Make America Old Again: Remembering Robbie Robertson and The Band

When I read the news that songwriter and guitarist Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson had passed, I forwarded a link to the obituary in the New York Times to my friends Doug and Jon. They were with me in the balcony of the Berkeley Community Theater on the evening of January 31, 1970, to hear a performance by The Band. We were juniors at Berkeley High School that year and lived and breathed that music every day. I recall sitting around with them outdoors, singing songs from The Band’s first two albums.

My pal Jon, a singer-songwriter now living in Sweden, responded to the emailed link. “This is very heavy and emotional for me. Almost as heavy as John Lennon’s death.” It is heavy and emotional for both of us. Robbie Robertson left high claw marks on the tree—a tree with roots. Dylan commented, simply, “Robbie was a lifelong friend.”

Robertson was born and grew up in the Toronto area, and after a lengthy dues-paying apprenticeship supervised by Canadian rockabilly/rocker Ronnie Hawkins, Robertson and the other boys who would become The Band lined up with Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s in New York, at the moment Bob felt the urge for electricity. They provided it as the Hawks, Dylan’s backing band. It was of course career-altering. This white-hot period is well-documented in the 1967 feature film Don’t Look Back. You can see and hear Robertson interacting with Bob during his 1965 tour of England. There’s entertaining footage of Bob’s Svengali-like manager, Albert Grossman, who would later play a determinative role in transforming the Hawks into The Band and the construction of the Bearsville Sound Studio complex in the Woodstock area, a couple of hours southeast of my upstate New York home.

If you tried to graph the progression of achievement for artists’ lives, every one would be different. Some have ups and downs throughout, others peak in the middle, or late, and others, like Robertson’s, are front-loaded. Robbie got started as a musician really early, performing professionally by age 14. When Hawkins first hired Robertson, he had to smuggle him into Canadian nightclubs because the drinking age was 18. When the music world first heard the music of The Band, in 1968, on Music from Big Pink (Capitol SKAO-2955), several of them had been playing together for a decade.

Great musicianship was a big part of The Band’s initial success, but really it was all about the songs. Music history is full of examples of noted teacher/pupil relationships; Schoenberg/Berg/Webern is one frequently cited example. Robbie Robertson also had a great professor: Bob Dylan. Looking at footage from the documentaries, Robertson strikes me as an observer: controlled, always watching and thinking it through. Sitting at Bob’s knee, Robbie had the talent to soak it all up then transmute it with his own creativity. Robertson learned from Dylan how to tell detailed, specific stories, not just “I love you in June” type stuff. As fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen put it: “You don’t want to say, ‘The tree,’ you want to say, ‘The Sycamore Tree.'”

For my money, what is now known as the Basement Tapes period is one of the most intense creative and unique musical outbursts ever, anywhere. I don’t have proof, but I’m certain that while living in Woodstock in the mid-’60s, Dylan was listening to early American roots music from old 78s then teaching that to the boys in The Band. As Robertson said later, as recounted in Greil Marcus’s brilliant book The Old, Weird America, Dylan “would pull these songs out of nowhere. We didn’t know if he wrote them or if he remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn’t tell.” Those basements—there were a couple of different basements—and what came out of them is one reason I’ve remained attracted to the Catskills area of upstate New York.

It was also all about the sound: Three great, distinctive vocalists, Garth Hudson’s prescient, unique keyboards, Levon Helm’s earthy roots drumming, fiddle, mandolin, Robertson’s deliberately non-psychedelic guitar pulling it all together. Robbie employs precise rockabilly licks, closer in spirit to Carl Perkins than Jerry Garcia. Check the light, airy solo that closes out his beautiful song “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” which concludes the B-side of their masterpiece second album, The Band (Capitol STAO-132), released in September 1969, now affectionately called The Brown Album. I still have my original copy, but you should listen to the outstanding 2019, 50th Anniversary stereo mix by Bob Clearmountain, pressed on two 45rpm LPs. The concert I and my homies heard in 1970 occurred just a few months after that album’s release. They were touring in support of it.

Robertson had a lengthy, varied career after the formal demise of The Band in 1976—an event superbly celebrated and chronicled in Martin Scorsese’s well-known film of their Thanksgiving Eve farewell concert at the Winterland auditorium in San Francisco, The Last Waltz. This live concert film initiated a career interaction between Robertson and Scorsese, through 14 film projects right up to the present day. He even had a handful of acting roles, eg, in Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard and a starring role in the 1980 film Carny, with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster. (He was also credited as writer on that film.) After a several-year post-Band pause, Robertson released several noted solo albums. He also produced projects for others. Robbie lived and worked in Los Angeles for many years, including in a musical capacity for Dreamworks Pictures and its subsidiary music label, Dreamworks Records.

But when I think of him and his music, I picture Overlook Mountain and the Village of Woodstock.

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