He wrote “The Weight,” ranked #41 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time list. With its maddeningly ambiguous lyrics, from the opening line—“I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling about half-past dead….”—to its harmonized refrain—“A-a-a-and you put the load right on me”—it remains one of the most enigmatic popular songs ever written.
And here was the songwriter himself, Robbie Robertson, seated across from me in this restaurant all dressed in black. He was laughing with the waitress, a slim blonde named Stacy.
Far from Nazareth, we were in a place called Craft, a restaurant in Los Angeles where the 22 ounce sirloin steak is $54.00 and the New Jersey pheasant will set you back $32.00. We were surrounded by men in business suits drinking after work, mostly Hollywood agents from the big talent agencies in the nearby office towers. They were accompanied by the kind of well-dressed women who marry men who go to work every day in business suits, but maybe not the ones they were with here tonight. The restaurant owner was Robbie’s friend, which was why he chose this place to meet.
We were here to talk about “How To Become Clairvoyant,” Robbie’s first album in more than ten years, his fifth solo work since leaving The Band in 1976, and the fourteenth album he’s played on since “The Weight” was released on The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” in 1968. It’s a good album with some very good songs and contributions from Robbie’s old friends Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, some new friends like Trent Reznor, and how all that came together is what we were here discuss, but Robbie was hungry.
“I haven’t eaten all day,” Robbie told Stacy. “Bring us some snacks.” From the sommelier he ordered a glass of wine, requesting the El Capitan, a Santa Barbara Syrah, 2008 vintage. Make that two glasses, said I.
Expecting someone mysterious and elusive, I was ready for the singer/songwriter and lead guitarist from The Band to be a difficult artiste, like Bob Dylan, with whom Robertson and The Band toured in the early days, or Van Morrison, a close pal of Robertson’s. Anticipating a tight-lipped man, reluctant to reveal himself, jealously guarding his hidden soul, I was going to ask him something challenging right away, a deep question like: What the hell does “The Weight” mean, particularly the part about “Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me at the bar…”?
But a few minutes into the conversation, and after a few sips of the excellent El Capitan, it became clear that Robbie was no mystery man. Smiling, loquacious, with a genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence, he was ready to get personal, which was good because “How To Become Clairvoyant” is a collection of twelve deeply personal songs. He was open to talking about anything at all—even drugs, which was my fault because I brought up the subject. Wild behavior, and the price you pay, is part of the confessional Robbie delivers with this album. So it was understood, without saying, that each of us had done his share of misbehavior and illegal substances.
Robbie described how when he first joined Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in Toronto in the early 1960s when he was in his teens, a lot of musicians on the scene were popping Benzedrine pills—“Bennies.” We talked about the varieties of amphetamine: Dexedrine, Dexamyl, Black Beauties… the green-and-whites were my favorite.
“So what happened,” Robbie asked me, looking me in the eye. “You don’t like speed anymore?”
“No,” I lied. My editors wanted this article done in just couple of days. Damn, how else was I going to get this done without the usual chemical assistance?
“Makes you smoke a lot, doesn’t it?” Robbie reminisced. “Cigarettes tasted so good.”
Shaking his head sadly, he said, “You know, there are a few things in my lifetime that I regret. One is all the cigarettes that smoked. Because it really beat me up. I did great damage to my respiratory system.”
But if he had not smoked all those cigarettes he wouldn’t have his very cool and unique raspy singing voice either, I was thinking of saying, but instead asked Robbie if he had a cigarette. If he did, we might have stepped outside for a smoke, because I was dying for a cigarette. But no, Robbie and I agreed, we don’t smoke anymore. So we just sat and drank wine and ate from a parade of appetizers Stacy brought out—oysters, sausage, lamb—and plunged into the past.
WHEN THE NIGHT WAS YOUNG
Robertson was born in Toronto, Canada. His father was Jewish, his mother a Native American of the Mohawk tribe. He grew up learning, guitar on summer vacations at the Six Nations Reservation, where his mother was born and raised. His Indian roots would later lead to working with The Red Road Ensemble on the soundtrack to the 1994 television miniseries, “The Native Americans,” with a selection of songs issued as an album. Tribal spirits also inspired his 1998 album, The Underworld Of Redboy, which led to a one-hour TV documentary “Robbie Robertson: Making A Noise.”
He joined a touring bar band led by Ronnie Hawkins that became known as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, which included the players who would later form the nucleus of The Band. Leaving Canada, they toured the southern states on what was known as the “Chitlin Circuit,” a tough series of one-night stands in bars and honky tonks that polished the young guitar player’s riffs and shaped Robertson’s profound repertoire of American music.
Robertson captures the feeling of coming of age on the North American road in the Fifties and Sixties in a track on the new album called When the Night Was Young:
We headed straight south in a sundown light
On highway 61 through the delta night
We shared the backroads with cardsharks and grifters
Tent show evangelists and Luke the Drifter
The backup vocals of Angela McCluskey on this track ring out behind Robertson like a doo wop angel. McCluskey has earned a cult following since her days with the Wild Colonials. In music circles, she is known as a singer’s singer.
“She has a great sound,” agreed Robbie, pleased to have chosen her to sing on his album. “It just shows you I know what I’m doing.”
That may true, but for Robbie, knowing what he’s doing seems to come only after a bit of exploration. How to Become Clairvoyant began with a trip to London in 2008. Robertson spent three weeks in a studio with Eric Clapton, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas.
“Eric and I are old friends,” he recounted, and they had been talking about doing something together for years. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We had nothing specific in mind yet. We said, let’s just do something and see what happens. So we recorded some tracks. And Eric said to me, this is really your record. I would love to be supportive—sing, play—whatever you want.”
But then director Martin Scorsese called. Robertson had collaborated with Scorsese over the years on many films including Raging Bull, King Of Comedy and The Color Of Money. Scorsese, of course, directed The Band’s epic farewell concert film, The Last Waltz. This time, Scorsese had a new project, Shutter Island, a thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
“I had to switch gears,” said Robertson, who jumped off his own project into a totally new realm of music for Scorsese’s project. “I said to Marty—I think in this movie we should use all modern classical composers like John Cage. I was talking about going deep into the well. I went completely into that world and when I came back to the album, I had a particular cinematic vision of what should be done to finish it.”
As if casting people in parts for a movie, Robertson brought in McCluskey for backup vocals, guitar hero Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph, and Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, along with Winwood and Clapton. His aim: “To complete a collaborative vision. There was a lot left to do, because some of these songs were just a germ of an idea.”
Unlike his other albums, which were recorded in a single long stretch, this album benefitted from the long interruption. “Having that break was something I’d never experienced before – to go away and come back with some clarity instead of exhaustion – it made this album what it is.”
HE DON’T LIVE HERE NO MORE
During the making of “The Last Waltz,” Robertson and director Scorsese spent a lot of time together. In fact, they were housemates. The hard-rocking track “He Don’t Live Here No More” is about that time, “a song about excess,” according to Robbie. “It was a lifestyle of the time that most of my friends went through, some came out the other side, and for some, the train ran off the tracks.” The song features Clapton on harmony vocal and electric and slide guitars alongside Robertson playing a soulful solo on his 1928 Martin 00045 “gut string” guitar.
Got a ticket on the mainline
I was stranded on the fault line
I got wasted on the moonshine
Too far gone
“The Martin 00045 is an exquisite instrument,” Robbie told me. ”Martin has a new version, they’re going to start making them again. And on this album Eric is playing it or I’m playing it. Eric gave up his own classical guitar made in Spain,” because Clapton liked the sound of Robbie’s gut string better.
“It’s a thread through the whole project,” Robbie said.
Clairvoyant is a guitar album for guitar aficionados, for anyone who appreciates the whole history of the guitar virtuoso, or “axman” as such as player is known, which is the title of one of the album’s best tracks.
They say the axman’s coming
In a long black car
They said the axman’s coming
He plays a mean guitar
Robbie’s song calls out the names of rock and blues guitar heroes, including Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughn, T Bone Walker and Link Wray, Elmore James and even gypsy jazzman Django Rinehart. He sings of Delta Blues master Robert Johnson and “Jimi James,” the name Jimi Hendrix used when Robertson first met him, all “Brothers of the blade,” as the song celebrates them.
The song is a hymn to the six-string instrument with which Robertson won a place as Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, as did Clapton, whose friendship Robbie also celebrates.
“It’s as if our guitars are talking to each other,” Robertson said. “And it’s always been that way--natural and comfortable. It’s like in The Last Waltz when Eric’s guitar strap fell off and I picked it up. We had each other’s back.”
Another track called “Straight Down the Line” explores the history of rock from its origins in blues, gospel, rockabilly and pop, “From the Chitlin’ Circuit to the Peppermint Lounge,” as the song goes, and recalls a meeting between Robertson and classic bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.
Been run off more than once for goin’ underground
Where I met an old bluesman with a walking cane
In the days before they became Dylan’s backup band, Robertson and his bandmates were proposing collaboration with Williamson, but the elder statesman of the blues was a purist. He thought over the idea and according to the song:
Then he took a little drink
And I heard him say
I do not play no rock and roll
Would not be moved to sell my soul
“I loved that about him,” recalled Robbie. Williamson died a short while later, a bluesman to the end. It was a similar case with the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whose influence was felt by Robertson and endless numbers of rock, pop, and soul singers. As a Rock n Roll Hall of Famer (and inducted this year into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame ) Robertson suggested to the induction committee that they honor Jackson.
“They got in touch with her family after she’d passed away,” Roberson recalled, “and they said no thank you. Mahalia Jackson does not play no rock and roll.”
Robertson pointed out that Frank Sinatra also stood apart from the music that became the sound of the last half the 20th Century. “Those were three characters,” Robertson said, with the admiration due to practitioners of pure art, “who do not play no rock and roll.”
THIS IS WHERE I GET OFF
The breakup of The Band, one of rock’s greatest ensembles, has always been the subject of much conjecture. The genius of each member—Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Robertson—contributed to an enduring sound from a band that recorded seven classic albums (before he split from the group), played a memorable set at the Woodstock Festival, and toured for 16 years. What went wrong?
Robertson sighed, looking thoughtful as he sipped his El Capitan. “Some groups have been together forever and are still productive and inspiring one another. Others—it does go stale,” said Robbie. “In our situation we hit a wall. We were called The Band. All the individuals played an extraordinary part. When one of those wheels goes flat, the others can’t drive as fast. When two wheels go flat you’re limping over to the side of the road. Three wheels go flat and you need to shuffle the deck, re-group.”
Robertson has been reluctant to talk about it all these years, but he relates the story of his departure from The Band poetically on the track titled This Is Where I Get Off
Walking out on the boys
Was never the plan
We just drifted off course
Couldn’t strike up the band
Robertson blames the breakup on the nature of the era. “It was the late 70s when there was such an indulgent drug-ridden culture. You would say hey, this worked very good Tuesday but Wednesday and Thursday were fucked. Like somebody you had great sex with last week but now when you see them it doesn’t work anymore. It was that kind of situation—addictions were ruling the creativity. I didn’t know how to communicate through the fog. You try and keep trying and keep trying until you get to a point where you say, you know what? I’m falling apart trying to figure this out. For my own sanity and my own survival I need to step aside, even if I’m just as bad as everybody else.”
The breakup led to a bitter dispute with Levon Helm over song copyrights that has since been settled. “It is so long ago, so in the past and life is so short,” Robbie said.” I have such great love and respect for Levon, so many amazing experiences that I’ve had with him, and that’s where I keep that.”
Backup vocals on “This is Where I Get Off” are performed by Rocco DeLuca, a rising young artist who specializes in open-string Dobro and often opens shows for Daniel Lanois. DeLuca will be joining Robertson’s backup band on upcoming TV show appearances promoting the album.
Describing DeLuca’s high falsetto, Robbie says the singer’s voice is “like Richard Manuel,” his old Band-mate who died in 1986. Rick Danko is also gone, dying in 1999.
“Do you miss those guys?” I asked him.
Robbie took a deep breath and looked down at the table. “Of course I do. Yeah. They’re like brothers. It’s not like you forget or get used to the idea that they’re not here anymore. I often catch myself thinking—What would Richard think about that? I’ll be working on a song and this is when I would ask Richard—What do you think about this? He would always have something progressive for me in his observation of what I was doing. And we co-wrote things together. So it was it was that habit just being extended. He would write something on his own and he would say to me, Hey do you think we should go to a bridge here? We grew up doing that. And yes,” said Robbie. “ I miss him dearly.”
So just pull over
To the side of the road
This is where I get off
This is where I move on
I know where I went wrong
‘Long the way
As we left the restaurant, an old blues song was playing on the sound system. I suddenly recalled that Nazareth is the hometown of the guitar manufacturer C. F. Martin & Company. I wanted to ask Robbie about something but we were shaking hands on the sidewalk and we both had places to go and people expecting us. I remembered something he had said earlier in the evening.
“Sometimes it’s easy to find a good opening but it’s hard to find a good finish.” He was talking about writing a song, but he laughed and added, “In life, too…:”
Robbie stepped into his car and was gone like Luke the Drifter, only in a Mercedes and with song lyrics hanging in the air….
How to become clairvoyant
That’s what I want to know
Just tell me where to sign
And point me where to go…