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Robbie Robertson's no-fuss career frustrates fans

If an earthquake ever strikes Robbie Robertson's recording studio in West Los Angeles, a lot of priceless guitars would face ruin.
/ Source: Reuters

If an earthquake ever strikes Robbie Robertson's recording studio in West Los Angeles, a lot of priceless guitars would face ruin.

Among the instruments precariously suspended along the walls are an exceedingly rare 1928 Martin acoustic and the bronze Stratocaster that he played on "The Last Waltz," the film documenting the final show of his group The Band in 1976.

Frustrated fans wonder if Robertson sports a similar carefree attitude to his legacy. He refuses to tour, and has recorded just five underappreciated solo albums. The latest, "How To Become Clairvoyant," came out this week 13 years after his previous effort.

Robertson has also composed movie music for his pal Martin Scorsese, and worked as an executive at DreamWorks Records. He says his endeavors have all been stimulating, requiring him to become an instant expert on many genres of music and film.

But the Canadian native doesn't really live down to the standards expected of an iconic rock star.

"I just do what I like to do," he told Reuters in a recent interview at the studio. "And I like to stay out of the way too. I don't like all of the fuss."

Aficionados still yearn for the good old days when The Band made groundbreaking folk-rock records like "Music From Big Pink" and brought out the best in Bob Dylan. Robertson has been eclipsed in recent years by his estranged Band-mate Levon Helm, who managed to make two Grammy-winning albums while recovering from throat cancer.


At 67, exactly three weeks older than the considerably more active Mick Jagger, Robertson has no plans to hit the road for "Clairvoyant" other than some "tasteful" promotion on a handful of American and British TV shows.

"I just can't bring myself to get on the bus," he said.

But what if the bus takes him down the road to a cozy Los Angeles concert venue and straight home afterward?

He laughs. "You never know what could be interesting tomorrow. But I gave that up a long time ago. I made a movie about it! That's not what I do anymore."

Robertson reunited on "Clairvoyant" with Eric Clapton, a friend since 1968 and one of the many high-powered guests on the Scorsese-directed "Last Waltz."

In an enticing indication of the album's sonic potential, Robertson recruited Nine Inch Nails techno rocker Trent Reznor for one track, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello for another, and pedal-steel guitarist Robert Randolph for a third. But his seven tracks with Clapton form the tasteful backbone of the album.

The presence of Clapton and other noted axmen on the album informed Robertson's own playing. But once again, he does not care to fulfill others' fantasies.

"I did more guitar playing on this record than I think any record I've ever made in my life. But how fast you can play or how loud you can play is just of no interest to me."

Robertson does venture into lyrically personal territory for the first time. He eschewed such introspection in The Band where he generally wrote songs for the others to sing.

"I didn't want to show up and say, 'Guys, I've just written a fascinating song about myself. Let me see who I think should sing this,' he recalled. "I'm just not comfortable with that."

He recounts his Band days -- the fun times ("When the Night Was Young") and the difficult break-up ("This is Where I Get Off") -- on the new album.

"He Don't Live Here No More," kicking off with a grungy Clapton solo, is a nod to the dangerous drug-fueled lifestyles led by the rockers and their comrades during the 1970s.

Indeed, Robertson and Scorsese lived as housemates on scenic Mulholland Drive for two years after their wives had thrown them out. They passed the time watching old movies, listening to music and doing massive amounts of drugs.

"It was an extraordinary exchange of passions," Robertson noted with wry understatement.

The loquacious raconteur is saving the gritty anecdotes for an autobiography that he will start writing in a month or two. Working to a deadline for the first time in decades, Robertson expects it to be out in about two years. The next album will presumably take much, much longer.