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Daniel Lanois on the Moment Robbie Robertson Reset His Career

In 1986, ten years after the Band had played “The Last Waltz,” its final show with the original lineup, Robbie Robertson decided the time had come to return to music. He’d dabbled in acting and film scoring — not to mention some wild Hollywood times that he would later begin chronicling in the memoir he was writing before his death on Aug. 9. But recording an album under his own name, something he’d never done before, became his new passion in the Eighties.

In search of a sound to call his own, he recruited producer Daniel Lanois, who had worked with U2 (“The Unforgettable Fire”) and Peter Gabriel (“So”) and was in the midst of finishing up “The Joshua Tree.” Together with musicians who included U2, Gabriel, bassist Tony Levin, and many others, he and Lanois shaped the 1987 album that he called simply “Robbie Robertson.” As Lanois recalls, the record set Robertson on a new musical path that he would follow and build on over subsequent albums and film work.

Robbie and I were from the same neck of the woods, and I always had a high regard for him as a guitar player, because that’s what he was known as first, with Ronnie Hawkins. I can’t remember who made the introduction, but I believe he was curious given that I was a fellow Canadian. Robbie had been surrounded by his mates in the Band for many, many years, so maybe there was something Canadian as a component that drew him to me. I flew to L.A. to meet him. He came to pick me up at the hotel and we drove around a bit. He wanted me to see Venice, which I’d never seen before. He said, “I want to expose you to some of the cultural colors in the neighborhood here.”

I liked him right away. I asked him, “Why are you in California?” He said, “I was in upstate New York, and I got tired of not being able to make it up the hill because of the snow.” I don’t know why he walked away from the acting thing. I never really questioned him about that.

We went to his studio and he had a nice batch of songs already. I listened to them with him and earmarked the ones I thought were most significant and most heartfelt. One was called “American Roulette.” In fact, the whole project was first called American Roulette. He had a bigger vision of it; he thought it might also become a film. One of the other songs was was “What About Now,” sung from the perspective of somebody who can’t wait anymore. But that didn’t make the record. 

I felt that there was more material inside Robbie for that record. And that’s why I pushed the gas pedal on things like “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” I was quizzing him on what it was like when he was a kid traveling to the States and meeting Sonny Boy Williamson and having a Canadian perspective on that great American culture. We were working in a tiny room, at one desk, always a microphone on. I recorded him telling the story of what it was like in Arkansas when he first went down there. He said, “It was all very mysterious. You’d have to ask directions and somebody would say, ‘Well, we haven’t seen her in a while — last time I saw it was somewhere down the crazy river.’” There was a whole bit about palm reading and dynamite fishing. We didn’t include the dynamite fishing thing in the song. But he had all of these fantastic images of swamps and a little club down near the river with only one light bulb. He talked and talked and he had that beautiful voice and I recorded all that. 

I had brought him this little toy instrument called Suzuki Omnichord, a little electronic autoharp thing with odd chords on it; if you push buttons together, you get diminished and augmented chords. He really loved that little thing. We were fiddling around with it. and that became the spine of “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.”  I recorded that little Omnichord and spun his voice over the top of it. We played it for him and he said, “Whoa!” He saw the possibility of building a song out of it.

Robbie was obviously a very imaginative person interested in storytelling. He wanted to be in those regions where a lot of music that inspired him came from. He told me that was a big turning point in his life. Long before the Internet, you might read about a place on the back cover on an LP. But you wouldn’t know what it was like until you went there. So he had the courage to be a trailblazer and go south of the border. Maybe it was his Canadian perspective that allowed him to be curious about how it all happened.

I wish there was more guitar playing on that album. I don’t have any regrets, but it might be nice if there was a blazing moment or two there. But I have a feeling that by the time I went to work with him, his mind had gone to other places, with storylines and working with Martin Scorsese and acting. His perspective had widened considerably beyond the old rock & roll guitar in the back of the blues club. People move on. He wasn’t that guitar-slinger he was when he was playing with Hawkins. One thing I learned is you can’t ask people to go back, you have to look forward. And I liked that about Robbie. He wasn’t interested in adapting any of the nuances had been created so beautifully with the Band. 

I did ask him about the Band, and he said, “Well, I was on the bus for 15 years with these guys, and I didn’t want to be on the bus anymore.” Richard Manuel passed away while we were working. Robbie just said Richard had been troubled for a long time and it didn’t surprise him that it would come to that one day. And then he just came up with this song, “Fallen Angel.”

We had Rick [Danko] and Garth [Hudson] come in. Garth was definitely my idea. Robbie said, “OK, but he’s eccentric!” I said, “Join the club!” As Garth put it one day [about Robertson], “Here comes the devil himself.” I don’t know what he meant by that. You’ll have to ask him. I kept my mouth shut! Garth is  a very smart guy with a dry sense of humor.

I’ll take credit for introducing Robbie to U2. Prior to when I brought up the idea, they were very interested. They were still kids, really, and thought of Robbie as a great songwriter. U2 were not intimidated. There’s nothing that can intimidate them. But they thought, well, it might be nice to have a master in our studio here. They weren’t trying to write songs with him or anything, but just to be around him and learn by osmosis. We were bashing that song out [“Sweet Fire of Love”] for 20 minutes, all live. Larry [Mullen Jr.] really delivered on the drums. It was a very sweaty jam. We were looking for the magic moment and we wanted to make sure that the performance had a chance to blossom.


I saw Robbie in Los Angeles early in the new year, at the Village Recorder. I was doing a little bit of work on the U2 acoustic record [Songs of Surrender]. It was great to see him. He was full of life and humor. He was in cahoots with Marty again; they always had something going. He said he had just gotten himself a nice new place in the hills and was there with his sweetheart and had a great view, not far from work and very private. I said, “Robbie, it sounds like you’ve done it.”

When we were working together, he told me, “Lanois, you got a good imagination. That’s why I work with you.” He had a sense of humor too. During that album, I made fun of him wearing $800 Italian slippers. I was wearing lumberjack boots. We were quite the odd couple. I said, “Robbie, what happened here?” He said, “Don’t worry — you’ll do it too. Give it time.” And he wasn’t wrong.

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