Robbie Robertson: Playing In The Band

“Is that all?” Robbie Robertson asks in mock indignation.

He’s responding to an American Songwriter interviewer running down the list of topics for a long conversation he is about to undergo. In truth, we could have added more to the list, such is the recent busy streak for one of rock’s most respected songwriters and musicians.

It began in September with the release of Robertson’s solo album Sinematic. That in part was inspired by his work on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, his acclaimed 2016 memoir Testimony, and his work on a documentary about The Band (more on that in a second.)

In November came the 50th anniversary re-release of The Band’s self-titled second album (often known as The Brown Album), which included a beautifully remastered version of the original album, several never-before-heard outtakes, and the group’s full performance at Woodstock. It all leads up to the American release in January of Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, an illuminating and touching documentary recounting the rise and fall of one of the most influential collectives in music history.

This bout of retrospection is unusual for Robertson. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking at what I’ve done,” he says. “I’m really kind of busy with what I’m doing today and what I need to do tomorrow. That’s already time spent, so I better snap out of it and see where I’m going. I know where I’ve been.”

Yet he bowed to fans’ curiosity about that past, and, once he did, he was almost stunned at what he found, especially when it came to the documentary. “Coming back to these things, quite often, I did say to myself, ‘Holy shit, look what we went through,’” he laughs. “’Look at this story. Look at this journey that I’ve been on.’ I take it for granted because I lived it and I don’t even realize it. So when I looked at it in that kind of way, it was almost shocking.”

“Even in the documentary, it’s not just telling all of these crazy experiences and everything that we were fortunately enough, and sometimes dangerously enough, involved in. The documentary is going to a much more sensitive place. It isn’t a raucous rock and roll story about, ‘Then we threw the TV out the window.’ It isn’t that. It’s a different mood. It’s a different story.”

We Few, We Happy Few

Once Were Brothers follows Robertson from his hardscrabble Canadian youth on an Indian reservation to having his early rock dreams fulfilled by playing alongside Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly dynamo, as part of the Hawks. Eventually, the Hawks would fill out with three other Canadians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, and Arkansas native Levon Helm.

The broad strokes of story have become rock lore: The quintet would move on from Hawkins, serve as the electric backing for Bob Dylan’s controversial mid-’60s tours, and eventually start making their own music. Their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, garnered massive critical love as well as the fawning admiration of musician fans like Eric Clapton, Elton John and George Harrison.

The documentary certainly makes this clear, as testimonials from Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Taj Mahal, and many more come pouring in. “Musicians were acknowledging where we were coming from,” Robertson says. “There was a part of us, where, inside, we felt like musicians’ musicians. There was something about that where maybe we thought if nobody else gets this, we know that people who play music will get this. They will recognize something in here. And maybe the general public won’t understand it as well as they do, but we couldn’t help it. That was our natural ability.”

Yet the public has by and large come around, hence the excitement about the 50-year anniversaries for both Music From Big Pink and The Band in the past few years. When going back over the music for the Brown Album reissue, Robertson was struck by the closeness of the bond between the members of The Band, part of which derived from his decision to assemble the group in a rented home in Los Angeles to make the record instead of a professional studio.

“There was an incredible innocence in this music-making,” he says. “There was taking something out of the air that didn’t exist and making it exist. And it has a sonic quality to it that is different than anything else. It has subject matter that is different than everything else. It is so unique in a way, because I was crazy enough to insist on us doing it this way. When we told the record company that we were going to record the album in a house and not in a studio, they’d never heard anything this crazy. Nobody did that back then.”

“They were like, ‘What is wrong with these people?’ Because of the success of Big Pink, they had to kind of go along with it as much as they didn’t want to. And because of the uniqueness of the circumstance, it allowed us to do something that unique. We were so close because we were all living together, we were eating together, we were making music together, everything was together. And in the music, there’s a togetherness in it, that’s as close as I’ve ever heard.”

After The Waltz

If The Band had stopped after that second album, their reputation would still have been secure. It’s hard to imagine genres like Americana or alt-country existing without songs like “Rag Mama Rag,” “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Yet it was an early peak which the group had a hard time reaching after that, in part because of personal problems among group members.

While Once Were Brothers could easily have gone the hagiographic route, it doesn’t skimp away from some of the issues hounding the five men. In particular, it candidly addresses Helm’s frustration with Robertson after The Band, as a five-man unit anyway, called it a day with the farewell concert The Last Waltz in 1976.

Robertson, for one, was all right with the difficult moments between Helm and him being depicted, because that’s not where he puts his focus anyway when thinking of his Band-mate. “You wanted this to be truthful,” he says. “You didn’t want to be tiptoeing around anything. Over all this time, I was extremely wrapped up in this extraordinary relationship that he and I had and the wonderful experiences that we had together and all of that. It means so much to me.” 

As for what happened after the good times, Robertson explains why he didn’t try to answer some of Helm’s accusations. “When he ran out of other people to blame for things, then I was what was left,” he speculates of Helm. “It didn’t shock me that he went there. But I chose not to be a part of it. I never reacted to it or denied anything, nothing.”

“I just took the high road and I loved the guy. When I heard that he was dying, it just shook me inside out and I had to go see him. So that’s my side of the street. Whatever he was going through, that was him. I had no control over that. And I didn’t have that kind of relationship with the other guys from The Band, because Levon and I were much closer. As time went on, it just evolved to another place and I couldn’t even relate to it anymore. So that’s why I moved on.”

Moving on was also something that Robertson did after The Band separated in the late ’70s. But the documentary reveals that his original intent was for them to reunite once everybody had some time away from it to clear their heads. That wasn’t meant to be.

“That’s what I thought was gonna happen,” Robertson says. “That’s what I hoped was gonna happen. Everybody just drifted somewhere else. Levon even says in the documentary something like he didn’t think it would have even been possible, because everybody had other dreams that they wanted to fulfill. They could have been tired of doing what I wanted to do. I understood that. And I never held it against anybody or was angry because something didn’t go the way that I thought that it should. I have to be accepting and respect and be grateful for the magic that we had together. And if we were supposed to come back together, we would have.”

The Old And The New

This latest run of activity has given Robertson the chance to reflect on past times and connect with old friends. On Sinematic (which American Songwriter’s Hal Horowitz rated four stars and praised for Robertson’s “edgy, creative and literate world,”) Robertson even duets with old Band buddy Van Morrison on “I Hear You Paint Houses,” itself inspired by the title and subject matter of the book on which The Irishman was based. “It was just a glorious feeling,” Robertson says of the collaboration. “Because it was a personal thing between him and me and in respect to Martin Scorsese. There was something kind of perfect about it.”

Sinematic also features the song “Once Were Brothers,” a stunning ballad which allows Robertson to delve into his complicated emotions surrounding both the triumph and tragedy of The Band’s history. “I didn’t struggle with it at all, but it was extremely emotional,” Robertson says of the cathartic process of writing the song. “The fact that Richard has passed away, Rick has passed away, Levon has passed away, it tears my heart out.”

“Writing a song that I can share some of that feeling, I guess you could say that there was that kind of fulfillment in it. It wasn’t a hard song to write in a songwriting sense. But it was something that I had to dig deep for. And there is something very rewarding about finding that place inside yourself that you can share that.”

Robertson finds it remarkable how all of these disparate projects have fed into one another in this recent burst of activity. “I was surprised,” he says. “This turned out to be unexpected and I’ve never done anything like this before. Usually you work on different projects and they’re different projects. All of these started to beautifully blend together, and it does come out in some kind of a seamless fashion, which did surprise me.”

Hopefully, people who want to choose a side in The Band debate, as if there were a Team Robbie or Team Levon, might change their minds after viewing Once Were Brothers. What’s evident in the music, which is ultimately what all of these projects celebrate, is, as Robertson says, the togetherness between the five men. 

If that togetherness suffered some rough patches in subsequent years, the music sews it all up again tight. Listen to the pristine remaster of The Band album, when all five members are pitching in with an utter lack of ego, harmonizing, playing their instruments off one another, creating music as authentically American as anything that has come before or since, richly ironic considering they were four-fifths Canadian.

Just don’t try to get Robbie Robertson, the man who had such a big part in writing and making that music, to try to put his own finger why it all still generates such intense interest a half-century later. 

“It’s the great holy mystery,” he summarizes. “And I kind of love that I don’t get it. I just want to be with my arms wide open and accepting. I’m so fortunate to have such an incredible story to tell. I’m not into dissecting and analyzing and intellectualizing, because it wasn’t that kind of thing. So much of it was just a magic that came out of the air or something. And I like the idea of leaving it in that place.”

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