On The Band’s song Stage Fright, Robbie Robertson wrote about severe preshow jitters. “See the man with the stage fright, just standin’ up there to give it all his might.” It’s the title track to the group’s third album, originally released in 1970 and now again with a new deluxe reissue package that includes a remix and a rearranged song sequence of the album, plus a previously unreleased concert recording from 1971 at London’s Royal Albert Hall and a hotel jam from a Calgary hotel room during a stop on the cross-Canada Festival Express train tour in 1970.
“It’s not apprehension, it’s about really wanting to gather the best of yourself to go out there and give it all you got,” says Robertson, 77, speaking from Los Angeles about stage fright the concept and Stage Fright the album. “At the same time, the nervousness is part of what makes you really want to do a good job.”
The Band’s guitarist and chief songwriter spoke to The Globe and Mail about showbiz nerves, songwriting, Jack Nicholson’s uncanny musical mind and a hypnotist’s advice from more than 50 years ago that Robertson still abides by.
In his 1970 review for Rolling Stone, John Burks asked if Stage Fright was The Band’s religious album or if it was The Band’s rock ‘n’ roll album. Do you have an answer for him?
I don’t remember this. This was a long time ago. I’m a busy guy, you know?
But can you answer now? What was Stage Fright?
It’s different from Music From Big Pink and it’s different from The Band album. It’s a different kind of vocals. It’s a different kind of playing. It’s a different kind of songwriting.
You encouraged the other guys in the band to contribute songs, right?
I made a mistake back then. This was before I got it in my skull that some people write songs and some people don’t and that’s just the way it is. Ringo Starr didn’t write songs. Charlie Watts didn’t write songs. God bless their hearts, but that’s not what they do.
The original album had songs co-written with you by Levon Helm and Richard Manuel at the top of the album. Why are they at the bottom of the album now with the reissue?
Initially their songs were buried at the bottom of the song sequence on the album. But I was desperate to be encouraging of their songwriting, so I put them at the top of the album. The way we changed the sequence for this reissue is to restore the original Stage Fright experience. It’s the undoing of something I’ve been living with all these years.
The title song Stage Fright, is it autobiographical?
It’s this idea of the physiological things performers go through. They have bad dreams about going to do your performance and you’re going to forget your lines and forget where you are and that you’re going to go blank.
Is that what you were suffering from before The Band’s first concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1969?
I talked to a hypnotist about stage fright before that show: Was I suffering from that? He said, “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re really, really ill. You have a bad, bad, fever.” So, he dismissed the notion of stage fright. But I’ve always been intrigued by the idea.
But did you suffer from it?
Yes. At Woodstock. At The Last Waltz. Before you get out there, you feel something crawling down your spine. You tell yourself that you’ve got to do great, that I can’t forget anything. It’s real. I have friends that have had severe cases of stage fright. Carly Simon talked to me about it.
So, did the hypnotist help you in 1969?
He told me that if when we were playing I began to feel weak, I was to look over at him at the side of the stage where he would say the word “grow,” and that I would regain my strength again.
Are you still hypnotised?
I go around and say “grow” just about every week.
The reissue comes with an unreleased concert recording from London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1971. You tell a story in your memoir about those shows involving actor Jack Nicholson and his thoughts on The Band’s performances.
He thought of himself as a real musical person, and that he listened in a deeper way than most. I completely believe that. His comments to me about The Band’s harmonies from one night to the next at Royal Albert Hall were spot on. Jack’s an old friend. I wouldn’t be opposed to bouncing anything off him, musically, any time.
Back to what the hypnotist told you, are you still growing?
I am. Every once in a while I’m distracted, and I have to go back in time and do something like this Stage Fright reissue. It’s thrilling, but I spend 90 per cent of my time moving forward. I’ve got many projects swirling around right now. It’s a very exiting time. So, yes, I am on a journey, and the journey doesn’t go backward. It only goes forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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