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Robbie Robertson

by J.D. Considine

From The Globe and Mail, Friday, October 7, 2005.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Robbie Robertson: Guitarist, songwriter, recording artist, producer and actor. Born July 5, 1943, in Toronto. Learned guitar at age 10, joined Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in 1960; began a long collaboration with Bob Dylan in 1965 as the Hawks (minus Hawkins) became the Band. Recorded nine albums with the Band, four albums as a solo artist. Appeared opposite Gary Busey and Jodie Foster in Carny, and did music production for Raging Bull, The Color of Money and four other films.
For a guy who has lived life worlds away from typical gentlemen's clubs, Robbie Robertson looks awfully at home in the cigar room of Toronto's ultra-upscale Windsor Arms Hotel. It's not just that he's deeply tanned and dressed with the casual disinterest of the well-off; he also carries the quiet confidence of someone who has not only succeeded in life, but triumphed doing exactly what he wanted.

It helped that he was in Toronto to promote the latest testament to that success, the just-released five CD/one DVD retrospective called The Band: A Musical History. Already, the accolades are pouring in. Rolling Stone awarded the album five stars, and Robertson relates that publisher Jann Wenner had called him to convey the news. "I said, 'Did you have to yell at somebody to get that?' " says Robertson, laughing. "And he said, 'I didn't have to!' "

There was a Band box set a decade ago, called Across the Great Divide. What prompted this one?

It's what I wanted, to be really blunt about it. The [previous] box set -- I just didn't want to be bothered with it. And it was one of those things where you open it up, and there are like 10 different pieces of stuff, and it all comes out . . . I don't like box sets because of that. I thought, I'm going to make a box set the way I want, and it's not even going to be a box set box. It's going to be what it should be.
Is that why it's more like a book than a box?
Yeah. In this case, it seemed completely appropriate, because I wanted to do a musical history of the Band. So we start at the very beginning, with Ronnie Hawkins, and we go up through The Last Waltz, and we take the whole musical journey. And the information in there is as accurate as is humanly possible -- which is an achievement in itself, because on this other box set that they had done, the information is just wrong.
There's a certain amount of overlap between your set and Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. Were you aware of the Dylan project while you were working on this?
Yeah, but I didn't know when it was coming out. I had talked to Scorsese about it, because he told me, 'I'm going to try to do this documentary on Bob for a TV special.' But I didn't know how long it was going to take, because they'd been working on that for quite a while. And for two years, I'd been working on this.
Is it true the first time the band played with Dylan was in Toronto?
Um, that's the first time he heard the Hawks play, all together. We were playing at Friar's Tavern -- what's there now, a Hard Rock Café? -- and he came up and heard us play. Then after the place closed, we sat around and we played together a little bit. So yeah, that's true. I'd forgotten that that was the first time that we all had played together.
You had been aware of each other before then?
Well, we didn't know very much about Bob Dylan. We didn't know very much about folk music. Folk music, back then, was the music taking place on the other side of the tracks, in Yorkville, where they sipped coffee and listened to the music. [laughs] Where we played, nobody was sippin' coffee, I'll tell you.
What was it like playing with him in those early days?
When we all got together and started, really, to shape this music is when it completely took on a life of its own. I mean, there were times when we were just trying to keep up with the music. It just had this feeling to it.

And at the same time we're getting this feeling from the music, the audience was booing us and throwing tomatoes. We had just to pretend that that wasn't what they were doing. We went to Australia, and all over Europe. And pretty much every night, people came and booed and threw stuff at us. It was pretty amazing.

How would you compare the scene you grew up in and the Canadian music scene today?
Because of work and everything, I've been living in Los Angeles for a long time, and I don't think of the music scene in Toronto as much as we think of music that comes out of Canada. And every once in a while something comes along that is so extraordinary, so -- wow! I'm really into the Arcade Fire. I think this is a special group. I like their songwriting, I like their sound, I like their approach to instruments. There's an unusual factor in that.

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