Robbie Robertson: Rock and Roll’s Raconteur

Music Features Robbie Robertson
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“Alright, well let’s figure out how to make your story more in-depth.”

To be clear: this is a story about Robbie Robertson. And after answering his phone from Los Angeles and exchanging some pleasantries to start our second interview (“we should just do this every two days or so, what do you think?”) the legendary tale-teller is ready to dig in and get to work—even if the work is mine. But, like any Robertson yarn, it extends far beyond the songwriter/guitarist for The Band and weaves in a slew of remarkable characters. It’s about his son, Sebastian. It’s about Rick Danko and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, his brothers-in-arms. It’s about his pals Marty (Scorsese) and “Baub” (Bob Dylan, whose name sounds warm and familiar in Robertson’s Canadian accent). It’s about Chuck Berry and Ray Charles and Carole King and the decades upon decades of incredible musicians he’s met, played with or been influenced by. But, in a lot of ways, this is a story about stories.

Because Robbie Robertson’s got a lot of ‘em.

You might’ve guessed that from listening to some of The Band’s most-famous Robertson-penned tracks—“The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”—and the vivid characters who inhabit them. Or maybe you’ve watched the way he expertly rattles off anecdote after anecdote in The Last Waltz, recalling the night he and the rest of the group played Jack Ruby’s club or recounting how they drunkenly witnessed Sonny Boy Williamson blow his harp so hard he was spitting blood, always careful to arch an eyebrow or pause for effect at the appropriate moments. Hell, you don’t even have to watch The Last Waltz to get an idea of the long, strange trip Robertson’s had; just flip over the DVD case and read the list of the performers who appear in the film for a sense of the talented friends and collaborators he’s rubbed elbows with since he first began gigging around Toronto as a teenager in 1958.

So yes, Robbie Robertson’s got tales to tell, and he’s telling as many of them as he can in a variety of projects spanning all sorts of media. Some are his: the autobiography he’s working on; the new album he’s in the early stages of writing; the new Band box set, Live at the Academy of Music 1971, which comes out today and features previously unheard recordings from the Rock of Ages shows. Some aren’t: Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, the children’s book he’s writing based on the tale he first heard growing up on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario; The Wolf of Wall Street, the new Scorsese movie he’s compiling and writing music for. Some—like Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed The World, which he co-authored with Jim Guerinot, Jared Levine and his son—are a little bit of both.

But, as you might expect, they all have stories behind them.


“Sebastian was working with kids at the time, and he was inspired by the fact that they weren’t reacting like they were reacting to just great music, great songs. Like he said, ‘Well, I’d put on the usual Humpty Dumpty songs or whatever, and every once in a while I’d slip in a Marvin Gaye and I’d change it around somewhere, Johnny Cash,’ and he said it was extraordinary to witness what happened to all these kids in the room. Like a certain energy, a certain thing, and you could see their involvement in the feel of the music, as opposed to what we’ve been told that kids are supposed to listen to. And it was just an interesting discovery. This was years ago. ‘You know, somebody should really do something about kids learning about really great recording artists, and so they’ve got some sort of foundation of taste and they know what the real deal is and you know, what fluff is and what the real thing is.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s an interesting thought.’ Years later, we revisit this and we decide we’re gonna do this, and it’s taken many years to do this because I just wanted to get it so right. And we got it so right.”

Aimed at young readers who have yet to be exposed to the greats, Legends, Icons & Rebels (on shelves Oct. 8), reads like a field guide to the most talented artists of all time. Each of the 27 included gets a chapter explaining their origins and significance, a short playlist of recommended tracks, a full-color illustration and a personal anecdote or observation from Robertson. And while he couldn’t be happier with how it turned out, Robertson knows he’s barely scratched the surface.

“We started out with 48 and then we got it down to like, 36 or something and then between ourselves—between Sebastian and Jim and Jared and myself—just peeling away, like if it’s too much, it’s just like a phonebook, know what I mean?” he says. “And it was painful, very difficult. And all we could do, when we got to 27 of the artists, we said, ‘Okay, these are all must-haves on some level, all we can do is hope and pray that there’s gonna be Volume 2.’ Because there are so many people who were so influential in music not in it. The Rolling Stones. Muddy Waters. The Band. There was so much more. All we can do is say, ‘Help us make this so successful that we can do Volume 2 and really incorporate everything that we dreamt of.’”

In addition to lessons on Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and more, the book comes with two CDs of songs handpicked by the authors—one per artist—to serve as a jumping-off point, an invitation to delve deeper into their storied catalogs. The goal is to preserve the past by educating future generations of music fans.

“I’m just thrilled by this because I feel that it can really make a difference in a lot of kids’ lives,” Robertson says. “And for parents, just think. Are you kidding? ‘My kid’s 9 years old, and they already know who Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan are.’ You know? It’s just healthy.”

For those of us who already know who Armstrong and Dylan are, the most interesting part of Legends, Icons & Rebels will certainly be Robertson’s notes that open each chapter. Some chronicle personal encounters (“When I was 14 years old, I had the opportunity to meet Buddy Holly. I asked him how he got that big, powerful sound out of his guitar amp. He said, ‘I blew a speaker and decided not to get it fixed.’”), and others recount some of the incredible concerts he’s witnessed over the years, like a Ray Charles show at Toronto’s Massey Hall that he still can’t shake. All of them, however, reveal the passion he has for his craft and the deep respect he has for those who came before him in a way that makes the book feel like one music fanatic geeking out to another.

His voice picks up when he starts talking about that Charles concert, and he interrupts himself a few times to add context and details as he sees fit. “I haven’t been to many music events where somebody was performing and it actually made me cry,” he starts. “And it was just so beautiful and sad at the same time. And I think I say in the thing that I couldn’t take it, I had to leave. And I came back the next night and I gathered myself, but just to see this man who was blind, and just the way he was—I mean at the time he was quiet. He wasn’t like, the knee-slapping Ray Charles that he became years later. He was, you know, a heroin addict. And he came out and sang with such depth, it was crazy.

“One of the greatest live recordings, I think, in the history of the world is Ray Charles in Atlanta. ...And they didn’t even have a big mobile recording thing set up. The word on the street was they only had like two microphones, one for the band and one for him. Perfect recordings. I think it’s mono. But that performance is one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard.”

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