Remembering Robbie Robertson, Who Sacrificed His Ego For the Music

Music Features Robbie Robertson
Remembering Robbie Robertson, Who Sacrificed His Ego For the Music

Robbie Robertson, who died Wednesday at age 80 after a long illness, was a man of many talents. One of the most crucial and least appreciated was his ability to check his own ego.

Here was a man who worked closely with Bob Dylan between 1965 and 1967 and blossomed beneath that heat lamp as one of his generation’s finest songwriters. But Robertson didn’t follow the era’s paradigm, that the songwriter should sing the songs—a concept more or less established by Dylan himself. Instead Robertson turned over the songs he wrote to his colleagues in the Band: Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.

In one sense that was an easy decision. Helm, Danko and Manuel were, as Bruce Springsteen commented in the 2020 documentary Once Were Brothers, “three of the greatest white singers in rock history—any one of them would have been enough to carry a great band. With all three of them, they were loaded for bear.”

On the other hand, it must have been hard to create songs as powerful as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “It Makes No Difference” and allow audiences to cheer for the singers while playing guitar in the background. Many a songwriter has been unable to make that sacrifice, but the modestly voiced Robertson made the right choice.

“When I wrote a song,” he told me in 2020, “I knew who was going to sing it, because I was casting a movie. It was like Bergman using the same actors in different roles for each film.”

The same self-control was true of Robertson’s guitar playing. Dylan once called him “the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness.” Robertson was one of those guitarists—like Keith Richards, Jimmie Vaughan, Jimmy Nolen, Leo Nocentelli, J.J. Cale and Steve Cropper—who channeled their gifts into riffs and fills and left the soloing to the show-offs.

It’s the noodling solos that get the cheers, but Robertson apparently reacted to guitar solos the way most people react to drum solos. Once again, he checked his ego, and the music was better for it.

This restraint doesn’t mean that Robertson let people walk over him. He was an ambitious man, who knew how to make the most of his collaborations with Dylan and filmmaker Martin Scorsese when the opportunities arose.

In his surprisingly well written memoir, 2016’s Testimony, he claims that he often tried to get his colleagues in the Band to write some songs or co-write with him, but they never followed through. And when recording projects foundered, he—much like such contemporaries as Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Carl Wilson—was the taskmaster who pushed things along. That often caused resentment, but it also produced results.

“Somebody had to do the songwriting,” he told me. “That had been my job all along, even back when we were with Ronnie Hawkins. Because I’d been writing songs, I knew how to do it. For a long time, I thought they were being lazy, and I had to do all the work. But then I realized that some people write songs, and some people don’t. Ringo doesn’t write songs; Charlie Watts doesn’t write songs. Other people can’t help but write songs. That’s fine; that wasn’t Levon’s job.”

He was born Jaime Royal Robertson in Toronto on July 5, 1943, to a Mohawk/Cayuga Indian mother and a Jewish gambler father. Listening to R&B, country and early rock’n’roll on the all-clear stations blasting across the border from Tennessee, the young kid fell in love with the music of the American South and taught himself how to play it on guitar.

Robertson was only 16 when he talked his way into the Arkansas band of Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, who were visiting Toronto on the strength of the hit single “Mary Lou” featuring a 19-year-old drummer named Levon Helm. Robertson moved to Fayetteville and became the band’s songwriter, bassist and then guitarist.

He eventually brought his Ontario friends Danko, Manuel and Garth Hudson down to join the Hawks. Helm and the Canadians finally left Hawkins in 1964 to launch their own group. They released several obscure singles and collaborated first with blues revivalist John Hammond Jr. and then folk-music hero Bob Dylan. The latter not only made the Hawks famous but also helped Robertson evolve into a world-class songwriter.

“Bob and I were suited for one another,” Robertson said, “because breaking rules felt comfortable to both of us. Even joining up with him was breaking rules. We didn’t know shit about folk music, and he didn’t know much about being in a rock band. I could hear how the songs he was writing were connected to the films I was seeing by Bergman, Truffaut and Fellini.”

The 1965-66 world tour by Dylan and the Hawks deserves every bit of the legend it has acquired over the years. Robertson played on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Basement Tapes albums, the latter with the rest of the band at a West Saugerties, New York, house know as the Big Pink, due to its garish paint job. That led to the Hawks’ debut album under their new name, the Band: Music from Big Pink, a record so earthshaking that it convinced Eric Clapton to quit Cream and go searching for a rootsier approach to music.

“It had been a dream of mine for years to find that clubhouse, that sanctuary,” Robertson added. “I believed if we found it, we would find our sound, and we found it in that house up in Woodstock. When we did, we gathered all the musicalities we’d experienced, blues, country, rock’n’roll, from playing in the Mississippi Delta to playing with Bob Dylan.

Big Pink was a breakthrough for us; it didn’t resemble anything we’d ever done with Ronnie Hawkins, anything we’d done as the Hawks, anything we’d done with Dylan. It wasn’t a conscious design; we were the last guys in the world to have a plan of how to become rock stars. It was just an outgrowth of woodshedding and playing together for seven years. We finally figured out how to use everything we’d learned along the way.”

Robertson’s songwriting was a perfectly balanced blend of the blues, country and gospel influences that birthed rock’n’roll in the first place—a mix as poised as Elvis Presley’s early records. To that was added the literary ambitions of Dylan and Ingmar Bergman. But just as Dylan needed the Hawks, just as Bergman needed cinematographer Sven Nykvist and actress Liv Ullmann, Robertson needed his four Band-mates to realize his vision.

“They were the goods,” Robertson writes in Testimony. “They were road warriors we could go to battle with anytime, anywhere. This band was a real band. No slack in the high wire here. Everybody held up his end with plenty to spare. Over the years, Levon and I did a lot of foolish things and probably could have wound up in prison for some of it. In the end, we did a whole lot more beautiful things, and I am honored to have been in his musical grace.”

A key track on the Big Pink album was “The Weight,” a song that went on to be recorded by Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Ringo Starr, Eric Church, Joe Cocker, Dionne Warwick, the Dead, Cassandra Wilson, Joan Osborne, Weezer, Garth Brooks and the Ventures. It’s not just the fable-like lyrics that make the song so memorable; it’s also the fusion of the hymn-like melody and the rumbling, rambling country-rock behind the vocals.

“I saw ‘The Weight’ as this movie that goes from one episode to another,” Robertson told me. “A guy’s trying to leave, and somebody says, ‘While you’re there, check in with Joe,’ and that changes everything. I had Luis Bunuel in the back of my mind. There was something outrageous about his films like Viridiana and Simon of the Desert that I was trying to capture. Bunuel’s people are trying to be righteous, and it turns inside out on them as they realize the impossibility of sainthood.”

Sainthood certainly proved impossible for members of the Band. With success came easier access to drugs, alcohol and fast cars. Robertson dabbled in these himself, but he never lost his work ethic, and that led to tensions in the group—especially with his former best friend Helm.

Despite the backstage problems, there were many triumphs. The group’s second album, The Band, boasted a dozen songs written or co-written by Robertson, songs that evoked a fading, pre-Elvis American South of farmers, Civil War veterans, union organizers, unhappy servants, moonshiners and pioneers. It’s widely regarded as the group’s best studio album.

“I certainly didn’t want it to be Music from Big Pink, Part II,” Robertson told me. Music from Big Pink was a whole movie unto itself. To me, those two albums don’t sound alike; you want to do your best not to repeat yourself. I wanted to make the next discovery; I wanted to get to the next chapter. Now we were moving deeper into America, a mythical America.”

But each studio album had enduring gems on it, and the live albums added a new dimension to the songs—reminding us of what great players the quintet contained and of how many ways these mysterious songs could be interpreted. Rock of Ages, featuring Allen Toussaint’s brilliant horn arrangements for a four-night New York stand in 1972, was the best. But The Last Waltz, the group’s farewell show on Thanksgiving Night, 1976, became the most famous. That’s due to the fabulous documentary Scorsese made of the proceedings, which included such guests as the Staple Singers, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Dylan.

But after the waltz was over, the dancers and musicians scattered. There were several solo albums; Danko’s 1977 eponymous debut was terrific, as was the same year’s Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars. Most of the others, including Robertson’s proved underwhelming. The other four members reunited as the Band in 1983 with Robertson’s blessing but without his participation. The first two reunion records were surprisingly good even without much original songwriting, thanks to strong covers of tunes by Dylan, Springsteen, Muddy Waters and J.J. Cale.

Robertson kept working. He released more solo albums. He oversaw the reissue of the Band’s catalogue with revealing bonus tracks. He produced, co-wrote, scored and starred in 1980’s Carny, a so-so film about roustabout carnivals starring Gary Busey and Jodie Foster. He worked as music consultant and/or composer on many of Scorsese’s subsequent films, including 2019’s The Irishman and this year’s forthcoming Killers of the Flower Moon. Mostly he stayed out of the spotlight, which was in keeping with his modus operandi all along.

“I made The Last Waltz, he told me, “because I concluded that staying on the road was not healthy for us; somebody was going to die. And I was heartbroken when somebody did die.” In 1986, a 42-year-old Manuel hung himself in a Florida hotel bathroom. “And then somebody else died.” In 1999, a 55-year-old Danko died at home of alcohol-related heart failure. “And then somebody else died.” In 2012, a 71-year-old Helm died of throat cancer at a New York hospital.

And now the 80-year-old Robertson has died. His output has been meager since 1978, but from 1965 through 1976, he enjoyed one of the best 12-year runs in American music. It only worked because he had three of the finest singers and four of the best musicians of his generation as partners. But it also only worked because he had the work ethic and controlled ego to finish many of the era’s best songs of that era and to make sure they got recorded and released the right way.

Watch The Band perform “The Weight” at Winterland in San Francisco in 1976 and check out all our exclusive video from The Band on Music Vault. And watch a 2011 interview Robertson did with Wolfgangs via YouTube.

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