In the fall of 1991, Robbie Robertson released his second solo album, Storyville, to glowing reviews, including a four-star feature write up in Rolling Stone (“a mature and masterful work that lends additional luster to the formidable legacy Robertson shaped with the Band”). A month later, Nirvana’s Nevermind was released, and we all know which one went on to be considered one of the most important albums of all time. Robertson’s Storyville is all but forgotten, which is a shame, because the record’s atmospheric tribute to New Orleans contains one of his most beautiful songs, “What About Now.”
I’m not sure what prompted me to have Steve buy me Storyville for my birthday that year, most likely Anthony Curtis’ review in Rolling Stone, but “What About Now” was also receiving minor airplay on, of all places, the AOR radio station in Toledo that I listened to while finishing up my senior year at Bowling Green. Initially, I was drawn to the haunting melody, but I was soon taken by Robertson’s lyrics.
There’s gonna be a change of season
Indian summer look around and it’s gone
Why you wanna save the best for last
We grow up so slowly and grow old so fast
We don’t talk about forever
We just catch it while we can
And if I grab on to the moment
Don’t let it slip away out of my hand
Hearing those words sung so plaintively by Robertson gave me some perspective on life as I was completing my final semester of college in the spring of ‘92. During that time, I rushed to complete my senior film, stressed about the remaining courses I needed, and worried about my deteriorating relationship with my then-girlfriend. If only for five minutes “What About Now” allowed me to escape these burdens to try and live in the moment. While the nation was beginning to raise its fists to the screams of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, I would seclude myself in the dank basement bedroom of my college apartment house to absorb the harmonies of Robertson, Ivan Neville and the ethereal voice of Aaron Neville.
What about now
Forget about tomorrow
It’s too far away
What about now
Close your eyes
Don’t talk of yesterday
It’s too far away, too far away
What about now
As college drew to a close, the burdens I fretted over became a part of my past. The senior film was completed, literally, five minutes before it premiered and was received nicely by my peers; my courses were done and I was able to graduate with honors; and my girlfriend broke up with me just before graduation. With all of the distractions that come with leaving school, the pain of the breakup wasn’t immediate. In fact, more distractions awaited me as soon I returned home to North Olmsted. Whatever fears and anguish I was feeling during the summer of ’92 were suppressed when my father went into the hospital for quadruple bypass heart surgery.
I started a new in Lakewood, Ohio soon after leaving Bowling Green, one that I believed would last just the summer. I began making plans for my eventual move to Los Angeles and went out to buy a stereo for the first time. Having grown up on hand-me-down clothes, cars and music equipment, my own stereo was a milestone. I was especially thrilled about the six-CD changer with a shuffle feature. I set my stuff up in my parents’ basement, returning to the fortress of solitude that had been my second home during high school. When my father was suddenly admitted into the hospital, music became one of my sole ways to unwind and relax. For the month of June, my whole family watched as my father endured a staggering operation that saved his life. The recovery was slow, but he gradually regained his strength and a new respect for life. In many ways, “What About Now” could have been his anthem, approaching his recuperation one step at a time.
In mid-July, my brother was married in California. After the wedding, my folks left Los Angeles to spend well deserved vacation time in Hawaii. This left my sister and I home alone. Of course, being left alone in my parents’ house didn’t have the same sense of freedom it did back in high school. Being home alone meant that I would have to confront a lot of the shit I’d been suppressing for a couple of months. Luckily, I had Matt there to spend time with me and help me through the tangle of emotions that spilled out in a short period of time. The moment I dropped my bags through the front door, he was there waiting with a twelve pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a stack of CDs. For a week straight, the two of us would adjourn to the basement each night after I got off work.
As the sun set and the basement grew darker, the two of us would sit downstairs in decrepit old rocking chairs, smoking, drinking and listening to the CD changer shuffle music, mystically choosing the songs for us, mysteriously syncing up with our frame of minds. We heard Blood on the Tracks, Lucky Town, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, In Step, and Storyville. To this day, I recall a particular conversation with Matt about my ex-girlfriend. He questioned how much I missed her; he asked if I had been happy with her; he asked if I really had loved her when we broke up. These were questions that I hadn’t asked myself fully or dealt with since coming home. I looked inwardly and wondered if I would be alone the rest of my life? Was she my only chance? I openly wept in the darkness of the smoke-filled room. Meanwhile, “What About Now” played through the stereo.
“Why aren’t you dating right now?” Matt asked.
“Because I’ve decided not to see anyone until I move to L.A. I want to stay focused.”
There was a long pause as he rolled a cigarette, lit it up and took a long drag. After the orange glow had faded away, he spoke while smoke seeped out of the side of his mouth.
“Dude, that is just about the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”
We doubled over with laughter, falling to the floor. He was so on the mark. I was denying myself potential happiness because I was worrying about the future. By placing a self-imposed restriction on dating, I was denying myself the chance to find happiness.
“What about now?” Robertson sang.
“What about now?” I thought.
In that moment I quietly decided to ask out the cute, curly-haired woman I worked with at the natural foods store. Her name was Julie.
The rest of that week found Matt and I philosophizing for hours, but none of the nights was as revelatory as that particular one we spent in the company of Robbie Robertson. By week’s end, he and I finally ventured out of the basement to a Santana concert. The next day I had my first date with Julie, and my life would never be the same. By embracing the moment and asking her out, I discovered my future had been working alongside me all along. Matt and I never spent time together like we did that July. Eventually, he would move to Utah, return home for a spell, and then leave Ohio once and for all to live in Seattle. Meanwhile, Julie and I fell in love and began spending the rest of our lives together.
It’s rare that a song will carry through so many pivotal events in one’s life, especially one with little impact on the general public. Throughout the years my admiration for Robbie Robertson has cooled, but not my love for this song. Even today, when I listened to “What About Now” for the first time in years, my eyes welled up, especially during the outro, in which Robertson’s guitar cries out against Aaron Neville’s angelic singing. This is a powerful song, a great song. This is a true basement song.