The Second Coming of Robbie Robertson

The enigmatic leader of the Band returns to the rock world with his brilliant solo debut

Portrait of Robbie Robertson from the BAND, 1987 Credit: George Rose/Getty

A few years ago Robbie Robertson decided that he wanted to make a film called American Roulette. The script tells the story of a Sixties rock & roll legend who has disappeared for some 15 years. A notorious abuser of drugs and alcohol during his heyday, this onetime guitar hero is believed by many to be dead, perhaps of an overdose. But no one really knows what has happened to him. And by the Eighties, no one cares.

The film would focus on this rocker's teenage son, who is searching for his father. The journey is a coming of age for the boy, who dreams of someday becoming a big-time rock guitarist himself. Along the way, he plays in a roadhouse band, gets beaten up in a parking lot for flirting with the wrong girl, smokes dope for the first time, loses his virginity and comes face to face with his dad's old manager, an eccentric character now living on a grand estate in Woodstock, New York.

Eventually, the boy finds his father, who is alive and well, living a quiet, anonymous and drug-free life since he dropped out of the rock & roll world.

Robbie Robertson still hopes to turn this script into a movie. It's easy to understand why: if you could combine the father and the son into a single character, you'd almost have The Robbie Robertson Story.

* * *

Eleven years ago, Robbie Robertson shut down the Band and walked away. At the time, the Band was a living legend. One of the first rock groups to appear on the cover of Time. Headliners at Woodstock. Like their friend and former boss Bob Dylan, the members of the Band cloaked themselves in myth and mystery. And just before they called it quits, Robertson assembled a cast of some of the most prestigious names in Seventies rock — Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell — to perform at their final concert, an elaborate affair called the Last Waltz.

After 16 years — Robertson had hit the road in 1960, at age 16 — the rock & roll life had lost its allure for Robertson. What had begun as a fantastic adventure had become a job — "like selling shoes," he says. He had other plans — perhaps a career in films. "The Band was just fine until we became successful," says Robertson, who is now 44. "And then here came this strange phenomenon. It's like a disease. … It just wasn't a creative process for me anymore. And I felt guilty of being one dimensional in my life. I wanted to just be able to sit down or play with the dog or something. I was dying to be able, when someone asks, 'What are you doing?' to say, 'Nothing.'"

The author of such classics as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "The Weight" had run dry. "I just had nothing left to say," Robertson says. "I would look around, and I would see all these other people who had nothing to say either, but they insisted on making records. I thought, 'I don't want to do that.' I felt like I'd made a hundred records. I thought, 'I just want to clear the air, do something else for a while, and maybe, at some point, I'll feel inspired and I'll do it again. Or maybe I'll never do it.'" He pauses for a moment, and a sly smile creeps across his face. "Either way, it intrigued me."

* * *

"I can't just make a record," says Robbie Robertson one night as he cruises through Santa Monica, California, in his jet-black BMW 733i sedan. "I have to make a move."

After a decade in the shadows — which included a separation and reconciliation with his wife of 19 years, a flirtation with the movie business, a period of wild living, fueled by drugs and alcohol, and the tragic suicide of Band singer-pianist Richard Manuel, who hanged himself in a Florida hotel room last year — Robertson is, finally, making his "move." "All of a sudden, I had this yearning, I had this need," he says. "I felt angry. I felt possessed. It was all very instinctual, like breeding time."

His first solo album, Robbie Robertson, a brilliant, autobiographical work, should reestablish him as one of the preeminent rock & roll artists of his generation. The album, produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel) and Robertson, with contributions from Gabriel, U2, the BoDeans, former Band members Rick Danko and Garth Hudson and jazz arranger Gil Evans, is a lyrical and musical masterpiece.

"It's really Robbie's story," says Daniel Lanois. "I was talking to Bono about this. 'Testimony' and 'Fallen Angel' and 'Broken Arrow' — they're all about him. Not that many writers of songs have seen enough of the world to make a record like that sound interesting. But Robbie has. It's fiction based on truth, based on his life."

One of rock's great enigmas wants another shot at stardom. The star-making machinery is already in high gear. Geffen Records has committed over a half million dollars for the initial marketing and promotion blitz. MTV will air a half-hour special on Robertson. He may host Saturday Night Live in December. "I think he's hungry for success," says Peter Gabriel, a good friend of Robertson's for the past five years. "But there are two ways of going after it. The work can ride on the ego, or ego can ride on the back of the work. With Robbie, the latter is true. The music wouldn't sound like that if it were the other way around."

If all goes as planned, this will be the year of Robbie Robertson's second coming.

* * *

The door to Robbie Robertson's "workshop," a recording studio in West L.A., opens, and there he is, looking tired, a cigarette between his fingers, a half-empty bottle of Corona in his other hand. "Come on in," he says in a low, cigarette-worn voice. "Have a seat. Want a beer?"

It's early November of 1986, and Robertson is hard at work on his album. For the past few years this $12,000-a-month studio has been his base of operations. He's done much of his recent recording here. Wearing a dark, oversize shirt that hangs over black jeans, Robertson leads the way into a room that he has converted into a kind of serene den, complete with two couches, a coffee table, a mess of guitar cases and walls hung with paintings and drawings by an American Indian artist, Darren Vigil.

He collapses onto one of the couches. As the smoke curls up from his Marlboro, he peers through the dark lenses of his oval sunglasses and launches into a few of the stories he's collected during the making of his album. But as he tells these stories, one begins to realize how little they actually reveal about Robbie Robertson. Perhaps this is something he learned from being around Dylan; his essence remains frustratingly out of reach.

Robertson's friends describe him as a very private person. Although Gabriel has known him for five years, he's been out to Robertson's house only once; all their other L.A. socializing has taken place at restaurants and clubs. Gabriel says that he was surprised at how "nervous" Robertson was when he came to Bath, England, to work on songs with him. "He's a very kind person with a wild imagination," says Lanois. "He's got a heart of gold. But he's got some mischief in him as well. He's a street kid from way back. He learned the ins and outs playing in scuzzy bars, and he's always got the point of view of that same young man."

"I've always had the sense," says Gabriel, "that there is some strong spirit of brooding within Robbie that needs its expression."

At the studio, most of the recording takes place in a cramped control room filled with synthesizers, speakers, guitars and multitrack recorders. Asked to play some of the songs he's been working on, Robertson hedges. He offers some excuses — the vocals aren't done; the tracks aren't finished; everything is incomplete — before stating flatly, "I'm not into playing tracks." Instead, entering the control room, he removes his shades and puts on a finished piece he recorded last year with Gil Evans when the two of them worked on The Color of Money.

Up close, Robertson's face looks weathered from the years of fast living and the recent nights of little sleep. Yet he's still remarkably good-looking and undeniably charismatic. And as Gabriel puts it, "Both his lyrics and his voice sound like they've been lived in."

An hour later, seated at a table at Chinois on Main, a pricey Santa Monica restaurant he frequents, Robertson orders a glass of champagne. The conversation has turned to his foray into film, a strange adventure that began at the end of 1976, as Robertson and Martin Scorsese started editing the raw footage of The Last Waltz into the best rock concert film ever made. By the time the film was released, in 1978, Robertson had the film bug — bad. And when film critics started predicting that the handsome guitarist would become another Robert Redford, Robertson ate it up. Now this was a move he was ready for: Robbie Robertson, movie star. He liked the sound of that.

He was given an office — Carole Lombard's old dressing room — at MGM. And off and on for a few years, he would drive out to the MGM lot and read scripts. Many, many scripts. But nothing grabbed him. Nothing swept him away. Nothing made his "blood boil." Until he came across Carny, a 1980 film about a traveling carnival, which he not only starred in, along with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster, but also coproduced. A provocative but flawed film, Carny bombed, and none of the acting roles that came Robertson's way after that were quite right. "Several things came up that I almost did," he says. "But something would stop me at the last minute. I would go for meetings with directors, and as I talked with them, I'd end up saying, 'You know who you should get for this part? Get somebody who's dying to do this. People would cut off their little finger to play this part. For me, it's medium.'"

In the meantime he was "musical producer" for two Scorsese films, Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1983). By 1983 he had pretty much given up on an acting career. "I was working with this agent, and he kept sending me stuff. This is what I did every day for a couple of years: reading scripts, meeting with people, flying to see some director somewhere. Finally my agent said to me, 'You know, I don't know what I can do here, because you say no every time. Maybe you're just not interested in doing this.'"

* * *

During the past year, gossip around the music industry had it that Robbie Robertson's album was a runaway project.

"There's this vibe going around," Geffen Records A&R executive Gary Gersh said in June. "People start to think that you're dealing with Heaven's Gate."

Robertson labored for three long years. Most of the songs were written in the studio. There were months upon months of musical experimentation, countless rewrites and rerecordings of the songs and even an 11th-hour decision to bring in Bob Clearmountain (Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones) for a remix.

Robertson began preliminary work on the album in the fall of 1984, prior to signing with Geffen. He spent "at least $50,000" on preproduction, including trips to the East Coast and Europe to meet with a half-dozen record producers. Formal recording with Lanois began in June of 1986. Session musicians were flown in from Canada, New Orleans and even France. Sessions eventually took place in Dublin (with U2), Bath (with Peter Gabriel), L.A. and Woodstock.

Gabriel believes the album took so long because in Robertson's mind it became "some kind of monster he had to live up to." Robertson admits that he procrastinated. "People would mention it," he says, "and I would say, 'Yes, yes, yes, I'm working on the album.' But I didn't have any songs written."

Robertson was also nervous about his singing voice; it was Levon Helm, Danko and Manuel who provided most of the vocals in the Band. "Robbie was always one of my favorite singers," says Danko. "But he was always shy of the microphone. Might have been an element of stage fright there. He would sing the parts for us, and we would reproduce them."

The project dragged on for so long that Lanois had to take a leave of absence midway through it to produce U2's album The Joshua Tree. At one point Geffen Records refused to advance additional money for the mounting recording costs, so Robertson's manager had to raise funds for its completion. "I was uncomfortable about what it was costing," says David Geffen. "Frankly, I think Robbie is a musical genius. I have complete faith in him as a musician and a songwriter. The only question that ever came up was how much this was going to cost, and ultimately that was okay, too."

In the end, the cost of making the record, including a several-hundred-thousand-dollar advance Robertson got for signing with Geffen, came to nearly a million dollars. "It wasn't a cheap record," says Robertson. "But I wasn't trying to be extravagant. But it's so hard not to be, because every step you take is like 'Whoops, there goes another $20,000.'"

* * *

Jaime Robbie Robertson was born in Toronto on July 5th, 1943. His mother was "this little Hiawatha girl," an American Indian who had grown up on the Six Nations Indian Reservation, located above Lake Erie. His father was a "sharpie guy who gambled for a living," says Robertson. "So it was kind of a strange combination."

Robertson spent his summers on the Indian reservation, visiting his relatives. He says hearing his uncles playing "fiddles and mandolins and guitars, and singing" was "just like a burning spear through my heart."

And then, when he was about 11, he heard some rock & roll. "The next thing you know," he says, "there's this music seeping out of the cracks in the walls. It was all over for me. Elvis was part of it, but so was Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and Bo Diddley. You put all these things together, and what are you going to do? After that, I couldn't concentrate on anything else. It was the only thing."

In 1960, after leading some bands of his own, with names like Thumper and the Trombones, the Robots and the Consuls, Robertson got a phone call from the Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who offered him a job in his backup band. "You'll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra," Hawkins told the young guitarist, and that was all he needed to hear. "He was right about it to a certain degree," Robertson says with a laugh. "What we never got to discuss, on a grand scale, was quality."

Hawkins' backup band also came to include Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. The next five years on the road — first with Hawkins, then on their own as, at various times, Levon and the Hawks, the Crackers and the Canadian Squires — transformed them into the toughest rock & roll outfit around.

In 1965, word reached Bob Dylan, the folk singer who had decided to "go electric," and soon they were touring the world, minus Helm, as Dylan's backup band. The tour was a real trial by fire — audiences weren't yet ready for Bob Dylan, rock star. "They'd throw bottles at you and boo," says Robertson. "Sometimes it was very funny, and sometimes it was heartbreaking."

When Dylan and the Hawks played London's Royal Albert Hall in 1966, the Beatles were in the audience. "After the show they came back to say hello to Bob," says Robertson. "We were still basically scroungy street kids, you know, and we were astonished at how naive they were. How very sweet and nice and everything. They all had on, like, matching boots and matching clothes. And they talked about mystical things that were very corny. From the American side of it, it wasn't so sweet. It was tougher. Different rules to the game, I guess, is what it was."

Soon after they returned to America, Dylan had his infamous motorcycle accident. As he recuperated, the Hawks were encouraged to join him in Woodstock. "It was summertime in New York City," says Robertson. "It was expensive, and we were just these road musicians that had no road to go on. We were scrounging around trying to figure out a place to work on some music. And Albert Grossman [Dylan's manager] said, 'This is silly. Why don't you guys move up to the country up here?' And it just simplified everything. So that's what we did. We got this pink house."

The scene at Big Pink was casual, like "a clubhouse." People would toss a football around in the backyard or play checkers; they were having a good time. Things were just as relaxed in the basement. There, with Garth Hudson manning a reel-to-reel tape recorder, Dylan and the Hawks (who decided to change their name to the Band; that's how people in Woodstock were referring to them anyway) created some of the greatest rock & roll ever made. "You would experiment," says Robertson. "And it wasn't all these long intellectual songs and big statements and poetry. I didn't want to write Bob Dylan poems. Not because I didn't like them, just because it wasn't my job. I always felt I had to connect it with this world that was true to the Band's music. We came in on a different train. It wasn't folk music, and it wasn't poetry. It was rock & roll."

At some point Grossman — a colorful character who was at the time perhaps America's most powerful rock & roll manager — suggested that if they wanted to make an album, he would get them a deal. Music from Big Pink — composed and arranged at the pink house but actually recorded over a few weeks at A&R Recording Studios, in Manhattan — was a big hit with the critics but not a commercial success. Nonetheless, the Band was planning to go out on tour; then Rick Danko broke his neck in a car accident.

So instead of touring, Robertson wrote another batch of songs; he and the Band rented Sammy Davis Jr.'s old house out in Los Angeles, installed some multitrack recorders in the pool house and spent two and a half months recording the group's masterpiece, The Band. It was a critical and commercial success, selling a million copies and yielding a Top 30 hit, "Up on Cripple Creek."

They subsequently did their first American tour as the Band, then returned to Woodstock to begin work on Stage Fright. That was when a cloud of sorts — what Robertson calls "the darkness" — settled on the Band. "Ever make a million dollars fast?" says Rick Danko. "Well, I have. I've seen it ruin people. I've seen it kill people. It's a goddamn crying shame what success can do to some people. Try having the money and having all the drugs you want."

"It was the drug age," says Robertson. "In the late Sixties and early Seventies, it was just wall-to-wall. Everybody wanted to turn me on to something new. There were a lot of people around. Crazy people. Wonderful people, too. But a lot of them were crazy. And a lot of them were druggies. And some of them were heroin addicts. Everybody's trying to do you a favor. Some people are trying to do you the wrong favor. And for the guys in the Band, it wasn't like all of a sudden they got successful and immediately people were running into the bathroom with needles. It wasn't dramatic at all."

Robertson is understandably vague when asked specifically about the extent of the Band's drug use. "Heroin was a problem," he says cautiously. "I never liked heroin. I never understood the drug. And I was scared to death of it, too. But it was a problem. It was just not something that I ever got into. But it came through, you know, like everything else came through. Just flavor of the month."

In 1973, at the suggestion of David Geffen, Robertson moved out to Malibu to escape all of that. Soon he encouraged the other guys to try the California sun. And in that year the Band reunited with Bob Dylan to cut Planet Waves. "We went in and made that album in three or four days, just hammered it out," Robertson says. "It was like making a blues record for us." That was followed by a major 1974 tour of sold-out arenas across the country. "That's when the wretched excess began," says a former Band employee. "Just 'cause there was too much money floating around. It was private jets, best hotel room, limousines everywhere and, of course, white powder."

In talking to Robertson, though he never comes right out and says it, one senses that these problems contributed to the end of the Band. "That was the first sense I had of Robbie's slight alienation from the whole thing," says Jonathan Taplan, a former tour manager for the Band who went on to coproduce Carny with Robertson. "He'd made a good bit of money. He had a beautiful house on the beach. He didn't really want to be the babysitter."

It was soon after the Band split up that Robertson had what Taplan calls his "midlife crisis." "Once he got out of being responsible for a whole band and all of a sudden he was just responsible for himself," says Taplan, "he just kind of threw caution to the wind."

* * *

"Marty, can you turn that stuff down?"

It was 1977, and the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." was blasting through the house on Mulholland Drive, in Hollywood.

But the music was so loud that Martin Scorsese, the famous film director, couldn't hear Robertson's plea. And anyway, it was Scorsese's house, though Robertson had been sharing it with the director since their marriages had self-destructed following the filming of The Last Waltz.

Robertson was beginning four years of what Peter Gabriel describes as "wild living." Cocaine, champagne and beautiful women — including some well-known actresses — were always around.

Robertson and Scorsese would work on The Last Waltz all day, then unwind all night. "We had a kind of daily ritual," Robertson says one afternoon at his studio. "Marty had things to do on the film, I had things to do on the soundtrack album. So we'd get back to the house around midnight and have dinner. Then in the middle of the night we would screen a movie or two. I'd want Buñuel and Jean Renoir, and he'd want these sleazy B-movies: Sam Fuller films and these weird vampire movies. We would usually watch them until it seemed like the sun was going to start coming up. It was like 'Uh-oh, uh-oh,' and we'd have to scatter."

Robertson was separated from his wife, Dominique, a beautiful freelance journalist whom he had met in Paris while he was touring with Dylan in the spring of 1966. (They have three children: Alexandra, now 18, Delphine, 17, and Sebastian, 13.) Freed from his responsibilities as a husband and a bandleader, Robertson experienced something of a second adolescence. "It was a crazy period," he says. "Marty and I were the 'misunderstood artists,' and our wives threw us out. We were just kind of lost in the storm. You are a tame house pet and you get thrown out in the woods for a while and pretty soon you're not tame anymore. All of a sudden you are like a wild dog. We just ran amok."

He stares down at the floor for a moment. "It was probably to cover up the hurt," he says. "The pain and the loss in our lives. … And drugs were everywhere. It wasn't that much a part of my life. I didn't drink my blues away. It wasn't my problem, but everywhere I looked, there were people doing drugs and alcohol."

"You go through periods like that time," says Scorsese. "People just searching for things, looking for things. Sometimes it takes one form, sometimes it takes another. That's the form it took at the time."

The wild times with Scorsese also included many highflying jaunts to Europe to promote The Last Waltz, attend film festivals and pick up awards — trophies and gold records — garnered over the years but never collected. "Seems like there was always a commotion wherever we went," says Robertson. "Marty has big extremes in his personality. One minute he would be laughing, and the next minute there would be telephones flying out the windows."

As the months of extreme living drifted by, word inevitably leaked out. "There was a magazine article," Robertson says, "and it was called 'Bel Air, Bel Air.' It said something like 'I went to Martin Scorsese's house. He and Robbie Robertson are having these wild parties, and there are women everywhere, and there are drugs, and it makes Hugh Hefner's place look like a kindergarten.' So we get a copy of this article and Marty goes crazy." Robertson laughs. "He starts breaking glasses immediately. Smashing things. Talking with lawyers, ripping phones out. He says, 'Look at this! Look at this article! Read it! I'm suing these people. I'm taking them to court.' And I looked at it, and I said, 'Marty, the only thing inaccurate here is that we don't live in Bel Air.'"

That chapter came to an end when Scorsese, an asthmatic, suffered health problems brought on by the fast living. "He got real sick and ended up in the hospital," says Robertson. "It was either change your lifestyle or die. I remember seeing him in the hospital and thinking, 'Boy, this is definitely the end of an era right here.'"

But not for Robertson. It wasn't until after another "crazy" period — with Gary Busey during the making of Carny — that he finally decided it was time to slow his pace and patch up his marriage. "These rock & roll ways were getting old," he says. "I smartened up a little bit, maybe. I just felt like I just wasn't satisfied living that way anymore. I just wanted to be with my family, so I did everything I could to work it out."

Though he reestablished his relationship with his family, Robertson had no desire to join his old bandmates in a reunion they were putting together. Asked what he thought of the group's touring as the Band without him, Robertson picks his words with care. "It's hard to say anything against anybody who's just trying to do what they do and make a living. You can't say, 'How dare you do this?' So I said, 'I have no problem with any of it.' My attitude was 'Do it with my blessing.' I didn't know what else to do."

He admits that the film work he did for Scorsese didn't bring in a lot of money. So how did he support himself through the "lost years"? "I don't know," he says. "I guess just the money I had made before and the money that I make from publishing or whatever. I just never got to the point where I was on the street, fortunately."

Money was a factor, though not the factor, in Robertson's decision to get to work again. "It was a good time to do something: produce a movie, act in a movie, make a record, something. I didn't want to one day just find that I was in a desperate situation. I mean, I didn't decide to make a record because I needed money. It was time to make a record, but it was time to make some money as well."

In 1983 — while cooling out in Rome with movie producer Art Linson (The Untouchables) — Robertson made his decision. "We were drunk," says Linson. "I'm sitting there having wine with one of the great rock composer-guitarists in the history of rock & roll. I said, 'Hey, you're not serious about retiring. Why start at the beginning as an actor? You're out of your mind. Go back and get to work! Make a record!' He looked at me like 'Oh, I guess I have to.'"

* * *

There is a booming crack of thunder, the sky opens up, and the rain comes pouring down on Woodstock. It's early July. Robbie Robertson closes the door to an upstairs apartment at Bearsville Studios, where he's staying for a few weeks while completing the album. Being back in Woodstock is bringing up some old memories, and Robertson begins to talk about his lost friend Richard Manuel. "It makes me uncomfortable to talk about Richard," he says, lighting a cigarette and taking a seat at a large wooden table. "He's not here to talk for himself. When I first met Richard, when he was 17, he was a drunk. He said that he had been drinking since he was very young. He was always an alcoholic. And he decided to pursue it, you know, to the darkest degree that he could at some points in his life."

Robertson glances out the window; maple and pine trees are swaying in the wind as the sky darkens. "I can't tell other people's stories," he says. "It's not right. You know, they wouldn't say, 'Well, you know Robbie did this and Robbie did that.' It's like you were in this club. All I can tell you is you know it existed. And it went from bad to worse to the ultimate nightmare imaginable. And people survived it. Got smarter. Changed. Some people were able to help themselves. And some people weren't. And you see in a case like Richard, where you can't help yourself — there's the poor guy left at the end of the pack who's saying, 'Wait for me. I can't help myself.' But you don't know that. You just think, 'This guy's just got to get a grip.' Well, it's not like that. But how do you expect everybody to be so knowledgeable and so smart? Saying, 'Oh, I know what this fellow needs. This fellow needs to go into a certain clinic. Get into a program. And that's his one chance of getting through this alive.' We don't know those things. You know those things when it's too late."

Robertson is silent for a while. "When he died, I wasn't expecting it. I guess you should say, 'Well, maybe I shouldn't be too surprised, because of Richard's past and everything,' but I was. I was devastated. I couldn't get used to the idea at all. You know, you are just never ready for those things until they happen, and then you're really not ready for them."  

* * *

"I feel like a big weight has been lifted," says Robertson. It's late July, two days after he has completed his album, and Robertson does seem like a different person. At his West L.A. studio, he sits and talks freely about some of his new songs. He's asked about the album's most autobiographical song, "Testimony," on which he sings, "Bear witness, I'm wailing like the wind/Come bear witness, the half-breed rides again/In these hands, I've held the broken dream/In my soul, I'm howling at the moon."

"I'm not gazing at the moon," he says. "I'm not strolling beneath the moon. I'm howling at the moon. It's just part of the picture of someone standing on the mountain with their arms stretched up to the sky, screaming in the ceremony of life.  

"That's the business, that's the real item," he says. "It's like some kind of sin when you see somebody great in a movie and you say they walked through the movie. And that's only a movie. This is life. Who wants to grow old and think, 'God, I walked through it?'"