Robbie Robertson of the Band
Leaving the Bus to Ride with Martin Scorsese
by Edward Kiersh
From "Where Are You Now, Bo Diddley? The Artists Who Made
Us Rock and Where They Are Now" (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986).
This article is copyrighted, please do no copy or redistribute.
His key influences were once the tribal chieftains of the Iroquois Nation
the fearless Hurons and Mohawks, who dared to climb skyscrapers and bridges.
Between jobs these men would visit his mother in her
Toronto home, and while they sat around playing music, the youngster
would be asked to "come here, we'll show you another chord . . .
another boogy-figure." Watching their fingers dance across guitars and
mandolins, the ten-year-old dreamed of playing his own tunes. And this
fascination inevitably led him to other sages, like the "Hawaiian Hula
Master" Billy Blue, rockabilly's Ronnie Hawkins, and of course, Dylan.
Under their tutelage, Robbie Robertson matured into one of rock's
most gifted songwriters/guitarists. Teaming up with the Band, he fashioned such classics as "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie
Down," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Rag Mama Rag," and "Ophelia."
Robertson's earthy, country-gospel-inspired songs, which probe various
facets of Americana with rich, unrelenting zeal, brought the group folk-hero
stature for almost a decade. Once known simply as Dylan's backup
band (hence their name), these four Canadians and a Southerner (Levon
Helm) made their own headlines with Music from Big Pink, featuring
the novel use of two keyboards. That work was followed by the equally
innovative and insightful albums, The Band and Stage Fright, albums
that are still celebrated for their searing, powerful vocals.
Shaped by Iroquois wisdom, Robertson knew the fame would be
fleeting. One day the music stops, the cheers suddenly fade. So ever the
realist, searching for knowledge, he looked for a new teacher, another
mentor with wondrous secrets to impart.
In the same manner that Butch Cassidy sidled up to the Sundance
Kid, Robertson became bosom buddies with Martin Scorsese, the director of Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and Raging Bull. The two men
met in 1976, during the filming of The Last Waltz, the rock concert
documentary about the Band's final appearance on Thanksgiving night,
1976, in San Francisco. Seven years earlier, they had spotted each other
at Woodstock, where Scorsese was working on the Warner Brothers
By 1976, Robbie had become convinced that "the group's ideals had
strayed." He was saddened and disgusted by the way the others were
abusing themselves with drugs, reckless driving and alcohol. There was
a feverish, "berserk need to do self-destructive things . . . to ride it on
the edge," á la James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, and Marilyn Monroe. So
before splitting, he urged the group to do The Last Waltz, with the
"only man I could think of who understood music in a way that translated into magic."
With the success of The Last Waltz -- critic Pauline Kael calls the film
"the best of all rock documentaries" - -Robertson's relationship with
Scorsese flourished. Together, they had produced the musical arrangements, so a mutual respect was engendered. They wouldn't collaborate
again until Raging Bull (1980), when Robbie did some of the scoring.
But a connection had developed between them, a common vision or
link, that even survived Robertson's acting in the 1980 Jodie Foster-Gary Busey film Carny, about carnival life (Kael said of him, "his
twitches and druggy Garboesque expressions don't connect with anything").
This hardly bothered Robertson. He gravitated toward the mean and
twisted. In 1982, at Scorsese's urging, he produced the score for another
irreverent, black-humored film, The King of Comedy (starring Jerry
Lewis). Drawing on the talents of such diverse artists as Rickie Lee
Jones, B. B. King, Van Morrison, Ray Charles, and the Pretenders,
Robertson won raves for his musical statement. Subsequently turning
those plaudits into a nonexclusive, high-six-figure deal with EMI for
sound tracks. He's been working on several projects since 1984. Foremost
among these are more films with Scorsese, whose violent, haunting
themes best echo Robertson's world view.
"Scorsese's as good as it gets," says Robertson triumphantly. "He's
my best friend. It's hard to get excited about working with anyone else.
His movies are about passion, obsession, people who just rip through
life with their guts . . . who do it until it explodes. He's a little stick of
dynamite, and he's sometimes hard to deal with, but he's so vivid, so
intense, and alive. He uses the heart and gut stuff. He takes chances,
going against what's fashionable, and that's what I want to do . . .
I've got to prove that I can do this. Hollywood's a rough game. Maybe
that makes him a tough guy, delving into the underside of life; whores,
gang members, drug dealers. But who should I like? Disney characters,
little guys in space suits?"
In Hollywood parlance, Robertson is certainly a comer. He's gotten
off the proverbial bus of endless touring and record promotion, to become one of the celluloid jungle's most promising creative forces. Unlike most of the Band members (Helm has been acting in films such as
Coal Miner's Daughter, and The Right Stuff), he hasn't been wedged
into one career mold. He's evolved, dared to be different, grappled with
challenges. Even if it's meant periods of inactivity, self-reassessment, or
flirtations with disaster.
As a result of this dicey, high-powered life-style, there's a tough-guy
Hemingwayesque edge to him. He evokes images of De Niro, puffing on
a long, illegally obtained Havana cigar, in between swigs of a double
extra-dry martini. Gangster style, his voice is gravelly. It has a raw,
demanding quality, that suits his rugged, pock-marked face.
Now a devotee of boxing matches, and the "forbidden passions of
Police Gazette style writing," Robertson has made a sharp U-turn from
his days with Billy Blue, the ukelele teacher who gave him his first
music lessons. The boys in the Pink Robots wouldn't know him either,
nor would the Hawk. And what about the Band's Garth Hudson, Rick
Danko, and Richard Manuel? While their joint endeavors had a fiery
American Gothic ring, they too would find Robbie transformed.
In the mid-1950s, Robertson was just like any other kid, entranced
with the early stirrings of rock 'n' roll. After leaving Billy Blue because
"I didn't want to hold any instrument on my lap," Robbie became
"obsessed" with the manic, a wop-a-bam-boom sounds of Little Richard. Most of his friends were shaking to Everly Brothers tunes, but, as
he laughingly remembers, "even as a twelve-year-old I didn't want to
play cowboy music. I didn't think they [the Everlys] were shit compared
to Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Elvis. They were
playing real rock 'n' roll; their stuff was happening; it was like this
disease taking over the world. I started to comb my hair like Little
Richard. I'd get home from John Wayne movies, and I'd immediately
close the door, and stay in front of the mirror."
Before turning thirteen, Robertson started his own band, Robbie and
the Robots. Wearing pink-and-black futuristic outfits, they played the
Sweet Sixteen circuit, and quickly realized that the music offered fringe
benefits. "There was a definite connection between playing rock 'n' roll
and girls. At my age I wasn't thinking about getting lots of women. I
wasn't at that lust stage. But I was working up to it."
Encouraged by his mother, he spent most of his early teens writing
songs. Still "overwhelmed" by rock, he met Ronnie Hawkins at a
school dance, and was soon mingling with the Hawk's friends, most
notably, Carl Perkins and Conway Twitty.
"I wasn't old enough to get in those clubs, but I hung around, until
Ronnie took an interest in me," says Robertson, perched on a stool in a
Los Angeles recording studio. No longer the awestruck kid who was
bedazzled by these above-named greats, he calmly continues, "Hawkins
introduced me to James Brown and Bo Diddley, and after a while,
when I was sixteen, I started to play with him" (along with Helm,
Hudson, Danko, and Manuel, who were already in the Hawks).
"Ronnie was very good at pushing you to seek out your potential. He
made you work very hard. Yeah, he was very good at giving you a street
education . . . What he was doing at that time particularly appealed
to me because it was very violent rock 'n' roll. That was exciting, and he
was almost like an ape up there. He's got a hunched back, not in a sense
that it was grotesque or anything, but he'd bend over, and growl, and
they played so fast, and explosive. It would get so quiet, and then
BOOM! Was he a character, very funny, innovative, and very Southern,
very crude. Geez, was he crude. It was almost embarrassing to me."
On the road constantly with Hawkins, even at the tender age of
sixteen, Robertson needed a friend, someone he could talk to about
music, and his missing home. "Levon and I got to be very close, since
we wound up running the show, musically. We also got to be good
together . . . so our dreams went from the ordinary to flash stardom.
Then all of this became boring in our minds. We became kind of sophisticated. We wanted to be really good, we wanted to play really exceptional music.
"So the first thing we did was to leave Ronnie Hawkins [in 1963, after
a three-year association]. That was a very emotional thing, because he
was like a father figure, and we were all still kids. It was painful to him,
and to us, but we had grown musically, to a point where the stuff that
we produced was much more fun to do, and more satisfying. Doing his
songs became more like a novelty. We just surpassed that musically
. . . and his evolvement just stopped. I still see him whenever I go to
Toronto for a film festival, but, back then, he got this musical inferiority
complex. Unfortunately, Ronnie felt everyone was better than him."
Looking weary and glum, Robertson slides off his chair to get a cigar.
That cache of dark panatelas brings a brief, faint smile to his face. But
talking about Levon and the mid-sixties still seems to disturb him. His
responses are less assured, more clipped; while some questions go totally unanswered, as he pretends not to hear them.
He and Helm were once "brothers." When Levon and the Hawks
started to do their own thing in small Ozark Mountain honky-tonks,
there was a camaraderie born of mutual suffering. They went through
the mill together, playing a funky brand of rock 'n' roll, to rowdy,
beer-guzzling backwoodsmen. So now that their relationship has soured,
Robertson speaks reluctantly about the past, in a pained, faltering voice.
"Eventually we made it to Jersey , near Atlantic City, a summer resort.
We played there for a couple of months, and while we were
there, Bob Dylan got in touch with us . . . Supposedly, he heard of us
through John Hammond, Jr. But I don't know. We got this phone call
. . . Some time before that I'd been in New York, and Hammond said,
'Do you want to go and hear Bob Dylan, he's recording at this studio?
Do you want to go by and hear what he's doing?' So we went by, and he
was recording 'Like a Rolling Stone.' It wasn't much of a meeting.
"But this next time I went to meet him we sat and we talked about
music. And then we played music, just him and me, with two guitars.
And he sang, and I played, and he said 'This is wonderful, let's do it.'
He said 'I'd like you to play with these other guys that I've got.' So I
said, 'No, I don't do that, I'm working with some people. I'm not
interested in leaving this band, we've been working together for a
"Well, he wanted me to do these two jobs with him, one at Forest
Hills, and one at the Hollywood Bowl. I said okay, but I didn't think
much of the drummer he had, so I told him Levon was better . . . We
played those two jobs, and I said 'See ya around.' It was kind of exciting
[playing with him], but it was also ridiculous. It [referring to the Forest
Hills concert, where Dylan was booed by folk purists for using an electric
guitar] had nothing to do with music, and that was frustrating too.
The whole thing was just screaming, and throwing things at him . . .
he didn't really know what he was doing, so it was kind of rang-ngy and
chang-ngy (he made these sounds through pursed lips), and you
couldn't hear very good. We were just hacking away at the music, I
don't blame them for booing. We weren't very good. So we just said
Dylan stubbornly refused to be put off. Visiting the Hawks in Toronto
a few months later, he offered the group a slot on his world tour.
The Hawks accepted; not because of any desire for greater fame -- that
impulse never motivated them -- but because they reasoned that backing
him up was far better than another stint in the boondocks.
To Robbie's chagrin, however, Dylan continued to provoke controversy.
And instead of fame, there were only bananas, and more bananas.
"We took the guy [Dylan] seriously; he was intent on doing something
good," says Robertson, savoring the first puff of his cigar. "It was
just hard to figure out how to present the songs, how to settle him
down. Unfortunately, he didn't have the patience to learn the songs; we
had to do that while we were on tour. So we discovered the strangest
way in the world of making a living. We'd pack up our equipment, go to
a place, set up, play, they'd boo and throw things at us; we would tear
down our equipment, go to the next place, they'd boo, and we did it all
over the world, from Australia to Stockholm. And we'd say, what a
weird way to make a buck! We'd go out there, people were throwing
bananas at you, booing . . . and we acted like they're wrong and we're
At this point, a hint of enthusiasm creeps into Robertson's voice, as
he continues with spirit, "After a while, though, the banana throwing
stopped. Not on this tour, but on this other tour years later, no one
booed, nothing . . . So it was interesting, the world changed, we didn't
change, people came around . . . all of a sudden people's ears became
keen to our sounds.
"But when we were playing, and people were booing, when we'd
finish, we'd go back to the hotel, and listen to a tape of ourselves . . .
it sounded quite good, very powerful and dynamic, the songs sounded
strong, and the arrangements were really starting to become tight and
good. There was a spontaneous quality to them. We got very proud of
what we were doing.
"Dylan must have felt that way too. For everyone around him was
saying, `Get rid of these fucking guys, they're killing your career. Get
rid of them.' And he wouldn't do it. I'll always commend him for that.
He just laughed off the booing, as he said 'Fuck 'em, they don't understand,'
or something like that . . . We were going to do another tour,
but that's when he had his motorcycle accident."
So began their Big Pink sojourn. Or the adventure that would catapult
them into the forefront of 1960s music.
The Hawks played nursemaid to Dylan. They rented a large pink
clapboard house close to him on the outskirts of Woodstock, New York,
dubbed the place Big Pink, and as soon as Dylan recovered from his
injuries (a broken neck, facial cuts, a concussion, and partial paralysis),
began work on The Basement Tapes. Some of Dylan's most critically
acclaimed pieces were produced during those easygoing recording sessions,
songs like "This Wheel's on Fire," and "Tears of Rage." But
Robbie and the boys weren't thinking of making history. They were too
busy having a good time.
"Big Pink was like a clubhouse. Everybody would go there every day
like the Bowery Boys and we'd shoot pool, talk dirty, and write songs,"
chuckles Robertson. And then Dylan started hanging out with us, he
played pool, talked dirty, and wrote songs . . . You have to remember,
there weren't too many people living up there at the time. It was only a
little art colony, with a few writers, so we just hung out, it was an ideal
But contrary to most reports, Robertson emphatically insists, "We
were never Bob Dylan's band. We were just this group that played with
Dylan on a tour. That's all we ever did with him, then. People thought
that there was a whole thing going on, we only cut a few singles with
him, obscure singles. And I played on Blonde on Blonde, that was the
extent of it. The band never had a real involvement with him except this
Though the group used a Dylan painting on the jacket of Music from
Big Pink, this debut album (1968) was an assertion of their independence
on several levels. Unlike the era's other rock stars, members of
the newly named Band didn't wear flashy psychedelic clothes, tour, or
seek wider popularity. Content to remain anonymous, even if that made
them seem mystical and mysterious, they "got past the goofiness of
wanting to be celebrities." As Robbie proudly announces, they styled
themselves after fifties rebels -- and rebelled against the "counterculture
"At the time it was burn the flag, stab your mother and father (he
starts laughing), wear goofy clothes, all those things were happening
but we loved our mothers and fathers. After the Ronnie Hawkins thing,
everybody was listening to a very corny kind of music. It was the
Frankie Avalon period . . . while we were playing obscure music, musical
music. We were never interested in trends. Our launching period
was that time of fifties discontent. We were all really vulnerable to
oppression -- that's part of it.
"And also we didn't like psychedelic things. I wasn't interested in
wearing paisley pants [chortling again]. We wore suits and ties [in their
leather vests, western derbies, and thick mustaches, they resembled the
Jesse James gang]. When we played with Bob Dylan, we wore jackets
and ties. He hated it. He kept telling us, `You guys gotta do something
with your clothes.' "
While they continued to live like hermits in Woodstock, Music from
Big Pink became an underground cult favorite. It was hip to have a
copy. And when their second release, The Band (1969) received even
more favorable reviews, the pressure mounted for them to go public.
Rock promoter Bill Graham, pleading "the case for the people," visited
the Band in Woodstock, and persuaded them to do two concerts, San
Francisco's Winterland and the Fillmore East. They then turned up at
the Isle of Wight festival with Dylan, and in their own backyard for
that epochal weekend of "Peace and Music."
"Woodstock was an invasion of our privacy," says Robertson, his
eyes narrowing into a look of disgust. "They gave us this whole rigmarole
about, you know, `you're this and that . . .' They wanted us to
close, to be the last group that played, and Jimi Hendrix flipped out. He
said, `No, you promised that I'd close.' He made a big pissing and
moaning thing about it. I didn't give a shit, because it looked to me like
that would mean we'd go on at four or five o'clock in the morning. So
we played at eight o'clock at night, when there were five hundred thousand
people there. And by the time he played three hundred and fifty
thousand had left.
"Woodstock wasn't very good. It was hard to play for that many
people. The people were there for the people, the music thing was really
secondary. That's why we didn't participate in the movie, or the record.
It didn't seem like our calling, we didn't feel like this is where we
belonged. We felt `This is a happening of another kind, it's not a musical
happening. It's a thing of people taking acid, getting naked, and getting
muddy. What does that have to do with us? Nothing.' We wanted to do
a film, we just wanted to do it properly, by ourselves."
The Last Waltz is a testament to that idealism. It has a joyousness, a
clarity of vision that celebrates the nobler qualities of rock. But in a
sense, the film is deceiving. For it's only a parting tribute to the Band.
As would be expected, it doesn't focus on the turmoil and ugliness that
destroyed their family spirit.
According to Robertson, a few members of the Band went stir crazy
in the early seventies. Together for several years, in the hermetic environs
of Woodstock, they needed some sort of outlet, a release from the
pressures of success. And, when finding these pleasures, they started to
act like the rock celebs they once had scorned.
"Everything started out very creative, real family-oriented," recalls
Robertson, "but then things went berserk. Though we had been together
for so long, success didn't come smoothly, comfortably. Different
guys went crazy. I don't know what happened, it's so difficult to understand.
It was self-destructive things. It was drugs, or just a way of life,
or driving fast . . . It's a fever . . . a riding of things to the
limit . . .
"Maybe people think that they don't really deserve success, that they
don't believe in it. So they start fucking with it, start sticking their hand
in the fire.
"Yeah . . . yeah," he responds, when asked if he played similarly
dangerous games. But as he adds, soberly, "It was different for me, I
had already started a family [Robertson now has two teenaged daughters
and a ten-year-old son]. I had a commitment that prevented me
from leaping off, I had an anchor. If I hadn't had a family I could've
gotten as goofy as anybody. My family was like a protective device. The
other guys' lives were just more available. I had to go home to change
Robertson roars with delight. And now that his daughters are beginning
to think of their own careers, he talks animatedly about them, and
how "they've grown so fast."
But these memories of the Band still upset him. In a moment, he
ruefully continues in a voice that's grown strained and hoarse, "The
other guys' availability was definitely an alienating factor. It tested our
relationship and it was scary for everyone, since we were concerned
about one another. So that place of leisure turned into a snake pit,
because everyone was bored. Now what? Now we're successful, now
we're making money. But so what? I was afraid of someone dying; they
were getting into car wrecks -- I mean all the time. Rick [Danko] broke
his neck very very bad. Richard [Manuel] had several severe accidents.
It wasn't unusual to get up in the morning and say `Richard's out here,
upside down, in a car somewhere.' Everything played a part, drugs,
drinking, anything that was taboo."
So Big Pink, the house that was synonymous with sounds of a rural,
more innocent America, turned into a nightmare for Robertson. Fearing
the place would destroy them all, Robbie moved to Malibu, believing
"it was time to do something creative for myself. I had never hung
out with an ocean before."
He still communicated with the other band members, often telling
them the sun-kissed beach locale was "paradise." They subsequently
joined him there in 1973, in another Big Pink-styled retreat, called Shangrila.
The magic returned for a while. Once Dylan relocated there, they
collaborated on Planet Waves, and also toured together again. Now the
Band was welcomed into the musical establishment. They were no
longer seen as outlaws for eschewing psychedelia-or as the purveyors
of what Robbie calls, "Judas music."
"Suddenly, everybody accepted us. They acted like the whole thing
from before, which was just taboo, was always accepted [Robertson
does admit that Stage Fright, the Band's third album, reflected the
Woodstock horror period]. Everything was now terrific."
That tour with Dylan was captured on Before the Flood, which Robertson
produced. He also wrote all the songs for the Band's Northern
Lights-Southern Cross (1975). This latter work was generally well received,
as it broke new ground with Garth Hudson's organ and synthesizer instrumentals.
Robertson also won praise for such tunes as "Ophelia," "Hobo Jungle," "Arcadian Driftwood," and "Forbidden Fruit."
But the joys of recognition were tempered, as the old problems continued
to surface. Life at Shangrila was anything but peaceful. And
Robertson grew progressively disenchanted.
"It was very annoying to me that some of the guys were still having
difficulties keeping their head on straight," bristles Robertson, the passage
of time having done nothing to soothe his irritation. "Just dealing
with it all the time was a pain. We couldn't be consistent, not to the
point that it [the band's creativity] was dependable. So that's when I
drifted off. I wanted to do something more positive.
"Neil Diamond talked me into doing this album [Beautiful Noise in
1976] with him. I didn't understand the idea at first, but he's a very nice
person, and he genuinely wanted to do a good album. It was kind of
strange [their collaborating], everyone thinks he has a very pretentious
style, and that it's kind of square. He wanted that album, though, because
he had never gotten a good review in his life, probably. And that's
why he bought it, he wanted a good album, and he got it. The album
came out, it's the biggest studio album he ever did, and he got rave
reviews. We did some very musical things, we took some chances, and
now they're talking of making a movie out of Beautiful Noise."
The Band was still Robertson's first love. But since he wanted the
group to live up to his image, to his expectations, he was bound to be
disappointed. "It was heartbreaking, to see people you care about abusing
themselves. I'm no saint, I wasn't the goody-goody in the thing. But
I could never take it to the degree that other people could . . . Levon
kept telling me, `Don't worry about it, I'll be fine, I won't let you down.'
He always did a great job, it's just that our ideals and philosophies
strayed. I just became more productive. And, eventually, I saw there
was nothing I could really do about it, or wanted to. You don't want to
run someone's life . . . these were my friends, my brothers . . . the
best thing you can do is to walk away. I wasn't Mr. Wonderful, not at
all. I just didn't want to play this game."
None of the other band members realized Robbie was so unhappy.
When he talked about doing The Last Waltz, they simply thought it was
a good idea, that would be followed by other joint ventures. Only later,
after the film was finished, did they get a clearer message from Robertson.
He had had it with "ptomaine burgers." He wanted out. Totally.
Admitting it was initially difficult to end a fifteen-year relationship,
Robertson explains how the confusion arose. "Well, I told everybody I
wasn't interested in going on the road anymore. I'm off the bus. I told
them I was sick of Howard Johnson's in the middle of nowhere, that I
had nothing to learn anymore. And everyone said 'Me too, me too.'
Everyone really felt that way too. But . . . but we weren't breaking
up, we said we'd still record, we'd write, we'd do projects. So everyone
agreed; we did the film and the album to go with it.
"It's only later on that I think it sunk in. Everyone said, `well gee,
does this mean that we'll never, ever do this again.' So I said, `Yes, yes,
this is what we've been talking about."
"I didn't want to know about anything except finishing the project.
Everyone was doing their solo thing, while I had to complete the movie,
the triple album. So that brings us up to the stage where we had all the
intentions in the world of recording and doing more things, but time
went on and people were like, `Ah, I'm doing this and you know, I have
to concentrate on my own songs.' So after that I got involved in movies,
I did the music for some films, and wrote a couple of stories that are
now being made into movies."
Hollywood marquees didn't light up overnight for Robertson. Like
anyone else making a career change in midlife, he had to make certain
adjustments and sacrifices. There were disappointments. It took him a
couple of years to land a part in Carny, and, afterward, he was typecast
as a washed-up, drug-crazed rock star. Instead of taking him seriously,
directors viewed him as a caricature of a world they didn't really understand.
Predictably stung by this treatment, Robbie lost interest in acting. And while he can now jokingly attribute various role rejections to
inexperience, the hurt is still evident in his eyes.
"I was offered lots of parts in movies, but I either hated them, or I'd
meet with directors and I'd get this feeling that was a nightmare to me.
I'd have these dreams where I'd have to dress in a cowboy outfit with
fur chaps, a cowboy hat, and a guy would tell me, `Go over there in the
corner, and take your pants down, drop your chaps.' I'd say to myself,
'What's my motivation for this?' and the guy says, `Just do it.' So I had
a big problem just going along with this acting thing. I'm not starving.
I'm not a waiter who's hoping the phone will ring. I don't need the
money; I don't need the aggravation either. It's a funny job [acting],
you sit around and wait until you go crazy. It's like an island that you
can't get off."
Robertson didn't even want to do the music for The King of Comedy.
Disgusted with Hollywood, he wasn't interested in writing movie
scores. That is, until he was charmed by Scorsese. Viewing this often-criticized
director as a genius, Robbie worked on the film simply to be
close to him. He now praises Scorsese for giving him "the freedom to
create," adding, albeit immodestly, "Look at what I was able to do [on
the soundtrack]! Look at the people I got-all this stuff except the Ray
Charles piece was new. There's no other album where there's that kind
of conglomeration of artists, and it absolutely works. There's no problem going from B. B. King to the Talking Heads."
Equally excited about the future, Robertson is currently collaborating
with Scorsese on two other prospective movies -- films that have completely
changed his perspective on acting. "Now I'm really doing what I
want to do," says the forty-two-year-old Robertson. "I'm working on
the first movie that I really want to act in. It's called Goodbye. You see,
my problem was that I started with Martin Scorsese, so it was hard to
get excited with anybody else, and the projects weren't strong enough to
excite me. The two things Marty and I are talking about doing together
I'd do anytime, anywhere. No problem at all. The other project is The
King Lives, which is a music-oriented film. I get to invent a whole new
kind of music for it."
No wonder Robertson is rarely in contact with the other Band members. In terms of post-seventies achievements, the gulf between them
seems to be constantly widening. What could they talk about? While
he's experimenting with new musical formulas, they (with the exception
of Helm) are still on the roadhouse circuit, playing the same tired songs.
Robertson doesn't gloat over this. Still professing great love for them,
he sadly notes, "They don't know what else to do, they need to do it."
The "guys" might have been swept away by the roars of the crowd, to
the point that they didn't prepare for the future. But not wanting to
sound too critical, Robertson squelches these thoughts in midstream,
opting instead to talk about himself.
"I've been lucky, I've been able to fulfill some of my dreams. I don't
know what my dream is now, I only know I want to do great work. I
want to take those chances, evolve, grow. I don't want to play in Milwaukee,
at the Country Club, or in New York at the Lone Star. Are you
joking? It upsets me just to think about it.
"I made my big statement [The Last Waltz]. I did the movie, I made a
three-record album about it -- and if this is only my statement, not
theirs, I'll accept that. They're saying, 'Well, that was really his trip, not
our trip.' Well, fine. I'll take the best music film that's ever been made,
and make it my statement. I don't have any problems with that. None
at all. Why should I? What the fuck would I learn by playing those
Without answering, Robertson snickers derisively. This laughter is so
shrill, so devilish, it echoes through the recording studio, making his
listeners shiver. Not because Robertson is mocking the other guys. Or
even himself. No, that's not it.
Coupled with a cold, hard stare, this outburst is another "final statement," an emphatic break with the past. Robertson must go on. He
can't be trapped by his memories, even if it means playing the tough
guy. But that laughter is still haunting. Like The Last Waltz, it's a goodbye to the sixties, to the "guys," and to a friendship we all benefited
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