October 27, 2014
Robbie Robertson is finally a children’s book character
by Liam O'Brien
I’m listening to Robbie Robertson’s debut solo record again and it’s still not great. It’s a hyperproduced fractal of 1980’s indulgence, with plenty of psuedospiritual Americana-lite lyrics and pillowy production courtesy of Peter Gabriel and U2, and Robertson’s wheezy vocals over the top. There isn’t a distinctive guitar riff for miles, which is a real shame coming from this guy. I’ve listened to most of Robertson’s solo albums repeatedly, though I can’t say why. They never get better, just a more specific shade of worse. So that’s on me, I guess.
Up to and including 2010’s How To Become Clairvoyant, Robertson can’t quit penning musical explainers of his own legend, and of course, how it shapes the legend of The Band. And with 3/5 of the group dead and Garth Hudson characteristically mum, that legend is Robertson’s to direct wherever he chooses. Now Rolling Stone reports that his latest turn at lionization is a new children’s book, Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story, written by his son Sebastian.
It’s strange on a few levels to read this. Firstly, the Rolling Stone piece is written by noted show jumper and rock star daughter Jessica Springsteen, so it feels like we’ve gone through the rock nepotism looking glass. But never mind that. It’s not as if children’s books by musicians are anything new; after all, Springsteen’s dad’s doing exactly the same thing. I have no beef with this concept. Dolly Parton, Madonna, Colin Meloy, David Bowie—do your things, guys. Let children remember you not just as the retro music they Bittorrent into their Bluetooth speakers, but also as words from a lavishly illustrated hardcover. And on the surface, this book is about father-son bonding, which I support:
“It was sweet and endearing. It just brought us together in a fun, more father-son kind of way,” [Sebastian] says. He compares the writing process to “a school project you would have in elementary school. I thought it was kind of playful. It put me in a youthful place of remembering my dad from when I was the age [readers will be].”
But all you need to do is look at the hero image. It’s an illustration of Robertson looking like a million bucks at the end of The Last Waltz—slick, inoffensive, spit-shined, and stage center. So can we expect another rehash of The-Band-by-way-of-Robertson’s-memory that The Last Waltz packaged so perfectly? I would imagine so. Whether it’s his anodyne solo efforts, meticulously remastered live Band albums, and his ever-brown hair, Robertson’s career and perspective has always already been a children’s book—an expertly crafted story with no loose ends, no declines, and no messes.
Just like The Last Waltz’s editing couldn’t be bothered to make sufficient room for Richard Manuel (or really anyone other than Robertson), a children’s book has no room for the addiction and death and failure and struggle and excess that hallmarked The Band before, during, and after their heyday, even if it did define the group more than Robertson cares to admit. I begrudge no child who wants to learn about the history of rock music, and no parent who seeks the tools to guide them. And the illustrations are lovely. And if a parent want to soft-pedal history for that kid, go ahead. Just maybe remember that Robertson’s genius came from being part of a band, and go buy your kid a copy of Music from Big Pink as well.
Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.