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Playing in the Band

A conversation with Robbie Robertson

by Patrick William Salvo

An article published in the British music magazine Melody Maker (now merged with NME) on October 7 1972. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute. Thanks to Serge Daniloff for sending us a copy of the original article.

Why did you pick on "Rock of Ages" as the title for your new album?
Probably I just like it, but mainly and sensibly because it's a kind of a culmination of our stuff over the last while, with a treatment that makes it feel fresh for us.

Why did you decide on "Rock of Ages" being a live album?
We made a live LP because we've wanted to make a live LP ever since I can remember, playing with these guys. More so even years ago when we were playing every night of the week. You know we were in shape, it was a physical condition that made us feel prepared. Anyway, this feeling just kind hung over us and we've always wanted to do it because you know a whole lot of people would go into the studio and the studio represents something altogether different than what the stage audience represents. Either you're singing to a piece of glass or you're singing to people and you know it's a vast difference, so you just reach for something.

We had a great time doing it. I must say it was a total experiment for us. Anything could have happened although I feel we didn't get the thing down enough. We didn't give it as much time as we should have given it. We should have rehearsed with these hornmen a whole bunch, but we didn't because we didn't have time to do it.

Do you plan to use them from now on or was it just a one shot thing?
No, no. But it was just right for the occasion, horns and New Years. Also the flavouring I made to Allen Toussaint was right up his alley so we were able to get our translations in order - okay while I had now idea whether it was going to work at all!

How did you and Allen Toussaint come together?
See Allen, he goes back a bit. He wrote all those great Lee Dorsey songs and he wrote "Mother in Law" by Ernie K. Doe. Yeah, so he's a classic, you know in his own right. He has two albums on Warner Brothers. He has one that just came out and then he has another one, which is not really his thing. His thing is conducting other people not himself, so I don't judge him by that, although there's some things on both albums that I like very much. But the way to discover him is by the people he produces.

He has a long history. He was a young teenage wonder, playing a piano on Fats Domino records and writing songs for all these people in that area, then eventually just becoming heavier and heavier. It started with Ernie K. Doe and then Lee Dorsey and a bunch of those people down there. He's just been dealing with them for a long time. I've been familiar with his music for a long time, but I didn't know him at all until I wrote this song "Life is a Carnival" and once again just like New Years Eve, he came to mind so I called him up.

You just had his name in your head you called him up, 'cause you wanted to use him?
Yeah, I just had his name in the back of my head, so I just called him up and he knew what we were about and everything so it made it a lot easier to explain. I really didn't know if he was an old man you know, if he was some old man that I was calling up and he was gonna say "well, WHAT band". And he talks like a professor. Since the experience we got to know him very well and I would love to do something with him again but it just hasn't come up, yet, I believe it will because it was much too easy, on some kind of level, to let go.

Did you feel a distinct difference in playing that night?
Oh yeah, I mean for us, we're very accustomed to what comes out when we play together having such vibes. I mean the horns, it was like sailing! It just out us somewhere else, I mean we weren't standing on the ground anymore. It was just a supreme feeling for us and it was really great because it wasn't what I was always so afraid of about horns.

Were you afraid it would be too brassy, too brash?
Well, you know just that big cocktail lounge big bang sounds or those jazz rock things or whatever. I've got nothing against saxophones but I'm talking about when you put a whole bunch of these people together and hire an arranger who will write out charts according to the way you're thinking, you know.

Did you feel that Toussaint read into your mind - what you wanted chartwise?
Oh no, we did it very specifically. We did it by the letter. It was all on paper, things like that don't just happen. Although you know we've always used horns on our records. Yeah, we've used them ever since the beginning. We used them on the first song on the first album. We used horns on "The Tears of Rage on Big Pink", but we never used them on stage. We always used them as more of a mood control than a percussive effect - you know real charge, real punch - charge.

What're your feelings on doing the same material every night?
Well, it's okay when we play it good. We don't mind doing them and that's why a lot of people come. Every time we play we put in a couple of new songs at each concert. But it never really works out if they're not accustomed to them. So that's why we've only three of four new songs on Rock of Ages - I mean songs that we've never put on record before. There's "The Genetic Method" and "Get Up Jake" which I wrote a while ago and we had played in concerts previously. We play it every now and then 'cause it has a good feeling. We used to play it when things weren't going so good; let's say when we couldn't get into the sound of the house or the audience. We like to have it, to get loose.

How about the Chuck Willis tune "(I Don't Want To) Hang Up My R'n'R Shoes". Didn't you do that with Ronnie Hawkins?
No that's not true. We never played it before. It's a traditional rocker.

Aside from individual instruments, what other musical roles do the members of the Band play? Is there a leader?
No. We've been together a long time so our signals are down pat; nobody takes over when we get on stage (laughter) you know we don't really have that.

Who do you consider the technician of the group?
You're talking about producing? See, John Simon partially produced our first album and by partially I mean we all just kind of did it but he was the one that was in the recording studio with the dials. That saves us a lot of time. It was great 'cause he's been around all the time and given us an objective view. We always have collaborated, but he did a little bit with us on this album. He did a bit on Stage Fright and quite a bit with us on The Band and Big Pink.

Was he in the truck when Rock of Ages was recorded?
No. He was doing sound from the house. It was very important. If that sounded badly, the whole thing would have sounded badly.

How long before the concert was it formulated that you were going to record a live LP? Was it a contractual matter with Capitol? Well, no we didn't know until we did it and we until we listened to it on tape. We thought it would be nice, but like I said, it was an experiment and we didn't know if we were going to walk out of it with these hornmen and if the purists were going to be insulted because of the horns. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened you know, cause we were relying on magic.

We didn't have a chance to go back and do another take just like all live albums are, but New Year's Eve certainly was magic, the people were just there. I meant it really was spontaneous, the people were just fantastic and between the people and the horns it just drove us to a place we like to be.

What were the overlying incidents that brought The Band out of hiding so-to-speak?
Well we just played. We hadn't done this for over two years.

Did you know that Dylan would be there that last night? (At the New York's Academy of Music, were they jammed).
No I mean we talked about the possibilities.

Had you been keeping in touch with him all along? At that point he was coming out a lot more, visiting people backstage making some comments to the press. He recently even attended a Rolling Stones party.
He just came to the concert as a friend.

Do you still all live together in Woodstock?
We've never lived all in one house. Rick and Richard lived at Big Pink but we all didn't. That's were we rehearsed the Band.

Is that where all those celebrated basement tapes took place with Mr. D?

And they still live there?
No, Rick lives up by Zena Road in a house and he's had it fixed up alot, painted, new fences and all that. You see we all have our own separate places but everybody is here in Woodstock and we don't live in the same house. We live in close proximity and we see each other pretty regularly.

What does a Band-member do during a non-musical day?
He does what anyone else does, what would you do. He goes to the drugstore to get toothpaste, he watches the birds fly over for a while, visits somebody - you know, regular things.

Some people get the impression that when you live in Woodstock all you do is just sit around pickin' on your guitar all day and do nothing else.
Yeah, with a piece of alfalfa in your mouth! No that's not right, really. None of us live in Woodstock all year round anymore, first of all. I just got back here a few weeks ago. The guys in the group all have other places and we come and go as we please 'cause it can get boring here. I also write stories, scenarios, shorts.

Have you had them printed under a pseudonym?
No I never even thought about it. We're about to get into a book thing... about the Band. It will be a mixture of things, stories, biographies, and all of that. We have a bunch of tapes and material that we might as well put somewhere.

How did the Bearsville studio scene come about?
It just seemed like a necessary thing for the people around that someplace could accommodate them musically. Albert Grossman he had it built, it's his baby. We still have managerial ties to him. But I don't know about Dylan. They may have something going although I don't know exactly what it is.

How come none of the tunes Dylan performed on New Year's Eve appeared on Rock of Ages? Were there contractual disagreements involved?
It was something to do with the record company, some hassles. But we had more stuff than we could handle already for the LP. It would have been really a sweat to do it you know. It just wasn't good to do it when there was something else we could have done. We did four songs with Dylan you know, and that's a lot. That's a lot of the record. Like it wasn't the Band / Bob Dylan Concert. I mean he came to watch and got up there as a friend. But I would have liked to put one song on the record.

Which one do you fancy?
A song called "Down in the Flood". I have a tape of it. Boy it's good, it's really good. It's a shame, you know, we couldn't use it.

You had no trouble with Warner Bros. when Van Morrison played on Cahoots?
No we didn't because that was all figured out up front.

I Know Mac Rebenack is Dr. John, but who is Doc Pomus and Bobby Charles and what part did they play on the record?
Doc Pomus is a songwriter. He was part of a songwriting team called Pomus and Schuman. They wrote a lot of songs for Ray Charles, The Drifters, Coasters, for all kinds of people years ago. We were rehearsing and Doc Pomus showed up and he's just an incredible guy to have around. He's very far out and his comments and expressions cleared a couple of things up in our heads. He's very simple and acute and I'm sure he didn't even know he did it.

Now Dr. John was there all the time. It was some kind of thing to do with New Orleans and some of the horn men because of the kind of music we were going to try with Allen Toussaint and because he was a great inspiration, at the time.

Bobby Charles had been known for a long time. He should have a record out very soon on Warner Brothers and it's a very interesting album. It's not the end, but in this day and age it's very interesting. He comes from New Orleans too and he's been around, around for years and years and he's an old songwriter. He wrote songs for Fats Domino, he wrote "See You Later Alligator". Anyway, he's a songwriter and a friend of ours and he lives up here. Rick Danko produced his album with John Simon.

He's a fine musician - he was there, he was just in there pitching and helping any way he could. Because there was all this last minute craziness, and we needed some backing to help fill up some spaces and the same thing with Dr. John. He looked at the charts and just to be helpful a little bit he kind of figured out how to handle a few things. He's a very critical person and some objective criticism was helpful so things like that, you know. And John Simon, well he just did his thing.

Getting back to Dylan for a second... do you see him a lot?
He's a friend.

I heard he'll be touring again very soon. Do you think the Band will be accompanying him on that tour?
We've talked about this but I really don't know. You know, we're both kind of vague people in that we sit around and make plans like mad but it's really hard to get out of that rockin' chair. We just don't know. We have this other thing to do right now. This music... We will always be interested in doing things together but right now I can't say.

Is it anything to do with identity? For instance how does it feel to be called "Dylan's back-up band"?
That doesn't really hit us one way or the other because you know it's the truth. We were in fact, for a few years, playing back-up for Bob Dylan so that's all there is to it. It's really got nothing to do with identities cause we really have to do what comes natural.

I heard that he was looking over some other bands like, for instance, Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead.
Yeah, he mentioned that to me.

In what way do you reckon that your music has changed since your days with the Hawks?
Well, with the Hawks we were only into hard rock and roll with not much emphasis on ballads, you know, which we got into with Big Pink and which we still do now. Big Pink was a change... the start of it all...

How were you feeling when you were writing the Big Pink album? Was it more of a 'religious' mood as opposed to a jovial thing like in your present albums?
Right, like Carnival and that. It's a lot more Saturday night.

While Big Pink was more Sunday morning?
Right, well I can understand why you would say that. I've never thought of it but when you say that it does kind of ring a bell and I can understand how that can come up. There was nothing done on purpose in that direction. It was just a frame of mind. You go trough life and things change and your frame of mind, your visions and your illusions get twisted around. It was just a result of that. I don't think there's anyway to explain it, you know. I just knew I didn't want to stay with that, that serious thing always.

Well, even in the second album (The Band) there was a bit of seriousness.
Oh yeah, but also it was balanced off more than it was on the first album. It was also comedy stuff like "Jemina Surrender" and "Rag Mamma Rag", fun stuff and there was some very heavy serious stuff too. "Unfaithful Servant" was serious on some kind of level. Though those types of songs tend to bring me down.

How about "Caledonia Mission"?
It's just a part of that Sunday morning thing. I mean, it's really a part of that album. t wouldn't have fitted in that second album at all.

What about "We Can Talk About It Now"? Were there any inferences to the draft in there. You know "I'd rather freeze up in Canada than burn down in the South"?
No, no. What it's really about is during the early years we were always working, popping back from the South to Canada, the South to Canada. We did very little in between. We were either playing down there or up there. And it was just really a relation that was made to the past you know. But, that was thought of.

But now you can talk about it. How about Chest Fever. Those lyrics are really ambiguous?
Oh yeah, especially when other artists cover it. It's something that's hard trying to explain. A feeling of anxiety inside trying to let it pour out and explaining the way a love is on some kind of level. It's difficult especially on the telephone for me to really get into things like that, uh. Stage Fright I think describes itself. It's for anybody who want to jump into those shoes. The circumstances can be just about ever day. It doesn't necessarily have to do with the entertainment business.

Do you think you're more technically minded or studio oriented than when you started out?
No not particularly, as a matter of fact less in fact. We're recording our next album in a barn because Bearsville Studio is pretty booked up.

Tell med something about the movie you're doing.
Well, there's a film that Richard Manuel (Band pianist) was in. It was a film produced in Canada by a guy we know that used to be with the Canadian film board. His name is Gordon Shepard. Anyway, we're beginning to start a new record and what's going to happen on this we're not really together on yet. I don't know what's positively going to happen.

The movie is called Eliza's Horoscope and it's just a kind of a long thing to explain. Anyway, I'm a little hesitant to go into it, because I'm not sure what's going to happen yet. The truth is it's only 90 per cent edited and it's just going to depend on some ideas. If our ideas match, or we can really go behind the movie, we'll do it.

Is it one of these "psychedelic" astrology movies?
No, it's not very psychedelic. No, I don't think that's how you would describe it. You might say it's a little freaky. Anyway the point is that I wouldn't really want to say because we might not do it. I might be a soundtrack thing and it may not, but Richard's already done his thing, he did it a few months ago. He plays the part of a wealthy man who belongs to a club with other men that have a kind of religion of their own going. And it's based on some things. It's complicated to go into and you can't even sum it up in a couple of lines. It's a whole story you know from beginning to end.

And is the main character Eliza?
Yes. He meets her and they have an experience together. He doesn't make it with her. He takes her to his place. It's like all monks. It's all these wealthy men that have gotten together and pawned their money so they've got something to do on Tuesday and Thursday nights or something. You know it's their club.

What other projects have you been into since you recorded Cahoots?
We've done some music. I just got together some music for whatever, we're gonna start recording again in about a week from now.

Do you have any songs written for that album, for the movie soundtrack?

Yeah, well, I don't really do it that way, you know. I don't really write a bunch of songs and say let's go do an album. I write them down when they come according to my feelings and ideas and then we when get down to the reality if making a record then I jump down and try to get into the songs. Very seldom do I ever have anything to kill time, though on Big Pink the songs were written beforehand.

How far beforehand? It seems to me those songs were written at least a lifetime before you made the album; not that they were old or mouldy, just that they came out of the past. Sometimes they sound like they were written on the stones that Moses was holding or something...
What it was, in that I had a whole lot more time. I had all those years all that stuff building up. Right, I'm not necessarily saying that's valuable, but on the other experience I just had the time to bring all the last experiences up to that one.

After playing with Ronnie Hawkins, when you guys were just the Hawks did you start to feel a lapse? That something was missing, that you had more of a statement to make and you weren't doing with just bam, bash rock and roll?
You know what they call hard rock now? Well the word didn't exist then. Nobody talked about hard rock. It wasn't ballads and it wasn't pretty at all. But also it wasn't psychedelic dismal, it wasn't particularly great volume or anything, it just had to do with the stab the percussive tack you would give it. It was approached in that matter rather than volume.

Would you say that now your sound is rounder, fuller?
Umm, I guess matured you know, on some kind of level and it just opened more doors at least for us like you know, how people talk about "hey, I'll open a few doors for you, kid", well these were musical, visionary doors.

What started you out playing music?
I was walking around the street one day and I ran into this guy giving out pamphlets for this organisation you know. I always was warned not to talk to strangers, but I stopped for this guy...

Was he affiliated with some kind of religious organisation?
No, he was involved in some kind of conservatory. Then I went down to take guitar lessons from a Hawaiian guy, Billy Blue. He used to wear these hula shirts (laughter). I went in there and picked up the guitar and took it. He put it on my knee. I thought I put it under my arm like a cowboy but he laid it on my knee like a Hawaiian. Things got better after a while and we moved along accordingly 'cause really who would ever think I would join a band.

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