How his iconic influence shaped the sounds of modern Americana
This year has been a particularly difficult one in terms of the loss of some of rock’s most indelible icons.
In the past few months alone, we’ve seen the passing of David Crosby, Randy Meisner and Sinead O’Connor, artists that were an essential part of both our music and our memories.
With the death of Robbie Robertson on Wednesday following a long bout with prostrate cancer, another era passes into history, one which virtually shaped the whole of modern Americana. Only Garth Hudson remains of the original five members of The Band — a line-up that included Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. The fact that they boldly dubbed themselves The Band testifies to their singular status and the immense influence they had both on their peers and on generations that would follow.
“I wanted to write music that felt like it could’ve been written 50 years ago, tomorrow, yesterday — that had this lost-in-time quality,” Robertson remarked in a 1995 interview for the Public Television series Shakespeare in the Alley. And indeed, he succeeded. The group’s music — beginning with their storied debut Music From Big Pink and continuing through their eponymous sophomore set, then on to Stage Fright and all the others they released prior to their break-up are indeed timeless, music that paints a picture of a broad swath of the American heartland in terms of both its history and happenstance. The fact that four out of five of the musicians were Canadian was of little consequence; Robertson’s instincts and imagination were always right on.
Indeed, the catalog of songs the group left behind — “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and so many more, all mostly Robertson compositions — are forever engrained in the essential catalog of popular music, regardless of genre.
VIDEO: The Band perform “The Weight” in The Last Waltz (1978)
After the group’s final hurrah, filmed by Martin Scorsese and released on film and album as The Last Waltz, Robertson and his bandmates went their separate ways. Robertson was credited with a successful solo career that included his eponymous debut album, Storyville, Music for the Native Americans, Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, How To Become Clairvoyant and Sinematic, as well as soundtracks for any number of high profile films, among them, Carny, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, The Wolf of Wall Street, Gangs of New York, The Irishman, and the forthcoming Killers of the Flower Moon. Most of his film efforts were done alongside his friend Scorcese.
Robertson had opportunity to work with innumerable other artists as well. He produced Jesse Winchester’s first album and contributed to efforts by Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, and Eric Clapton. Clapton and George Harrison so admired Robertson’s work that they longed to be members of The Band themselves. When Clapton asked, he was politely denied.
Still, no artist had as intimate a creative relationship with Robertson and The Band as Bob Dylan. Dylan initially tapped the group — then known as The Hawks — to serve as his backing band for his first electric tour of the UK in 1966. The relationship flowered when the group joined Dylan at the house in Upstate New York for the recordings that became known as The Basement Tapes. The songs from those sessions eventually found their way into the combined catalogs of both Dylan and The Band.
Rock & Roll Globe had the rare opportunity to speak to Robertson on the occasion of the reissue of Stage Fright a couple of years ago, and we found him informative, enlightening and, initially, rather humorous. The interview was set up on Zoom, but Robertson opted not to go before his computer’s camera. Asked where he was, he off-handedly answered, “I’m invisible!”
Nevertheless, it proved to be a fascinating discussion. He referenced the fact that the original Stage Fright wasn’t done the way he had intended due to the pressure of having to rearrange the running order in order to give equal emphasis to his bandmates. So, too, their participation in the Festival Express Tour forced them the cede the engineering and mixing duties to Todd Rundrgen, a decision that never sat well with Robertson in particular.
“I feel so fortunate to be able to realize this now,” Robertson said of his revisit to the album and its expansion to include live recordings from London’s Albert Hall. “I love the whole package. I love the recording of the band at Royal Albert Hall, and to be able to share the whole thing, is like a complete fulfillment to me.”
During that same interview, he elaborated on the reasons for The Band’s break-up, which some of its members attributed to Robertson’s decision to go solo in particular.
“Up to that point, we’d all been kind of living together,” Robertson explained. “People were getting married and having kids, and we weren’t all in the circle like we had been before. There was also a lot of experimenting with drugs going on, and some of that was getting in the way.”
Nevertheless, Robertson expressed pride in the fact that The Band became pioneers in a back-to-the-roots movement that influenced not only his peers, but so many of the artists that followed, “When we came out with Music From Big Pink, there was a portion of the audience that said ‘what the hell is this?’” Robertson recalled. “‘This isn’t what’s trendy, this isn’t what’s happening right now, this isn’t what people want.’ And so there were some people who said ‘whoa, wait a minute!’ But there were those others that said, ‘this changes everything, this is where we really get a feeling of something that is so timeless, and that is so musical. It’s so authentic.’ And so that’s what those guys like George and Eric were recognizing in this. Plus, you have to remember that when we made Music From Big Pink, we’d already been together like seven years. We had played with Ronnie Hawkins in Canada, and then we went out on our own as the Hawks. Then we played with Dylan. So sharing all of that, absorbing all that music, allowed us to really build a genuine identity, and that’s what that came out.”
VIDEO: Robbie Robertson “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”
Those invaluable insights made the interview with Robertson nothing less than a landmark encounter. It also allowed Rock & Roll Globe readers to experience firsthand Robertson’s observations about the impact the group’s sound had on the musical landscape at the time.
“It didn’t necessarily copy anything, but everybody else was copying everybody, and so when this came out they were wondering, ‘Where did this come from?’ It encompassed so much musicality of what was going on, and we thought at the time that it was so truthful, and so that’s what we had been doing. We were proud of the subtleties that we’re able to get out of it. We weren’t out to knock your head off. We didn’t need to do that stuff because we had been there and back. We already knew that stuff. But at some point, you get to a place that you really just appreciate taste and quality and depth, and that’s what we hoped to be presenting. That’s the experience we drew on with Music From Big Pink and then The Band album.”
Not surprisingly, Robertson and The Band’s legacy will live on. After learning of his passing, his friends and collaborators quickly offered their condolences. Scorsese offered a statement calling Robertson one of his “closest friends, a constant in my life and my work. I could always go to him as a confidante. A collaborator. An advisor.”
Neil Diamond offered this tribute: “The music world lost a great one with the passing of Robbie Robertson. Keep making that Beautiful Noise in the sky, Robbie. I’ll miss you.”
Ron Wood offered his own thoughts. “Such sad news about Robbie Robertson – he was a lovely man, a great friend and will be dearly missed xx R”
“God bless Robbie Robertson, peace and love to all his family peace and love,” Ringo Starr wrote.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shared this: “Guitarist. Songwriter. Storyteller. Robbie Robertson was a big part of Canada’s outsized contributions to the arts. I’m thinking of his family, friends, and fans who are mourning his loss. Thank you for the music and the memories, Robbie.”
Likewise, former president Bill Clinton commented as well. “Robbie Robertson was a brilliant songwriter, guitarist, and composer whose gifts changed music forever. I’m grateful for all the good memories he gave me—going back to his time in the Hawks when I was a teenager—and for his kindness through the years. I’ll miss him.”
Needless to say, the rest of us will too. This is one of those losses that’s hard to shake.