“I was lucky,” says Robbie Robertson, guitarist and principal songwriter for one of the most influential rock bands of the '60s and '70s.
The Band, consisting of Robertson and fellow Canadians Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Arkansas’ Levon Helm, defined a generational sound, later known as Americana. With a little help (OK, a lot) from Bob Dylan, their at the time unique blend of R&B, gospel and country set the rock world on its head, with Time magazine calling the Band the only group whose “fascination and musical skill” could match the Beatles.
Robertson, who started off as a teen trying to keep up with Helm’s Southern intensity and prolific drum playing, would eventually become the defacto leader of the Band, collecting life-changing experiences throughout his travels from Toronto, down the Mississippi and into the birthplace of what is known as rock 'n' roll today. Whether it was tracking down Sonny Boy Williamson and jamming in a hotel room, or playing lead guitar on Dylan’s paradigm-shifting electric tour of 1965 (“Judas!”), Robertson had a front-row seat to the golden age of rock.
“There was a sense that well, it doesn’t get better than this, something is going on,” he says during a sitdown interview in Toronto. “You just go with it one day at a time. Some things you can’t even believe are happening, and some things you just think it's the order of business.”
Robertson recounts these things, these unbelievable moments in music history, in his new memoir, Testimony, which traces his humble beginnings as a 16-year-old playing with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, through his run-ins with what seems like every notable cultural figure of the hippie era, right up to the Band’s final concert, the Last Waltz, which Robertson says wasn’t actually supposed to be their final musical statement.
Below, Robertson speaks to CBC Music about the Band’s music being “too inside” for the time, Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes and Neil Young's "cocaine booger" at the Last Waltz, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on Nov. 25.
You write that the music on the Band’s debut, Big Pink, was “too inside” for its time. People weren’t connecting the influences of R&B, gospel and blues to rock 'n' roll yet. Were you intentionally trying to create something new?
What we did know was that we weren’t interested in doing something trendy. Whatever the bandwagon was, we wanted off that and we wanted to be on the Band wagon, right? We were doing something with our workmanship that we had put in that we thought, it's time for us to display in the most musical way that we can, all of those glorious music influences that we’ve gathered. The reaction to it at the time was, "What a minute, what is this?" What do you mean, what is this? This is what happens when a group has been together for six or seven years before they even make this record, woodshedding and learning their craft and wanting to do something with depth and soul and meaning. That's what that is. On the other hand, people were completely embracing it, too, so this wasn’t a fight at all. This was just people acting like it was so new, it was so different.
As the saying goes, there is no such thing as a new idea; you take old ideas, different cultures, and mash them together to create new things.
That's what rock 'n' roll was. It was taking some of this coming up the Mississippi River, some of that coming down the Mississippi River, and they bumped into one another and it was a big bang.
Levon and the Hawks before becoming the Band. (Bill Avis/Archives)
You’re in your teens and you go on this wild ride with Ronnie Hawkins, who seemed like a mentor. I gather you learned a lot from him.
At the time, I didn’t think about it. It was a wild ride, but I didn’t think about it as, oh I’m just gonna be along for it. I was trying to convince Ronnie Hawkins and Levon that I could be the real thing in this group, because at that time it was a Southern thing. All the guys in [the Hawks] were from the South. It was like, can we allow a guy from Canada into the club, is that OK? And he's 16? All of these handicaps, I was really thinking, I’ve got to show them some stuff, and so I was on that mission of being dead serious about trying to make waves.
Today, the Band’s shadow looms large over rock, it can be heard everywhere. Do you feel this group of mostly Canadians gets enough credit for the birth of Americana?
A lot of people over the years have said that we were Americana, that we invented American, and I have shot back saying, excuse me, it's North Americana. I don’t care about the credit. The music of the Band is a loud enough statement. And amongst people that know the difference in everything, there is no confusion on the contribution of the Band to whatever Americana is.
When I speak with American bands about the Band, they’re often surprised to find out you were Canadian, still to this day.
It’s because of the songs I wrote. How does a guy from Canada write “The Night They Drove ol’ Dixie Down?” I was just trying to write a song that Levon could sing better than anybody. A whole lot of it has to be credited to that 16-year-old kid on that train going down to the Mississippi Delta to this place where all the music grows right out the ground, and the impact that it had on me. I never got over it. And me wanting to impress Levon so much. So all of this mythology of the South is because my eyes were so wide open, and I was so young that it just washed over me. When it came to music, I was from a school that thought most of great rock 'n' roll came from people in the South. The founding fathers of rock 'n' roll, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, everybody is from the South, and it’s like, OK, end of story. For me at 16, I was trying so hard to get into that club that I used the mythology in my own way.
So often through your memoir, I get the impression that you were always at the right place at the right time. One of those times was your meeting with Bob Dylan, who you were introduced to by your friend John Hammond Jr. But you weren’t familiar with Dylan?
So what made you sign on to work with him?
It was the place he was looking to go musically that had a connection for us. It was this guy who had been a folk hero and now wanted to, and it's funny to think of now, but go electric. We ever only been electric. That’s why we didn’t know much about folk music, we were not acoustically inclined, but the transition that Bob was making and looking for, that's what our connection was.
During your section about The Basement Tapes, you provide an interesting look at the rate Dylan wrote songs, almost as if they came off the typewriter faster than you guys could record them. What was the vibe like there?
It was a no-pressure situation. It felt like we were on our own clock, we were on our own planet, we were doing exactly what we wanted to do and didn’t have to acknowledge anything in the outside world except trying to do really good stuff. This had been a dream of mine, to have a workshop, a clubhouse, a place where you go every day and hang out and do creative things, you see what happens and you have a good time. Then you come back tomorrow, have a good time and create different things. All of it was based on this community, and it was like a street gang getting together every day, but instead of fighting, we played music. I had been imagining this, and then this ugly pink house in the middle of 100 acres up there provided that sanctuary. And it was such a blessing. It went much further than any of us had ever imagined. I just have a deep place in my heart for that spirit and that place.
In a lot of instances, you seem to have a very intentional vision of things. And for the most part, they work out. Like the Last Waltz. It feels like a very planned event, like it was never going to be small.
Actually, it grew into that naturally. When we started thinking about this it was on a very modest level. It was only that we had come full circle and we were gonna play the first place that we played as the Band, go back to Winterland in San Francisco and do this with Bill Graham. Then we thought, maybe we would invite Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, our two fearless leaders over the years, that would be respectful. But then if we invite them, we have to invite Eric Clapton, he's been waving the flag. Well if you're gonna invite Eric, it would be ridiculous not to have Van Morrison. It grew in a natural way. It was never thought of as, boy, is this gonna be big. ... Then when it happened, boom, the whole thing came together and the gods were on our side. And nothing broke.
A small miracle.
When you watch the movie, you are watching a miracle happen. There were 100 things that could have gone wrong.
For instance, Paul Butterfield had joined us, and we’re doing “Mystery Train,” first recorded by Little Junior Parker. We kick into the intro of it and boom, every light in the whole place goes out except one spotlight shining down on Butterfield's shoulder. And I thought, that Martin Scorsese is a genius. And he's puffing in that harp and it’s just a wicked feeling, wow, and the light is going right past Butterfield onto Levon and they are singing together! You couldn’t have designed this more brilliantly. We finish the song and then we find out that they blew the whole circuit in the place and it was a disaster. And all the lights are back on now but it was a big mistake that worked beautifully. It was almost like, we were in another sphere while all of this was happening. That's a big part of the Last Waltz.
This was not supposed to be the Band’s last dance together, so to speak. You envisioned a career like the Beatles, making studio-only albums. When did it finally dawn on you that now, after 16 years, the Band is finally done?
The plan was that each of the guys had some project they wanted to do. Rick wanted to make a solo album, Levon wanted to make a solo album, I played on both of their records, Garth had some art project, some really interesting thing, so everybody had stuff they were going to do. This is so great and healthy and people get stuff out of their system and we’ll do all of that and come back in a circle and ask, "What is the next move now, how do we do something so creative and so beautiful?" … Nobody came back. And we talked, kept talking about it, but nobody came back. So you just have to follow the signals. If everybody wanted to come back they would have come back. It drifted off on its own natural way.
My last question: Neil Young’s infamous nose rock [known as the "cocaine booger," it required extensive post-production to edit it out]. I’ve only heard stories about people seeing it but have never myself. Is there a version of that out in the world, without the editing?
[Laughs] It was edited out at first and they came back and did a new print of it, and when they did that, they said, "Oh but that treatment on that is gone." And we thought, oh Jesus, we hope Neil isn’t going to be upset. I guess by then he said, "Oh I don’t give a shit." I think with this new [40th anniversary] release, on the DVD, I don’t think it had that treatment.
It’s a great performance, and such a sign of the times.
Yeah, he should have just chopped it better.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG