"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."
"We were working with Bob Dylan," Robertson explains. "I was living at the Chelsea Hotel, and Edie Sedgwick [the doomed Warhol acolyte whose life spawned the feature film Factory Girl]would always come and hang out in my room in the hotel. Andy Warhol was so fascinated with her, he would come there looking for her. They would call up to my room and say, 'Mr. Warhol's in the lobby, and he's wondering: Is Miss Sedgwick in your room?' And she'd be" – his voices drops to a whisper – " 'No, no, tell him I'm not here.' "
The story has more kick in the non-musical version, which may bode well for the autobiography Robertson has just agreed to write for Random House Canada (Crown in the U.S.). It's one of three volumes he has on the go: The others are a young-adults book about music for Tundra Books in Toronto; and a version of the Six Nations story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, for Abrams Books of New York.
"He's a born storyteller," says Random House publisher Louise Dennys, who suggested he write his own life after hearing him recount tales last summer at the Nantucket roost of Indigo Books & Music CEO Heather Reisman and financier Gerry Schwartz. "We're expecting to publish in 2013," says Dennys, "but it's very early stages for Robbie."
Maybe, though the task has been on his mind in some form for years. He has fielded several pitches from people interested in writing his biography, began collaborating with three of them, but opted out each time.
"I thought, 'You just can't tell these stories like I can tell them,' " he says. Writing his own books also fulfills, in a new way, his long-standing romance with the written word, conceived when he played Southern schools with Ronnie Hawkins and envied the kids learning things he had skipped over as a high-school dropout.
Musically, his new album shows him standing close to the oak-aged blues-rock he has been crafting most of his life, with some sonically adventurous furnishings by guitarist Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) and multi-instrumentalist Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails). The album's mood and subject matter occasionally evoke Tom Waits, without the junkyard funeral-band sound or rusted-chain scrape of Waits's voice. Robertson's slight singing voice is just a shade or two heftier than Marlon Brando's in The Godfather, and a much less compelling instrument than his incisive, crying guitar. His fans may be surprised by the mellowness of a few tunes: Fear of Falling, Robertson's duet with Eric Clapton, would fit into many an easy-listening compilation.
In some ways, the record seems addressed to those who already know Robertson's story, who will appreciate small steps taken out of previous pathways, and gaps filled in tales already told. He doesn't feel he has anything to prove, and that in itself is a measure of how the elder Robbie Robertson sees the world and himself.
"There's a lack of bravado to Robbie, for someone who has accomplished so much," says long-time friend Reisman. "He has a wonderful soul, and a warmth and integrity that I find irresistible. He has a very natural, engaged relationship with his children, too" – the divorced Robertson has three, who have all settled in Los Angeles – "and what better reflection is there than that?"
Those qualities may come to the fore most of all in his biggest live project, a grand musico-dramatic piece about native culture that he has been trying to bring to fruition for over a decade. His current production partner is Michael Cohl, the pioneering Canadian stadium-rock promoter who knows a thing or two about seeing around corners.
"We're trying to put together the greatest celebration of the native people of North America that the world has ever imagined," Robertson says, with maybe a hint of bravado. "It has nothing to do with cowboys and Indians, or 'Oh, we were treated unfairly.' Everybody's told that story. This is another angle on it altogether, and it has a spiritual quality to it. I'm very excited about it."
Robbie Robertson will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame today at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
Robertson by the numbers
Year Jaime Royal Klegerman (Robbie Robertson) was born in Toronto.
Age Robertson began playing and touring as a professional guitarist with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.
Years Robertson played with the group that began as the Hawks and morphed into the Band.
Robertson's film debut, playing a role opposite Jodie Foster and Gary Busey in Carny, which he also produced and co-wrote.
Debut of Robertson's self-titled solo album, with production by Daniel Lanois and appearances by U2 and Peter Gabriel.
Years Robertson worked for DreamWorks on new bands, animated films and other projects – a job he describes as "a tremendous sandbox."
Number of Robertson songs to be performed on Saturday during his gala induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame: The Moon Struck One (played by Daniel Lanois) and Broken Arrow (covered by Wintersleep).
Approximate distance in kilometres between the Six Nations reserve southwest of Hamilton, where the young Robertson spent summers with his mother's family, and Beverly Hills, Calif., where he now lives.
Robertson, to the letter
"The letter that I sent to you, was it lost in the mail?" Robbie Robertson sings on his new album, How to Become Clairvoyant. As of this summer, he could ask if that letter had his face on it. Robertson is one of the latest Canadian musicians to have his mug slapped on a stamp by Canada Post.
The new 59-cent issue will be available in June, in an eight pack with stamps honouring Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Ginette Reno, and another musician whose name Canada Post is still keeping under cover. The style of the stamps will be similar, though each musician has a say in whether the photograph used is old or new.
Gordon Lightfoot, honoured in 2007, went for a 30-year-old album-cover image, while Bryan Adams chose a recent self-portrait. We'll have to wait till May 27 to see what Robbie picked, though I'm betting he chose a recent image by his pal, rock photographer Anton Corbijn.