Robbie Robertson tries to write his second part autobiography, but he finds it not easy.
“I’m about halfway through, give or take,” he says. “I have bowed my head, but I have many other things going on. I have not yet succeeded in doing that isolation thing, finding that quiet room where I can go and closing the outside world.”
Given his current workload, his situation is understandable. First, there is the case of promoting Sinematic, his latest solo album. It is a record that feels deeply personal and courageous in some places, shot through with rich images and delivered in Robertson’s characteristic leathery growl.
He has also been working on the soundtrack of The Irishman (the new gangster epic directed by his friend Martin Scorsese), as well as helping to prepare a 50-year anniversary edition of the untitled classic second album from The Band. Then there are Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band, a documentary based on his 2016 memoir, Testimony. All these activities usually inform each other, so what emerges is a portrait of Robertson’s creative life with different angles and multiple timelines.
And what a life it has been. He was born on July 5, 1943. Robertson grew up in Toronto, Canada and started playing in bands in his early teens. The big break came in 1960, when rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins hired him for his backing band The Hawks, with drummer Levon Helm. Together with Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, The Hawks accompanied Bob Dylan on his notorious electric tour of 1966, before settling in Woodstock in New York State to record Dylan’s The Basement Tapes.
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Post-Dylan, The Hawks changed to The Band and Robertson became their main songwriter. Their inspired synthesis of R&B, gospel, country and blues redefined the parameters of roots rock on timeless albums such as Music From Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright, before the original incarnation – surrounded by drug addictions that would lead to a schism in their relations – said goodbye to The Last Waltz in 1976.
By the time his former band members reunited in the early 1980s, Robertson had already started production and Hollywood film soundtracks and would continue as a solo artist. And the 76-year-old is clearly still doing well.
How did Sinematic get shape in the midst of your various other projects?
I was just in this mode, very stimulated by everything I was doing. And it was very unusual for me to feel comfortable just throwing everything in the soup. It partly has to do with the story of The Irishman and the music I do for the film. The last song on Sinematic is Remembrance, which is used for the final titles. The film has violent subjects, so there were places in the songwriting where I went to the same place: Shanghai Blues, the beginning of Street Serenade and I Hear You Paint Houses, which I do with Van Morrison.
At the same time we worked on the documentary about The Band and also on compiling the fiftieth anniversary of The Band’s album. And I write part two of my memoirs, so all those things are spilled into it. I thought, “Let’s just celebrate life and make everything part of it.” I really enjoyed embracing everything – everything is one and one is everything.
As a child I already had these big dreams, and I think some
people felt challenged by that
Were certain songs difficult to write? Once there were brothersdiscusses, for example, the sometimes charged relationships within The Band.
The fact that I lost three of my brothers (from The Band) is devastating. And of course it’s sad. I had to write this to help myself deal with that mourning. The fact that the song became that way, made us want to call the documentary Once Were Brothers. So it digs deep. But that is part of actually coming in to the place where you want to go when you write songs.
Dead-end boy seems very autobiographical. The song describes an attitude that you were often confronted with when you grew up in Toronto: “They said you will never be anything.” How much incentive was there to make music over the years?
Things like that can work in two ways. I was a child who went: “My God, these days I want to write music and go out into the world. I want to do this and change that. “I had all these big dreams, and I think some people felt challenged by that. People would say to me, “You’re just a dreamer. Everyone talks about things like this, but things like that don’t happen to people like us. You’re going to work on the street like me. You’re going to break your heart. Most people here just end up in jail, so you might as well get used to the idea. ”
So part of it is crushing, and the other part is: “Oh yes? I’ll show you a few things. “I think I could hold my chin up and say,” I’m on a mission. I am going on. And if you look for me, there will only be dust. “
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You said you wrote your best songs in The Band after studying scenarios. Did films play a major role in your educational years?
Oh yeah. I was a movie problem from when I was very young, and from there built and built it. I was stunned by some of the extraordinary experiences of watching movies and wanted to know what was behind the curtain. That is what prompted me to read scripts. If I hadn’t been so addicted to music at such a young age, I would have ended up in film land. I would probably have been a writer or director.
Where did the love for music come from?
My mother grew up in a Six Nations Indian Reserve and then went to live with an aunt in Toronto at the age of six. So as a child, when we went back to visit, the instruments would appear and I would be exposed to all this music in the reserve. My parents bought me a small guitar and I would practice constantly. Then rock’nroll suddenly hit me when I was thirteen years old. That was it for me. Within a few weeks I was in my first band.
You saw Levon Helm playing drums for the first time in the band The Hawks by Ronnie Hawkins. What did you make of it?
A local DJ in Toronto had booked my band to open for them. They were simply the best rockabilly band there was. I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. When I finally joined The Hawks, Levon was my closest brother from the start.
I was sixteen years old and Levon was like my older brother or sister, someone who knew the ropes and came from the Mississippi delta. I mean, come on, this is the real shit here. Ronnie wanted the best band around, so he depended on Levon and I to help him choose the best young musicians out there. That’s how we ended up with Rick, Richard and Garth.
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The documentary does much to the sense of companionship that existed in The Band before the fall-outs later.
Were Brothers was once inspired by my book (Testimony), where I somehow wanted to know the truth. I wanted to convey that feeling of this story from The Band. The documentary is for the most part really about the brotherhood – the things that we went through to get to the point where we were going. It was a crazy ride, an incredible ride. And a dangerous ride.
At the same time there was a musical desire and a sound that we built within ourselves. What we did – first with Ronnie Hawkins, then with The Hawks, then with Bob Dylan and then with Music From Big Pink – didn’t sound like anything else. Not at all.
The Hawks supported Dylan on his notorious electric tour in 1966, when people talked almost every night. It was too much for Levon Helm, who stopped halfway. Could you get something positive from that experience?
What was really nice was that Bob and I would get trapped in all these things and sometimes we went into our own world. And with the rest of the boys too. We had these signals with the eyes, or perhaps with me, bracing the neck of my guitar at some point.
When we were locked in our own space, we could feel the magic in it. And it meant that we had a barrier around the shout and all the other hassle in the outside world. We were just in such a musical sanctuary that we were unstoppable. Musically we were bulletproof. So we had great times, doing what we did. We knew this was a great uprising, but we thought we were right. And time has proven that we were doing something.
How crucial was it to find the right shooting conditions Music from Big Pink?
I had this idea, this dream, and we just had to find a place. It didn’t matter where, but one thing led to another and we ended up in Woodstock because of Bob and (Dylan’s manager) Albert Grossman. When we got there, we found this house, this sanctuary, and we started putting Music From Big Pink together.
It was like a clubhouse, where we could close the outside world, and I believed that something magical would happen because I knew these guys. I knew their options, I knew them from the inside. And I thought I knew what was best for us. And some real magic happened.
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Can you remember the first time the magic took place?
It was not such a moment, it was a growth period. In the back of my mind I thought of Les Paul. He had his own studio, he had his own place of creation where he had these tools. When you first hear Les Paul and Mary Ford records, you think: “Nothing sounds that way! This thing must be an interesting idea because you don’t do what you do in a formal atmosphere. ”
It was a matter of entering a cave and doing something that has nothing to do with anything but your own creativity. We had this cellar there at Big Pink and a friend of our engineers came in. He said: “This is going to sound terrible. You have cinder blocks and concrete floors and here is an oven. This is a terrible place for noise. ”
And again, as we said before, it made me feel like, “Oh yeah? Really?” We had worked with Bob Dylan, so breaking the rules was nothing new. We’ve been breaking rules all our lives, where we had and the way we came in. I took Bob outside and showed him our little setup and he got it in a second and was attracted to it.
So it was this procedure to make our own sound in it, first as The Basement Tapes and then Music From Big Pink. It proved my theory that it could work. And at that moment nobody did that, with the exception of Les Paul.
Why did you want to move from New York to Hollywood to record the sequel, The band?
It had nothing to do with Hollywood. There was a lot of snow in Woodstock and this delayed the process. So we thought we were going somewhere where it wasn’t going to snow and we could get the equipment, all could live together and be locked again. So searching somewhere on the west coast was just a convenience.
When we decided not to use a good studio, Capitol Records in Los Angeles said: “This is the most ridiculous. Why are you doing this? But because of the praise that Music From Big Pink received, I could use that to insist that this was something that we simply had to do. So they helped us transfer the equipment to (the legendary entertainer) pool house of Sammy Davis Jr, where we could do this experiment.
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You wanted a “woody, thud sound” The band.
Yes, we referred to it that way. We wanted to avoid the formality of normal studios, where they have these specific surfaces. Music From Big Pink worked out pretty well, but we went one step further on The Band, because there was no recording engineer and no studio at all. Again, when that album was released, it didn’t make any sense. So it became something with its own identity and character. And I photographed for that.
We tried to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world to Shangri-La (the Malibu studio) when we made Northern Lights – Southern Cross (1975). The band was like a table with five legs that stood really strong and supported each other. And as in the documentary it says: if one of the legs breaks, it is no longer straight.
You have written down all the numbers The band, sometimes with another member of the group, but you don’t sing any of them. What was it like to hear Levon’s spectacular singing The Night They reveal Old Dixie Down, for example?
In making this album I cast these guys to play a role. I knew Rick had to sing The Unfaithful Servant, I knew Richard Across had to sing The Great Divide, and that Levon could only do The Night They Drve Old Dixie Down. I wanted to write something that Levon could sing better than anyone else in the world. And I was right about that.
After you have covered the topic in Testimony, did making the documentary somehow help you come to terms with the difficult relationship you had with Levon in later years?
That was not my duty. I’ve never had a problem with Levon. He had his own problems, and most of his problems were with himself. Sometimes he turned it on Rick, sometimes he turned it on Richard or Garth, and sometimes, later – I mean ten or fifteen years after The Band was no longer together – he turned it on to me. And that didn’t surprise me.
I never even responded, because I knew Levon and the journey he made. He was having a hard time and he blamed me. He was so good at playing and singing, but he wasn’t great at taking responsibility for things. It was his thing, and I didn’t really play a part in it except the fact that he pointed those arrows at me.
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Another figure that gets big in your life, and most recently with The Irishman, is film director Martin Scorsese. Did you do it immediately when you first met in the 1970s?
I just met him casually. It was after he made Mean Streets (1973), and they made a screening of it for me. Afterwards he showed up to say hello. It was clear that the film looked at talent lurking – the attitude, the use of music, Robert De Niro in one of his first real roles, all that Marty did.
There was so much to respect in his knowledge of film too. When I later asked him if he would be interested in directing The Last Waltz, I realized that I really liked him.
I never had a problem with Levon (Helm). He had his own problems, most with himself
One of the songs Sinematic, beautiful madness, alludes to the two of you who share a bachelor’s path.
We shared a house in Beverly Hills, and then we had a place in New York, a hotel suite that we shared for a few years. Were we a bad influence on each other? I don’t think we’re doing anything bad to each other. In our friendship and everything else, we tried to pay attention to the other. We’re just not that good at it.
Directed after Scorsese The last waltz, you threw yourself into feature films, writing, producing and the lead role in the 1980 film Carny. Was that a pleasant experience, or a bit of a culture shock?
All of the above. Part of it was great and part of it was that I bite more than I could chew. There were many things to overcome in that experiment. It was a difficult combination: real-life carnies, real-life freaks, real film people, actors, this whole thing. There were hugely contradictory lifestyles among all these people. And somehow I became the middle man in the middle of everything.
Then I finally made music for the film with Alex North, who was someone I loved (North’s film scores include A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus and Who’s Bang of Virginia Woolf?). So the experience was phenomenal, but I didn’t know enough to go inside. It’s instinct. Sometimes you bet on someone and it works, and sometimes it doesn’t meet what you had hoped for.
It’s just like with Once Were Brothers, where I gambled on this young director (Daniel Roher), who was only twenty-four when he started working on it. The producers thought I was crazy, but I said, “I have a feeling about this and it’s what I want to do.” And because it was my thing, they couldn’t argue too much. So we succeeded. But Carny was a combination of a lot of madness.
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Is there a parallel with The Band in some ways?
There can be. Maybe I was still on the wavelength and didn’t know it.
Do you ever think about how The Band’s story would have turned out if addiction hadn’t materialized?
To be honest, I don’t have much time to think. I am very busy and more busy working on what I do today and what I have to do tomorrow. I have such wonderful, deep memories of my experiences with these guys. But that was then and this is now.
Sinematic and The Band: 50th Anniversary Edition are both now available through UMG.