Robbie Robertson: Seeing Around Corners
Today, he laughs at how The Hawks were fired from the Peppermint Lounge in New York City early in their career and learned a lesson that stayed with him forever. “They wanted us to play twist music, but we thought that was really corny and said no,” Robertson recalls. “We were coming from a different place. We’d been out there hearing music from up and down the Mississippi River and capturing that. When Music from Big Pink first came out [in 1968], people said you could hear gospel influences, mountain music, blues—all these things we’d gathered with a certain kind of maturity. We incorporated that into what we played without ever being too obvious. There wasn’t music like it then, but we felt like it was our music and stayed with it.”
Longtime fans will find an incredible depth in how Robertson looks back at the unraveling of The Band on How to Become Clairvoyant. For the first time—really—he clearly faces that historical juncture, singing: “Walking out on the boys was never the plan/ We drifted off course, couldn’t strike up the band.”
It’s a literal look at where that group lost its way. After The Last Waltz concert in 1976 at Bill Graham’s Winterland arena in San Francisco, the five members were at a crossroads. For Robertson, continuing on as a group without drastic changes to their lifestyle was not an option. “I just knew I couldn’t work in the circumstances we were in,” he says. “We needed to turn things around or put them upside down from how we’d been working. Everything had become so unhealthy and dark, but I didn’t know what to do. But I never said I was quitting The Band.
“What I was saying was we can’t go out on the road in the condition that The Band was in. We can’t do that. So the idea was to go off and shuffle the deck, do some solo projects and freshen up. Then come back together. But nobody came back. Everyone was relieved to be off on their own. I just saw the writing on the wall and acknowledged it.”
For fans, that might have made Robbie Robertson the bad guy; but for him, it was a matter of staying true to what he thought the group’s legacy was.
How to Become Clairvoyant is Robertson’s fifth solo album and his first in more than a decade. It feels like the one he’s been meaning to make since he left The Band all those years ago. There is a breathless self-awareness at the heart of each song that pulls his five decades of music making together into a cohesive whole. For those who still think that The Band was the apex of a certain school of rock and roll, this new music will arrive like an alluring postcard from a longtime friend who’s been out of sight but not out of mind.
The songs tell a life story even though that wasn’t the initial plan. “It evolved into that,” Robertson says, “and very naturally. That’s why I was able to go and write in such a reflective tone. I’ve never been very comfortable doing that in the past, which is why I wrote as more of a storyteller using fictional characters. Of course, a lot of your personal life seeps into that. Still, I was always adverse to the ‘me, me, me’ songwriting syndrome. It was a self-indulgence thing I was never comfortable with. And when I started writing for The Band, I was writing for others. I couldn’t show up and say, ‘Guys, I just wrote another song about myself.’ That wouldn’t have worked.”
For an artist like Robbie Robertson, there comes a point when he must decide whether it’s worth trying to make new and relevant music. After a ten-year gap of solo albums, the dilemma seemed quite real for him. “Without sounding presumptuous about this, I thought quite a few years ago, I thought, ‘I’ve done what I’ve done,’” Robertson says. “I decided I’m going to do what I like and not going to do what I don’t like. I’ve earned that. For me, though, I have a real yearning for learning things and challenging myself. I like to do things that I don’t quite know how to do, and making discoveries. So that’s how I set out to make this album.”
Robertson’s basic building blocks of a band for How to Become Clairvoyant consisted of bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas. With those two on board, he traveled to London—to “someone else’s ‘hood”—to work with longtime friends Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton and flesh out the album’s sound.
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