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Robbie Robertson at 70: An Appreciation

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by Jon Friedman
July 5, 2013 11:27 AM
26 Comments
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Robbie Robertson

To a generation of baby boomers, 1960s and 1970s rock and roll music will always stand as the soundtrack of our lives.

In our memories, the great songwriters, singers and performers will always be as young and dashing and heroic as they were when we first encountered them. Yet, as improbable  as it may seem, a gallery of our heroes has been turning 70 in recent years. The Band's Robbie Robertson, my all-time favorite guitarist and one of the greatest storytellers in songwriting annals, reaches that milestone on July 5.

I've never understood why Robertson sometimes gets short shrift on those perennial lists denoting critics' "100 Greatest..." rock and rollers. Robertson has had an impact on rock and roll like few others, only he did so quietly and unobtrusively -- but brilliantly. 

Raised in Toronto, he left as a teenager to pursue a career in rock and roll music in the United States and started right at the source: the Arkansas region, which was where (or not far from it) so many of the greats learned their crafts. He ticks their names off with great affection in a scene in The Last Waltz, the movie of The Band's final concert in 1976.

I always got the feeling that Robertson was much smarter and more practical than a lot of his peers. From the very beginning of his devotion to his craft -- based on a few conversations I've had with him and interviews I read -- he struck me as a careerist -- in a field where the longevity of a "career" might stretch to releasing three singles before your creative well dried up and you had to learn how to dig ditches or sell insurance. 

He always seemed to know what he was doing and looked at the big picture, whether in songwriting, recording or performing. He held it together. It couldn't have been easy to be the bandleader on stage during the wild 1965-66 initial Dylan electric concerts (when the folk-music hero's "fans" booed the new sound violently) as well as at Woodstock, the Isle of Wight, Watkins Glen, the Dylan/Band Tour '74 and The Last Waltz concert. Think about it -- some of the biggest festivals and most scrutinized shows in rock and roll history! 

It must have been a cauldron inside his big brain to continue to come up with so many great, epic songs on all of those Band albums from 1968 to the final studio record, Islands, released in early 1977 (The Last Waltz came out in 1978). Robertson continually found ways to meet his high standards in song after song: The Weight, Up On Cripple Creek, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Across the Great Divide, Jawbone, Rockin' Chair, Get Up Jake, King Harvest (my favorite Band song of all), The Unfaithful Servant, The Shape I'm In, Daniel and the Sacred Harp (a hidden gem), Endless HIghway, Stage Fright (which critics wrote was about Bob Dylan, though it might have had more to do with The Band's first concerts in 1969), The Rumor, All La Glory, The Moon Struck One, Life Is a Carnival, Last of the Blacksmiths, The River Hymn, Twilight, Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Rags & Bones (another hidden gem), Ophelia, Right as Rain and Out of the Blue.  

When The Band's first album Music From Big Pink emerged 45 summers ago, it went against the grain of the fad of the day, psychedelia. It pulled the plug on the tedious light shows, made the pretentious lyrics of the day seem a little ridiculous and re-introduced the power of ensemble playing. The musicians and singers sounded serious but also playful, as if they were revealing a big secret that they had kept to themselves. The album was so powerful that Eric Clapton decided that he had to leave behind the extended soloing of his uber-successful group, Cream. He quit Cream a few months later.

The most popular and significant song on that Big Pink album was, of course, The Weight, which introduced the music world to Robbie Robertson's key quality as a songwriter: storytelling. He rolled out a series of colorful characters based on people he'd met in Arkansas. The song remains beloved to this day.

The other great hallmark of Robertson's work was his guitar-playing. He remains my favorite guitarist. He, like George Harrison and Keith Richards, was a highly skilled musician who doggedly performed as a team player, not a virtuoso, making the sum of the parts of his band really stand out. He always left room for the singers and the other players to shine.  


Bob Dylan, whether he or his fans want to acknowledge it, owes Robertson a tremendous debt. 

Robertson was the lead guitarist in Dylan's touring band from 1965 to 1974. When you listen to the live albums documenting those periods, you hear Robertson's wildly inventive leads on such gems as "Tell Me Momma," "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," "Lay Lady Lay" and "All Along the Watchtower." I could listen to those songs everyday and never feel bored because I'll find something new to appreciate in Robertson's playing.

Robertson stood (literally) by Dylan's side during Dylan's most memorable on-stage burst of creativity and brilliance, the 1965-66 period. Then on The Basement Tapes, in 1967, Robertson again helped keep things together after Dylan had suffered a broken neck and needed some quiet time in Woodstock to escape the madness that had become being Bob Dylan.

Robertson stands out in The Last Waltz, the movie he conceived of The Band's final concert on Thanksgiving night in 1976 at Winterland in San Francisco. What has always impressed me over the years is the recognition of how Robertson, as usual, excelled under so much pressure! All of the five guys must have been very nervous that night, besides feeling great emotion at playing their farewell gig together. The Band got one crack at backing up all of the famous guest stars on the stage. They also had to be precise in the performances of their own iconic songs. 

There is a shot in The Last Waltz which tells it all: Robertson is caught anxiously peering over to make sure his Band-mate Garth Hudson had appeared at the front of the stage to play his sax solo on It Makes No Difference. The look on Robertson's face for a fleeting second reveals pure tension and it shows a discerning viewer how much he had invested of himself in the concert. The pressure was on Robertson, before anyone else, and his work on Further On Up the Road, Ophelia, Mystery Train, Forever Young, Stage Fright and other songs provides the foundation for the excellent concert film -- which holds up to this day.

I know, I know. I'm giving Robertson's post-Band work short shrift here. It's just that for this boomer, The Band's music and influence has been so profound that it simply overshadows the solo work of all of the musicians in the group. It's a blessing to have made such wonderful music but a curse because the public (I know, I know) prefers to live in the past, even as the musicians move on and continue to evolve. 

It's not fair of me because Robertson has made some terrific albums and created beautiful soundtracks -- for more information, see: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005371/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

His last solo album, 2011's How to Become Clairvoyant was a strong commercial and critical success, and Robertson wrote evocative lyrics about the tensons inside The Band before the break-up and of his own sense of wonderment about rock and roll music. Songs such as When the Night Was Young, This Is Where I Get Off and Won't Be Back, among others, could fit very nicely on a later Band album. 

Robbie Robertson has a lot to be proud of. Rock and roll may, indeed, be a "goddamned impossible" way of life, as he said at the end of The Last Waltz film. But he has left a mark that will endure for as long as people play guitars and sing songs.


Jon Friedman is the author of "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution," which Penguin published in August 2012

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26 Comments

  • G. Sherman | July 6, 2013 8:51 PMReply

    Robertson deep-sixed the Band... The Last Waltz was Robertson and Scorsese's doing.... a Hollywood thing, a time for Robbie to jump into soundtracks and film music production. He was looking for something new and went for it. Richard Manuel was a trouble man with many demons, but he might still be alive if the Band had stuck together. Robertson's legacy to the Band is undeniable, but ask yourself this question.... If he's so talented, where are his solo recording Grammy's? Helm has two, even with throat cancer......

  • Kevin John | July 6, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    Apologies to all. Now clear that cutting and pasting does not translate well here. Below should be easier to read:

    Here are some quotes by people who should know about song writing credit in The Band. The first is from John Simon, The Band's producer, who categorically stated:

    "Robbie was the one who wrote the lyrics and wrote the music. Wrote the lyrics on legal paper, or whatever he wrote it on, and figured out the chords to the song and dictated the melody and chords to the other players."

    From Larry Cambell:

    "writing with Levon, my experience was, he wasn’t gonna do any labor where writing a song is concerned. The songs we’ve co-written, when it came down to constructing the song, that was my job."

    And finally, if the above is not enough to end one of the silliest arguments in rock n roll history, what about Levon Helm himself from a 1993 NPR interview:

    "Well, that was a bit of a distraction. I didn’t think it was quite fair , not that Robbie didn’t do a lot of the songwriting, most of it, in some spots."

  • Kevin John | July 6, 2013 4:31 PMReply

    Final Word on The Band Songwriting debate.........below is a longer piece I posted at The Band website in April 2011:

    He might well have hurt some old mates along the way and been insensitive to others ( one would have to be one of the O5 to know this – my experience is that the guy standing closest to the accountant usually does have the longest pockets and shortest arms ) BUT enough of this song writing talk already!….The final word on this is as follows………….The one guy who was there and knows and is a perfect witness in that he doesn’t even like RR as he is sure he was short-changed financially by him is the Band’s Producer/6th member – John Simon……..who stated categorically some years back that:

    "Robbie was the one who wrote the lyrics and wrote the music. Wrote the lyrics on legal paper, or whatever he wrote it on, and figured out the chords to the song and dictated the melody and chords to the other players"………………………………………..Repeat that kids….."dictated the melody and chords to the other players"

    ………………………..anyone here who has written songs knows how difficult it is and also knows how much help more accomplished players and especially singers can help bring what was written to life……………..George Harrison elevated so many Beatles songs to things of beauty that I could write about it for a full month…….he doesn’t get a song writing credit on any of them (other than his own compositions of course) and this is entirely correct……..adding textures or helping with arrangements is not song writing…………to be quite rude and in the words of the not always so humble or tactful Robbie Robertson…. “they were just doing their fu*king job”…………………………………..If that isn’t clear enough, check out the number of songs that were written by the other guys since 1976……………..I have 4 Levon albums dating back to 1978 and not a single self-penned song (and only 2 or 3 co-writes)……..Rick had only ONE song that was self-penned and sadly “Sip the Wine” was not even his song………………Richard was the one guy who was a songwriter and he admitted himself to having completely dried up creatively by 1971! And he got full song writing credit on the songs he did write for the Band……………………….”Dirt Farmer” might well be the most enjoyable album by any member of the Band ( I still play it regularly ) but it is a “covers” album – done brilliantly by quite simply one of the most talented/soulful musicians this industry has ever known………….No other singer alive can put me in 1850, 1920 and 2007 all within the space of 10 minutes…….but if I read another blog/review that has at its heart the “fact” that RR ripped off his band mates by stealing their songs – I think my head might explode.

  • Kevin John | July 6, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    Somehow, the quotation marks got a bit mangled in that last post, so for the record, the first one was Band producer John Simon, the 2nd was Larry Campbell and the 3rd Levon himself from 1993 where he acknowledged that Robbie most most of the songs.

  • Kevin John | July 6, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    I am so tired of reading these silly uninformed comments from people that actually believe The nonsense that was written by S. Davis in Levon's book.........The below puts things in perspective:


    The following 3 statements from the most reliable witnesses are as follows:

    “ Robbie was the one who wrote the lyrics and wrote the music. Wrote the lyrics on legal paper, or whatever he wrote it on, and figured out the chords to the song and dictated the melody and chords to the other players.” – John Simon, the producer to the first two Band albums and someone who should know.

    ”writing with Levon, my experience was, he wasn’t gonna do any labor where writing a song is concerned. The songs we’ve co-written, when it came down to constructing the song, that was my job.” – Larry Campbell.

    ……..and finally, if the above is not enough to end one of the silliest arguments in rock n roll history, what about Levon Helm himself from a 1993 NPR interview: “Well, that was a bit of a distraction. I didn’t think it was quite fair – not that Robbie didn’t do a lot of the songwriting, most of it, in some spots. But at the same time, Richard did some good work, and I always thought that Garth and Rick and myself was there all the way, no matter whose idea the song was or if it was halfway there, or – you know, it was finished….”


    Best,

    Kevin

  • Viveka | July 6, 2013 4:07 PMReply

    I wish he'd record an instrumental record. I never get enough of his guitar.

  • Gordon Sinclair | July 6, 2013 1:16 PMReply

    Mr Robertson made his own bed when he basically used The Last Waltz as a narcissist vehicle for advancing his solo "Hollywood" career. Although I thoroughly enjoy his solo music it still leaves a bad taste considering that he claims he wrote both the lyrics AND the music for all the great tunes in The Band's catalogue, and consequently depriving his band mates of proper credit and income. The Band represented one of the greatest collaborations of the era and it's sad to see one member enjoy the bulk of the monetary rewards from this groups efforts. One certainly hopes he is enjoying his empty wealth and fame while the other group members have struggled paying their bills. Musical talent does not make up for character and Mr Robertson's actions certainly indicate his lack of such. We would never have heard of him if not for the fine talents, voices and songs that were clearly "Band" efforts. It appears Scorsese blew so much hot air up his ass it expanded his head and damaged his sensibilities and did anyone notice that his biggest success solo was actually writing and singing (Fallen Angel) about his ex-bandmates. LOL.

  • jzsnake | July 6, 2013 10:41 AMReply

    Your article is a little disingenuous as it makes it sound as Dylan constantly toured with The Band from 65-74 when from 66-73 he maybe did 3 gigs with them.

  • M. Krause | July 6, 2013 10:17 AMReply

    I adore Robbie Robertson's music, in spite of the unpleasant things that some people have said about him. I even communicated with him on FB a couple of times. That book, co-written by the late Levon Helm (This Wheel's On Fire) shouldn't have been written. I read parts of it, and I thought it was a little venomous. I suspect that Mr. Helm didn't tell the whole story.

  • david desmond | July 6, 2013 5:49 AMReply

    as far as I can "hear", his guitar playing was almost all the same.
    Lyrically, members of the Band didn't get credit for their contributions; he didn't single handedly write all those songs---just go ask the dead members of the Band.
    Dylan doesn't owe him anything. Many could have taken Robertson's place. It is Robertson who owes Dylan.
    I've hardly heard of the guy for the past almost 30 years.
    What is his influence really on rock?
    And who cares as rock is a bore with the exception of a few who transcend it.
    He ripped people off and took too much credit and got the song rights.
    He's an over rated pig.

  • Jan Witthuhn | July 6, 2013 1:02 AMReply

    This is just a wonderful piece on Robbie. Thanks for writing it and sharing it on his birthday. It means a lot to many of his fans--like me! Miss you on FB.

  • Allen | July 5, 2013 7:52 PMReply

    re The Last Waltz; the "pure tension" that night was actually waay too much cocaine...

  • Milena | July 5, 2013 7:14 PMReply

    Big deal.
    Just another "shark".

  • Linda | July 5, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    This is one of the best articles I've read! I wish I had written it. :) love, love, love Robbie. Thank you!

  • Dave Palangio | July 5, 2013 6:32 PMReply

    I'm from the time of the '70's and loved all you did at that time..Thank you..My son is married lady who is Ojibway and graced us with a wonderful son, grandson...Thank you as our love goes to you and your music, thank you all....keep up the GREAT work Robbie...I've got all your CD's..
    Dave

  • Steve Kasarsky | July 5, 2013 3:39 PMReply

    ....Summed up nicely; brilliant storyteller - one of the greatest R&R lyricists of all time! Great great guitarist....(and nice lip synching...lol....although he can definitely sing - I.E - "Out Of The Blue"

    Interesting enough, ole' "Slowhand" has made comments that his roots are and have always been with The Band and I'm sure that he has much admiration for Robbie.

    Happy Birthday Robbie Robertson!!!

  • Foster | July 5, 2013 1:54 PMReply

    Great article on a deeply talented, creative & enduring artist. Happy Birthday Robbie!

  • G.Sherman | July 5, 2013 1:45 PMReply

    Robertson is a brilliant guitarist.... that said, it is a sad indictment that he has taken credit for nearly all of the Band's music. These were all collaborative works done in studio with the rest of the Band's lineup. Cash and credit has found its way to Robertson and to the detriment of the late Rick Danko, Richard Emanuael, Levon Helm and the still living Garth Hudson. Helm's estate would never have gone bankrupt if his share of royalties had been received. Robbie is a genius, has had some great albums but is a failure as a friend and band member.

  • Jesmond | October 25, 2013 10:42 PM

    Actually, we do know what Rick and Garth thought about song writing credits because they give interviews about it. They said they had no complaints. Is there any evidence that Helm wrote any of the songs?

  • Jesmond | October 25, 2013 10:42 PM

    Actually, we do know what Rick and Garth thought about song writing credits because they give interviews about it. They said they had no complaints. Is there any evidence that Helm wrote any of the songs?

  • Jesmond | October 25, 2013 10:42 PM

    Actually, we do know what Rick and Garth thought about song writing credits because they give interviews about it. They said they had no complaints. Is there any evidence that Helm wrote any of the songs?

  • Steve K | July 5, 2013 3:56 PM

    Robbie apparently visited Levon days or weeks before his death. I feel that I understood Levon's feelings ("This Wheel's On Fire"), and while it does seem that Rick, Richard, Garth and Levon may have been shorchanged, I really believe that there's alot of stuff that we as fans as just don't know about; we weren't there. It's easy to judge others from the outside looking in - from stories, crap on the internet, etc., but when all is said and done we don't know what Rick honestly though of Robbie, we don't know what Richard though about him...ya know - time may not heal all wounds, but situations change. Half the world still blames McCartney for breaking up the Beatles, but truth be told, they may have reconciled prior to John's murder. We don't have all the facts here; just half baked poop.

  • Eamon | July 5, 2013 2:16 PM

    NAILED IT

  • doug | July 5, 2013 1:43 PMReply

    How many of those songs were Levon's ?

  • Tula | July 5, 2013 1:45 PM

    NONE OF THEM

  • Barbara | July 5, 2013 1:41 PMReply

    Happy Birthday, Robbie! Rock On!

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