love about it was my fault.
Cut to a few months ago. The record company said, “Would you like to do some new mixes?” And I said, “Would I ever. Thank you very much.”
It was like a gift from heaven. I suggested that we get Bob Clearmountain, and Bob and I could do our mix of the whole thing, and then, Sebastian was going to do a soundboard mix of it. His philosophy in mixing the whole Friday night show—the New Year’s Eve show—was, “I want this to be so real, so raw, and the outcome to sound like the best bootleg record you’ve ever heard.” Bob and I were mixing what was on the original record with some bonus tracks because now we’re not limited by how many songs we can get on a vinyl recording. Our job was to make it sound as beautiful as we could.
What inspired you to work on your first book, Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World?
This originated with Sebastian, my son. He brought up this idea, and I thought it was a good idea—just doing something for kids at a certain age, which I guess is like eight to 12 year olds, right in that range. It’s kind of at a stage, too, where they start developing their real tastes for things. I was just thinking, as a parent, “Wouldn’t it be so great if my kid knew about some of the greatest recording artists of all time and where things came from?”
You can trace so much music today back to the places where it originated. You can even trace The Band’s music back to its gospel elements and mountain music. I mean, The Band was kind of the ultimate [example] of this, but so many groups today are influenced by The Band. It is so evident and so obvious in their music. And if you don’t know about that music and where that comes from, it’s just less—it’s not more. It doesn’t give you that taste factor and that foundation.
You rarely perform live these days, but you decided to play with your old friend Eric Clapton at his recent Crossroads Guitar Festival. How did he nudge you back on stage?
Eric and I had a wonderful time making music together on my  album, How to Become Clairvoyant. We did the recording and I finished the record. When I was done, I felt, out of respect, that I wanted Eric to hear it first. I sent it to him and he sent me back a thing saying, “What a great fucking record.”
That was well put. [Laughs.] He was so happy with what I did with the basic recordings that we had done in London together, and then, after that, he said, “I’m going to put this Crossroads thing together. Would you come and do a couple of tunes with me?” I—100 percent—wanted to be supportive of him and his Crossroads rehab center. We did [the show in April] and had a nice time. [Playing live] is not what I do anymore, it’s not really my comfort zone, but for Eric, I would do anything.