Robbie Robertson, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland, OH- 9/6
It takes only a few minutes for Robbie Robertson to become comfortable discussing his music career in front of a sold-out audience in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Fourth Floor Theater. Much of his gaze settles on the evening’s moderator, Rock Hall Vice President of Education Warren Zanes, in what seems to be an act of courteousness rather than shyness. Later, he answers a few questions from the audience, which includes those who witnessed his duties as a member of the Hawks backing up Bob Dylan’s initial foray with electric music at Cleveland Public Hall. Altogether, the Hall Of Fame Series discussion lasted 90 minutes.
It was nowhere near long enough.
Major credit for the need to bring Robertson back for another engagement can be attributed to his ability as a storyteller an important aspect of life among those he lived with on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Brantford, Ontario as well as his fortunate placement amidst momentous events in rock history — traveling the South and Mississippi Delta region as a teenage musician, hanging out at the Brill Building among its cream of the crop songwriters, being a part of Dylan’s revolutionary change from acoustic to electric, performing at Woodstock and Watkins Glenn, taking part in the Festival Express, conceiving of and calling it a day for The Band with The Last Waltz, producing film soundtracks for Martin Scorsese, acting with Gary Busey (!), making four solo albums, working for Dreamworks Records and working out the kinks that bring bitter musicians together for one-off performances when they’re inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While no fault of Zanes, the majority of the time took place prior to the release of The Band’s debut, Music From Big Pink. What made it so interesting is that like the purposeful faceless image of The Band, Robertson’s background isn’t fairly well-known except to a chosen few who have made such minutiae part of their daily existence.
His music career began when he started playing in bands in Toronto. His abilities found him being drafted into Ronnie Hawkins band and on a touring route that led the 16 year-old across Canada and into the Deep South. One-by-one the other Canadian musicians who would make up The Band joined on to a schedule that found the band members rehearsing into the early morning hours following gigs as well as making their way through rough territory.
“There was the music part of it, that was really driven. And then there was also the Rules of the Road, survival out there. Ronnie and Levon [Helms] were from Arkansas and he would take us, the Canadians, to a place where you could buy weapons. And he’d recommend things like, You, I think, would be good for…brass knuckles. Everybody must carry one of these little blackjacks.’ And we had suits made with a special pocket that these blackjacks could fit in so there was quick easy access.
“We played places that we got out barely alive. Shootings, glass flying. Ronnie was one of these people who liked it every once in awhile, when it got a little rough, but the Canadians weren’t into that so much. We’re kind of a peaceful bunch of folks. We don’t think of hitting people as hard as we can with brass knuckles,” he said, laughing.
During those early days, Robertson found out how the music business ran the talent gets screwed. In his case, two songs he wrote for Hawkins came back pressed on the record label as co-written by Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records. The na, young Robertson intended to confront Levy during their first meeting in New York.
Instead, Levy swiftly knocked him down before the subject ever came up. Introduced by Hawkins as the young kid with “poe-tential,” Robertson recalled, “Morris looks at me and he says, He’s a good looking kid. I bet you don’t know whether to have sex with him or hire him.’ I choked on my words and I let it go.
“It was the Wild West in certain ways, that they were making up the rules as they went along. All record companies were a little bit questionable. But this was really questionable. He was just a full-out mobster, Morris Levy.”
From that incident he made sure to get a copyright for his self-penned work in the future.
He viewed his time with Dylan as more lessons learned during subsequent trials by fire. Asked to playing in his back up outfit, Robertson received a firsthand account of the lack of understanding Dylan, the solo performer, had in leading a band when he was brought to the “Like a Rolling Stone” session.
“It was like everybody was trying to play on top of one another. All it was, was Bob not giving people the opportunity to learn the song well enough, because as soon as he would get through the song, lyrically, it would be like, We’re done.’
“And everybody would be like, I know but we’re just trying to learn the chords and when we’re gonna do this and gonna do that.’ And they started sorting things out a bit more, and certain instruments started taking the lead. If you listen to that record, there’s a lot of mishmash going on and it’s just that things are brought out and featured more, but in the background everybody’s playing too much.”
Looking back to those early gigs with Dylan, Robertson felt that the boos were justified because the playing and arrangements were as “messy” as the “Rolling Stone” session. Eventually, rehearsals with the newly recruited members of the Hawks (who’d eventually be known as The Band) tightened up matters to the point that Dylan came to grasp the power of a functioning unit. Still, the boos reigned down on the musicians each night during a world tour that Robertson compared to living through a nightly battle due to the advancement of a “musical revolution.” The pressure from those close to its frontman mounted. Despite successfully harnessing the material, they viewed The Hawks as ruining a onetime flourishing career.
“They didn’t understand how this thing worked. He didn’t know how it worked, and he was leading the charge. But he didn’t flinch. We walked through the fire, and everybody was whispering in his ear…”
After making it through those series of concert dates, it was time for The Band to finally settle down and write and record its own album. Initially, Albert Grossman, manager for both Dylan and The Band, suggested they do an album of Bob Dylan instrumentals. “I knew in the back of my mind that if he doesn’t, then nobody has any idea what we can do. Nobody, including Bob.”
They hibernated in the comforts of Big Pink, the nickname for the house/rehearsal space in Woodstock, New York. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, so we can make all the noise we want. Now, we have the opportunity to play loud, and something happens. The music that we were playing with Bob, which was very loud, and Ronnie Hawkins, very loud, and with The Hawks now becomes quite intimate and it’s all about the subtleties. And I’ve already played a million guitar solos and I’m over that shit. Everybody’s doing it now. It’s not interesting to me. Let’s make a music of all these ingredients that we gathered from all these years.’ And at this point we’ve been together six or seven years by now.”
He credits his days traveling through the South for infusing his material with a strong cinematic flair.
“I had stored all of these things away in the invisible attic that you carry around with you. When I started writing these songs, this stuff just came flowing out. I never thought I’d be Mr. Americana. (slight laugh) That would be a ridiculous idea to me. Someone says, Why did you write that song?’ The true answer is it’s all I could think of at the time.”
Robertson, a film buff with a penchant for the work of foreign directors such as Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel and Akira Kurosawa, saw himself as a director using the vocalists and instruments like a cast of characters.
“It was complicated with The Band because there wasn’t many groups that in the same song somebody’d be singing the song and then, all of a sudden, one of the other guys would be singing the song; out of nowhere for no apparent reason. It seemed like a good idea, in the moment. And it worked.
“People couldn’t tell Rick from Richard sometimes. They would say that to me, so that’s how I know that. It’s not that I couldn’t tell which from which. It was a huge difference to me. Because we passed the vocals around a lot, that was a big part of my enjoyment.”
Pressed for time, everything from The Band’s second album to the ’74 tour with Dylan and a lengthy discussion on The Last Waltz was skipped in favor of a brief audience q&a session.
Asked about the Band's appearance at the infamous Watkins Glen concert in front of 600,000 people who endured shortages of food, water and bathrooms, he recalled a skydiver whose flare accidentally set him on fire as he descended as well as the group's introduction to the Grateful Dead's Wall Of Sound; its use offered to them by Jerry Garcia.
"It was terrible. It was just terrible. And we did the best we could under the circumstances. We went out there and played one or two songs. And we thought, "We're in trouble.' He was doing it with great grace and love but they were used to it and they had the opportunity to wrangle this, to make some kind of sense. For us it was just a nightmare.
“The whole Watkins Glen thing was like a weird dream."
Since his final gig with The Band, Robertson has kept himself busy in many capacities. But, of course, a query came up on his decision to do The Last Waltz and reluctance to tour.
“I don’t like to do the same thing over and over again. The idea of making a record. Then, you go do a tour. Make a record. Go do a tour. After we did that a few times, I felt, We’ve got to shuffle the deck.’ That’s where The Last Waltz came from, me just wanting to shuffle the deck. It’s just part of my DNA.
"Some musicians are like road dogs like Willie [Nelson] and Bob Dylan. They just get on the bus and don't know when to get off. Bless their hearts. I got my fill of that. I would do some special selective thing here and there but as far as going on the road is concerned, it's not in the cards for me.”