In college, playing the part of the self-important student with worldly views, I thought I knew everything, especially about music. You could have asked me nearly anything about British pop music and I would have known the answer. So when I received a mixtape from my first serious girlfriend, an oddly spliced affair with connected bits of songs as opposed to full numbers, I was awakened to something entirely new and brilliant. The tape only had one song that played in its entirety, that being Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow.” Many would later know it as a cover version by Rod Stewart, but nothing compares to the original. It quickly became my favorite song on the tape and made me an instant fan of Robertson and his solo work. Proving my idiocy, it was actually years later that I was to discover The Band, their brilliance, and their significance to rock and roll.
It took Robbie Robertson nearly a decade to release his debut eponymous solo album after the Band’s Last Waltz. In the intervening time, he formed a partnership with The Last Waltz‘s director, Martin Scorsese, producing and acting in Carny and providing the score for his masterpiece, Raging Bull. When asked why he hadn’t released a solo album in all that time, Robertson simply answered that he didn’t feel he had anything to say. That all changed with the death of the Band’s piano player and singer, Richard Manuel. Robertson’s opening song, “Fallen Angel,” is dedicated to him. Through much of the material I’ve read about The Band, Robertson is barely given a mention. It’s a form of revisionist history in the sense that Robertson was the central focus in their heyday, being the main guitarist and principal songwriter. After the fact, props have been given to Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and particularly Garth Hudson. But there is no denying Robertson’s genius, and his debut solo album merely adds more backup to the boast.
I previously wrote two reviews covering the first major production works from Daniel Lanois, and Robbie Robertson is somewhat the fourth in a quadrilogy of albums featuring his blend of arena rock meets world music. U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, bookending Peter Gabriel’s So, were the initial trilogy, and each of those artists appear on Robertson’s album. Each of the four albums are steeped in a kind of sepia-toned grainy Americana, which is odd considering U2 is Irish, Gabriel British, and Robertson Canadian. But being that Robertson’s mother was Mohawk and he grew up in and around the culture, he seemingly had the most inside perspective. In fact, seven years later, Robertson would record an album called Music for the Native Americans. Robbie Robertson, despite its creator’s pedigree, can be seen as the ignored stepchild of the Lanois bunch. Gabriel and U2 vaulted to amazing heights with their collaborations while Robertson’s debut was critically acclaimed but failed to reach the dizzying sales numbers as its predecessors. Even with the huge success of The Joshua Tree, released some seven months prior, U2’s appearance on two of the tracks still wasn’t enough.
To me, Robertson’s debut can stand alongside not only those previously mentioned ’80s arena powerhouses, but is also comparable to some of the best works by Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Robertson’s poetry and imagery, as well as his gritty sandpaper voice, recall both legendary artists in their primes. Most will remember Robertson as the central figure of The Band, and a small pocket of people will remember him for his film work, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the stunning song, “Broken Arrow,” forever to be associated with my first love.
U2- The Joshua Tree
The Band- Music from the Big Pink
Leonard Cohen- I’m Your Man