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Playin' in The Band with Robbie Robertson

by Josh Baron

From the Grateful Dead's Relix magazine, January 2006.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

"Something needed to be done because it was just feeling dark and dangerous. Any of those guys will tell you the same thing whether it is Crosby, Stills, The Dead, Clapton. It was just the way it was."
Robbie Robertson, 2005

It was 30 years ago November that The Band took its final bow -- its last waltz, as it were -- with all its original members bidding a fond farewell to a legacy that helped shape rock'n'roll as we know it. It was a significant moment and fellow stars came out in droves to help pay homage -- Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Dr. John and Joan Baez among them. No other event since has drawn such a caliber of performers to one stage, for one evening, for one band. But, as with anything rock'n'roll, the dissolution wasn't without drama, the relationships weren't without strain and the physical legacy not without disputation of ownership.

At the center of it all, always, is guitarist and principle songwriter Robbie Robertson. Though the rest of the members eventually got back together and toured, Robertson has little interest in rekindling the poignant, honky-tonk Americana jubilee that was The Band. In fact, he's rarely returned to the stage. It says something of the life he led that such a legendary and gifted musician would have little interest in playing live now, that what is gained is not worth what could be lost.

While the pretense of the conversation was the release of The Band box set A Musical History, a five-disc, one DVD extravaganza that Robertson helped produce, he cordially discussed Dylan, drugs and playin' in The Band.

What was The Band's interaction with the Grateful Dead in 1970 during the Festival Express tour, given that they had just recorded American Beauty and were working on Working Man's Dead?.

We didn't get the musicality or the trip, to be really completely honest about it. After a while we got more accustomed to it, but we didn't really know their records. It just wasn't on our jukebox. A lot of the San Francisco music seemed to not be on our meter somehow and I'm not sure why, even now, when I think about it. We had other fish to fry. It was like the Grateful Dead was such a generous gesture on their part -- they went out there and played till you went crazy. They would keep playing until you finally just said, "I'm either going to get high or shoot myself." It was so generous, what they were doing, but it was like economy rock giving you a really great bang for your buck.

I don't mean to overstate the case, and they're wildly different, but the '60s with the Civil Rights and antiwar movements were about literally standing up for what you believed in. Did you feel like you were fighting for some sort of cause each night you faced those crowds going electric with Dylan in '66 or was it less intellectual that that?

No, we were ducking tomatoes, eggs and whatever they threw. There was definitely a survival mode going on. We had no idea this was going to be like a musical revolution. That was what it was like -- like what the hell is the big deal? We played all over North America, did a whole tour of Australia, and played all over Europe. Every night we came out, it didn't matter what country, how far away, nothing -- they booed every night. After a while you just thought, well, people are just tripping on this thing. They have heard this is what you do: You go to this thing and when the folk section is over you just start throwing shit. We had just started with Bob so it was like, what the hell, this is a strange thing. You pull into town, set up your equipment, you go out there and you play, people throw shit at you and boo the whole time. And then you go on to the next place, set up your equipment, people come and they boo you, and it was like, this is a weird way to make a buck.

There's so much material coming out on Dylan at the moment, namely Scorsese's No Direction Home. Given all that, what do you think is still the biggest misperception about Dylan?

The only thing that I could say from what I saw from that period is that people have a much too serious view of Bob as a person. The work, you can think what you want about that. As a person he is a very funny guy, and has funny things to say, and I don't know if people give him enough credit for his sense of humor.

Are you still in touch at all today?

I haven't seen him in a while, bit I ran into him a while back and we had a great time. We just siad that we would hook up at some point. But he stays out there on the road a lot and I don't know when he is around, and when he he is he is probably just trying to catch his breath. I can't imagine being out there all those years.
The Band, 1971

It's clear why The Band didn't get back together -- the road fueled their lives whereas yours was fueled by life off the road. But, at any time, did you ever sense that some sort of compromise was possible?

In the beginning the idea was that we still wanted to record stuff together. We just wanted to be able to get off the merry-go-round, shuffle the deck, everybody get the chance to get their feet on the ground. It seemed like maybe it was taking its toll. Something needed to be done because it was just feeling dark and dangerous. Any of those guys will tell you the same thing, whether it's Crosby, Stills, The Dead, Clapton. It was just the way it was. At some point you say, "Jeez, somebody is going to die here or something really terrible is going to happen." You could see the writing on the wall, so let's not drive it into the wall. Let's stop and see if there is another way to do this, think about it, look at it and allow everybody to get a grip. That didn't happen and I was no angel myself, but it frightened me. I just don't want to be there when the shit goes down.

For you, was there, or is there, an appropriate place for drugs in the creation of music?

I don't know. I have done it both ways. Nobody knew then because it was experimental and it was embraced with a whole other kid of innocence. Now it just feels down and dirty. And now the information is out there of how dangerous this shit is. People still go back to the same well over and over again saying, "I know, but look what happened to these guys." I know, but that doesn't have anything to do with what addiction is and people who happen to have an addictive nature can just be screwed. I don't know if Jerry Garcia's journey was that romantic. I just hope there are lessons learned from that. It's not like that now; there is a difference and it feels so much more dangerous and reckless to experiment like that.

Back in 1968, Al Kooper wrote a review of Music from Big Pink in which he said, "This album was made along the lines of the motto 'Honesty is the best policy.' The best part of pop music today is honesty... when you hear a dishonest record you feel you've been insulted or turned off in comparison." How does that comment resonate with you today?

He is really putting something into words that should apply. There is something so true about this. The Band's music overall felt like it grew out of the ground and it was a good thing. It had those organic ingredients. Starting out from that place you have a good chance of ending up in a place of real honesty in the music. It's rough out there right now and I know what is going on, I pay attention to music. I'm enjoying The White Stripes' new record and a couple new tracks from Sigur Ros' record. Just a lot of stuff, thank God.

But a lot of it is moments -- it goes up and down with a lot of records. There is a whole lot of music that is novelty music, as good as it is in its own right. "Drop it like It's Hot," which I like, but it's novelty music. This has nothing to do with any meaning or depth in your life, we're not kidding ourselves about that. A lot of rap is like dirty novelty music; some of it isn't like Tupac's, stuff you never thought was novelty music. There was a sincerity and honesty in it. I feel bad for a lot of kids today just because for young girls to think our role models are like Paris Hilton or the Simpson girls. It is all fine, but it's scary to think that is the inspiration of these times. It's pretty shallow out there. For kids to think this is cool, this is embarassing stuff. *

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