Robbie Robertson on fame, God, and American mythology (1987)

Interview by Tom Schnabel, written by Marion Hodges

Robbie Robertson and his famous cigar. Photo courtesy of Tom Schabel via “Stolen Memories” (1988). Graphic by Evan Solano.

With the music community still reeling from the death of The Band’s Robbie Robertson last month, his memory and wisdom live on in the intimate sessions and conversations Robertson shared with KCRW, from the ‘80s until his final appearance in 2020. You can revisit a selection of those here.  

Robertson’s first of many visits to the station was on December 14, 1987, when he joined then -Morning Becomes Eclectic host Tom Schnabel to discuss his self-titled debut solo album and go deep on identity, God, and American mythology. Schnabel approached the interview knowing the basics about Robertson and his place within the overall cultural landscape. He walked away from the conversation a fan — not just because of Robertson’s well-considered approach to his musicianship, but how he came across as a person:

“I didn’t know much about Robbie Robertson when I interviewed him on December 14, 1987 just before Christmas,” says Schnabel. “I knew the Band’s album Music From The Big Pink and had just watched the [Martin Scorsese directed] film about them, The Last Waltz. I found him charming and thoughtful as he talked about life, politics, and music.”

Schnabel was charmed enough by this encounter to include it in his 1988 book, Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians. Schnabel has kindly unearthed the original audio of the interview for KCRW to publish for the first time since its broadcast, in addition to reproducing the book chapter featuring his conversation with Robertson in its entirety. Listen in in the player, and read their conversation below.

Editor’s note: Due to the age of the tape, the first 20 minutes of audio are of reduced quality. Audio clears up at 19:56. 

More: Remembering Robbie Robertson: The KCRW Sessions

The breakup of The Band after a concert extravaganza at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1976, immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, symbolized the end of an era. The group had risen to prominence backing Bob Dylan, then made several landmark albums of their own. The death a few years ago of Richard Manuel, the group’s pianist, dashed any hopes of comeback LPs or concerts; then a long-awaited solo album by Robbie Robertson, The Band’s main composer and guitarist, arrived. This was the occasion for our conversation, but he spoke of other things, including the changing American landscape and his own Indian* roots. 

*Editor’s note: The use of the word “Indian” to refer to Indigenous North Americans is prominent throughout this interview, which was conducted in 1987. As is noted below, Robertson has ancestral ties to the Sioux Nation on his mother’s side of the family.*

Tom Schnabel: How do you like being back in the limelight?

Robbie Robertson: I don’t think about limelight very much. What I do think about is trying to do some good work. I’m giving it everything I’ve got, and that’s what comes to the front for me. Limelight, I don’t know. Once you do it, I don’t think it particularly goes away. It always stays somewhere in the back of your mind, whether you’re coming out or going in. I’ve enjoyed the idea of playing the disappearing man for a while and working from an underground point of view, working with films and everything. It doesn’t seem like, “My goodness! Here I am again!”

You said once that you didn’t want to do another album until you had some songs, something to say. You characterized people who do one album a year as churning out pulp. It’s something I sort of agree with. On the other hand, you arrived in Dublin to work with U2 with just little scraps of paper in your pocket for the songs on your new album. What was happening anyway?

I wasn’t overly prepared, but I was on kind of a roll. I was maybe halfway through this album. I had stopped to do the music for The Color of Money for Martin Scorsese. And you always think it isn’t going to take as much time as it does. I didn’t have that extra period that I thought I would to sit down and write and prepare. I thought out of due respect I should go over there with something in my hand. But it was just a musical experiment we were talking about. It wasn’t like, “Okay, we’re definitely going to do some songs for your album.” We had just talked about mixing these worlds of music together, which is something I’ve always liked to do since years ago when I did it with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. And in The Last Waltz, I did it with everybody you can imagine. I think it’s how rock and roll came about too, mixing a little blues, a little boogie, a little country, and bingo…

So when I went there I was concerned, because they were thinking of me as this guy who wrote songs and that I would be prepared. But it didn’t seem to bother anybody terribly. I did have these scraps of paper, and a couple of little ideas on cassette that just had enough clues to get everybody in the mood, at least. And they were so enthusiastic and encouraging that it didn’t seem to be a problem. I think they pride themselves a little bit on their own spontaneous capabilities. So we put them to the test. 

Robbie, you characterize your music as an attempt to explore American mythology. You talk about “shadowland,” and things like that. Could you tell us a little more about that?

For me it was something that I was always intrigued with, this country being so young that we can't have those re- sources to call upon like they do in Rome and in Greece. I think we're discovering our mythology as we go along, and drawing upon the American Indian reality and myth, up to present-day things. For me it was a great tool. I found a large canvas there. There was something very rich in the soil to choose from. Rather than being confined, I felt that this was a very broad horizon. It made me feel good, too, to be part of something that I felt was being discovered, or discovering it through music.

You were born in Canada. Where, exactly?


And you have Native American ancestry on your mother's side.

My mother was born on the Sioux Nation Indian reservation in the tobacco belt in Canada — which is very near where [producer of Robertson’s 1987 self-titled debut album] Daniel Lanois comes from, actually.

You spent your summers on the reservation with your mom, observing a very different way of life. Do you think that affected you?

Yeah. It was a very musical environment too. Everybody seemed to play something, which was my first tap into that — seeing somebody sitting right next to you with an instrument, as opposed to on a stage somewhere, or just listening to it on the radio. I thought, "Boy, I've got to be a part of this some day." It's where I got my first guitar lessons.

Do you think your Native American descent on your mother's side affected this whole idea of a mythology of American roots?

You never know. I've never chosen to over-think it, but I'm sure that it did. These people seemed to have a very beautiful balance with nature, a connection with the earth. You felt this was really special, something about these people and the way they are family-oriented.

It's interesting, going back to The Band, that there you were in the middle of the Vietnam War and everything else, playing songs that didn't take a stand against it. Yet your records and songs were tremendously successful. It's interesting also that there's even the word — what do they call it, "heartland rock?” — that the critics are bandying about now, with Springsteen and everything else. It's something you've been doing for a long time.

Yeah, I was writing patriotic songs at that time. It wasn't very in vogue then. Now I feel the opposite. I don't know, I just can't seem to get into the mainstream.

In The Last Waltz, you used a string of adjectives — the last one was "psychotic" — to describe the whole lifestyle on the road with The Band. Was that the way it was?

Well, there was a period starting somewhere in the late sixties, maybe in the middle sixties, but I think it came to some kind of a peak in the late sixties and early seventies — where this road lifestyle was driving very close to the edge for a lot of people. It's pretty evident now what a toll it's taken. I get a feeling from some young musicians coming up now that it's quite different. It makes me feel very good to hear that from them. The whole idea of trying to see how rough you can live, how fast and how far you can take it, is not necessarily the point anymore. Maybe it's got more to do with trying to do your best work and survive. I think it's great that we've learned something, hopefully, from all of this.

There are a couple of songs on this album — one is "American Roulette" — which was thematically connected with this. I often thought, in the writing of this song, that these people —  I deal with the legends of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and James Dean in this song — didn't die for nothing. I think that there's something passed on to everybody else, for younger artists coming up to say, "Uh-huh. See what happens when you do this? You don't understand that, you drive into the wall." You take a kid from driving a truck and you put him in this situation where his music and his image is all of a sudden controlling the world to a certain extent. Then he realizes he can't go out of the house for the next twenty five years. I don't think that's a real healthy existence.

So obviously life on the road was one of the reasons why you needed to take time off.

Yes. Sometimes you even feel maybe a little superstitious about it. You think, "How many rides on this merry go round do you get before you fall off?" It had a lot to do with me thinking I'd like to bring that chapter to a conclusion.

Your fans, and the fans of The Band, don't let you forget anything, do they?

No they don’t, Tom. 

Does that come back to haunt you sometimes?

No, not really. If anything, it makes me feel good that there are people that care that much. I feel proud of a lot of that work that I did with The Band. But I also like the idea of fresh ears out there, and conquering new horizons. It's all exciting.

Your song "Showdown at Big Sky" certainly is more politically-oriented than the songs you used to write for The Band.

Well, differently politically-oriented, anyway. With this nuclear horror, we have these leaders meeting, talking about destroying eight billion dollars in weapons. Boy, we sure could have fed a few people with that money. I had been contemplating this idea about writing this song, and I went back and forth on it, thinking, "I should do it. Ahhh, who needs this? Who wants to hear about this any more?" Then I got really angry at myself for even questioning the idea. Everybody should do whatever they possibly can to make that small contribution. It all adds up.

So I ended up going through with it, but trying to find a little more spiritual angle, not trying to be preachy or hit it over the head. The idea of a counterpoint in the song helped

me, bringing it down to the simplicity of the early American Indian way of life, and using spiritual, biblical terms. Counterpointing that with soldiers of fortune.They get hired and sent into these countries just to stir up some dust. It's a horrible game being played. We know that there are zillions of dollars being made in building weapons, and it's a hard fight to stop something like that. But it's nice to see these guys getting together and at least talking about it. How are they going to destroy all these weapons, I wonder. Where are they going to put them? Dig a big hole somewhere?

Is music a spiritual force for you, Robbie?

Yeah, it is. I'm not plugging any kind of religious format, but I'm certainly a fan of great storytelling, and in the Bible there's tremendous storytelling. In American mythology as we discover it there's great storytelling. So sometimes these two and the writing must meet. In American mythology as we discover it there's great storytelling. So sometimes these two and the writing must meet. I've always liked the reso- nance of those lyrics, sometimes in other people, too. You've heard the things that Van Morrison has written, and you say, "I don't know what this man is talking about, but whatever it is, it's fantastic." It's the resonance, and I get that sometimes — like this song, "Showdown at Big Sky." I don't know where "the valley of tears" is or what "the book of David" is. But I seem to understand something about it when I hear it. "It will be written by the children of Eden." Calling upon those kind of forces through those lyrics, I feel more thunder.

You're talking more like an American Indian conception of God being already there, in the ground. Do you believe in God?

I believe in that God. I just spent some time in New Mexico, in this place, Acoma. It's an Indian reservation that's been there for a thousand years. I shot two videos there. It's built on top of a mesa, a magnificent place. When you stand up there, you say, "Oh yeah. No question about this." [Laughs].

You can feel it, and it makes the outside world, the cities and everything, feel petty in comparison with this connection with the earth and the sky. These wonderful people feel, "Well, you take care of mother nature and mother nature will take care of you." There seems to be a great lesson to be learned from these people that we've lost along the way.

You started writing the song "Fallen Angel," and as you wrote, it became more and more a song about a departed friend.

I didn't know what I was writing about for quite a while. Maybe I just didn't want to face the fact. We have this little built-in wall against those things sometimes. When I did come to terms with what the song’s about, it felt good to me to face up to it. It was a cleansing feeling to write this song in honor of a friend of mine who died [Richard Manuel, former member of The Band, who took his own life]. 

Do you have any interests outside of music?

I’d like to take some time to go around the country and go to Indian ceremonials. You can’t tape them, and you can’t put them on film. A lot of them, unless you’re Indian yourself, you can’t see. It’s very, very sacred. This is my most haunting private passion at the moment.