Robbie Robertson by John Sinclair

Fresh from recording a new album (Storyville), folk rock singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson discusses his love of New Orleans with John Sinclair.

BOMB 38 Winter 1992
038 Winter 1992

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Robbie Robertson’s new album for Geffen Records, Storyville, brought the veteran singer-songwriter to the Crescent City this summer for a series of all-star sessions recorded at studios all over town, including Southlake, UltraSonic, and Daniel Lanois’s idiosyncratic set-up in the French Quarter. Based on a story Robbie wrote out of his fascination with the history and legend of the old red-light district where jazz and ragtime flourished between 1897–1917, the Storyville album utilizes a host of contemporary New Orleans players ranging from arranger Wardell Quezergue to the Rebirth Brass Band. Aaron and Ivan Neville, the Meters, the Zion Harmonizers, Bo Dollis, Monk Boudreaux, Zigaboo Modeliste, Code Blue, and others just as unlikely all add their individualized ingredients to the musical gumbo cooked up by chef Robbie, who’s been waiting to make this record ever since he was a teenage guitarist in Toronto, Ontario back in the mid-’50s.

Robertson has made many visits here over the years, investigating the music and culture which have held a strong attraction for him since his early teens. We sat down over a late-night snack in the upper room at Maximo’s during a break between takes for one of the album videos being shot across the street at Storyville, the temporarily shuttered nightclub on Decatur Street. An exuberant cast of colorful characters assembled by director Mary Lambert—including dancers, revelers, the Treme Brass Band, and Robbie’s lovely daughter Delphine—lined up for the next shot on the street outside as Robertson began to explain his love for New Orleans and its culmination in the Storyville album.

Robbie Robertson My fascination with New Orleans started when I was 14 years old, in Toronto. I had just been playing music for a short while, and I was in a Huey “Piano” Smith wannabe band called Little Caesar & The Consuls. This guy Little Caesar wanted to be Huey Smith, and we played this music that made me think, wait a minute, there’s something going on here—there is something about this whole thing that’s different and unique. There’s this mystery, there’s this fun, there is this thing you can’t quite put a finger on—it was just separated from the pack to me. So that made me start to inquire about where it was coming from, and when I found out this music came out of New Orleans it began a life-long interest in the city and its music for me.

I’ve always wanted to do an album that was just dripping with the spices of New Orleans. Over the years I’ve worked with some great musicians from New Orleans—20 years ago I worked with Allen Toussaint, and I’ve worked with Bobby Charles, I’ve played with Dr. John of course … You know, when The Band’s first album came out, Music From Big Pink, right at that same time there were two other albums that were—that made us think there was something in the air going on. These albums were Astral Weeks by Van Morrison and Gris Gris, the first Dr. John the Night Tripper album. So it was like these three albums all around the same time, and we all became friends—and are still friends to this day, obviously. Both of them were in The Last Waltz—as a matter of fact Bobby Charles was at The Last Waltz concert too. Bobby Charles and I wrote kind of a hybrid version of this bluegrass song called “Down South In New Orleans”—we added verses to it and we performed that song at The Last Waltz. It’s not in the movie, but it’s on the record. So you can see I’ve been dabbling in this for years and years.

John Sinclair My mind is still blown by the Huey Smith wannabe band! When was that, around 1957?

RR Whatever year it was, it was when all of this music was kind of exploding—it was the first wave of rock & roll. That’s when it started for me, and then I came to the conclusion over the years that all of this music that has affected our lives so tremendously was born in Storyville, because that was the first time you had a platform for hot music. You had cabarets, saloons, bordellos, this whole ambience, and what accompanied it, what grew out of it was ragtime, barrelhouse, this bluesy, jazzy music that nobody had names for in the beginning. It’s been building up in me all these years since I was 14 years old, and then I wrote a story about Storyville and all its myths and mysteries, and I finally came to the conclusion that I had to do an album about it now. All the songs on the album are based on this story I wrote, so the whole Storyville thing just fits in.

JS Does your album have any connection with the movie that was shot here this summer?

RR No, no, we heard about that movie much after the fact. I was delighted to hear that someone else had these same instincts, but the album has nothing to do with the movie at all.

You know, there’s always a little bit of confusion about, like, “What is Storyville?” There is a passage in the album that says, “Storyville is a section in New Orleans once dedicated to fast living / Hot music and moonlight nights / Man, if these walls could talk!” We’re talking about the historical aspects of Storyville, because my theory is that’s where hot music was given birth, and that led on to blues and jazz and R&B and rock & roll and everything else. All these roads, all these paths kind of led back to the same place.

One of my first introductions to the whole concept of Storyville came from a book I read called The French Quarter, by Herbert Ashbury—he wrote The Barbary Coast, and Gangs of New York, which Martin Scorcese has been thinking of making a movie of for years. He was a writer for the Police Gazette, so his style is very racy and urgent, you know, it’s got this thing to it. I just love that book, and at the end of the book, the last chapter in the book is about Storyville—historically, that’s where the book ends. He deals with the birth of New Orleans, how everybody came here, where they settled, how the French Quarter developed, and finally how Storyville came about and what went on there. I just loved reading that book.

Another thing about this place, one of the things that has kept me coming back to New Orleans and that has just held intrigue for me over the years is that there’s so much of this place that you cannot pin down, that you cannot quite explain. There are these veils in front of this place, and it gradually keeps revealing itself more and more. The more you look, the more you know—and the more you don’t understand.

For instance, on this album—I’d had a lifelong dream to do something with the Wild Indians, so I got the opportunity to work with Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles. I had recorded this one song with the Meters, and the next day I was doing vocal backgrounds. There was a chant that I wanted to do in the song with the two chiefs, and the song was called “Go Back To Your Woods”. They came to the studio—I had never met them before, but they told me their instincts are what they follow, and they were here because of what their instincts had told them. So I said, “Okay, this song is called “Go Back To Your Woods,” and it’s about”—I started to explain the song, and Monk Boudreaux said, “I get it—”Go Back To Your Woods”—I get it—roots—it’s roots, right?” I said, “Absolutely.” So I said, “I want you on this chorus to sing this background vocal chant with me, and then at the end of the song I want you just to do your chant, to do what you do.”

So we do the song, I sing the background vocals, we get to the end of the song and there’s nothing written for them to do—it’s up to them to do whatever they think they’re supposed to do. And they start doing this thing together, they start making up this stuff that says exactly what I was trying to say in the song! They’re saying this stuff spontaneously, and it’s sending chills down my spine. Because it’s just happening—like, you couldn’t have written it any better, and it’s just coming out as naturally as can be. In the studio, if you could solo out their track, you can hear people in the background howling and screaming at the way these guys are nailing this on the spot. And I’m like—my head is down at the end of the song, and I’m sitting there thinking about how does somebody go by instincts. You know, there is no way you can teach somebody this, or learn this, outside of a particular tradition—it’s this unwritten language that they know among themselves, and it has to be passed on to you. It’s an inside thing.

Okay, so after we finished the chant thing with the Indians that day, Art Neville and George Porter were there at the studio—we had just cut the song with them the day before. Art comes up and looks in the room and sees Monk and Bo in there and says to me, “Now that’s the real shit in there, man.” So I said, “Well, come on in and say hello, Art.” He said, “Oh no, I’m not going in there.” And it was like his most profound respect, like, “I don’t even belong in there.” It just made me … I couldn’t even breathe for a second. It was just such a reverence, and I appreciated it so much. I felt so honored and thrilled then to have been doing this.

JS It’s definitely a beautiful thing to experience, because Bo Dollis is my Big Chief, and I’ve been following him for years. I was delighted to learn that you were working with Bo and Monk on your record.

RR Well, it was simply magical. And in the meantime I’m doing interviews with different magazines where I’m trying to tell them about this thing that had happened when I was working with Monk and Bo, and they’re saying, “These Indians—can you describe them?” And, you know, you cannot quite describe them. They’re African-Americans, they’re not Indians, and yet, well, yes they are. One day I was sitting and talking with Monk and Bo and asking them about the Indian thing, how nobody can describe it or can quite explain what it is. Now, one theory is when the Africans were brought here as slaves the only people who treated them like human beings were the Indians, and in respect to that they took on an aura of Native Americans and started dressing like Native Americans as a form of showing their respect for the way the Indians had treated them. There was a bond there. So I said this to Monk and Bo, and they said, “Yeah, okay …”

Then I talked about a friend of mine, Marion Three Hawks, from Taos, New Mexico, who’s a Choctaw Indian. He says that both peoples have a similar background in terms of making little things—what people call folk crafts—and that also created a bond between the African-Americans and the Native Americans. They used to both make these things, and then they would come down by the river, to the French Market, and sell them to the European people. The French and the Spanish Americans would come down and buy the craft work, but it rains a lot in New Orleans so there was a lot of down time, and pretty soon with all the rain and the down time there were all these little Black Indians running around. So I said this to Monk and Bo, and they say, “Ha ha, yeah, okay …”

Then Bo says to me, “So, up there in New Mexico, do they dig a hole in the ground?” And I said, “Yeah, they do, they dig a hole in the ground.” And Bo says, “Well, there it is.” But yet and still the Indians never said, “Yeah, that’s it—that’s the answer.” It was more like, no reply. Now, if you go to Native Americans and you ask about something, it’s the same thing. That’s a piece of the puzzle, but there are all these pieces of the puzzle, and these are puzzles that are never completed—that’s why they’re magical. You complete them and you ruin eternity.

JS Yeah, sometimes it’s best to just let these things be!

RR I read this interview in Wavelength with George Porter and Monk Boudreaux where George asks Monk, “How do you feel about people and bands going out into the world and singing all of these Wild Indian songs?” And Monk says, “Oh, that’s okay, because they don’t know the signals. If people want to go around the world singing songs they don’t understand it’s okay with me, but I don’t sing no songs I don’t understand.” And that was so endearing to me, to hear somebody not be bitter but say it’s fine, they just don’t know the signals. It was the best answer to a question I’d ever heard in my life.

JS Who else did you work with on the album?

RR Oh, man, I got to work with so many people I’d always wanted to get with—it was such a tremendous opportunity musically, just selfishly from a musical point of view. For example, I’ve been hearing about this man, Wardell Quezergue, for a long, long time, but I’d never actually met him. I had talked to Allen Toussaint about doing some arrangements for the album, because I’d worked with him years ago, but some kind of fate stepped in or something, because Allen couldn’t do it—he had to go out of town or something. I thought, well, I’m stuck—what am I going to do here? And then I thought to call Wardell Quezergue and see if there is a connection there—if this was meant to be. I sent him over the music, and once again there was no explanation necessary. He just said, “No problem—I get it completely.” So we went in and we did these horns … and I’m telling you, I’ve had a lot of experience with horns over the years—I worked with Gil Evans, I worked with Allen Toussaint, and in this little band I started out in, Little Caesar & The Consuls, there was horns. The first song on Music From Big Pink, you hear horns there. We didn’t have no horn sections then—we had to play them ourselves—but nevertheless we knew about this kind of Salvation Army attitude towards horns.

So we do this thing with Wardell that is just magic. If I had sat there with him he couldn’t have written it more towards what I wanted. He did this thing that was so sweet the horn players themselves were knocked out that they were doing what they were doing with this music! It really was, once again, one of those things that tell you that this was kind of meant to be. Because what I fear about horn player/arranger guys is that they write horns like “hot horns”—they’re noisy and annoying and, like, gettin’ on you, you know what I mean? You want it to be part of the picture, you want it to be part of the mood, you want it to be part of the sensuality of the music, but these guys get in your way and come on all wrong.

But Wardell does this thing with the horns and they’re just glowing and moving with the music so perfect, and he does this kind of African-American Salvation Army Band thing—which we know here as the brass band tradition—but when you translate this into the outside world, this is really what it is. He combined something so soulful, using the instruments so that this thing was just brilliant. He’s just one of the greatest human beings to work with anyway, because there were certain things I sort of discovered as we were going along, and I said, “Wardell, if we could just go da da da da right here …” And this is when he went out to the car and rewrote the arrangement and came back in and played it and it was like—it was like a suit that just fit you perfectly when you put it on.

JS The Creole Beethoven strikes again! So far it sounds like you used the whole range of brilliant talent available here in the Crescent City. Did the rest of the sessions go as well as the two you’ve described?

RR Oh, yes. We used the Zion Harmonizers on one session. I’d seen them at the Jazz & Heritage Festival last year, where they were joined by Aaron Neville for the highlight performance of the whole festival—they had people weeping in the aisles. The Zions came down to the studio, they walked in the room and they sang, and it just blew us down. They’ve been together for something like 35 years, but this was really the first time they’d actually made a record in a recording studio. They’d recorded before, but it was always like everything was wrong for them in the studio. They would say, “Well, it’s just a record, you’ve got to hear us ‘live’.” So, in a way, they hadn’t really been properly documented on record before. I got the Zion Harmonizers in the studio with Aaron Neville, and Aaron did a thing with them that is heart-breaking. They connect on this song we did, called “Sign of the Rainbow,” and what they do—they make a sound, they make a noise that is heaven bound. I’m telling you, there are things that Wardell Quezergue did with the Zion Harmonizers and Aaron Neville—this incredible combination—that money can’t buy. You can’t hire this kind of feeling, you cannot order it up from the musicians’ union. I’ve tried!

Another example: I was walking down the street one night in the French Quarter and I heard sounds coming out of a bar—some band playing in there. Now, I’m not real keen on background girl singers—part of it is because I come from a band where, when it’s time for voices, the other guys step up to the microphone and sing on those sections and step back. Hiring up the girl singers was always a little bit of a cliché to me—I mean, after the Raelettes or the Dixie Cups or people like that, you just can’t do that anymore, that’s been said, and I find that it’s too much of a formula, so I’ve never ever done this.

But I was walking down the street one night and heard the throaty sound of these girls coming out of this place and I went in. The thing was, there wasn’t this high bravado of annoying voices coming from screechy girls—there was this throaty kind of earthy, sexy sound, and it was these girls called Code Blue. So we went in and heard them, and then I inquired about them a little bit, and everybody said, “Oh yeah, Code Blue—completely cool, they’re great.” So I asked them to come to the studio the next day and sing on this record. They’d never sung on a record in their lives, and they just came in the next day and cut the session with us. The most endearing quality of all is that they had to ask their mamas if it was okay to sing on this record tomorrow!

Once again, they did something that I just couldn’t find anywhere else, and I didn’t know how to explain to people how to do this—like, don’t do that stuff and don’t sing with that vibrato, just sing this thing and make it have this airy sound and this streety quality. I don’t know how to describe all those things—either you do it or you don’t do it. And they definitely did it!

We also used the Rebirth Brass Band on some things, and it was quite a feat trying to organize them into an arrangement. They were completely game, so we were saying, okay, the song starts out here, it goes there and then we do this. So one of the guys in the group starts, like, very professionally, he gets a piece of paper and starts writing down this thing. He writes down about two things on a piece of paper, puts the paper down and says, “We’re just going to have to play.” So we did the song, and while they’re playing I’m thinking, are they playing the same song that we’re playing? Is this the same line? Then I thought, wait a minute, this is starting to make sense! And pretty soon it’s all about being in the spirit—they find the spirit and that’s what’s real, so they just played on. One thing they found out is that we don’t play all the time, because these other guys are the rhythm section, and everybody didn’t have to play all the time. They’re used to carrying everything themselves, so it takes them a minute to figure out how to kind of weave in and out of the music and help paint a certain picture that way. They begin to sense when it’s time to come in and play some things and when it’s time to lay out, and they’re looking at one another and saying, okay, that’s cool. Everybody goes on and they just weave in and out very dynamic and beautiful—they really played it great. The only problem was when we ended the song—they didn’t know about the ending, so they just kept playing until they caught on that we were through, and then they tapered it off like they were marching away down the street. It was so lovely.

JS Rebirth, Code Blue, Zion Harmonizers, Aaron Neville, Art Neville, George Porter, Wardell Quezergue, Monk Boudreaux, Bo Dollis—okay, is there anybody we’ve left out?

RR On this song we’re doing for the video tonight, “What About Now,” I wrote with Ivan Neville, and when we were recording it I would sing the verse and then Ivan would come in and sing a line on the chorus. Well, we thought this should be a harmony line, and we needed a voice to balance out Ivan’s part, which was in kind of a gruff, low voice, and I thought: Aaron! So we’ve got father and son singing together on this.

Another life-long dream of mine was to work with Zigaboo Modeliste, who is for me the very best in the business. There was this one song that fits into the story—I was trying to figure out how to make it work, I was trying with different people and it just wasn’t working at all—it just wasn’t coming off. It’s called “Resurrection,” and there’s something a little strange about it. Anyway, I tried all kinds of things with different people and it wasn’t paying off at all. Then Zig comes by the studio and just sits down and we play the thing once and it’s like, yeah, this is it! Anyway, he’s just my favorite drummer of all time.

Throughout the album I used many various musicians for different things, and what I would do—like, I did one thing with these guys from Scotland called the Blue Nile. They’re friends of mine, and they came to Los Angeles, so I wrote this song one day and we went to a another friend of mine’s garage and recorded the song “live.” Then I thought, yeah, but it’s not quite the business, so I brought it down here to put the spice on it, and I had Ronald Jones—Joe Jones’s son—play drums on it, and Wardell did the horns on it. Okay, now it works! And that’s pretty much how the whole project worked out.

John Sinclair is a Detroit poet and journalist, now based in New Orleans. He’s published two books of essays, Music & Politics and Guitar Army and a collection of poetry, We Just Change the Beat (Ridgeway Press). His record, fly right, featuring poems from a work-in-progress, thelonious: a book of monk, is forthcoming on New Alliance.

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Originally published in

BOMB 38, Winter 1992

Featuring interviews with Edward Albee, Caryl Phillips by Graham Swift, Barbara Kopple, Mike Kelley, Colm Tóibín, Valerie Jaudon, Robbie Robertson, Brigitte Rouan, Nicole Burdette, Clutter, Todd Ayoung, Exene Cervenka, and Carolyn See.

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038 Winter 1992