In 1986, ten years after the Band’s last performance with the original lineup, Robbie Robertson decided to return to music. He had previously worked as an actor and film score, but his new passion was recording albums under his own name in the Eighties.
He sought a distinctive sound and brought in producer Daniel Lanois, who had previously worked with U2 and Peter Gabriel on “The Joshua Tree.” With the help of other musicians, including U2, Gabriel, Tony Levin, and others, he helped create the 1987 album that referred to Robertson as simply “Robbie Robertsons,” and it set him on countless musical paths that later led him into his own.
Robbie and I were from the same area. He was my guitar player, and although he was known to me as Ronnie Hawkins, it was me who first met him while I was still in L.A. I think because maybe there was something about Canada that caught my eye. We drove around and saw Venice, but before we left, a friend of mine wanted to introduce me to Venice through visiting some of the colorful streets of Venice which I had never seen before.
I had a crush on him right away. When I asked him why he was in California, despite his complaints about being stuck in upstate New York and being unable to make it up the hill due to snow, I never raised any objections.
During our visit to his studio, we came across a good set of songs. I picked out the most significant ones and selected the ones that were deeply emotional. “American Roulette” was the title of the project, which had broader plans for future filmmaking. Other songs included “What About Now” with mellower moments from those days. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the album.
The reason I recorded Robbie’s music for the record was because I felt there was more material than what he had on hand.
We played the Suzuki Omnichord, a small electronic autoharp instrument with odd chords that could be controlled by pressing buttons together. The result was the basis of the song “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” He expressed his fondness for the instrument and shared it with me after playing it without any hesitation.
Robbie’s interest in storytelling and his desire to be closer to the music-related places that inspired him was a significant turning point in his life. He had the courage to travel south of the border, even though he didn’t know where it was until now; perhaps its Canadian perspective helped guide him there as well.
There was a chance for more guitar playing on that album, although I don’t regret it. My impression is that Robbie had moved from the blues club scene to other storylines and acting alongside Martin Scorsese before working with him.
After spending 15 years on the bus with other men, he expressed his regret and offered to continue working with the band.
Rick [Danko] and Garth [Hudson] were invited to the club, and I was convinced they would be there. Robbie responded with a nod as GarTh suggested joining Robertson and said, “Let’s just say he’ll bring us one.”
I’ll take credit for introducing Robbie to U2 and their interest in each other.
I met Robbie in Los Angeles during my work on the U2 acoustic record at the Village Recorder early this year. He was full of life and humor, and it was great to see him. Marty and I were in cahoot that they had found ‘a nice place to live’ recently.
He told me that Lanois had a great imagination and was willing to work with him, which was his reason for doing so. I made fun of him wearing expensive Italian slippers while wearing boots during the album, as we were an unusual pair. When I asked Robbie about it, Robin said, “Don’t worry.” He agreed, and he did.