How Robbie Robertson Finally Stepped Out as a Solo Artist
Robbie Robertson took his time releasing his first solo album, waiting almost a decade after the Band's Last Waltz came out. Eventually the sessions grew to include multiple famous colleagues – some old friends, some new – but Robbie Robertson never failed to live up to its name: This was the most personal thing he'd ever done.
In an exclusive interview with UCR, Robertson admits that his songwriting is "an evolving process, and most of the time you don't know how deep you're going until you get there." With Robbie Robertson, he got deep, indeed – and right from the start.
The album began with a First Nations-inspired cadence, heralding its first collaborative moment, a poignant tribute to a lost friend, and a striking new career path. The synth-washed "Fallen Angel" sounded at once like an archetypal Robertson song and like nothing he'd ever done before. The effect is unsettling for anyone expecting the homespun mythology of his earlier work, and it set a template for much of Robbie Robertson, which arrived on Oct. 27, 1987.
Robertson's was a seldom-heard voice, featured only twice on lead vocals with the Band. But it fits perfectly within the gruffly whispered narrative on "Fallen Angel." He's a spectral presence, haunted and haunting on a song dedicated to his recently deceased former bandmate Richard Manuel. But Robbie Robertson was no frail flower. Elsewhere, Robertson howled back to life, taking on big ideas with a steely resolve and holding his own with some of the biggest stars of the day.
A loose theme emerged: Instead of pining for a world that would never be again, as he so often did with the Band, Robertson tended to speak forcefully here for dreams still to come. At the same time, however, he never let go of a deeply moving autobiographical thread – even when taking on the issues of war ("Hell's Half Acre") and the environment ("Showdown at Big Sky"). Both were seen through the lens of his own Onkwehonwe Mohawk heritage.
Robertson was still capable of skillfully illuminating all-but-forgotten mythical pathways, just as he had with the Band: "Somewhere Down the Crazy River," for instance, arose out of a familiar obsession with Southern gothic iconography. In this way, Robertson showed he'd lost none of his flair for detail, even as he suddenly began talking straight from the heart.
His transition into this more confessional approach hadn't come easily — or cheaply. Robbie Robertson took years to complete, and ran up a huge bill for Geffen Records. Producer Daniel Lanois, a fellow Canadian, proved to be a steadying presence. He was then doing extensive work with Peter Gabriel and U2, and both ended up playing important roles in completing Robbie Robertson after Robertson followed Lanois back to Ireland, where tandem sessions continued for the album that would become U2's The Joshua Tree.
Listen to Robbie Robertson's 'Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight'
Lanois' most important attribute, it soon became clear, was his knack for capturing unplanned, note-perfect moments in the studio – some of which add incredible dimension to Robbie Robertson.
For instance, live jams with U2 produced "Sweet Fire of Love." "We made up the structure of the song together, although I had a chord progression in mind," Robertson says. "Bono and I improvised lyrics over the track, and then refined them after. Edge and I had a particularly good time with our back-and-forth talking guitars."
They also completed the album-closing "Testimony," which was built off a leftover Gil Evans arrangement from a soundtrack Robertson created for Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. "The lyrics came to me while we were cutting it," Robertson says, "and Bono did an answer vocal on the chorus on the spot without blinking an eye."
While he was nearby, Robertson flew to Bath to visit Gabriel, who sang on "Fallen Angel" and provided keyboards and programming for "Broken Arrow." The former was likewise shaped by a pair of coincidences, one desperately sad and the other utterly serendipitous.
"When I started writing 'Fallen Angel,' I didn't know where it was going or what it was about," Robertson admits. "When I was halfway into the process, I got the devastating news that Richard had died, and it was in that moment that I realized what the song was about. I finished the writing with that tremendous loss circling in my mind."
During playback in the studio, Gabriel started humming along, and Lanois quickly set up a mic to capture what became the background vocal for "Fallen Angel." "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" – sparked by Robertson's first trip to the Mississippi Delta after joining Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks as a teenager – boasted the same kind of creative fission.
"I drank up the culture, the music and even ate at Nick's Cafe," Robertson recalls. "I wrote the music for this song on a strange instrument called an Omnichord. It presented a flavor unlike anything I had ever done before, and that helped inspire the storytelling nature of the verses. After recording the music, we were listening back in the control room and there was a microphone in front of me. While the track was playing, I was speaking this story into the mic and Daniel Lanois yelled out, 'That's it! That's what we have to do on this, just like that."
Watch Robbie Robertson Perform 'Somewhere Down the Crazy River'
In keeping with the out-sized nature of this long-awaited project, it actually took three people to construct the melodic cadence that gives "Broken Arrow" its undulating sensuality. (Terry Bozzio from Frank Zappa's band was the principal drummer, while Lanois added percussion.) They created something that's frankly audacious in its modernity, at least within the context of Robertson's career. (The song eventually drew the attention of Rod Stewart, who fashioned a cover of far lesser interest.)
If, until this moment, Band fans were feeling a little unmoored, all was forgiven with the appearance of Rick Danko, his longtime collaborator in the Band. He arrived just in time for the chorus on "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight," helping to craft a final moment of quiet resonance before U2 rejoin the proceedings for the riff-focused "Testimony."
Finding some measure of strength through fragile times was always Danko's strong point, and he's perfectly cast by Robertson once again. "Any time Rick Danko appears on a track, he raises the spirit," Robertson says. "This song had a strong cinematic quality for me, resembling many of the tracks that I did with the Band. I wasn't trying to reach back, but sometimes you can't help reflecting on where you've been."
Even so, Robertson wasn't content to play it safe: With "Sonny," he paired this patented myth-making fable with a fresh aural soundscape marked by Manu Katche's eruptive polyrhythms and Tony Levin's limber bass.
Other key regular contributors on the sessions included Bill Dillon, a Lanois pal who – like Robertson – had a legacy connection back to the Ronnie Hawkins. Members of the BoDeans dropped by for a trio of songs, most notably on "Somewhere Down the Crazy River." Elsewhere, Robertson also got back together with former Band mate Garth Hudson on both "Fallen Angel" and "American Roulette."
Yet the focus remained on Robertson, who roared back to the Billboard Top 40 for the first time since The Last Waltz reached No. 16 in 1978. Robbie Robertson remains the most individual of triumphs, despite the gaggle of featured guests and its lengthy gestation period. Robertson crafted a forward-looking album that referenced the lyrical phraseology that lifted his earliest work to greatness, while sharing something profoundly (and, to this point, quite surprisingly) intimate.
It reconnected him with fans. The gold-selling, Grammy-nominated album spun off a career-best pair of Top 10 hits on Billboard's mainstream rock charts, while "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" became Robertson's lone solo U.K. hit, reaching No. 15. The sessions also produced "What About Now," which would find a featured home on Robertson's second solo album, 1991's Storyville.