“I play guitar quite a bit, because I’m always in search of something,” says Robbie Robertson, who in spite of his reputation as a premier rock guitarist is seldom seen in public with an instrument in his hands. “I don’t play to jam, but because I’m fishing. I’m looking for something, that I hope you can never find. If I do find it, I’m afraid I won’t have a need to do this any more.”
Robertson is 67 now, wears graduated lenses, and looks softer in the face and belly than the lean-jawed guitarist captured by Martin Scorsese in his classic 1978 concert film, The Last Waltz. The Toronto-born musician pads around his comfortable hotel room in black slippers, speaks in a lazy but intent baritone, and likes the word “excited” – he uses it a lot during our conversation about storytelling on his new album (which came out Tuesday) and in his forthcoming autobiography.
Robertson’s career as a fisherman for things that may not be findable falls into two distinct phases: with the Band, and without. The first was public to an extreme degree, spent largely on the road touring with Bob Dylan and others, playing shows for nearly 20 years. The second began with the concert chronicled in The Last Waltz, after which Robertson left the Band, stopped touring and never took it up again. He’s come the closest of any rock royalty to following the example of Glenn Gould, who gave up concerts at the peak of his performing career and only ever played thereafter for a microphone.
Robertson, who spent part of his youth on Ontario's Six Nations reserve and now lives in Beverly Hills, has spent much of the past few decades in the film world, providing soundtracks for several Scorsese films (including Raging Bull, Gangs of New York and Shutter Island), signing acts and working on movies for DreamWorks, chronicling the history of the Band, and occasionally surfacing with whatever he’s fished up during his private expeditions with a guitar.
A lifetime of trawling those waves recently earned him a place in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, which he'll accept during a ceremony in Toronto tonight. His latest catch is called How to Become Clairvoyant, and it’s his first solo record since 1998. You might think the title is purely metaphorical, but Robertson also means it literally: With so much behind him, he’d really like to know what’s coming, just like Nero and King David and everyone else who prized the advice of seers and prophets.
“I’m like them, I want to be clairvoyant,” he says, with a grin, adding that the disc’s enhanced edition, coming later this year, will include a tarot deck. “If I could see around the corner, I could get ahead a bit quicker. It’s a practical thing, but it comes from spirituality.” Robertson, who was born Jaime Royal Klegerman to a Jewish father and Mohawk mother, can claim an interest in divination from both traditions.
“I always like to keep one hand in the tepee and the other hand in the synagogue,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a combination of the two? You could go to synagogue, and it would be really hot in there.”
He converted early to the faith of rock ’n’ roll, partly under the tutelage of Ronnie Hawkins, who took him into his rockabilly band, the Hawks, when Robertson was 16. As a Hawk, he encountered “all these extraordinary carnival characters” who populated the music scene in the sixties.
Some of those characters flit through the new record, which in spite of its title is strongly oriented toward times past. Its dozen songs touch on Robertson’s time in the South, his departure from the Band, and his generation’s flamboyant role in the socio-political history of the mid-century. Straight Down the Line portrays three major musicians who pooh-poohed rock ’n’ roll (Sonny Boy Williamson, Mahalia Jackson and Frank Sinatra); When the Night Was Young includes a cameo for Andy Warhol, seen “waiting for the late night muse; / but she won’t be back before morning / she’s gone downtown to hear some blues.”