"It's easy to be a genius in your twenties," says Robbie Robertson. "In your forties, it's difficult."
Such was the trepidation with which the former Band guitarist and songwriter approached making his long-put-off solo album. But he needn't have fretted so much: Robbie Robertson — released in 1987, a full decade after the Band broke up — is ample proof that Robertson's abilities are still very much intact.
From the album's ethereal opener, "Fallen Angel," dedicated to Robertson's former band mate, the late Richard Manuel, to "Testimony," its hard-rocking conclusion, Robertson establishes himself as his own man. "It was a personal statement," Robertson says of the album. "When I was younger, I thought I was too young to really be personal. I thought that what I was feeling and thinking might be half-baked."
Robbie Robertson took three years to complete and cost over $750,000 to make. Traveling to New Orleans, Woodstock, Dublin and England for inspiration and recording sessions, Robertson enlisted the help of U2, Gil Evans, Maria McKee, the BoDeans, Peter Gabriel, two of his cohorts from the Band — Rick Danko and Garth Hudson — and the obscure but gifted guitarist Bill Dillon as sidemen.
Much of the work was done in a studio in Santa Monica that Robertson turned into a kind of workshop-cum-lounge. With guitars and synthesizers at the ready, he spent months and months working on ideas. Although he began the recording sessions with an album's worth of material, many of the songs that showed up on the finished record — "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight," "Testimony," "Sweet Fire of Love" and "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" — were written in the studio. "I felt it was important for Robbie to write new songs for this record," says coproducer Daniel Lanois.
Robertson wrote passionately about saving the planet ("Showdown at Big Sky"), the price of fame ("American Roulette") and romance ("Broken Arrow"). "I never wrote about the environment before," says Robertson. "I feel very strongly about this stuff, but [in the past] I felt like I'd be jumping on the bandwagon. Now I felt like I couldn't help it."
Robertson sees the album as just the start of a new kind of songwriting and record making. "I was proud to rip open my chest and bare my soul," he says. "I'm not embarrassed to talk about these things anymore. Do you know what a skin walker is? It's a thing in Indian mythology. There are certain people born with this gift, and they're able to actually get inside you and mess with your feelings and with your mind. And if a skin walker chooses to get a hold of you, there's not much you can do. I want a song to get inside me, to feel it did the old skin walker on me. I was kind of discovering that on this album, and now I'm pursuing it."