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- Posted on Mar 31st 2011 3:30PM by Jonathan Dekel
Courtesy of RobbieRobertson.com
Robertson -- who will be inducted into Canada's Songwriters Hall of Fame this week, adding to an illustrious list of achievements including spots in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Canadian Music Hall of Fame -- credits his contemporary Eric Clapton for his renewed interest in creating commercial music.
Robertson also reveals to Spinner the real reason the Band split and why he'd never rule out a reunion.
What inspired you to release 'How to Become Clairvoyant' after 13 years without an album?
It started out with Eric Clapton and I just hanging out and kicking around some ideas and telling stories, playing a little bit of guitar and writing a little tune together. We didn't have any particular purpose in mind, it's just that we'd known each other for a long time and that's what we do. We didn't really think about it much -- we were off doing other stuff -- and then I came back to it by accident a couple years later. I heard the stuff again and realized, 'Wow, we dug deeper than what I thought. Some of this sounds like the beginnings of something special.'
So I told Eric, and he invited me to come to London so that we could go into the studio and see if there was anything there. Turns out, because the majority of the songwriting was mine, it just leaned in my direction. It could have been his record, a duet record -- though I kind of hate duet records now that I think about it -- or it could have been my record. So after we finished writing these songs he told me that this was really my record and he would just play on it.
How did your friendship with Eric Clapton begin? I heard that, at some point, he tried to take your place in the Band.
I first met Eric in Los Angeles around the time 'Music From Big Pink' came out at a mutual friend's house. He told me the record had such an affect on him that it changed the way he felt about the music he was playing at that time and wanted to change direction -- which was quite a compliment, saying it like that.
That's when we first knew one another and we kept in touch off and on throughout the years. But he did come to Woodstock to visit with us, and I thought he was just curious but then he said years later that the real reason was that he had come to join the Band. I made a joke out of it saying, 'Were you implying that they need a new guitar player?'
If he had asked what would you have said?
We don't have any more bedrooms.
I understand that was the reason he broke up Cream?
Well, that's what's been said. He probably had other reasons for wanting to break up Cream.
On the new album you address, lyrically, some issues that you were weary of bringing up earlier in your career. What inspired that openness?
I'm not really sure. You can stand around all day long and ask why, but things come to you at different times. For some reason, the process of making this record became very reflective and personal for me. I usually like to do it in more of a storyteller's point of view and make these fictional [scenarios] which are loosely based on something personal. I like to keep that distance from things. This time I just thought, 'Here's what happened' and just went into that place; for the first time I felt comfortable doing it.
When you were writing about your time with Bob Dylan or Martin Scorsese did you try to contact them to get their opinion?
No. I can only tell the story from my point of view.
On 'When the Night Was Young' you address finding your musical, political and personal footing in the mid-'60s. Looking back, how do you feel about your role in the musical and social revolution of the era?
With the Hawks, after we left Ronnie Hawkins, there was a period when we went down south. We were trying to find our own way and playing all kinds of strange places; trying to earn a living and honing our skills some. So that period led us from the south back up north to this place in New Jersey where Bob Dylan got in touch with us, and then to New York where we hooked up with Bob Dylan and then to the Chelsea Hotel where I was living at that time.
For me, it's a time capsule and also a period where music was becoming the voice of that generation -- and it was a bold voice. It really made you feel good that everybody was involved. You did not feel that it had anything to do with politics; you felt it had to do with people being righteous in their heart. It sounds a little corny nowadays, but at the time there was a dedication to this whole spirit from the youth of North America and ultimately spreading across the world.
And I don't know if we have that now. I don't think music is the voice of this generation. I don't know that people are united in that kind of way. But what is happening in the Middle East now is definitely a reflection of that time.
You've always taken a contrary position to popular trends: you played acoustic guitar when Bob Dylan went electric and wrote Southern-tinged, country-soul when psychedelia was the popular musical form.
At the time, it was like in that movie 'The Wild One' when that girl asks Brando, 'What are you rebelling against?' and he says, 'What do you got?'
The Band was rebelling against the rebellion. The rebellion went to a place where it became too obvious, too trendy, like you were just following the pack. So it was our choice to get off the bandwagon -- no pun intended -- and do things that were in our background and what was the most honest thing to do. In our music, there were all these influences from Canada to gospel music to the blues to rhythm and blues to rockabilly -- everything was part of our gumbo.
What we did on 'Music From Big Pink' and the other early recordings was not what we did with Bob Dylan, it's not what we did as the Hawks and it's not what we did with Ronnie Hawkins, it was another mode, another period. When I look back on it, I appreciate that we had the instincts not to follow what everybody else was doing.
You address your time in the Band and, more specifically, its consequent break-up in 'This Is Where I Get Off.' In the chorus, you sing, "I know where I went wrong 'long the way." What do you mean by that?
You go wrong when you follow a path that you don't feel true to. People grow in different directions and when you find out you're not in the right place at the right time, you have to do what's true to you. You can't do things because they're expected of you or because that's what somebody else wants to do; you have to find your own path.
The group broke up rather spectacularly with the performance and taping of 'The Last Waltz,' yet many of your former bandmates ended up disgruntled by the way things were handled, specifically financially. In hindsight, do you have any regrets about that time?
No, not at all. For me, everything that I had to do, I feel pretty fulfilled in that area. Recognizing when this group was coming to a dead end, a musical dead end of some kind, that we needed to reshuffle the deck.
So I wanted to do 'The Last Waltz,' and after 'The Last Waltz' the idea was that everybody clear their head, take care of themselves -- we all needed to get into a more healthy space -- and we would get back together and make some fantastic music. And that's what everybody said they wanted to do. So after 'The Last Waltz' everybody went in different directions. We all made solo records or worked with someone else they wanted to work with, which was refreshing and a good idea. So everybody went off to do these projects and never came back. You just had to read the writing on the walls.
As I say in the song, the idea was never to break up the Band, but [the events] painted [their] own picture, and you had to recognize what these things are telling you and not beat your head against the wall on something that couldn't be.
Is that why you didn't participate in the reunion tours in the subsequent years?
No, I had decided I didn't want to do that anymore. I was going in other directions. I was exploring and learning and educating myself in different areas and I felt there was a growth in that. I felt there was certain stagnation in going back to a situation with the Band. It had nothing to do with my feelings towards everybody, I loved these guys, they were my brothers. But you have to follow the light, and it was dark in there.
Very Dark. Do you still talk to the guys? Is there a chance of a reunion?
I don't know, I would never say never. Like I said, I so admire these guys and their musical abilities and our time together. I don't know if we still need to do it -- but like I said, never say never.