Robert Robertson Wont Stand on Ceremony
The occasion of the multi-media exhibit “Bob Dylan’s American Journey 1956-1966” seemed like a good opportunity to talk with Robbie Robertson about the creative growing pains that Dylan experienced during his dramatic move from folk and rock (a transition that changed rock and roll forever). Of course, there’s much more to Robertson than just that frame of time. As a songwriter, guitarist and producer with The Band, he helped create a body of work that’s justifiably referred to as timeless. Taking in all the members’ influences from record collections to days on the road with Ronnie Hawkins, on their own and with Dylan the songs sound as if they belong in eras past, present and future. Plus, he’s made solo albums and aided his friend Martin Scorsese by producing a number of his film soundtracks. He continues to work today, taking on projects that challenge his musical sensibilities.
JPG: With the Dylan Exhibit on my mind, let’s start from your work with him and move forward to the present. Tell me about when you were originally approached to play with him. Did you have a sense of what you were getting into as far as the controversy?
RR: Not at all. Didn’t know anything about it.
JPG: Were you familiar with Dylan’s work?
RR: Not very much.
JPG: Then, what about once you started playing?
RR: It was a rude awaking.
JPG: How did you stand it and stick with it for so long cause Levon left…
RR: Just being fool hearted, I guess. It was fascinating. I mean, you had a sense that you were discovering something. We were making a kind of music that we hadn’t heard before. The idea of mixing what we did with folk music was not something that was on the menu before.
JPG: It’s interesting that after the tour with him and after spending the time in Woodstock that you fine-tuned it into another realm.
RR: Yeah. It was very experimental and a whole period of a lot of discovery, musicality.
JPG: Are you talking about the Woodstock period or…?
RR: Well, the thing with Bob and the thing in Woodstock…when we had played with Ronnie Hawkins, it was a certain kind of playing. When we left Ronnie Hawkins and it was just The Hawks, it was a certain kind of playing.
JPG: Listening to The Band box set, A Musical History, you can hear that transition.
RR: When we hooked up with Bob it was a different thing altogether than that, and when we did the Basement Tapes that was yet a whole other period and a whole other sound. And then when we made Music from Big Pink, it was like, Where in the world did that come from?’ When I look back on it now, it’s like being part of a musical revolution.
JPG: The chapters of a band, if you will
RR: Yeah. Seriously, you know, like a Cubist period and a Blue period. I’m touching this thing whatever you want to call them.
JPG: I was listening to the box set and really noticed the changes. It reminded me of The Grateful Dead in some ways where they were a dance band and a blues band, and then it took them a while to find themselves and do their individual thing. They needed a period to gestate, and that seems to be what Woodstock was for you. I read that you had the vision of bringing the influences of everyone into a situation that was a little loose and refined it.
RR: We brought a lot of flavors into the stew because of our background. We weren’t some group that just got together a couple of weeks before that and got guitars for Christmas and decided to start a band. We’d been together for a while. We had really been around and already had a lot of extraordinary musical experience and influences and so we picked up a lot along the side of the road. Then, by the time we got to the stage of recording Music from Big Pink, there was just a lot of this that we brought with us.
To us, it didn’t sound unusual at all. It just sounded like this is what we know. This is what we’ve learned. And when the record came out people talked about it like it was a whole other spiritual planet of music or something. It took me a while to really picture what other people were picturing, but I can see why. And you’re right on this musical history of the band thing. You really take that journey.
JPG: Do you think the pictures that Elliott Landy took emphasized that, with the sepia tone shots making the group look like they were from the late 1800’s, from another era, and that you were singing about the American South and these characters and stories within the song seemed like some discovered tape that Allan Lomax found…
RR: Elliott Landy. That whole thing was a fluke. I just chose Elliott because of, I mean not to go off on this whole tangent, but for very unusual reasons I chose Elliott. And then I told Elliott who we were a little bit and played him some of our music. And that did the trick. He’d never done anything like that before. Ever. I mean, if you look at his pictures, The Band is the first thing that he did that really had an identity to it. Elliott worked for this underground paper in New York. That’s where we got him from (slight laugh). It was like, who was the least suspect? They said, well there’s this guy who works for Rat cause everybody was talking about Irving Penn and Richard Avedon and they were the best of the best. And I was like, Let’s go the other direction.’ And then Elliott went on to become, after that he photographed everybody at Woodstock, Bob and Van Morrison.
JPG: I recently interviewed him.RR: Oh, terrific, Great guy, Elliott.
JPG: He just seems like a bright light as a person. But, back to your first tour with Dylan, you caught such hell on the 65/’66 dates, when you toured in 1974 was it for him having somebody familiar to kind of lean on as much as it was, Well, you went through this hell with me, we’re playing big arenas and everyone’s cheering us,’ kind of a reward where you can enjoy it for a change.
RR: No. Nobody talked like that. After we had played together in the early days, done a couple of things, the Woody Guthrie thing we did with Bob, the Isle of Wight. And then it just went away long enough that it seemed like an exciting idea for us to do something together again. We were in a whole different place than we were before. So, it was just what seemed to be interesting at the time. When we did play together again, we didn’t do anything tremendously different. We just went into that gear of what we do when we played together in a certain kind of circumstance. And everybody acted like, Oh yeah. This is the stuff.’ And it was just funny that a few years earlier they were throwing tomatoes at him.
JPG: Really? I wondered if they actually threw things. Listening to one of the tracks from ’66 on the Musical History and you hear the way that everyone plays together versus a track on disc five from the Forum and you can hear that it’s different due to the years that have passed as players, but it’s not really that different.
RR: It’s like night and day. You’re right. You’re right.
JPG: You had been on the road for years with Ronnie Hawkins and Levon and the Hawks and as The Band but then you decided to stop touring in 76. What was it about playing live at that point that lost it for you, that you’d rather not be on the road?
RR: It’s different for different people. All of it. Bob came back later and had been on the road. He plays out on the road a lot. Geez, I got tired of it. At that time it became a pretty risky endeavor, almost going out there because we were reading and hearing about friends of ours, people that were dying left and right. It just made me think that we need to shuffle the deck here. We need to just stop the parade. Figure out where we’re at instead of just this neurosis of what’s next, what’s next, what are we doing , what are we doing? To just breathe for a minute and think about what you really enjoy and what at this point just seems like toiling of something that you’re supposed to do, not really what you’re embracing.
All of those feelings lead to The Last Waltz for me. I was like, I just don’t want to do that anymore. I just don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again.’ And some people love it and I don’t. I’m not interested in a bus. A bus is just something that I try to avoid. I know if you play music, you gotta get on a bus. I was like, You know what? Then we’ve got a problem here.’
JPG: I was going to say I don’t recall any major tour behind your solo albums.
RR: No, no, no, no. I did things. I did television shows. Some isolated things. No, no, no, when we did The Last Waltz, I was making a very honest statement that I just don’t want to be a road dog.
JPG: When you said shuffle the deck, were you seriously thinking of the idea of let’s take a little break and then we’re going to get together in the studio and just let things happen…
RR: Let’s reinvent. Let’s make some music. We always had such great experiences taking something out of the air that didn’t exist and making it exist. That’s exciting! The creative process is exciting, but being in a play that you do the same thing every night. I felt like Yul Brynner in “The King and I.”
JPG: Some bands act like it’s a play.
RR: (laughs) I can’t do this dance anymore. I’m sorry.
JPG: I don’t want to go too deeply into the personal conflicts but by the time the film The Last Waltz was released, at that point had too much time passed or as things were portrayed did animosity prevent a regrouping with you?
RR: There weren’t big animosities. What happened was after The Last Waltz, was that everybody was really anxious to explore some individual things. Rick Danko was making a record and Levon was making a record and I had some other film projects that I was working on. We were just exploring some other things. Just take a breather and we went off to do these things and never came back, and there was no big animosities or anything.
There was a plan that just, there was no way to hold it together. Nobody was pushing in that way. Then, a few years later, when there was talk about that, I just wasn’t interested anymore cause it really had to do with going back on the road. Guys, I made a big statement here about this and I mean. I mean it.’ I hate those things where people keep sayingsomebody even said it that time, Well, Frank Sinatra keeps playing his Final Gig and then he comes back like a year later. Is it one of those?’ Not what I can tell from where I’m standing right now.
JPG: You were done. You meant it.
RR: Yeah, yeah. I just wanted different challenges. New challenges.
JPG: Obviously, you found that. Through the years you’ve kept busy. You’ve been in the spotlight with your solo albums, but mostly your work has been just out of the spotlight. Do you like it more that way?
RR: I do.
JPG: Why is that?
RR: I just like the challenges of different things. Like right now I’m doing this Native American Broadway Musical. It’s really pushing me up against the wall and making me do some stuff that I’m excited about. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’m working with brilliant people on it. That’s really interesting to me. I’ve just done some music for Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Departed. I’ve worked on most of his movies ever since The Last Waltz in one capacity or another. Sometimes it’s not even describable exactly what it is that I’m doing on some of these movies, but it’s really just brainstorming and figuring out and trying and going against the grain and trying some things just for the filmmaking experience. So, that’s always fun and Marty’s a really good buddy of mine. I always like the opportunity for us to do stuff together. So, I’m doing that and I’m working on a collection of music for children. None of it’s got anything to do with the usual path.
JPG: Is the children’s album original music or…
RR: No. This project is a book with illustrations. It’s a collection of some of the greatest artists and some of the greatest music of all time. It’s just great for parents to be able to share with their kids. It’s so terrific that you say, I want my kids to know who Louis Armstrong was and who Frank Sinatra was.’ Some of the greatest artists of all times, we should be turned on to that at a young age. It helps form taste and you’re not just a victim of a lot of just shallow things that are presented to you. Then, you’re less likely to be taken in by the shallow drivel.
I know who Nina Simone is, but it’s so cool that young kids can have that experience. And parents don’t have time to put all of these collections together. It has little bios told in a certain kind of lingo that’s good for kids to hear about these artists and how they changed music, how they changed the world with their music.
JPG: Is there any timetable for this?
RR: Is there a deadline do you mean?
JPG: I’m just thinking of the nightmare of getting the rights to put all these different artists on one CD.
RR: In some cases you could run into some things, but I think when people know that this is about turning kids on, the young kids should just know about what the real shit is. A lot of artists are just going to have to say. Aw, I don’t care about kids. No.’ You know what I mean? I’m just having more faith than that. (slight laugh)
JPG: So, you don’t have all the rights yet. Is there a timetable you’re working towards?
RR: I want to get this done in 2007.
JPG: You brought up Martin Scorsese, in your work with him, you’re picking out the songs that are used in the movie, as well as maybe some of its score or?
RR: Sometimes. The only movie of his that I’ve ever scored was The Color of Money. I work on a lot of movies, the underscore of the movies is just not something that I’m very interested in. They refer to it as incidental music. I don’t want to be in the incidental business. So, what I’ve done on The Departed is I’ve sent him a lot of music of ideas and possible things to try. Some of that is in the movie. Then, I wrote a couple of pieces, a couple of songs, instrumental songs that I’ve given to him and they’re in the movie.
JPG: The reason I’m bringing it up, I’m curious if he gives you the script and that gives you some ideas or he shows you a rough cut and then you come up with something.
RR: It’s been different every time we’ve worked together. And that’s why I’m still in there because that’s what I like. Sometimes, it’s this and sometimes it’s that. Like in Raging Bull, which was the first dramatic film of his that I worked on. I did the source music in that movie and turned him on to some music that’s used in the film. And I took some of the music that we were going to use in the film and did a certain treatment on it to make it work better for the movie. That’s one case. Then, on The King of Comedy, I did a completely different thing than that and on Casino it was different from Gangs of New York...
JPG: Did you work on Goodfellas because I didn’t see that listed?
RR: No. I didn’t work on Goodfellas. I was in the middle of making a record when that was happening and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t come up for air.
JPG: When you were talking earlier about the Broadway musical, I read that it’s titled Ceremony. Is that still the case?
RR: That’s just a working title. That’s just something that we refer to it, cause the writer, he wants the title to come out of what he’s writing in it. I’m all for that. He’s great at this so…
JPG: The interesting thing about it as well what you’ve done as a songwriter is that your words have focused on things that have been very American. I think, even now, there are people who would be surprised that The Band consisted of all but one Canadian. It seems that other artists with Canadian backgrounds, the lyrics reflect their country, whereas lyrically and thematically you crossed the border.
RR: That’s not coincidental either because when Ronnie Hawkins hired me I was 16 years old. I went from Canada down to the Mississippi Delta. Talk about a powerful influence. First of all, I thought I was going to the fountainhead of rock and roll, which I was. For everything that I was really drawn to in music, almost all of it grew out of the ground in the Mississippi Delta area, from Memphis to New Orleans and from Georgia. I was 16 years old and you can imagine the impact that had on me to go down there and to be in the midst of it, be a part of it. And to hear that music. It just went into that storyteller place in the attic of my mind, I guess, and I just took all of this in because it was one of the most influential things in my life. Almost like a spiritual, almost like a religious experience for a kid who was addicted to rock and roll. The whole Southern thing, just a huge impact and then I went into a stage of really wanting to play some serious guitar.
When The Band was going to make its records, I went back up into the attic to see what I had to write about and what I had to tell stories about and I found all these things that had a huge impact on me and that’s what I wrote about.
JPG: I can understand how being in that area can just grab you.
RR: In one night, we’d go over and hear Howlin’ Wolf singing at the Cotton Club in West Memphis. I mean it was like the closest thing to heaven that I could ever imagine. And then we were on tour all the time like with Carl Perkins , Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Ronnie Hawkins was a part of that whole world.
JPG: You guys got brought into that.
RR: Yeah! Talk about a wonderful invitation. John, I’ve got to get back in the studio. They’re waving at me.
JPG: Is this for “Ceremony” or some other thing?
RR: I’m just finishing a thing up for Marty’s movie, but what I’m mainly working on is the “Ceremony” music.
JPG: Sounds good. Looking forward to all of it.