Rolling Stone – Robbie Robertson on Reworking the Band’s ‘Stage Fright’: ‘This Is What It’s Supposed to Be’
By DAVID BROWNE
Looking back on a troubled period for the fabled roots rockers, the guitarist-songwriter explains why he needed to right old wrongs on a new 50th-anniversary reissue
Ahead of a new 50th-anniversary reissue of the Band’s Stage Fright, Robbie Robertson would like to apologize. “I made a mistake,” he says from his L.A. office. “And now I’m so thrilled that I could undo that mistake and make this record what I thought it was, and the experience I thought it was.”
Recorded in their home base of Woodstock, New York, and released in 1970, Stage Fright was the Band’s third album, home to future concert staples like the title song and “The Shape I’m In.” But the running order of those songs, Robertson says, never sat quite right with him. At that point, the Band were in a fragile state — the moment “when everything changed for us,” Levon Helm wrote in his memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire — and for the sake of unity, Robertson says he began pushing the others in the group to collaborate on songs with him.
They did, to varying degrees, and when Stage Fright was finished, Robertson put together a track sequence for the album, which would open with a rollicking tribute to traveling tent performers, “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” and end with the slinky, late-night “The Rumor.” “When I first sequenced this record and listened to it, I thought, ‘What a journey, what a fucking ride this is,’” he recalls. “And I loved it. They were really doing justice to the songs I was writing.”
But according to Robertson, the other members of the Band weren’t as enthused and demanded that some of their collaborative efforts — like “Strawberry Wine,” his co-write with Helm, and the two Richard Manuel–Robertson songs, “Sleeping” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” — be moved up in the track sequence. In fact, “Strawberry Wine” became the opening song. “The guys were like, ‘Man, you know, some of the songs you were really pushing us for our part, they’re buried in the sequence,’” he says. “So I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to push all of that way up front.’ And it was a mistake. We weren’t falling apart, but we were wrangling and we never had to wrangle before.”
This Friday marks the arrival of a new, deluxe edition of Stage Fright. Much like previous blow-out treatments given to Music From Big Pink and The Band, the collection includes the usual extras: rehearsal tapes, alternate versions, and live recordings (in this case, of the Band’s wonderfully wired 1971 performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London). The original Stage Fright is there as well — but, finally, presented with the original song order that Robertson intended, starting with “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” and ending now with “Sleeping.”
“This sequence is the story of Stage Fright,” he says. “This is what it was supposed to be. I got thrown off track because it was a particular period with the guys. And I lived with that. It was stuck inside me.” Robertson feels good about his decision — but how will everyone else react? And what happened during those months in Woodstock 51 years ago?
With their second album, everyone’s then-favorite roots-rock collective dodged the dreaded sophomore jinx after a breakthrough debut (Music From Big Pink). On The Band, the quintet introduced future classics like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” played Woodstock, and firmly established themselves as more than just Bob Dylan’s former backup band.
But in the Band’s case, they had to confront the junior jinx. Issues arose even before the sessions began in June 1970. The group had planned to record the album live in front of a small audience at the Woodstock Playhouse, a cozy, woodsy 600-seat theater in town. “We were going to do it for the townsfolk in Woodstock because of the Woodstock Festival and the damage it had done to this quaint little art colony,” Robertson says of the massive gathering that had just transpired in nearby Bethel. “But they didn’t like the idea. They said, ‘Oh, no — this is pouring gasoline on the fire.’” In his memoir, Helm had similar memories: “Toilets, parking, small town, etc.: There wasn’t gonna be any Woodstocks in Woodstock.”
The Band proceeded with the idea of renting out the Playhouse and recording new material there, but without an audience. As their recording engineer, they hired Todd Rundgren, then about to turn 22 and on the verge of releasing Runt, his first album after the breakup of his band, the Nazz. “I was the youngest person on set,” Rundgren now laughs, and that stamina came in handy given the logistics: Rundgren and the recording gear were set up outside the theater, connected to the building by way of a canvas roof that, Rundgren recalls, made it “sweltering in the daytime and freezing at night.”
The plan called for working during more-or-less regular business hours, roughly 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. But as Rundgren recalls, not everyone adhered to that schedule. “I would find myself sitting in there sometimes for hours waiting for the guys to get organized, to start actually laying down some takes,” he says. “People were just kind of wandering in whenever they wanted. It wasn’t necessarily a punctual thing. There might be days when someone would not wander in and you’d wonder where they were.”
As Robertson already knew and Rundgren was about to learn, drugs, especially of the harder variety, had infiltrated the Band scene. “In the early days of experimenting with drugs, it was like, ‘Wow, smoke some of this!’” Robertson recalls. “And everybody would laugh and eat a donut. But now all of a sudden it reverted back to experimenting with hard drugs, and heroin came into the picture — heroin being the ultimate painkiller, the ultimate ‘I don’t give a shit if the sun don’t shine’ drug. And one person, you know, influenced another and everything.”
Rundgren recalls the day Manuel didn’t show up — he had crashed his car the night before — and the time no one could find Helm for over an hour. “And then we’d find him under a pile of curtains somewhere, sleeping it off,” he recalls with a chuckle. In This Wheel’s on Fire, Helm didn’t deny that more lethal drugs were making their mark on the Band and in rock culture in general. “Heroin was around Woodstock, around New York, he wrote. “It was everywhere. Being a musician, you couldn’t avoid it. People told me, ‘I can get you some of this.’”
Under those circumstances, Robertson says the idea of involving the other band members in songwriting was a way to bring the group together. “There was severe drug experimenting going on, and I was herding cats,” he says. “I was really trying to get everybody to show up and participate. I was trying to stir things up. I was thinking, ‘Come on, you’re being lazy. We’re all going to write and co-write and we’re all going to participate. It’s a new day now.’ And trying to write with some people who don’t write was really frustrating. Levon started writing a song and I finished it and made it a complete thing. Richard had some chord changes, and I turned it into a song.”
Robertson says he particularly focused on Helm. “I had a setup in Woodstock where we would go every day, him and I. But a period of time after this, one day Levon said to me, ‘I’m really not comfortable with this. I don’t want to do this.’ And I said, ‘I completely understand.’ And that’s when I thought, ‘Ringo doesn’t write, Charlie Watts doesn’t write.’ Lots of people don’t write. And you can’t stuff it down their throat. I was trying to force it on him. It was wrong on my behalf, which I couldn’t see at the time.”
In his memoir, Helm claimed that “issues of artistic control” were hobbling the Band at this point, some of it pertaining to songwriting credits and publishing royalties. He said he told Robertson about his belief “in creating music with input from everyone and reminded him that all the hot ideas … were not always exclusively his.” The collaborations, he said, stopped then: “Who wanted to pour out their souls and not get credit?” On Stage Fright, he added, “Robbie took most of the credits, played a lot of guitar, and generally tried to assume full control of that part of the whole process.” The result, he said, was “a dark album, and an accurate reflection of our group’s collective psychic weather.”
One thing both Robertson and Helm agreed on was the less-cheery feel of the album. Robertson says the mood is reflected in several songs, not just “The Shape I’m In,” written about and sung by Manuel, or the Rick Danko–sung title track, which echoes an experience Robertson had when the Band made its debut at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1969 (he was so ill that a hypnotist had to be recruited to help him get onstage).
Robertson says “The Rumor” was instigated by talk around Woodstock that someone in the Band was dabbling in hard drugs. He says those were “things you were trying to keep under cover and then, because of association with sketchy people, these things tend to slip away, slip right out of your hands,” resulting in gossip. The alternately lulling and bumpy “Sleeping” was, Robertson says, “a private message to myself that there was heroin in the house.” Robertson also says the diminished role of harmony vocals throughout the album was another sign that the Band, whose folksy and unique three-part harmonies had fueled the two previous albums, wasn’t entirely together at that point.
Robertson says Rundgren “wasn’t a great fit with the other guys; they didn’t get along too well.” Rundgren disagrees, saying, “I got along well with all the guys. it’s just that initial period when I didn’t know what was going on and, you know, I finally settled down to do my job.”
Rundgren does recall one bump in the road — the moment when he called keyboardist Garth Hudson “an old man” after Hudson would sometimes fall asleep in the studio. At the time, Rundgren wasn’t aware that Hudson suffered from narcolepsy, and Helm scolded him (and possibly chased him around the studio, as legend has it). “But that was another thing,” Rundgren says. “Garth was like musical ketchup; you could put them on anything. No two takes were alike. He took a completely fresh approach every time we did the song. But he had to be awake for this thing. It would take some time for them all to get on the same page.”
For all its fraught creation, Stage Fright was completed in two weeks (in part, according to Helm, to capitalize on the Band’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine in early 1970). “Everyone was just relieved to have gotten that done, with all of the little events that had happened throughout the course of it,” Rundgren says. Reviewers at the time picked up on the music’s changes in mood and style: “What this third Band record seems to lack is the glory of the first two,” Rolling Stone commented at the time. But it still became the Band’s highest-charting album ever, peaking at Number Five in the fall of 1970.
Starting in the Seventies, Robertson remained haunted by the original track order. In 2000, a deluxe CD of the album was prepped, and Roberson says he brought up restoring the first sequencing and was shot down. “The record company said, ‘You can’t do that — you got to stay with the original,’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh … OK.’ But now when I said, ‘I want to use the original sequence from this record that nobody knows about,’ they said, ‘Fantastic, wow, that’s great.’ They’re in a different place.”
Robertson says he didn’t reach out to the surviving family members or estates of his late colleagues Helm, Danko, or Manuel (or Hudson, who maintains a low profile these days), but claims he knew how they felt. “After the album came out and some time passed by,” he says, “everybody said, ‘You know, we should have gone with the original sequence,’ and they were kind of apologetic about pushing me in this direction. If the other guys were alive, they would love this. They would be so happy that we were able to actually do that. Everybody acknowledged that, you know, we got off the track.”
Rundgren himself wasn’t aware of the change, calling it “curious.” “I’ll be interested to see what the reaction is,” he says. “Hardcore fans may have the old running order so ingrained in their heads that there may be some umbrage. But if the intent is to find a new audience for it, then nobody will know the difference! As a matter of fact, that new audience may not even listen to the whole thing all the way through! ‘I don’t have the time for that. I don’t have the mental focus for that.’ People’s listening habits have changed along with the devices they used to listen with.”
And even though Robertson says he’s sorry for not adhering to his initial version of the album five decades ago, the thought that devoted fans might be irked when they hear a rejiggered Stage Fright doesn’t faze him. “I don’t give a fuck,” he retorts. “I know what it should be, you know. Don’t tell me what to do with my music. And the original sequence is available forever. So if you want that, you can have that. But this is what I want.”