Robbie Robertson drove some people nuts, notably including his long-time pal and bandmate Levon Helm. That doesn’t obscure the fact that he was one of the great underrated artists in rock ’n’ roll history.
He spent much of his last decades in non-rock ’n’ roll pursuits, like writing and coordinating the music for Martin Scorsese movies — which wouldn’t be a bad legacy itself. To rock ’n’ roll fans, though, nothing matches the previous two decades, when he was the primary engine behind the ensemble best known as The Band.
Robertson, who died Wednesday at the age of 80, was to The Band something like what Peter Townshend was to The Who. He wasn’t the lead voice, more the guiding force.
Having written most of The Band’s songs would also give him plenty of legacy. Heck, just having written “The Weight” would give him plenty of legacy. Beyond The Band’s splendid original, they did an equally incendiary version with the Staple Singers in the 1976 movie The Last Waltz and Robertson put together an absolutely charming version in 2019 wherein a dozen or so artists from Ringo Starr to Willie Nelson’s son Lukas sequentially perform it line by line.
Robertson’s relationship with The Band did have one major twist.
He was instrumental in forming the group in the late 1950s, when it backed the late Ronnie Hawkins and was called The Hawks. He was instrumental in the group breaking off onto their own in 1964, after which they scraped together a living in the hardscrabble joints and bars along America’s and Canada’s back streets and alleys.
Then after The Band became wildly successful by playing with Bob Dylan and releasing two masterpiece albums of its own, Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969), Robertson decided seven years later to break it up.
What had happened in between, as Robertson summarized it to Scorsese in The Last Waltz, is that being a musician on the road had become “a Goddamn impossible way of life.” The full story was more complex, involving serious drug and other problems that followed the group’s success, but in any case, Robertson teamed up with Scorsese to orchestrate The Last Waltz, which Robertson envisioned as a triumphant last chapter to a remarkable story.
It turned out to be the best rock ’n’ roll documentary ever. There was just one problem: The other four members of the group — Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson — hadn’t signed off on the last chapter part. They wanted to keep playing and in fact they very often did, for several decades and quite well. The Band finally broke up only when first Manuel (1986), then Danko (1999) and Helm (2012) died. With Robertson’s death, the largely silent and wonderfully talented Hudson is now the last man standing.
Robertson didn’t play with the others again. They didn’t even play together when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, because Helm, who was estranged from Robertson by then, decided he just couldn’t bring himself to pretend everything was fine.
Robertson said he and Helm reconciled when Helm was dying. One hopes that was true, because they made such wonderful music together. Robertson wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for Helm, an Arkansan who was the only non-Canadian in the group, and it was Helm’s distinctive vocals that drove other songs like “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Ophelia” and the lovely “All La Glory.”
One of the things that made Robertson an exceptional songwriter is that he not only wrote songs that sounded tailored to Helm, but also to the group’s other two distinctive voices, Manuel and Danko.
Manuel, a troubled soul who died by suicide, led Robertson songs like “The Shape I’m In” and the tragic yet unsentimental “Hobo Jungle.” Danko sang lead for “Unfaithful Servant” and “When You Awake” on The Band, their best album, and he later was the heart-wrenching voice on “It Makes No Difference,” from Northern Lights — Southern Cross, a 1975 album often considered an afterthought or a footnote in The Band’s career, but which showed Robertson could still write and the group could still deliver a masterpiece of a song.
The way Robertson described it, The Band’s first two albums were collaborative, reflecting how they developed as a group even before their time with Hawkins. Then the drugs and distractions kicked in, he said, and he had to start writing all the songs and becoming the straw boss in order to simply keep them together and performing.
Helm saw it differently. He called Robertson’s takeover a power play, and said Robertson neglected to acknowledge that Helm had provided critical seeds to a number of songs for which Robertson was the only writer credited (and paid). The precise nuances of that whole situation will now presumably remain forever shrouded and forever sad.
In any case, the first album under the Robertson regime, Stage Fright, also delivered pretty terrific material, and anyone who saw The Band shows in the early 1970s knows they were an amazing performance ensemble. Their musicianship was superb, so finely woven together that they rarely got the individual credit they had earned. Robertson was a remarkable guitarist, reflected not only in his work with the Band, but on a song like “Sign On The Cross” from their famous collaboration with Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes.
Dylan inadvertently had created part of The Band’s mystique, because they were the group that played behind him on the 1966 British tour where he “went electric” and some members of the crowd reacted with vocal hostility. Tapes of those shows don’t entirely support the group’s subsequent tales of becoming helpless targets of merciless abuse every night, but it did bond them with Dylan well enough that when he retreated to upstate New York to do some woodshedding in 1967, they were the group he felt comfortable doing it with.
Helm, Danko and Hudson played with several other musicians as The Band at the famous 1992 Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden. Robertson did not. Asked about that later, he said, “I think we’ve done enough for Mr. Bob Dylan.” Make of that what we will, it’s more significant in Dylan lore that he and Robertson were musically bonded for so many of their prime creative years.
One example Robertson recounted: He and Dylan had finally finished a useable take of one of the songs that would appear on Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album, and Dylan asked Robertson what it should be called. Robertson said he replied, “Obviously, Five Believers,” and that rather cryptic title is what appeared on the record.
Robertson did some solo work after he left The Band, without a lot of commercial success. That didn’t seem to bother him too much, as he had become more interested in his collaborations with Scorsese — a feeling that was clearly mutual.
So Robertson wasn’t one of those guys who just kept playing rock ’n’ roll and its close cousins like rockabilly and country rock forever — like, say, Ronnie Hawkins or Levon Helm. There’s no sign, however, that he stopped loving rock ’n’ roll, to whose roots he and The Band paid loving tribute on their 1973 album Moondog Matinee. He just branched out. He did un-glamorous work for Native American causes and along the way produced a couple of megahit projects for Neil Diamond.
All that helps make his rock ’n’ roll legacy a little elusive to pin down, and he made it further challenging because long after he left The Band, he still emphasized that their early work, what he considered their peak, was the product of five, not one.
That’s the product that made Eric Clapton say at the 1992 Dylan concert that when he heard Music From Big Pink, “It changed my life.” Even if Robbie Robertson only gets one-fifth of that credit, it tells a powerful tale of what happened to one of the thousands of kids who decided as a teenager in the 1950s that he wanted to be part of a rock ’n’ roll band.
He sure was.