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.

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“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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“The record company, Capitol Records, we were having a conversation, and they were talking about how they had found tapes that had been missing for years, and they said it was so exciting to find these recordings. And then there was some footage that had been lost for years, and when they started talking about that, I immediately went to the place of—do you know, when this record came out it got incredible reviews, and it was considered one of the great live recordings, and everybody was happy about this except me. Because I mixed this record. I mixed almost all of The Band’s records. It was just part of my job. And this one I went off and mixed with Phil Ramone. We came back, and I told Phil, ‘We missed this. This isn’t good.’ And I said ‘We have to mix this over again,’ and he was like, ‘Oh man, I’m just off, I’m on a record’ and buh buh buh, ‘I have deadlines,’ and so I had to mix this record, and there was no studio at the time—they were building it, it wasn’t really set up—and we had already used our budget for mixing, so I had to mix this record with the recording engineer who worked at the studio, not Phil Ramone, but this guy was part of the live recording, so it’s not like he didn’t know the music. But we were working in a studio that wasn’t ready, and I did really the best I could under the circumstances. And the other guys in the band were coming by listening to the mixes, and they were like, ‘Oh, yep, that sounds good’ and everything, and when I was done and I went to listen to the whole thing down, I thought, ‘Eh, that track sounds muddy, this one I don’t have the vocals balanced right, on this one I can’t hear what the horns are doing compared to what Garth is doing.’ It was all kinds of things. I knew deep down inside that I could have done better if I had been in another studio working with somebody who could really help me get what I needed. So when that came back, I was like, ‘All these years, I’ve been living with this! I’m gonna be able to sleep at night! I’m gonna remedy this.’”

He laughs as he says that last bit about losing sleep, but getting those Academy of Music mixes right for this new box set decades later was serious business to Robertson, who teamed up with frequent collaborator Bob Clearmountain and Sebastian this time around to get the job done.

“I don’t have any records, any recordings where I feel like I didn’t get it,” he says. “I didn’t get that one. This is the only one I feel that way about. So it’s been such a fulfillment for me in going back and revisiting these things and hearing the performance and the warmth that the other guys in The Band and myself were doing; we were on a high. And I’m just thrilled that we can preserve this the way that it should be.”

Included in Live from the Academy of Music 1971 is a New Year’s Eve encore featuring Bob Dylan, and while The Band may have been on a high at the time, Dylan was still easing back into performing after a period of reclusion.

“He wasn’t playing,” Robertson recalls. “He wasn’t doing any live performances. And when I told him that we were gonna do this thing at the Academy of Music in New York and that we were gonna play these four nights and the last night was New Year’s Eve, I said, ‘Do you wanna come and spend New Year’s Eve with us? We’ll do an encore and then we’ll hang out for New Year’s Eve.’ And he said ‘That sounds good.’ And because he hadn’t been playing for quite a while or very rarely doing anything, I didn’t know whether he’d feel comfortable doing that, but he answered in a few seconds with, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’ And the only problem was in the way that it all worked out, we didn’t rehearse with Bob, and I thought, ‘Well, you know, we’ve played music so much together, we can wing it, we can handle it’ and that’s what we did. And when I listen to these recordings now, we were so winging it.” He laughs. “And it’s kind of great fun too. We didn’t know what songs we were gonna do—we were figuring that out on the stage. So it just enlightened a great moment.”

Just a few years earlier, the world had watched as The Band backed Dylan during his comeback performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969, and—perhaps underscoring what an important period it was for both artists, albeit for different reasons—Dylan has included it on his own box set, Another Self-Portrait, released just last month. It’s been extremely well-received (read our review here), but ask Robertson about it and you’ll get a sense of the perfectionism that drove him to take another stab at Live from the Academy of Music 1971.

“I haven’t heard that yet, but somebody told me that it’s really good,” he says. “And I don’t remember it as being really good. I remember it as very odd. When we were on the stage, there were police like beating up people in the audience, dogs attacking people. Tremendous distractions. There were so many people there, and they didn’t have enough water, and The Beatles were sitting in front watching it, and we couldn’t hear ourselves really good on the stage, so in my back of my memory, that was really a mediocre experience. I mean, it was the Isle of Wight, and it was lots of people, and it was us and Bob, so that part of it felt really good, but what we were able to do, it was so disorganized and the sound was weird, all of that. So when somebody told me it actually sounds really good, I’m very surprised to hear that. I look forward to checking that out.”

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“For the autobiography that I’m writing, for that I actually needed to get a house, buy a house where I could find the certain kind of serenity and vibe that I could concentrate on this, so I could get out of the way of everything else, and it’s turned out to be really a blessing, and the autobiography is going well. For that, I sit down and I have a very good memory—up to this point anyway. And so I remember details. I surprise myself at the detail I remember, and I’m really enjoying revisiting these things. Because I don’t have any reason to think about this stuff. And as I go along, I find that I’ve really got some stories to tell, and this journey that I’ve been on, I have to stand back and say, ‘Holy smokes! This is crazy how things happened over all these years.’”

Just as he, Dylan and the rest of The Band holed up in Big Pink to write and record in the late ’60s, Robertson has once again found a place to retreat to where he can focus on the task at hand, relaying his incredible stories.

“There’s another book I’m doing,” he adds. “It’s called Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, and it’s a book for young readers. It’s a story that I heard at the age of around eight to nine, which is considered a young reader’s age, and I heard it on the Six Nations Indian Reserve with my mom—that’s where she was born and raised—and the story was told to us by a very respected elder at the time.

“And it’s kind of extraordinary that we grow up thinking of Hiawatha as this character from Longfellow, from his poem, and Longfellow, he got Hiawatha mixed up with a different Indian. I don’t know if at the time it was kind of like, ‘These guys look the same to me,’ or what. I don’t know what his problem was. But I knew the story, and it’s part of the founding of the Iroquois nation and the Six Nations blending together. So anyway, from that I’m doing sort of a whole other angle.”

Robertson is now at that stage in his career where he’s a respected elder himself, tasked with preserving history by reciting it to younger generations of music fans. Since he’s been revisiting and reflecting upon his legacy a lot recently for his memoirs, I ask what he thinks The Band’s chapter in Legends, Icons & Rebels might’ve said had it been included, and he pauses for a moment before offering a quick disclaimer.

“The Band was going to be in this book, and I asked Jim Guerinot, Sebastian Robertson and Jared Levine if we could not do that, if we could put The Band hopefully in the next volume, in Volume 2 of this, because I just didn’t want that distraction in this book, and I didn’t want it to be self-serving or anything like that,” he says.

He continues: “The Band is probably the ultimate example of people taking all kinds of music, from gospel to blues to mountain music to folk music to on and on and on and on and putting them all in this big pot and mixing up a new gumbo. And The Band is somebody who collected all of these musicalities. I don’t know of anybody who’s done it more, or a bigger example of all of the people who are in this book than The Band, and it was because we had really done our woodshedding. We were together for seven years before we made Music From Big Pink, and we really studied music, really studied being as good as we could on our instruments and on our vocals and studying writing songs and all of these different elements. We really put that together, and when our first record came out, people acted like, ‘What planet did this come from? Wow! What’s up with this?’ And we were like, ‘What do you mean?’ Because it’s about gathering the beautiful things about music and having inspiration that really raised the bar, and it has its depth to it. It has a history to it. It has a soul to it. It isn’t just about a fancy performance, you know, it goes back, and it goes in this big circle of moving things forward and gathering from the past. So to be able to do this book, it’s such a natural extension for me, and I feel that this book in 50 years will be as strong as it is today because it talks about something that really stays with you for a lifetime.”

Gathering the beautiful things about music. A history. Moving things forward and gathering from the past. This is the legacy of rock ’n’ roll’s respected elder, music’s self-appointed raconteur. He’s already ensured that his own music will stay with fans for a lifetime, but he’s now on a mission to make sure all of the ingredients to that musical gumbo keep getting their due—not just for his lifetime, or yours, or mine, but for those of all the young kids who haven’t heard of Otis Redding yet.

Robbie Robertson is happy to keep talking and figure out how to make the story more in-depth.

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