Robbie Robertson is a legend. He got his start playing with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in the late 1950s, before a version of the Hawks morphed into The Band, for which Robertson was founder and primary songwriter. The Band took their last waltz in 1977, and Robertson had, by then, developed a series of side hustles. He produced other artists, including the début album by folkie Jesse Winchester (one of my mother’s favourites), as well as playing on his friends’ albums (including one of Ringo Starr’s solo albums, with Eric Clapton, and others) and he found work in Hollywood. Robertson was an actor, as well as working on the music for a series of films, including Raging Bull.
So it’s not like he was out of the limelight entirely in the decade between the end of The Band and the release of his first solo album in 1987. Beginning around 1983, Roberton began to toy with the idea of a solo album, and conceived of a shadow world where the events on the album would take place.
Robertson is a member of the Six Nations First Nation in Ontario, and while he grew up primarily in Toronto, his mother took him back to the reserve, where she grew up, when he was a child, and it was here that he initially learned how to play guitar. His eponymous solo début is imbued with indigenous imagery throughout, both in the lyrics and music of the album.
Most of the album was recorded in Los Angeles with a crack backing band of Tony Levin on bass (King Crimson), Bill Dillon on guitar (Ronnie Hawkins) and Manu Katché on drums (Peter Gabriel and Sting), with Frank Zappa’s drummer, Terry Bozio sitting in when Katché was not available. Fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno) produced. And, through both his own Rolodex and that of Lanois’, Robertson got some help in the studio from the likes of the BoDeans, Neville Brothers, Peter Gabriel, Maria McKee, and U2 appear. Two member of The Band appear as well, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko. Recording also took place at Peter Gabriel’s studio in in Bath, England, as well as at Bearsville Studios near Woodstock, in upstate New York.
Robbie Robertson was one of the first albums I bought with my own money. I heard ‘Showdown At Big Sky,’ the first single on Vancouver’s venerable 99.3 THE FOX. And I was hooked. I played this album almost non-stop in 1987-88. I was very much at odd with my friends who were into David Lee Roth, Poison, RATT, AC/DC and the like at the time. This caused me no end of trouble in junior high, even some of my friends picked on me for my music tastes.
The album starts with ‘Fallen Angel,’ a beautiful, meditative track about the suicide of fellow Band member, Richard Manuel, who had killed himself in 1986. Gabriel’s backing vocals add a haunting to the track, as Robertson starts off with
I don’t believe it’s all for nothing
It’s not just written in the sand
Sometimes I thought you felt too much
And you crossed into the shadowland
And from there, we move into the rocker, ‘Showdown at Big Sky,’ my introduction to Robbie Robertson (I had a vague knowledge of The Band and has seen Last Waltz a few times, but never really gave them or the film much thought). This is one of the best songs Robertson ever wrote, about the impending environmental apocalypse. That segues into the quieter ‘Broken Arrow,’ which Rod Stewart later covered and destroyed. The Grateful Dead also played this song live. I am happy I never heard that.
Then came the U2 collaboration, ‘Sweet Fire of Love.’ This song was an edit out of a 22-minute long instrumental by U2 that Robertson and Bono then riffed lyrics to. Whereas the album as a whole has a definite sound to it that belongs to Robertson, on ‘Sweet Fire of Love,’ sounds more like U2 featuring Robbie Robertson. All of the other collaborations sound like Robbie Robertson with…
‘American Roulette’ comes next, a meditation on fame and America that also features one of the most wicked guitar solos of the 1980s. Then came perhaps the most iconic song off this album in terms of its memory, ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River,’ a mellow, bluesy song carried by Robertson’s gruff and low growl, as he talks about floating down that river and his encounters with various women. According to Lanois, Robertson was inspired by hanging out with ex-Band-mate Levon Helm on his Arkansas farm which lay along the Mississippi. This was his biggest hit from this album.
And then comes my favourite song on the album, ‘Hell’s Half Acre,’ about an indigenous man drafted into war, presumably a nod back to the Vietnam era:
It’s way up in the Black Hills where we come from
There’s a girl and she warned me don’t pick up that gun
By the law of the land
By the promise that might is right
She would hold me and cry, don’t you go off and fight
…Back in the land where buffalo roam
Is this my home?
She said you’ve changed, you’re not the same
Clouds of napalm and the opium
The damage was already done