The Robbie Robertson Interview
by Joshua BaerFrom Musician -- Guitar Special, no. 43, May 1982, page 58-71.
All text and photos are copyrighted. Please do not copy or redistribute.
Saying goodbye to the business of making music is not a gesture many musicians can afford to make. Breaking in, getting heard, making a name, building an image - these are the usual concerns of a performer, and they usually take everything he's got. Once a career is flying, it takes special courage and a rare sense of timing to bring that career to a close. I 1976, the Band had been performing together for sixteen years: eight years in taverns, burlesque bars, honky-tonks, supper clubs and football victory parties, followed by eitht years in concert halls, amphitheaters and stadiums. They announced that they would perform their final concert on Thanksgiving night at Winterland in San Francisco and that several "friends" would be joining them. The Concert was billed as "The Last Waltz", and a film would be made of the occasion.
The concert came off as planned and the film, The Last Waltz, was released in 1978. Directed by Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York, New York were his best known films at the time), the film was an extraordinary musical and cinematic statement. It showed Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Staples, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood and Neil young joining the Band in a celebration of saying goodbye, of putting the final touch on the Band's sixteen years together.
At the center of the celebration was Robbie Robertson. He had written most of the Band's songs and had always been the Band's lead guitarist, so it was natural to expect his role in The Last Waltz to be a strong one. What was not expected was how well Robbie Robertson looked on film, how he lit up the whole picture with his guitar playing, his tales of life on the road, his magnetic presence. Reviews talked about how the camara flattered him, about natural acting ability; some executives even offered him a role behind Sylvester Stalone in F.I.S.T.. But there was another story behind the emergence of Robbie Robertson. Robertson had always been very good at whatever he did. The story was how well he had managed to keep it a secret.
He started playing guitar and writing songs at thirteen, in Toronto, Canada. Ronnie Hawkins, the King of Rockabilly, recorded two of his songs when he was fifteen. At sixteen, Robbie joined Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks. By the time Hawkins & the Hawks parted company a few years later, Robbie was the lead guitarist of a very hot little band which featured Levon Helm on drums and mandolin, Rick Danko on bass and violin, Richard Manuel on keyboards and drums and Garth Hudson on organ, saxophone, accordion and anything else that was handy. Bob Dylan heard the Hawks and asked them to accompany him on his world tour. He had some ideas. He wanted to try rock 'n' roll. The Hawks obliged him. In 1968, they reemerged in Woodstock, New York as the Band, and came out with their first album, Music From Big Pink.
No one has ever known exactly what to make of the Band, and no one knew what to make of Big Pink. The album sold well, but raised questions. Who were these guys? Where did they get this act of coming out of nowhere and playing so well? The songs had a full-blown, seasoned quality - they were the kind of songs a group produced during it's prime, not on it's debut album.
When the second album, The Band, arrived in 1969, Time and Newsweek threw around phrases like "country rock" and "backwood Bach" but missed the point: the new kids on the block weren't kids at all, but an ensamble of talented, mature musicians who had a handle on a sound that came right out of the heart of America, did good things to your soul and then turned around and went right back where it came from. For more. And in the middle of that sound was the man who was writing the lyrics, arranging the songs and bringing them to life: Robbie Robertson.
Eight albums followed over the next nine years. No attempts were made to set up Robbie Robertson as a genuis, a wizard of songwriting or the brains behind the Band. The Band didn't do things that way. It's character was ensamble first, personalities later. But to the listener who fell in love with the Band's music, it came as no surprise that Robbie Robertson's star should emerge so brightly in The Last Waltz. After all, didn't he produce the picture? Recognition was meant to happen - an overdue event which could not be held back. When Carny (which Robbie produced and acted in) came out in 1979, it became apparent to the friends and fans he had made over the years that the magic had not ended with The Last Waltz. Robbie Robertson's touch was all over Carny: the light, the characters, the problems, the solutions; the picture was like a three-dimensional version of one of the songs off Stage Fright or Cahoots. And when Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull arrived in 1980, everyone who loved the music again had Robbie Robertson to thank.
He is not your run-of-the-mill, garden variety star. Much of what he will be remembered for is yet to come, if there is a common thread to the things he's done, it's his ability to have positive influence on an event from behind the scenes. The world of entertainment needs more people like him but, of course, there aren't any.
The following interview took place on the afternoon of February 2, 1982 at Robbie's large brick house in Los Angeles. The Last Waltz had just been rereleased by United Artists Classics and was enjoying a stronger second run, especially in New York, than it's original release. Robbie looked healthy and seemed relaxed during the four-hour session. He has a deep, warm voice with an edge to it that gets sharp when he talks about things which disappoint him. He laughs easily. He has large hands which look Indian and have long guitarist's fingers. Whether they're empty or holding a cigarette, they're almost always in the air, moving in time to whatever he's saying.
Musician: The Band's songs are laced with stories, voices, questions, dreams - they present quite a contrast to the ballads of war, peace, love and revolution that people were listening to during the late 60s and early 70s. You were quoted in a 1969 Newsweek article as saying, "Where we come from, we don't hate our parents." And while other groups were calling themselves Moby Grape or Vanilla Fudge or the Velvet Underground, you wanted to be the Crackers, then the Honkies and settled finally on just the Band. Did the Band consiously move against the prevailing popular currents of the time?
Robertson: When we were getting ready to make Big Pink, there was a very strong thing going on about how, if you were fucked up, it was because it was somebody else's fault. It was your mother or your father, or the last generation. It got obnoxious. We never had that relationship with our parents. We were separated from them and we used to sit around and we would talk about our parents - we missed them - and we would laugh about the funny things they did. We made our first album and we thought, "Well, that's what we do, that's kind of the way we play and that's the kind of songs we write." and we took a picture in here with all of our mothers and fathers. We did it as kind of a nive gesture - it had someting to do with the kind of songs that were in there. I don't know. Not very much of it was consciously clever or rebellious or against the grain. It was just kind of where we were at.
Musician: Was there a concious attempt on the first three albums not to match up names with individuals in pictures? It's hard to tell who's who.
Robertson: It was just natural. We never thought about it until people pointed it out. It was just the ensamble attitude.
Musician: In preparing for this article, I asked friends of mine what they had thought when they first heard Big Pink. Many of them said their first impression of Big Pink was that they thought they'd heard the music before but then realized they hadn't and wondered why it sounded so familiar.
Robertson: Now that was a conscious effort. We were trying to do a type of timeless music. We were thinking, hopefully, you could listen to this in twenty years or fifty years; we'd admired so many people whose music had lived on, regardless.
Musician: There's a quote in one of the press releases: "We've always had a lot of pain and struggle to everything we've had to do. We were never surprised at our success because we were working at it too hard."
Robertson: Well, we had been around so long already. Can you imagine? We were together eight years before we were successful.
Musician: "The Rumor", "Daniel And The Sacred Harp," "The Shape I'm In" and "Stage Fright" all evoke a sense of loss, of sacrifice. In one of the songs on Street Legal, Bob Dylan says, "Sacrifice was the code of the road." By the time the Band recorded Stage Fright (the album), had events evolved to the point that the five of you were beginning to feel as though you'd lost something?
Robertson: You mean in terms of innocence?
Musician: Had life stopped being simple?
Robertson: Yeah. I hate to answer with a yes or no like we're in court, but it's true. We had something that we were experimenting with and it was only ours - it had in one sense been shared in a way that you feel wonderful about, but then it gets taken and it gets talked about and - mentally, healthwise, success was not the best thing for the Band. It confused people. It brought out where people were striving or pushing. The inspirational factor had been dampened, tampered with in a certain kind of way. The curiosity wasn't as strong. We didn't compensate for it, we didn't try. We just did what we did and, rather than it being a consistent thing for a period or something, it was not the center anymore. It was spread out and watered down in a kind of way where we were then thinking about tours and posters and things like that. It comes with the package and nobody was surprised, but it was not uplifting.
Musician: You're talking about the concerts and the traveling?
Robertson: I'm talking about the way you deal with the situations, what it drives you to. Some people, it drives them sane. Some people, it drives them crazy. Some of them, to drink. And some of them, it drives them into a hole. And so it ampered with the thing that - I don't know. Everybody was so easily satisfied before and then it got harder to do what we did at ease. It was the nature of the combination of the guys in the Band - it disrupted something in the creative process. It got harder to get back to that point, and we couldn't do it as consistently.
Musician: And yet Rock Of Ages, which followed Stage Fright and Cahoots, has that timeless quality you spoke of earlier.
Robertson: Rock Of Ages happened to be a particulary good time for us to do an album - it was right to do it on New Year's Eve, it was right to do it with Allen Toussaint (laughs). When he was working on Rock Of Ages with us, it was the first time he'd ever seen snow in his life! I mean, he became ill just looking at the weather. I'd wanted to do something with either Allen Toussaint orGil Evans. They were the two people that did things that sounded like what I was hearing. I met with Gil Evans and we talked about it. I'd still like to do something with him. I think he's brilliant and does something nobody else does.
Musician: Did Rock Of Ages exceed your expectations?
Robertson: Yeah, in some cases it did.
Musician: It seems as though, with the albums, you would always move away from the solo and toward the harmony, especially on the first three records. Often it's difficult to figure out who's playing which instrument or who's singing which vocal. The Band really was an ensemble, and this was despite the fact that each member had no small amount of individual talent. Was that deliberate?
Robertson: Yeah, it was. We didn't have to talk about it that much. We'd been together already a long time so everybody kind of found their little notch and could fill up the vacant spot. All the time the guys would say, "Why don't you sing this song?" Because I got to sing the song to teach them the song and it happened hundreds of times where they'd say, "Good, you sing this song." But it wasn't as much fun for me as saying, "No, you should sing the song, and you should do the chorus and you do the high harmony," and then hearing it and saying, "Actually, I think it would be better if he did the high part and then you came in."
Musician: Did you ever take any of the lead vocals?
Robertson: I sang every once in a while on certain things. I sang on the first album, that song "To Kingdom Come." And I sang "Out Of The Blue" on The Last Waltz. I did a thing on Islands - just here and there. But I avoided it as much as possible because i didn't think it was healthy. I write the songs, I play the guitar, I do this, I do that, all of a sudden it's going to be...
Musician: The Robbie Robertson Medicine Show.
Robertson: None of us really wanted that. In most cases they could sing the songs better than I could. And in a lot of cases it wouldn't have mattered. But it was healthier to keep the ensemble thing - it really made the Band the Band.
Musician: What happened when Garth hooked up with the Band? Did he really give the rest of you music lessons?
Robertson: We had known Garth for a while and had gone to hear him play in little clubs - jazz clubs he was playing in or else with the rock 'n' roll band he was with - and he was just a kind of phenomenon to us. I mean the range of music that he knew. So when we finally talked Ronnie Hawkins into hiring Garth, we thought, "That's it." But Garth came with a stipulation, you know, that he would be our music teacher at the same time as joining the band and that we would pay him for being our music teacher. Now, put in that kind of way, you say, "Wait a minute, is this guy saying that we don't know enough?" Or "Is it a prestige thing?" We didn't get it. We didn't know what it was. But he came with the band. And he gave us music lessons. And we paid him for the lessons.
Actually, in the period and for years after that, a tremendous amount of our musical sophistication - if there is any - really came from Garth's background. And with the kind of chord structures and harmonies that we've used and combinations of instruments and which one on top in the melody and which one on the bottom - a tremendous amount of that comes from Garth, if not all of it. So, at the time, we thought it was some kind of gaff, and had to go along with it because we wanted him to play in our band. Eventually it fizzled out; we would do it when we were practicing or learning some new songs. We'd get stuck and we'd say, "Hey, Garth. How do we do this?" He'd always have the answer.
I don't know about now, but there's no question in my mind that, at that time, Garth was far and away the most advanced musician in rock 'n' roll. He could just as easily play with John Coltrane as he could play with the New York Symphony Orchestra as he could play with us as he could play with Minnie Pearl. He was just remarkable. He could listen to a song and tell us the chords to the song as it went along, I mean, songs with complicated chord structures. It widened our scope, and it was just a lot more fun. We could do things. If we picked up something we wanted to do like the version we'd heard, and we wanted to use the same harmony that they did in horn section or background, we could do it. It wasn't like a guessing game like we'll miss something and use the excuse that we're doing our own thing. No. We wanted to understand exactly how the sound was made that cluster of notes or something so we could do that and it would help us with something else later.
Musician: What finally turned out to be his motive behind the lessons? Didn't it have something to do with him joining a rock 'n' roll band a little easier for his family to swallow?
Robertson: Garth comes from a very sophisticated musical background; the conservatories; the training; and for him to take up with a rock 'n' roll band was like throwing it all away or something. He didn't care that much. He did the lessons just to satisfy his family.
Musician: How did "The Genetic Method" evolve? Was it out of the organ work in the beginning of "Chest Fever"?
Robertson: In concerts, we could do "Chest Fever", Garth would do the intro to it and then he got bored playing the intro, so he'd play something else and then he would change that. When we were doing Rock of Ages, we had planned out, that I was going to look at my watch at midnight, and I was going to tell Garth "It's midnight", and we're going to do "Auld Lang Syne", but because we were anxious about this, we started a little bit too soon, so he had to play and play and play, killing time waiting for midnight. It became a musical piece in itself. So I asked Garth, "What are you going to call this thing? I mean you can't call it the intro to "Chest Fever", it's longer than the song."
Musician: It became a regular part of the concerts after that?
Robertson: Yeah, it became a chance for the rest of us to take a breather. Garth would just go out there and fuck up everybody's head for a few minutes.
Musician: I don't think I have seen a performer look happier than you looked in The Last Waltz. What was it about the concert that made you so happy?
Robertson: Well, first of all, this dream - I was watching the direct reality of this dream right before my eyes. I knew I only had to do it one time (laughs). And so far so good, as we were going along. I mean, we had to learn twenty-some-odd songs we'd never played before in our lives. So every time out of the chute it was like throwing the dice. It's hard enough to remember our own stuff, let alone everybody from Joni Mitchell to Muddy Waters.
Musician: Once the Band had decided to stop performing, how did you arrive at the decision to end the era with a concert, but to script and produce a feature film of that concert?
Robertson: It wasn't any brainstorm. It happened more accidentally, really, and we never looked upon it as end to an era. It was just our band, our predicament. We had done it for sixteen years, and there was really nothing else to learn from it. But if you have a choice, I mean, anybody would sooner go out with a celebration like that one than on some sour note.
Musician: Was the idea of filming the concert an idea that you introduce to the rest of the Band?
Robertson: Yeah. The initial reaction was that it was a great idea to be able to document this in some kind of way, even if it was just for some sort of musical archive, but there were so many complications already, musically, technically with the concert, that nobody really wanted to be bothered with it that much. Everybody was like "Well, fine, as long as it doesn't get in the way too much?." I mean, at first nobody was that excited about the idea. Levon was concerned about our other responsibilities and thought we might be short changing some other things by having to concentrate on the film. Which was what made me think that we had to get someone who could really handle it.
Musician: When you started rehearsals for The Last Waltz, how long had it been since you'd performed?
Robertson: You know, I'm not really positive. I don't think it was like a long, long time but it had been a few months.
Musician: It wasn't the final concert on a tour?
Musician: Was there a sense of euphoria? Of letting go?
Robertson: It was a tremendous relief. Not that it was bad or anything, but it was just-you get anxious to move on with your education in life and with things that you want to do, and dreams....
Musician: You don't want to retrace steps.
Robertson: Not if you can help it. I mean, if you're lucky enough or else have enough ideas just to keep you floating where you don't have to do the same thing over and over, you can keep teaching yourself more things. It's really an extraordinary opportunity. It was a euphoria of some sort. But mainly also the idea of the concert and that things were clicking and that when I looked around I could see all these people, not just the artists, but some of the greatest cinematographers in the world: Martin Scorcese on the sidelines, Michael Chapman with the lighting, Boris Levin who figured out the look of the stage for the concert....It was just a thrill to look around at the audience too; the audience came dressed for the occasion. They didn't have to, but they took it upon themselves.
Musician: Although there was a lot of enthusiasm, the concert never got too loose or spontaneous.
Robertson: I didn't want it to turn into a jam session.
Musician: Exactly. It sounded as though you had been playing with Neil Young, Van Morrison or Eric Clapton for years. Was that because the material had been well rehearsed, or did everything just click?
Robertson: With some of the artists, we had a chance to do some rehearsing. With some of them we didn't have much of a chance at all. Mostly, it was just a special night-one of those times when it was hard to go wrong.
Musician: You mention in a press release that nobody turned you down when you asked them to come and play. Did you have particular songs in mind for each artist when you called them up?
Robertson: Some of them, and some of them not. I mean, you didn't call up people and say, "Okay, here's what you're gonna do." It wasn't like that. And it wasn't that people didn't turn me down in the thing, I mean, that sounds a little presumptuous. It was just a matter of telling people what the idea was and that I felt honored that they would participate in the occasion, if it was convenient for them, because some of them were on tour, some of them were halfway around the world. All kinds of complications.
Musician: How about Emmy Lou Harris and the post concert song you did with her at the MGM soundstage....was "Evangeline" what you specifically wanted to do?
Robertson: I'd written "Evangeline" as part of The Last Waltz Suite. We did it in the concert and we did some of the other things from the suite at the concert too. But when we were done, it's like all of these artists represented an element of popular music in their own right, like Muddy Waters represented blues, Neil Diamond represented Tin Pan Alley, and when we were all said and done, there were a couple of influences on our background that we had missed. We hadn't got to point out gospel music and we hadn't got to point out country music. So that's how we came to the conclusion of doing "The Weight" with the Staples and "Evangeline" with Emmy Lou Harris. Emmy Lou Harris was fresh and kind of represented a new school of the country music thing and also she's very photogenic. She has a great relationship with the camera.
Musician: In the film, during "Evangeline," there's some smoke with blue and orange filtered lights playing on it....
Robertson: That smoke was ice. It was ice that Scorcese had done to diffuse the thing a little bit.
Musician: To make it a little less hard-edged?
Robertson: Yeah, The song was about this area in the Everglades, that bayou where you visualize it in a misty way, so he was just kind of going with the song.
Musician: I read that you and Martin Scorsese wrote a 300 page shooting script which choreographed every camera movement to the lyric and music changes.
Robertson: Well, he did, really. What I did was give him the information on all the material. I would let him know how the introduction to the thing went, what instrument it was, and then he had all the lyrics to the songs and I would say who took the solo, or how it was traded off. So, what he did, he had this thing made up where, on the side of the page, he wrote in all the lightning, the camera moves that he was going to try his best to get during the concert because, when there's an audience there and everything you can't just do whatever the hell you want.
Musician: You can't exactly control events
Robertson: No, you can't. So that's why we did the soundstage things too, to kind of balance it. To say, "It isn't only this. This isn't the only way to look at it. When you do it this way with one camera just like you'd shoot a movie, you get much more of an opera feeling."
Musician: It creates a certain illusion. There's a visual equivalent of magic in what he's doing.
Robertson: Yeah, well, it's magic because he knows what he's doing. I don't know anybody else that does, really. When it came time, after we knew who most of the artists were going to be and we were getting to the point where this was something that'd be worthwhile documenting in a manner that wasn't lame, I started to go through books on directors. I wrote down Martin Scorsese's name, and when I ended up, that was the only name on the list.
Musician: I read that he and you looked at John Ford's The Searchers while you prepared for The Last Waltz. Was that to get a sense of the rich lightning?
Robertson: Yeah, Marty likes the three-stripe Technicolor look. We also looked at a lot of other stuff. Visconte things -- Sense, The Leopard. We looked at Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West, Michael Powell's The Red Shoes, Vincent Minelli's Cabin In The Sky, and we looked at a bunch of music films. I don't think we ever made it all the way through one.
Musician: How is it that you were able to put a deliberate end to your relationship with the road when so many other artists have just kept going till it killed them?
Robertson: I don't know. It's one of those things that to answer it sounds like you know something that nobody else does and I don't think that's really the truth. A lot of people go on forever and ever and it doesn't kill them and they do better all the time. For other people it don't work that way. And some people do it till they are asked to leave. With the choice of above, I thought, "Gee, I'd rather do something really special, and in a thankful manner." Just to give some kind of thanks, to give something back to the situation.
Musician: One segment of The Last Waltz is like a crash course in the blues. Paul Butterfield does "Mystery Train", Muddy Waters does "Mannish Boy", then you and Clapton trades guitar solos on "Further On Up The Road". How much rehearsing went into that particular segment?
Robertson: We ran it over a couple of times with Eric; I think we got a chance to run it over once with Muddy. It was done in San Francisco at the hotel -- the Japanese one -- the Miyako. They got that place downstairs, a reception room where they have Japanese bar mitzvahs or something. We tried three or four songs with Muddy Waters. I really wanted to do "Forty Days". But Butterfield said there's nothing in the world like Muddy Waters doing "Mannish Boy". I mean there's nothing like it if you don't drive the poor man until he has a heart attack. And Butterfield wanted to do his breathing exercise where he holds a note for five minutes. So we ran over them and it was easier for us to do "Mannish Boy". The reason we did "Mystery Train" was because we had this version that we liked --
Musician: The one on Moondog Matinee?
Robertson: Yeah. Junior Parker had done the originals version and he was one of Butterfield's heroes, so we decided to combine these two things. It took Butterfield -- It was a little complicated for him to get used to our version be he finally did.
Musician: Both Muddy Waters and Ronnie Hawkins have a reaction that's distinct from the other guests'. It's definitely not a Neil Young or a Van Morrison kind of reaction.
Robertson: (laughs) Yeah, I know. They both thought "What am I doing here?" is what they thought. But in the meantime they hold their own as well a anybody does the whole night.
Musician: When did you first hear Eric Clapton play blues guitar?
Robertson: I heard the records from England. I wasn't very impressed , at the time. He got better. I remember Sonny Boy Williamson saying, "God, I went to England. Those kids over there, they buy me everything, they treat me like God and they all want to play with me and they're terrible. They can't play worth a shit."
Musician: Wasn't that in reference to the Yardbirds?
Robertson: Yeah. He said, "But they all want to play so bad that you can't say too much about them." But he told us stuff. He said, "They don't get it. They don't get it yet." But it did develop into a particular kind of rock 'n' roll for them. Cream certainly didn't end up sounding like Sonny Boy Williamson.
Musician: During The Last Waltz, you and Eric Clapton are a study in antithetical styles. You're in motion during your solos; you pronounce the solos with your body. Clapton stands there; smooth, sort of silk-like, and lets his fingers play the guitar. Do you think he's one of the greats now?
Robertson: Yeah, I do. He's one of the greats because he was great before they figured it out. He was already there. I was much more guitar-conscious before Big Pink. But when I started writing those songs, I didn't want nothing getting in the way of the song. I wanted the songs to be the thing, the translation of those dreams or those stories. But if you ever heard stuff I did with Ronnie Hawkins -- There was only a couple of people around even playing that way in those days. Nobody even knew that you used different kinds of strings. They couldn't figure it out. "How do you make that sound? Is it with a slide or with your finger?" It was still that much of a mystery.
Musician: How much did you have to do with Butterfield's band during that pre-Big Pink period? Didn't you play together in Chicago?
Robertson: Yeah, I went. One time we were going to play in Texas and we were going from Canada. Levon and I left and the other guys were coming in a few days later. This is post-Ronnie Hawkins. So we were going to Texas and we stopped in Chicago, Levon and I, just to stop somewhere and also we thought we'd hear some music on the way. I didn't know Butterfield. I knew Bloomfield because I'd played on a couple of John Hammond records and Bloomfield was the piano player on the record because he wasn't too good then. I mean he was okay but he chose to play the piano. So when we went to Chicago, I called Bloomfield. We went to this club where Butterfield was playing, and Bloomfield had told him something -- I don't know what -- so he asked me if I would get up and play with him. So I got up to play, and he left the stage! Butterfield. He left me up there with his band. To try and figure out what the hell to do. But then I got to know him, over the years.
Musician: For the amount of time he spent making it and promoting it, the movie Renaldo & Clara was certainly more important to Bob Dylan than the albums he was making during that period and I don't think it's going too far out on a limb to say that The Last Waltz meant more to the Band than your last two records. Is recorded music no longer the only place to make a major musical statement? Has the focus of our culture shifted to such an extent that film is now the desirable medium?
Robertson: Not unless somebody does a lot more homework and figures out how to do it. Because I think it's embarrassing, what people's concept is of the way music should look. Like if you see these things on cable TV, somebody will come on and sing their latest song from their album -- Kim Carnes, or whoever. And you see these film things; it's the dumbest shit I've ever seen in my life. It's like jeans commercials with somebody pretending they're singing a son. I mean, are we regressing? What in the world has gotten into people's heads? I watched this thing that Hal Ashby did with the Rolling Stones a few weeks ago, the cable thing on TV... .Not there. Thank you. Good night. And to watch music on TV, to see somebody who you even think is great -- you see it and you think, "That's it? I wish I hadn't looked." It's awful. That Rolling Stones thing, it was terrible. Dumb-looking, childish, no concept, nobody had any ideas. They thought you get a bunch of cameras and everybody's there shooting and you figure out what cameras... . Come on. That's not it.
Musician: Are you going to be working in that area?
Robertson: Only for the fact that it annoys me so much. Even on shows that try to do something half decent -- Saturday Night Live tried. I never wanted to do that show but Lorne Micheals is from the same hometown and for a year and a half they called and bugged us about doing that show, and I said ,"What for? I mean, why? It's going to be the same old shit." He said, "No, we're going to use more cameras and we're going to do this and we're going to rehearse more. You guys will play more music than anybody's ever don on the show before." Which we did. And they tried. They had cameras up above and cameras underneath and they had all these shots figured out and they tried very hard to do something, but it still wasn't good enough. I mean, it's just an attitude. TV directors don't know how to do it.
Musician: One of the truly magic things in The Last Waltz is how well the camera knows the faces of the members of the Band. There are some very private angles -- it's like you had been watching each man's face for sixteen years, those images were inside you and the camera came and found them.
Robertson: That had a lot to do with Scorcese. He said, "Hey, listen, I've seen that audience shot. I want to look at it from where we have never seen it. When someone is singing, like Levon sitting at the drums, we all see him from here. I want to see it from there, you know to get inside the thing in a way."
Musician: That's true; you never see the audience in The Last Waltz.
Robertson: It's bullshit. It's like hype. What are we, trying to convince people that the audience liked what was going on?
Musician: There are some great moments between songs, and just when songs are about to end...
Robertson: That's what Marty says. "Where people don't know where they are or what's coming next -- that's the kind of stuff I want to see." There were things like where Eric Clapton's strap breaks on his guitar. Normally they say, "Well, you cut that part out." Scorcese said, "Are you kidding? When have I ever seen Eric Clapton's guitar fall off?" Martin Scorcese is constantly thinking of those shots, of the magic. Like when the camera comes down on Bob Dylan's head. Or that one angle on Muddy Waters through the whole song. And then at the very end when we hit the last chord, that's the only cut -- when you see Muddy Waters do this (makes a beckoning motion with his hand) -- whatever that means. That's what's great about it; I don't know what it means. I think Marty was so smart in that stuff because they could have gone back into the dressing rooms. But he said, "I don't want to know what people do behind that curtain. I want to know, but I don't want you to show me." In that Rolling Stones thing, they come on and then they're back in the dressing room. They let the air out of the mystique right away.
Musician: It's a lot more exciting to imagine somebody sitting back there drinking Jack Daniels than it is to actually see them do it.
Robertson: It lets you down.
Musician: That leads into Carny, which is such a rich, wonderful yarn. All I could think about the first time I saw it was how much like your music it was. The carnival, the voices, the traveling, the fears....
Robertson: That was the parallel for me, too.
Musician: Could you say a little about how making a picture affected you, say, as opposed to recording an album?
Robertson: Will, it wasn't like, "Gee, should I do this or record an album?" It just came down to what story I wanted. And I liked that story. It was personal for me because when I was young, before I went off on my rock 'n' roll adventure, I worked in a carnival. I left that experience and it just stayed with me. It's one of Americana's very special, creepy, wonderful things. In all of the images and pictures and stories that you tell, there's no way of avoiding the traveling carnival. It's a conglomeration of freaks and hustlers and illusions and lies. There's such a parallel in a lot of ways to rock 'n' roll music. It never really changed much for the carnival, only that the carnival turned into local fairs and cattle shows and became clean-cut. The origin of the traveling carnival was this thing that everybody wanted to get rid of. They wished it would just evaporate.
Musician: Like the gypsies.
Robertson: Yeah, it was like that. Everybody fucked with them, they got it from every angle. Everywhere they'd go, you got to see about somebody, you have to pay somebody because you're in somebody else's neighborhood. As it goes on, the squeeze just becomes tighter. When I read the script, I was thinking about using the writer for some other project I was working on. I read the script by accident. It had been around for about five years. I read it and I talked with the writer and told him that I cared about the subject matter. But I said, "You're not going to get this project off the ground, nobody's going to make this movie." So we sat down and rewrote it, went to the studios and it was like I went and saw three people and three people said, "Yes."
Musician: Just like that?
Robertson: It wasn't difficult at all to get it off the ground. There were other complications that came into it later -- I was pretty happy with the movie, although it wasn't what I really wanted out of it. It could have been a classic, classic movie, but the storytelling wasn't right and actually, when it came down to it, we didn't shoot the script.
Musician: Was Carny given a fair chance?
Robertson: The reviews for the most part were very good. I mean, on the end, too arty. When they start to like it too much you get concerned that, "Oh my God, it's art time," and it's really not art time. When Lorirmar Films released Carny, they went out of business. So it didn't really come out. The movie wasn't really released. The company only spent $146,000 to release the film throughout the whole country.
Musician: Did the rock press and what it thought of your music ever count for anything with the Band?
Robertson: We were well received, to the point that I didn't think they knew what they were talking about. I didn't think it was that good. I wasn't convinced. I had my own feelings about the situation and they missed a lot of things and later on caught them. There was a guy -- Marcus Greil -- who used to surprise me quite often because he wrote things and then came back later and wrote other things and wasn't afraid to say, "I was looking here and I was distracted in looking here and I totally missed what I came for."
Musician: Do film critics carry more weight with filmmakers than the rock press does with musicians?
Robertson: Definitely. And in the theater more than films.
Musician: When I think of classic Band numbers, I hear the individual voices: Levon singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Richard singing "The Shape I'm In," Rick singing "Stage Fright." Would you write a song with a specific person's voice in mind?
Robertson: Maybe a little bit.
Musician: Did you hear Rick singing "Stage Fright" as you wrote it?
Robertson: Not before I really had the song. I thought maybe, but didn't know for sure. I thought maybe Richard could do it better.
Musician: For the most part, you'd feel who was right once you started hearing them sing it?
Robertson: Yeah, and they knew too. There's no question that Rick can sing "Stage Fright" better than Levon. Or that Levon could sing "The Weight" better than Richard. You know what their sound is and what they can do and you try to make the best arrangement you can. When you're not sure, you have one of them sing one half and one of them sing the other half.
Musician: Did something happen once an album came out where you felt an obligation to perform the song the way it was on the album?
Robertson: We tried very hard to make the live performances like the records. I've heard so many people's records that are great, then I've heard them in person and it's a big letdown. We thought it was a cop-out, to do the songs and do a big long solo in the middle. If you're going to do a different a version of the song, then do a different version, but we tried very much to show that we could do it as good as we could on the record. A lot of people said, "Well, shit, you might as well listen to the albums as go and hear them because they sound like their albums." But we were trying to sound like the albums. We were trying not to be disappointing in comparison to the albums. And when we wanted to do another flavor, that's when we did Rock Of Ages.
Musician: In a Rolling Stone piece on the history of the Band, Jonathan Taplin talks about hearing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" for the first time, and about telling him that you wrote the song at Levon Helm to let him know how much the events in the song meant to you.
Robertson: First of all, I never wrote the song for Levon -- that came later. I never sat down and said, "Now I'm going to write a song for Levon." After I got a handle on the song, on what the song was about, then I thought, "Geez, this would be a good song for Levon to sing, because a lot of these things in the song I've heard him say in his own words." I thought he could sing it, obviously, with more sincerity that some Canadian guy. But I think it was a little embarrassing for Levon to hear that I wrote this song "for" him or "at" him or because of him. It makes you embarrassed to her stuff like that. It was a great thing to be able to do for my friend, in a way, but it was accidental, too. I'd had the song for a while -- I didn't even know what it was about or what it was called. I was just kind of humming it -- I had a couple of words here and a couple of words there.
Musician: Is that the way you would write them, over a period of time like that?
Robertson: Whatever way I could get them. Sometimes I'd think of the title first. Sometimes the first line, sometimes I'd get all the chord structures, sometimes I'd just have the chorus. There's nothing clever. I've found that you sit down to write a song and, what the answer is, later, is that it's all I could think of at the time. If I could have thought of something better, I would have, but that's all I could come up with that day.
Musician: Where did you meet Levon? Where did you first hear him?
Robertson: In Toronto. He was with Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks. They were all from Arkansas. It was Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks and then there was this little kid playing drums. He looked like a little kid -- you couldn't believe this guy was the drummer. And he was terrific. Terrific to look at and great to hear -- terrific all the way around. So I knew him. I became a little bit friends with him before I was with Ronnie Hawkins. After I joined Ronnie Hawkins, that's when we became close.
Musician: When Ronnie Hawkins asked you to join, was part of the reason you were happy to do so because you knew Levon was going to be there?
Robertson: Yeah. There was something - a very secure feeling about it. I felt that eventually about all the members of the Band. They're all unique characters you could read about in a book. Very, very different from each other. I mean the difference between Garth and Richard, the two keyboard players -- millions of miles.
Musician: When you started out, did it ever occur to you how long you'd be together?
Robertson: Never thought about it. I was sixteen.
Musician: When did it dawn on you that you had something that was a cut above the other bands you'd heard?
Robertson: We all thought we were doing something special way back, early.
Musician: I'd like to get some background on "King Harvest"; how it was written, how it became a classic?.
Robertson: "King Harvest" was part of the theme of that project, of that album (The Band). When I was writing most of the songs for that album it was that time of year, and at that time of year Woodstock was very impressive. Everything turned red and orange and it just made you think this breeze was coming in -- it was quite noticable. It made me think of how this was the culmination of the year for so many people. And then the history in the background, our forefathers -- that's when it all came down, whether the year worked out or not. So, thematically, in that record, I kept coming back to that, and "King Harvest" was the most focused of any of the material as far as coming right out and saying it. "This tells us whether we're happening or not."
Musician: Was "King Harvest" a fairly easy number to arrange or did it take a lot of work?
Robertson: It wasn't easy. It's a little bit complex in the chord progression of it. There's a sifty feeling we were trying to get. It's like subtle and bold at the same time. Parts of it have these different elements. It was something that when we were done with it we were quite proud.
Musician: How about "Rag Mama Rag"?
Robertson: "Rag Mama Rag" was like, "Well, this is a extra one and if we don't have anything better to do we might as well cut this one." It didn't have vary much importance to it until after we recorded it. It showed something else that we could do: Richard plays the drums, Rick played violin -- we got to show something else that we do in a style that doesn't exist. You know -- "Name this music!"
Musician: How about "The Weight"?
Robertson: "The Weight" was another one that after we recorded it, it became what it was. It was like, "Okay, this doesn't have a very complicated chord progression, it's just kind of traditional, so we'll cut that when we get stuck for a song." And then we cut it and we thought, "Gee, it's kind of effective when you hear if back at you like that." It happens sometimes. A song takes on a character after you've done it.
Musician: And "The Unfaithful Servant"?
Robertson: Another chapter in the story. All these things happened -- obviously there's a Southern element.
Musician: Is there some kind of freed slave thing going on?
Robertson: It takes place in that kind of period.Those things are not said, but you envision things going on when people lived a lifestyle like that. When you used to be able to call somebody an unfaithful servant was obviously out of a period that we don't live in.
Musician: It's unusual for people writing songs to be able to allude to things as successfully as you did. Usually statements are made: "I want you," or "I need you," or "Where will I be without you?" You never did that. You talked around your subject -- alluded to it as if it were something that couldn't be spoken about.
Robertson: Sometimes when you find you say something too directly, it lets you down. So, sometimes a little bit of vagueness -- I don't mean abstract-wise -- I mean just by telling the story, but you don't tell it in a way like, okay, here's a story: "A guy comes out and gets killed and they dig up the body a year later and they find it's a different guy." You can tell the story without it being so?.
Musician: You don't have to hit somebody over the head with it.
Robertson: Yeah. That's not what's the most interesting thing about it anyway. What's interesting was that there was this amazing-looking stone in the middle of the desert. Well, what's amazing is not the stone, it's the people that come and look at the stone and talk about the stone.
Musician: Or talk to the stone.
Robertson: Yeah, that's where your story is. In some cases I just took for granted that this is taking place in another time that I can write about, that I know about. I was more ralaxed with things that I was sure felt that way.
Musician: "River Hymn" has that quality. So many of these songs we've been talking about evoke that bygone era, that "other" time. Where do you pick up this sense of the past?
Robertson: To me it was something that, because it happened, because I'd read about it, I seemed to know more. And it was precious, that time. It was a time when the family was family-oriented, the building of this country was going on?. I could pick it up and imagine it. Things that you read that somebody's writing about now -- it really sounds like jelly bean time in comparison to when you read about something that happended twenty or fifty years ago. There's so much more season to it, so much more character. What are you going to write about now? Okay: "Then they came back home and they watched TV." It's not quite the same as, "The whole congregation gathered on the banks of the river." All of a sudden you think, "Oh God, I can imagine it. I can see it." It's like this isn't exactly the way it looked, but this is a way of imagining how it looked. I'm going for the feeling. Not how clear the lines are.
Musician: From one of the interviews in The Last Waltz, it sounds as though the Band was a lot closer at one point to becoming Sonny Boy Williamson's band than Bob Dylan's band. How much time passed during those events? You were in West Helena, you looked up Sonny Boy Williamson, you jammed with him, made plans, went back up north, then you heard that he had passed away, the call came from Bob Dylan and you and Levon flew out to play with him at Forest Hills?.
Robertson: It was about two month. We were playing in a club near Atlantic City, just earning some money and killing some time.
Musician: What was the first concert with Bob Dylan like?
Robertson: It was just strange. People were upset by his wanting to play rock'n'roll. The music wasn't that good.
Musician: Did you get to practice before the concert?
Robertson: We got to rehearse some. But we were rehearsing with these other guys, Al Cooper and Harvey Brooks. We just did it. It wasn't much and I complained about it at the time, quite a bit to Bob, saying, "This isn't what it is -- go out there and fumble through these tunes -- this isn't it." I was foolish enough to think that if we played the songs good, that they wouldn't boo. It didn't matter. We got so we played real good with him and they'd boo it as a ritual. I mean, it's really incredibly commendable of Bob Dylan, because everybody was saying, "Get rid of these guys, they're destroying your career."
Musician: Did he tell you to play loud?
Robertson: No. We've never played loud. But we weren't controlling the sound system. They had the system turned up real loud.
Musician: How much did you modify your style for the larger audiences?
Robertson: We worked on it and we got to understand the material better. We found a way of performing it that Bob liked very much. He had a feeling of a surge of power and volume, and he was drilling these songs into the audience. He wasn't just subtly flipping them out there, he was drilling at them. And he liked that, he liked doing that. He would scream when we played: as soon as we started playing, he started screaming. He had never sensed that surge of volume and power, so when it was there, it just made him, you know, shoot for the heavens. We got so we could do it pretty good and it was eventually quite a feeling to think that we didn't change nothing. You think, well, you modified your thing and came around and finally the people liked it. No. We didn't change nothing. We did a tour in '74 and we played the same way as we did back then. I thought, "Oh my God, here we go again! It's tomato time again." But everybody thought it was fine. So it was quite a feeling to think that the world came around and we didn't. Or we couldn't.
Musician: Did Bob Dylan ever say to you in so many words what he thought he was doing when he broke away from the folk music and jumped head first into electric rock 'n' roll?
Robertson: It was just what he wanted to do. He never discussed it like it was any big deal.
Musician: When the audiences were booing and throwing tomatoes and people were telling Bob Dylan to get rid of you, did you just decide that this was the way things were going to be for a while?
Robertson: I thought that eventually he was going to come and say, "Listen, Robbie, we tried and I guess it's not working out. Because it's just us, and then there's the rest of the world. And we seem to be the only ones that believe it, so I don't know if that's enough." But he never did. He never caved in. I must say it was truely amazing. Everybody later on said, "Hey, I always said that it was a great combination, you guys. You worked together like a hand in a glove." Everybody said that. It wasn't true. Because I was very sensitive about it in the beginning when people were saying, "Get rid of these bums. These bums are killing you."
Musician: Obviously you didn't see it as a long-term arrangement.
Robertson: It didn't really matter to us. We were already a band and whether we played with Bob Dylan or Sonny Boy Williamson or by ourselves, it didn't matter.
Musician: Were there any particular concerts with him that you remember?
Robertson: Just somewhere that they were so vicious. There was a place in England where the people actually attacked the stage, attacked Bob and had him, like, down. People had things like scissors in their hands. It was quite frightening. I mean, you were thinking in terms of instruments as weapons, that you're going to have to knock somebody's head off. "I hate to break my guitar, but..."
Musician: Were these split concerts or all rock 'n' roll?
Robertson: No, it was split. It was called "half and half," but the second ppart was a lot longer and the songs were longer and the ordeal was longer. Everything. You had to wait for the people to stop booing to start the next song.
Musician: Were you there when he tuned his guitar for an hour and a half?
Robertson: That was in Paris. He actually couldn't get it in tune. It had wrong strings on it or the neck was out, or something had happened and he would get it in tune one chord and he would change chords and it would be totally out of tune. And he couldn't get it in tune with his harmonica. He was really trying to get it in tune. But the people saying and yelling things were making it worse - his concentration. It wasn't a smart-ass thing on his part. He was trying to get it in tune and genuinely was missing.
Musician: Were you writing songs during that period?
Robertson: Yeah, Big Pink and some of The Basement Tapes.
Musician: You say in one article, "Bob taught me a certain liberty, he broke down the whole tradition of songwriting before my very eyes."
Robertson: What it meant for me was a sense of relief in a way, because he wrote more poetry-oriented things than I did. But that just made me think I could write these stories and not feel like that every song I'm writing is, "There was a tall oak tree and a bad one broke..." and that everything was like, "Once upon a time..." I was inclined to write songs like that and it didn't make me feel as self-conscious about writing them, after he had already disrupted the whole thing in the way that he did. When I was writing, I thought, this is only going to work if Jimmy Rogers was singing it. I would have songs I'd be embarrassed to tell people. It broke down that barrier, and I wasn't embarrassed after that because he just kind of opened up the door.
Musician: Did the Band move to Woodstock initially to be with him after his accident ?
Robertson: That was one of the things. He had his accident and we were kind of concerned. A broken neck - it wasn't like he was bruised up a little bit. And at the time we were getting ready to another tour. So we didn't know about that and he wanted us - all of a sudden he got this sense for once of not being at all by himself in a situation. And we were not feeling well in New York City. It was tough at that particular time. We couldn't afford it and it wasn't fitting into our lives after a while properly. So Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman and certain other people that had known Woodstock said, "Why don't you try this out for a while ? Come up, you can play some music, we can do this and that and finish Eat The Document..." So we kind of dwindled. And at the same time the tour faded away. That didn't seem to be an interesting idea after a while. Then we got to making The Basement Tapes. We were quite busy. We thought it was coming pretty good. Bob was writing songs - bing! bang! boom! - they were coming out faster than he could type them.
Musician: How did it happen that the Band did that world tour with Dylan but did not appear on Blonde On Blonde or John Wesley Harding?
Robertson: Well, a couple of things. On Blonde On Blonde we were touring at the time and Bob had just gotten a bunch of material. And he'd gone to Nashville and recorded a few things, trying out this idea of whatever he was trying out. Then he asked me to go to Nashville with him for the rest of Blonde On Blonde. But to take everybody from where they were to go to Nashville was over-complicated. It was not practical. John Wesley Harding and Music From Big Pink were recorded at just about the same time. He had recorded John Wesley Harding and he said, "Okay, now maybe you and Garth can put on the other instruments." But we got used to hearing it like that and it was pointless. He thought he was laying down the tracks was the way he first thought of it. Then it became something else. When I heard John Wesley Harding I liked it very much. I thought it was unique and I thought it was the right kind of unique after Blonde On Blonde .
Musician: It was a kind of refuge. It gave you the feeling that this was where he went after the accident, after all the acclaim and after all the booing and tomato throwing. Who moved West first, you or Bob Dylan?
Robertson: Bob Dylan was living out here. He had a house - he was out here temporarily for some reason - I can't remember it now. I came out here for some business things I was dealing with at the time and also I had gotten very tired of living in the country and I wanted a change. So I came out here and it was a while before I saw him. Then eventually we talked about doing the(1974) tour together.
Musician: Was that how you got back together for Planet Waves? Because of the '74 tour?
Robertson: Yeah, it was. We were going to do this tour and he had a few songs written and he thought, "Do you think it's possible that we could cut this album before we do the tour?" So we went in and tried to do it. It wasn't the best circumstance to be making an album under. We were rehersing songs for the tour and preparing and figuring out how we were going to do it and it was like in our spare time we were making an album. We made it real fast, like three days. Some of it we got pretty good, but in all due respect to the songs I don't think we had the opportunity to concentrate as much as we could have. There was nothing but the distraction of preparing for the tour. It was the first tour he had done in eight years.
Musician: Is there any way to encapsulate what knowing him and sharing a life with him has meant to you?
Robertson: The only thing that i know for sure is that it doesn't matter with certain people that you've gone through certain things with - periods of time pass but I don't feel any further away from them. Like, if I don't see Bob Dylan for a while or I don't see one of the guys in the Band for a while, it doesn't get any further away from me. Because of our experience I cherish them that much. Or maybe because we did achieve something after all in finding a timeless quality.
Musician: Do you miss the road, now that a certain amount of time has passed since you said goodbye to it?
Robertson: No, I don't miss it at all.
Musician: Do you see the other members of the Band?
Robertson: When I can. Everybody's scattered around the country. Levon's in Arkansas sometimes, Rick is living in Woodstock, Richard is living in some art colony up north. I saw Garth a couple of nights ago. I hear from them or we run into one another.
Musician: Do you see yourself as a person who was once a member of the Band or do you see yourself as a member of the Band forever?
Robertson: I can't think of anybody or any combination of musicians that I would rather play with. If someone said, "Listen, you can pick out anybody you want," I would choose them very quickly over anybody else. Strictly because of their talent. So in that sense I don't think I'm an ex-member of the Band. But I don't feel like we have to do something or we don't have to do something. It's okay with me. And I want to do what I'm doing now, what I'm working on now.
Musician: Could you say a little about some of the projects?
Robertson: I'm producing the music for Martin Scorcese's new film with Jerry Lewis, King Of Comedy. One of the things which I hope to do is Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America. It's still being cast. This would be acting, in that. I'm hopeful that it's going to work out. And then I'm doing Insomnia with Martin Scorcese, end of this year, beginning of next year. It's about a circle of people who.... well, it's hard to describe. I'm acting and producing on that one.
Musician: Is it generally the story that attracts you to a project?
Robertson: Or the characters. Hopefully both.
Musician: On "Ophelia", Levon sings, "Why do the best things always disappear?" Why do the best things always disappear?
Robertson: I don't know. I've never been able to answer that question. But it seems like they just do.
Musician: Maybe the question is, where do they go?
Robertson: That's probably the best way to think about it. I don't know. But I'm looking, and as soon as I find out, I'll get back to you.