It’s 2020, and rock and roll icon Robbie Robertson is busier than ever. A new solo album, Sinematic, acclaimed work on the Martin Scorcese’s mobster film The Irishman and a new career-spanning documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band shine a worthy spotlight on his prodigious creative gift as a storyteller. Join us for an illuminating conversation with Robbie Robertson as he touches on his new solo album, storied work with The Band and much more.
Rock Cellar: From the new album, Sinematic, to your work as a solo artist, scoring films and with the Band, your songs have unrolled like mini-movies. When did that lure of writing visually first take hold for you?
Robbie Robertson: See, I thought about this for years being a movie bug, and this idea of music and film ended up kind of blending together. So, I went through this phase before I even joined Ronnie Hawkins, we filmed together, I saw a couple of … there was a period when Asphalt Jungle came out, John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, and I thought, “Wow! Wait a minute,” and then I got deeper and then I saw The Third Man, and then I saw In a Lonely Place, and all of these movies and this storytelling, and all of these … this kind of feeling of a little bit of danger, a little bit of “anything can happen,” I got kind of intrigued with that.
And then later on, when I got into this period where I found this book on 47th Street and I was buying all these scripts and it all just kept swirling around, and really when I finally got to Music From Big Pink, I got to a place where I wasn’t on my way to the next job and to the next gig. I really got to this place, where all of these pictures and stories could start to settle for me. And I had thought about it much before that, but that was the beginning of when I could see that the songs I was writing were actually movies in my mind.
Rock Cellar: What do you think was the defining song you wrote in your formative years that signaled you were on your way as a writer?
Robbie Robertson: I started to feel a connection to those guys in the Brill Building. I wrote this song called “He Don’t Love You,” and there was a mood to that track, there was something about that, and then when I was going through a gospel music phase I wrote this song “The Stones That I Throw,” and it was all evolving.
It was all going somewhere, but I didn’t get there until we got to Big Pink, in my soul, that’s the way I felt.
Rock Cellar: With your recent impressive work on The Irishman, the new solo album Sinematic, and the new documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, share the intersection between all of those projects.
Robbie Robertson: The intersection to me is Sinematic. That’s where the song “Once Were Brothers” came from, That’s where “Remembrance,” that’s in The Irishman and that’s where that came from, that’s where “I Hear You Paint Houses” came from. So it was like the crossroads of all of these things. I was making this record and these other things were floating around me, and it was the first time ever that I can remember everything, all different projects being worked on, even The Band’s 50th anniversary was part of it.
That’s what made me think to write “Once Were Brothers.” So I had to give this album a lot of credit because it’s filled with movies, it is all about storytelling and all about a cinematic connection in its mythology.
Rock Cellar: Knowing your father’s brothers, your uncles, were part of the wise guy underworld, how did that firsthand knowledge of that world go on to inspire the songs found on Sinematic? Because there is certainly a darker underbelly on the record.
Robbie Robertson: I was working on The Irishman, and because of my own background, all of that stuff, you know you can’t help it, but eventually no matter what, it rises to the surface. And when you sit down to write a song, you know people ask, “Oh my God, how did this come up?” The real honest answer is, that’s all I could think of at the time. And all I could think of at the time was what I had to work with, and what I had to work with was my background. I am making music for this movie, it is about these kind of characters. I grew up in that world, so it is bound to come out one way or another.
Rock Cellar: You used a phrase, “Peckinpah Rock” in describing the songs found on Sinematic.
Robbie Robertson: In the stories, I just found there was a lot of violence, obviously in “I Hear You Paint Houses” and even in “Street Serenade,” or let’s take a trip to the dark side of town and even writing in “Shanghai Blues” about these notorious Chinese underworld characters from the 1940s, and so we are back to this film, we are back inside this worlds of these characters. So I surprised myself, perhaps in how much I was embracing a violent scenario in the pictures that I was painting in these songs.
Rock Cellar: On the song “Dead End Kid,” you address the obstacles in your path when you were setting out on your career in music. What do you think were the most difficult obstacles for you to conquer?
Robbie Robertson: It seemed like the world that I grew up in, everybody around me was convinced that there were no dreams, no ambition, the way that I was talking about them, it didn’t exist. Because of my family connection and the underworld, and because even on my mother’s side of the family people from the reservation, a lot of people just ended up in prison or dead.
My father ended up being killed when he was 23 years old, so I had this imagination and everybody just thought I had crazy dreams, expectations, and it was never going to happen. There was an expression that also came out of I think probably the 1940’s, a “dead-end kid,” and The Bowery Boys were called “dead-end kids,” and it means somebody who because of the world that they were in and their past, they weren’t going to be able to go anywhere.
And so I didn’t understand why nobody could see or feel what I was imagining, because I was saying, “One of these days, I am going to go out in the world, I am going to go out, I am going to make music, and I am going to make changes, and I am going to do something, and I am going to go here and I am going to go there,” and all of this stuff. I had things in mind, at a very young age, and everybody was kind of like, “Well, don’t be ridiculous, because you are probably going to just end up in jail, so why waste your time with these foolish thoughts?”
Rock Cellar: How do you think the struggles that you did go through worked their way into your work?
Robbie Robertson: You know, I guess that’s part of paying dues and how that can actually contribute to your work to a certain stylistic degree. There is a darkness in what I am drawn to, whether it is in a film sense or sound or a mood, and the fact that I collaborate with Martin Scorsese and many movies and all of that, it’s what I am drawn to.
Rock Cellar: From your work on The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and The Color of Money to your recent work on The Irishman, you cultivated such a deep connection with Scorcese. What do you think made that collaborative connection with Marty spark?
Robbie Robertson: A long time ago, we found ourselves on the same wavelength, and it contributed to my work, and it contributed to his work, and ultimately, became a friendship, that’s what keeps the excitement going and the unpredictability and embracing the unknown, you know, we are really in a discovery process for life.
Rock Cellar: The new documentary Once Were Brothers is extremely moving. When did you think your bond with other members of the band was strongest, and what were the first signs that brotherhood was starting to fall apart?
Robbie Robertson: You know, it wasn’t a moment set in stone, I do think that when we were staying at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house, and making The Band album, because we were all in the same place, at the same time, doing the same thing … I think that there was a real power of unity in that.
But as we grew up together and we went through the story, the actual play-by-play story of The Band is unbelievable, you couldn’t make this shit up. So that brotherhood, that’s why I celebrate that in Once Were Brothers, both in the song and in the movie.
It was an incredible journey, and I think in the ‘70s, there was this period when … and it wasn’t unique to The Band, there were so many groups that just started to swallow themselves up. Like I say in this documentary, we didn’t know anything about addiction, and all of a sudden, one person can experiment with something and be like, “Oh, that was fun,” and the other person gets stuck in that place, and it gets under their skin, and they can’t get out from underneath it, and we were like, “What the hell is that? What is that all about?”
Rock Cellar: Robbie, why do you think it was that you and Garth (Hudson) were the ones in the group that did not fall prey to those vices?
Robbie Robertson: I don’t know, but it is most likely that we weren’t addicts.
Rock Cellar: Speaking of The Band album, 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of its release. Is there a defining song on that album for you?
Robbie Robertson: I don’t know if there is a defining song, I don’t think like that. Once again, I think of this record as a piece of work, and it’s almost like saying, is there a scene in that movie that is the most defining for you? Maybe there is, but I have never looked at it that way, and different pieces of it mean different things to me and yes, there’s many defining moments in it.
I do have to say that after I wrote and we recorded “Rag Mama Rag,” I was pretty proud of that.
Rock Cellar: How hard was it for the Band to shield yourselves from that interference from the record company, and do you think in a way having that creative freedom without having to deal with the so-called suits helped you guys further establish your individuality?
Robbie Robertson: We didn’t know how to do it any other way, and there was an extreme level of privacy in the way that we worked, and they could feel that. They really just took a position of “Listen, if there is anything that we can do to help out, or when you want us to listen to something, just let us know.” They could read the writing on the wall with that. And that came from the surprise, the revelation of music from Big Pink, they were like, “Wow! We didn’t understand this, we couldn’t see this coming,” all that.
So, that kind of laid the ground rules. So when they said, “Let us know if you need anything”… and then when I told them what we wanted to do on The Band album, that we weren’t going to be doing this in a studio, we were going to be doing this in a house … at that time, that was unheard of, nobody did that, and I said, “Well, we need some equipment to do it,” and they were like, “Why? Can we ask why? The (Capitol Records) studio from Sammy Davis Jr.’s house is just a couple of miles away, why don’t you just come to the studio? We have one of the greatest studios in the world. Frank Sinatra recorded there.”
And I said, “I know, but we can’t do it on your clock, we can’t do it in your environment, we need our own atmosphere.” I had a theory that if we could go deeper inside of our own world, we could come out with something that nobody ever heard before.
Rock Cellar: On Facebook, someone recently posted the question “What is the saddest, most heartbreakingly beautiful song you have ever heard?” And immediately, I thought it was “Whispering Pines,” the song you wrote with Richard (Manuel), a song featured on The Band record. Talk about the creation of that with Richard, because that was a real collaboration where you captured that darkness in the music, but you also connected that isolation and darkness and with your storytelling.
Robbie Robertson: Richard was exploring a chord progression and it had a haunting quality to it that I was drawn to. And we were in this group, we were co-writers sometimes, and I wanted more of that from Richard. I loved doing this with him and I wanted to encourage him. I wanted to encourage all the guys to write. I just didn’t understand at the time, some people write and some people don’t, I just thought they were being lazy.
But Ringo, doesn’t write, Charlie Watts doesn’t write, lots of people don’t and some people do. So anyway, I wanted to pull more out of this with Richard. So, with what he had started, we completed the chord cycle and the musical structure of it, and I said, “Okay, let me see if I can think of some lyrics for this.” I wanted to write something so beautiful, that Richard couldn’t help but want to write more songs, and the other guys, too. So anyway, with “Whispering Pines,” once again, it was very cinematic, and with that mood, that haunting mood, musically in it, I wanted to fulfill that with the storytelling.
Rock Cellar: Richard wrote beautiful songs for The Band. He certainly was writing quite a bit on the Music from Big Pink record and did some writing on The Brown Album, but then his writing contributions slowed down. Do you think that was the case of him exhausting his creative potential as a writer, or was it rather the vices that were getting in the way?
Robbie Robertson: I don’t know. All I know is I was trying to fight against that, and I wasn’t going to win that battle, because it didn’t matter what I said or what I did. Sometimes when you sit down to write and nothing happens, and you try to force it, it can make you very depressed and down on yourself. So, I didn’t want to make somebody do something that they didn’t feel that they could do.
So, as that happened, I just had to say, “Well, let me know when you got something new and you think we could stir up.” I didn’t know how to overcome that.
Rock Cellar: It’s 1965, and this is before you connected with Bob Dylan and The Hawks had a semi-permanent gig at a club called Tony Mart’s in Somers Point, New Jersey. Had I pulled you aside after a show and said “Robbie, what are your ambitions and dreams?” What would you have told me then?
Robbie Robertson: I had this thing in the back of my mind, once again, I wanted to find a clubhouse, I wanted to find a time when we don’t have to play gigs, just to be able to feed ourselves and pay the bills. I want to find that creative sanctuary, and it was a place in my imagination. I used to talk about it with the other guys when we were at Tony Mart’s because I was saying, “We are in this place here, and I can see, if we don’t have to keep moving and moving and traveling and traveling, something could happen.”
At the time, we had record companies coming there to hear us and wanting to sign us, production companies, record companies, all kind of things were starting to stir, and I just wanted us to have that opportunity to realize our sound, what we were meant to do. We had been together for several years already and we had stored up a lot of musicality we had gathered from gospel and blues and mountain music and rock and roll and rhythm and blues, on and on. And all of these things were being stored up and stored up, and I wanted to find a way for us to be able to release that in our way, with our own sound. And that’s what we ultimately were able to do with Big Pink.
Rock Cellar: I was speaking with Paul Simon a few years ago and he is a huge Elvis Presley fan. He said he would always look to “Mystery Train” as being that almost mythic song that he wanted so hard to crack its DNA. Ironically, you covered that song with the band on Moondog Matinee, and wrote additional lyrics for it..
Robbie Robertson: Yeah, that was a tricky thing, because I wanted to write stuff that felt seamless … it was like saying, “This is a standard and I want to write more words to it,” and I had to get permission from Sam Philips and “Little” Junior Parker to be able to do that. And they said, “Sure.” So I thought that was a bit of an honor to be able to do that, and then with our version of this song, I wanted to do something unlike anybody else in the world.
I was nervous about us making an album of classic songs, and the one song I wanted to make sure that we not only did justice to, but we took it to another level, and I felt like we did that with “Mystery Train.”
Rock Cellar: In your book, you spoke about the creative experience “catching you off guard.”
Robbie Robertson: You know, there are certain songs that you have an idea and you sit down and you try to make that idea come to life. And then, there’s times that you sit down to write a song and it completely catches you off guard, you didn’t see that coming in a million years and I felt that way when I wrote “It Makes No Difference.” It was an emotion.
Rock Cellar: Brian Wilson would do this with The Beach Boys and parcel out a song and say, “This song is going to be perfect for my brother, Carl or my brother Dennis,” or “This would be good for Al (Jardine) or Mike (Love).” Did you always have in mind when you were writing a song for The Band, which member would sing the lead vocal?
Robbie Robertson: Absolutely, that was my job.
Rock Cellar: Were there ever any instances where you were wrong?
Robbie Robertson: No. It was casting. It’s just that was the story that I was telling.
Rock Cellar: Looking back, do you think there was a peak for The Band both as record makers and as live performers?
Robbie Robertson: When we made Rock of Ages everybody was on their game, and there were other times too, but that was good.
Also, the first time, when we played The Fillmore East it was one of those things where everybody just killed it. It was a train, you couldn’t stop that train.
Rock Cellar: Notwithstanding the time you visited him in the hospital, before he sadly passed away, when was the last time you spoke or met up with Levon Helm?
Robbie Robertson: I spoke to him on the phone and he asked how my mom was doing and we were just catching up a little bit. And I don’t know, there was no negative, there was nothing … I never had an issue with this. I was in this dog fight, he was chasing his own tail and that. But I had such a deep friendship, brotherly love for him, musically and as one of the closest people I have ever had in my life.
And for me, it was impossible to take away so many of those amazing moments, and Levon just ran into trouble, he had issues and he had trouble. I felt bad for that and it’s why I never said a thing. I never made an issue of it because I know him, and I know that he was struggling, and I thought, “I am not going to pick on somebody when they got shit going on.”
Rock Cellar: You touch on this sensitive subject in the documentary, of Levon feeling he did not receive proper songwriting credit for his work in The Band. But Levon did receive credits for songs he contributed to in The Band, three songs as a matter of fact, “Jemima Surrender,” “Strawberry Wine” and “Life Is a Carnival.” Do you think his issues were just a case of perhaps like you said, he was in a bad way, maybe financially and it was a powerless situation and he had to blame someone for it?
Robbie Robertson: I share publishing, I do till this day with Levon. It is just nonsense, and so I couldn’t get involved in it. It was just, he had hard times and he always blamed somebody else and now it was my turn, that’s all. I was tremendously generous with Levon and wouldn’t have thought of being any other way.
Rock Cellar: Moving on, what was the most impactful rock and roll show you saw in your formative years? Did you ever see any of those multi-bill Alan Freed shows?
Robbie Robertson: I write about it in my book (Testimony). It was when I went to see Chuck Berry on one of those Alan Freed shows and I talked to Chuck about it years later. Buddy Holly was also on the show and I stuck around, I was a young kid and I said to Buddy, “I’m a guitar player or I’m trying to be one,” and I said, “But how in the world do you get that sound on the guitar?” And he said, “I had a Fender twin amp and I blew one of the speakers in it and it sounded better to me so I left it.”
So it was that show, and Chuck was fantastic. Yeah, that was the one for me.
Rock Cellar: Having such a deep love for storytelling, is there a story that resonates the deepest with you?
Robbie Robertson: When I was around nine years old in the Sixth Nation Indian reserve, an elder told the story of Hiawatha and The Peacemaker and I wrote a book for young readers on the story of Hiawatha and the Peace Maker and I wrote a song to go with it.
So, yeah, that’s something that I had celebrated.